Notes for an address by Dr. Eugene Bereza, Chair, Committee on Ethics, Canadian Medical Association : Bill C-13 - An act respecting assisted human reproduction : Presentation to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Health
BILL C-13 - AN ACT RESPECTING ASSISTED HUMAN REPRODUCTION
Presentation to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Health
November 20, 2002
BILL C-13 - AN ACT RESPECTING ASSISTED HUMAN REPRODUCTION
Madame Chair and Members of the Committee:
My name is Dr. Eugene Bereza. I am a physician and clinical ethicist at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal and Chair of the Canadian Medical Association Committee on Ethics. I am here today representing our members, more than 54,000 physicians from across Canada. I also wish to speak as a advocate for our patients, especially those affected by infertility and those who are or will suffer from diseases for which medical science is searching for cures.
I am accompanied today by Dr. John Williams, our Director of Ethics.
You will recall that we appeared before this Committee on October 23, 2001 in company with representatives from eight other national health provider and scientific organizations to present our views on draft legislation on assisted human reproduction. Although we were pleased that your December 2001 report recommended the establishment of an assisted reproduction regulatory body outside the Department of Health, we were disappointed that you did not find favour with other recommendations we put forward.
The government responded to your report with Bill C-56, now Bill C-13. It is this bill that we are here to address today. Although there are many details in the bill on which we would like either clarification or changes, we intend to focus our remarks on the issue that we consider of greatest importance for our patient’s wellfare and the practice of medicine. That issue is the use of the criminal power to deal with medical and scientific activities.
The Standing Committee Report and Bill C-13
In your December 2001 report, you acknowledged our position on this issue: “Some witnesses recommended the elimination of the prohibited activities category altogether. Citing the benefits of regulatory flexibility, they felt that all activities should come under the controlled activity category, including the more reprehensible activities like reproductive cloning for which licences, arguably, would never be allowed under the regulations” (page 9). However, you rejected this view on the grounds that “a licence-related prohibition of this sort would not carry the same weight or degree of social censure as the statutory prohibition…. An outright statutory ban signals more clearly that certain activities are either unsafe or socially unacceptable.
The use of the statutory ban also signals that these activities are of such concern to Canadians that their status as a prohibited activity may not be altered except with the approval of Parliament” (page 9).
Bill C-13 reflects your views on this matter. We recognize your good faith in proposing and defending this position but we are convinced that its potential for harm outweighs its potential benefits. And so we are pleased to have this opportunity to reiterate the reason why the CMA believes that Bill C-13 will adversely affect the patient-physician relationship and the advance of medical science.
Need to Change Bill C-13
As you know, our position on this matter is supported by legal scholars such as Patrick Healy, McGill University Faculty of Law, Tim Caulfield, Director of the University of Alberta Health Law Institute, and Bartha Knoppers, Université de Montréal Centre de Recherche en Droit Publique. In essence, our position is that the criminal law is a blunt instrument and very difficult to change and is therefore appropriate for activities whose status is unlikely to change over time, such as murder and theft, rather than medical and scientific activities that are constantly developing. The latter are better left to a representative regulatory body to determine if and when changes in health and safety considerations and public attitudes and values might justify allowing certain formerly prohibited activities to take place under specific conditions.
Bill C-13 begins with the statement: “This enactment prohibits assisted reproduction procedures that are considered to be ethically unacceptable.” This echoes the conclusions in your report. However, as the transcripts of your hearings demonstrate, many Canadians, especially those who are infertile, do not consider some or all of these procedures to be ethically unacceptable. As a matter of public policy, should Canadians who hold this view be denied access to medical treatment for infertility because others consider such treatments to be ethically unacceptable? Should patients who suffer from conditions for which research that is forbidden in Bill C-13 might lead to a cure be denied that opportunity? We question whether criminal prohibitions are appropriate for dealing with activities on which there is considerable ethical disagreement among Canadians.
In Canada legislators have been justifiably reluctant to use the criminal law to deal with medical and scientific issues such as abortion, withdrawal of life-sustaining treatment and the conduct of medical research. Why is an exception being made for assisted reproduction? What sort of precedent will this set for other controversial bioethical issues?
