Canadian stem cell bill passed

Quick Senate approval before Parliament goes into recess is unlikely

Oct 30, 2003
Ed Ungar(edungar@tht.net)

After 10 years of gestation, the Canadian House of Commons has passed legislation that bans somatic cell nuclear transfer to create new stem cell lines but that allows researchers to derive stem cells from discarded embryos from fertility clinics. The Assisted Human Reproduction Act (C-13) was approved by a vote of 149 to109 on Tuesday night (October 28).

The bill will now go to the Canadian Senate, which is an appointed body whose role is to provide "sober second thought" to all bills passed by the House of Commons. The Senate cannot veto a bill passed by the House, but it can delay and amend a law.

"Our committee will take a thorough and fair look at the bill," Senator Michael Kirby, chairman of the Senate's Social Affairs, Science and Technology Committee, told The Scientist.

Canadian researchers have been clamoring for legislative guidance on the prospects for stem cell research. But the issue will remain in limbo for a while longer if the Senate does not pass the final bill before early or mid November, when Parliament is likely to go into recess. A new prime minister, Paul Martin, will be in place when Parliament reconvenes 4 months later. Antiabortion forces in Canada, who have opposed the bill, have expressed hope that it will be delayed and will get lost in the shuffle of the new prime minister's legislative priorities.

For a bill to pass the Senate, it must go through three "readings." The first took place Tuesday night, as soon as the Commons passed the bill. The second reading will happen today (October 30). Then, Senate committee hearings must take place and the Senate must examine the bill on a clause by clause basis and consider amendments. Only then will a third reading take place followed by a Senate vote on the entire bill.

"I don't think we'll be able to get through the entire process before we adjourn," said Senator Jerry Graftstein of the Liberal Party of Toronto. "But my sense of the Senate is that if and when it is brought up when we get back, there will strong support for the bill."

The bill also bans the fertilization of a human ovum by an animal gamete for the purposes of producing a zygote that is capable of differentiation. Scientists in Canada would also not be allowed to implant animal embryos in humans or keep embryos alive outside the womb.