· CBC News ·
A Liberal MP, backed by his party’s women’s caucus, is pushing for a legal change to allow surrogate mothers and sperm donors to be paid for their services.
Anthony Housefather, chair of the House of Commons justice committee, said Canada’s current law is out of step with modern families — with same-sex couples, single mothers and women choosing to have children later in life.
He said the ban on fees creates a grey zone which leaves potential surrogates anxious about breaking the law.
Housefather, who held a news conference on Parliament Hill today with fertility lawyers, doctors and clinicians, plans to table a private member’s bill in May after hearing input from constitutional lawyers and other experts. He said he hopes the government will endorse it, though he has received no commitment to date.
“I’m hopeful this is in line with the government’s agenda and, in the end result, they will support the initiative,” he said.
The Canadian law, which came into force in 2004, prohibits paying a surrogate mother for her services, but does allow reimbursement for certain medical and maternity costs when the surrogate mother is performing the service for altruistic reasons.
Costs that may be covered include maternity clothes, travel for medical appointments, medications and, in some cases, lost work wages.
“Exploiting the reproductive capabilities of children, women and men for commercial gain is strictly forbidden for health and ethical reasons,” reads the government website on the Assisted Human Reproduction legislation.
The law does not criminalize a woman who agrees to be or becomes a surrogate mother. But paying for surrogacy, or offering to pay, is illegal.
Contentious ethical issue
Commercial surrogacy has long been a contentious ethical issue, with opponents saying babies should not be treated as commodities and comparing paid surrogacy to prostitution and physical exploitation.
But Housefather said adult women are competent to make their own decisions, calling it “paternalistic” to ban surrogacy on those grounds.
Anita Vandenbeld, chair of the Liberal women’s caucus, said her members unanimously support Housefather’s initative. She said it’s “vital” to update the laws to ensure all Canadians have the right to use modern reproductive technologies.
“Assisted human reproduction is the one area in law where we are still criminalizing women’s bodies,” she said. “This has to change.”
Alana Cattapan, an expert in reproductive ethics and biotechnology at the University of Saskatchewan, said what many surrogate mothers want is better patient care and clear-cut regulations on what is eligible for reimbursement.
“Receiving money on top of that is secondary. All of the other parts are more important,” she said. “So I’m not sure why there’s such a move to commercialize this practice when there are so many additional ways that surrogates want to be taken care of [that] might improve the number of people who would volunteer to be surrogates.”
She said the number of reported surrogates in Canada has been increasing in recent years, from 285 in 2010 to about 700 last year.
When it comes to egg donations, Cattapan said she believes it’s wrong to pay people for access to their body parts. She said there are other ways to encourage people to donate, along the lines of blood and organ donations.
Françoise Baylis, a bioethics and philosophy professor at Dalhousie University, said she objects to the sale of sperm and eggs because it’s a “commodification of the human body” that brings with it the risk of exploitation and coercion.
“Canada ought not to allow the commercialization of the human body,” she said in an email. “Ultimately, this is about a world view grounded in the belief that the world is a better place if we have some valuable things (e.g., body parts) kept out of the marketplace.”
Housefather said he sees the potential legal change as a “modernization” of current laws. The opposition parties say they want to carefully consider the details of any bill before taking a position.
“When the Liberals table legislation in this area, we will carefully review any proposals put forward to make sure it is in the best interests of Canadians,” said Conservative justice critic Rob Nicholson.
Don Davies, the NDP’s health critic, said his party also will not take a position until it studies the issue.
He said the NDP has opposed any move to commercialize sales of organs or tissues, but understands that fertility issues are profoundly important for many Canadians.
“We come at this from the point of view that we believe in a public, non-profit health care sector, so that will be a general value that I think we bring to the discussion. But I do know that there’s Canadians who are in need of reproductive health services,” he said.
“That’s why I think it’s really important to see exactly what’s being proposed by Mr. Housefather, and talk it through in our caucus and hear from stakeholders and Canadians before we come to any firm conclusions.”