We are also concerned about the bill’s penalties for infractions: jail terms up to 10 years and fines up to $500,000. These are disproportionate to the penalties for crimes that injure persons or property and, as such, will create a climate of undue fear and excessive caution for physicians and scientists working in this area, such that they will avoid any activity that is potentially covered by the bill, even to the detriment of patient care. Given the rapid advance of science and medical practice and the difficulty of anticipating new developments, it will be difficult to adjust the law to deal with new applications of prohibited activities that may be ethically acceptable.
An Alternate Solution
The CMA has stated repeatedly that we are not opposed to the prohibition of certain assisted human reproduction activities. Instead of instituting criminal prohibitions within the legislation, we remain convinced that an independent body on an ongoing basis should determine the activities that are permissible or prohibited on the basis of up-to-date scientific research, public input and ethical review. This can be accomplished very easily in Bill C-13 by moving the procedures listed under “Prohibited Activities” (sections 5-9) to “Controlled Activities” and adding the words “except in accordance with the regulations and a licence” to each of the provisions in sections 5-9.
Consistent with this recommendation we consider that the regulatory agency should be established as soon as possible and be given as much authority as possible over the matters that Bill C-13, section 65, reserves to regulations of Governor in Council. We hope that the agency will build upon the experience and expertise of existing organizations and structures in the field of assisted reproduction that deal with practice standards, education, certification and accreditation.
To summarize, we strongly support government efforts to regulate assisted human reproduction and related activities, including the prohibition of certain practices either temporarily or permanently. However, like others who have appeared before this Committee, we do not believe that criminalizing the medical and scientific activities named in the bill is an appropriate way to achieve those objectives. We consider that the objectives could be as well achieved by far less drastic means than criminalization and, moreover, that criminalization would create major obstacles to legitimate medical and scientific progress in the treatment of infertility. We recommend that the proposed agency be empowered to regulate these practices and that the criminal power be invoked when controlled activities are performed without authority of a licence from the agency or in defiance of the licensing conditions established by the agency.
Thank you, Madame Chair and members of the Committee. We will be pleased to respond to your questions.
The CMA is pleased to have this opportunity to address the Canadian Panel on Violence Against Women. As a professional organization with a leadership role in societal issues affecting health, it is both appropriate and important for the CMA to be actively involved in addressing the problems associated with violence. The extremely high incidence of abuse, the associated severe physical, mental and psychological health problems and the significant role played by physicians in recognizing and caring for victims make this a priority for organized medicine.
The CMA has significant experience and expertise in this field. In 1984, the CMA General Council passed a resolution stating:
"That Health and Welfare Canada and the Provincial Ministries of Health and Education
alert the Canadian public to the existence of family violence, including wife assault, child
abuse, and elder abuse, and to the services available which respond to these problems,
and that organized medicine (through such vehicles as professional journals, newsletters,
conferences and formal medical education) alert the physicians of Canada to the problem
and that all physicians learn to recognize the signs of family violence in their daily contact
with patients and undertake the care and management of victims using available
community resources." (Resolution #84-47)
The CMA calls the Panel's attention to four major areas of concern: Recognition and Treatment, Education and Training, Protocol Development and Research.
1. Recognition and Treatment:
Recognition includes acknowledging the existence and prevalence of abuse and identifying
victims of violence. Violence against women is clearly a health issue and one that should be given a very high priority. Statistics indicate that nearly one in eight Canadian women will be subject to spousal violence in her lifetime and that one in five will be a victim of sexual assault. Violence against women is a major determinant of both short -and long-term health problems including traumatic injury, physical and psychological illnesses, alcohol/drug addiction and death. Furthermore, although it is critically important to recognize that abuse crosses all racial and socio-economic boundaries, there are strong indications that certain groups are particularly vulnerable to abusive acts (e.g., pregnant, disabled and elderly women).
Recognition includes acknowledging and understanding the social context within which violence occurs. Violence is not an isolated phenomenon, but is part of the much broader issue of societal abuse of women.
Physicians are often the first point of contact for patients who have been abused physically, sexually, mentally and/or psychologically. They have a vital role to play in identifying victims and providing treatment and supportive intervention including appropriate referral. Abuse is not always readily apparent, however, and may go undetected for extended periods of time. Numerous studies have shown that both physicians and patients often fail to identify abuse as an underlying cause of symptoms. Such delays can result in devastating and sometimes fatal consequences for patients. Even in those cases where abuse is apparent, both physicians and patients often feel uncomfortable talking openly about the abuse and the circumstances surrounding it. It is the physician's role and responsibility to create a safe and supportive environment for the disclosure and discussion of abuse.
Furthermore, the lack of resources for support services or the lack of awareness of what services are available to provide immediate and follow-up care to patients in need may discourage physicians from acknowledging the existence of abuse and identifying victims. It is clear that improvement in the ability and the degree to which victims of abuse are recognized and given appropriate assistance by physicians and other caring professionals in a non-threatening environment is urgently required.
Individuals who are abused usually approach the health care system through primary contact with emergency departments or other primary care centres. The care available in such settings is acute, fragmented and episodic. Such settings are not appropriate for the victims of violence.
The challenge that we, as physicians, recognize is to be able to provide access in a coordinated way to medical, social, legal and other support services that are essential for the victim of violence. This integration of services is essential at the point of initial recognition and contact. The CMA has been involved with eight other organizations in the Interdisciplinary Project on Domestic Violence (IPVD), the primary goal of which is to promote interdisciplinary co-operation in the recognition and management of domestic violence.
2. Education and Training: The spectrum of abuse is complex; the victims are diverse; expertise in the field is developing. The current system of medical education neither provides health care personnel with the knowledge or skills nor does it foster the attitude to deal adequately with this issue. Some of CMA's divisions have played an active role in this area. For instance, the Ontario Medical Association has developed curriculum guidelines and medical management of wife abuse for undergraduate medical students. It is ,important that there be more involvement by relevant medical groups in developing educational and training programs and more commitment from medical educators to integrate these programs and resources into the curriculum.
Programs must be developed and instituted at all levels of medical education in order that physicians can gain the requisite knowledge and skills and be sensitive to the diversity of victims of violence.
The CMA believes that the educational programs must result in: 1) understanding of the health consequences of violence; 2) development of effective communication skills; and, 3) understanding of the social context in which violence occurs.
Understanding of the social context in which violence occurs will require an examination of the values and attitudes that persist in our society, including a close consideration of the concepts of gender role socialization, sexuality and power. This is required in order to dispel the pervasive societal misconceptions held by physicians and others which act as barriers to an effective and supportive medical response to patients suffering the effects of violence.
3. Development of Protocols: The CMA recognizes the need for more effective management and treatment of the spectrum of problems associated with violence against women. Health care facilities, professional organizations and other relevant groups are challenged to formulate educational and policy protocols for integrated and collaborative approaches to dealing with prevention of abuse and the management of victims of violence.
The CMA and a number of its divisions have been active in this area:
In 1985, the CMA prepared and published Family Violence: Guidelines for Recognition and Management (Ghent, W.R., Da Sylva, N.P., Farren, M.E.), which dealt with the signs and symptoms, assessment and management, referral assistance and medical records with respect to wife battering, child abuse and abuse of the elderly;
The Ontario Medical Association published Repons on Wife Assault in January 1991. This document, endorsed by the CMA, examines the problem of wife assault from a medical perspective and outlines approaches to treatment of the male batterer and his family;
The Medical Society of Nova Scotia has developed a handbook entitled Wife Abuse: A Handbook for Physicians, advising on the identification and management of cases involving the battering of women;
The New Brunswick Medical Society has produced a series of discussion papers on violence and in conjunction with that province's Advisory Council on the Status of Women, has produced a graphic poster depicting physical assault on pregnant women as a way of urging physicians to be alert for signs of violence against women;
The Medical Society of Prince Edward Island has worked cooperatively with the provincial Department of Health and Social Services and the Interministerial Committee on Family Violence to produce a document entitled Domestic Violence: A Handbook for
The CMA encourages continued involvement by the medical profession in the development of initiatives such as these and welcomes the opportunity to work in collaboration with other professionals involved in this area.
4. Research The CMA has identified violence against women as a priority health issue. Like rriany other areas in women's health, there is a need for research focusing on all aspects of violence and the associated problems. More specifically, the CMA maintains that there should be more research on the incidence of abuse (particularly as it relates to particular groups), on ways to facilitate the disclosure by victims of abuse and on the effectiveness of educational and prevention programs.
The CMA recognizes that the medical profession must show a greater commitment to ending abuse of women and providing more appropriate care and support services to those who are victims of violence. The CMA possesses unique skills and expertise in this area and welcomes the opportunity to work with the Panel on this challenging social and health problem.