Missing Pieces: Biotech Not-So-Public Consultations

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by Kristine Hirschkorn

(Toronto) Leading up to the federal government's formulation of a national strategy to guide biotechnology developments in Canada, roundtable consultations were held in major cities across the country in April and May this year. Kristine Hirschkorn attended the consultation held in Toronto.

Groups most affected by one of the most controversial aspects of biotechnology were missing from closed-door consultations held by the government to help shape Canada's policy on biotechnology.

Women of child-bearing age were not well represented, and minority groups were not to be seen, at least not at the consultation held in Toronto, where participants consisted of white, able-bodied, and middle-aged representatives of industry, universities, and non-governmental organizations.

Those groups most affected by new reproductive and genetic technologies, such as people with disabilities, were absent from the by-invitation-only consultation.

The media was also not invited.

"The structure of a participatory system for decisions around biotechnology should be arrived at through a process of public consultation," wrote Elisabeth Abergel in a letter to the government following her attendance at the Toronto consultation. Abergel, a Professor of Environmental Studies at York University, stressed too few non-governmental organizations were invited.

Of those who made the invitation list, many felt the consultations were rushed.

"Some participants would have preferred more time to prepare for the event..." reported the Halifax summary of its consultation. Participants across the country said they needed more time to respond to the Biotechnology Strategy Task Force.

Many also felt that ethical, social, and ecological concerns were pushed to the way-side as the federal government stressed the need for Canada to become a "world leader" in the development and use of biotechnology.

This left several participants wondering if their recommendations will have any impact on the policy at all.

Information Gap

Poor women, rural women, and other marginalised women have less access to information about biotechnologies, and the latest consultations confirm that fact.

The government's will to forge ahead and become a "world leader" in the development and use of biotechnology ignores questions asked by the many groups not present at the consultations - groups that feel most vulnerable to genetic discrimination.

Genetic Discrimination

Pre-natal testing can identify genes in the unborn child that some medical experts say can lead to disability, disease or other "undesirable" conditions.

If this is true, whose responsibility is it to decide what is "undesirable"? Should medical doctors have the right to intervene to prevent these conditions? People with disabilities and other marginalised groups may find their conditions are discriminated against because they are considered to have "defective" genes.

"Some groups of women, such as aboriginal women, disabled women, and women of colour, have felt the pressure of a society which encourages abortions and even imposes sterilization on them," said Joanne Boucher, speaking at a presentation on new reproductive and genetic technology at the University of Winnipeg Women's Club on April 25th.

Biotechnology is a scientific tool that uses living organisms or parts of living organisms to produce new products and new ways of doing things.

New Reproductive and Genetic Technologies (NRGTs) refer to medical and biotechnological interventions in human reproduction. Some examples are fetal monitoring, pre-conception sex determination t

echniques, in vitro fertilization as well as abortion and contraception technologies.

Genes for Sale?

"In the new reproductive technologies [the woman] is no longer one whole object, but a series of objects which can be isolated, examined, recombined, sold, hired, or simply thrown away." Vandana Shiva, "New Reproductive Technologies: Sexist and Racist Implications"

Reproductive technologies can isolate and manipulate eggs and sperm, including their genetic make-up. What does it mean if we can clone, buy, sell, and patent reproductive tissue and living organisms?

Food is genetically altered to make it look better and last longer. This does not necessarily mean the food is higher quality. How is our health affected by genetically altered food? How does the introduction of new plant and animal types affect the health of the environment?

In the health sector, much of biotechnology involves the screening of or use of genetic information for medical treatment. By focussing on genes as the cause and cure of illness, many social and environmental factors that affect health are overlooked. Women need to be assured that their knowledge of these health factors will not be ignored.

Why don't you ask us?

The social and ecological effects of biotechnology are largely unknown.

Women make many of the health care and home care choices for their families and children, so the burden will fall on them to make sense of the complex information about biotechnologies.

Women need access to unbiased information about both the benefits and the risks of biotechnology.

They need to raise difficult questions, and a forum for asking these questions must include those most affected by biotechnologies.

Women and other concerned public who have views and concerns to express must be consulted by the Biotechnology Strategy Task Force and the developers of biotechnologies.

Kristine Hirschkorn is part of the working group on Women and the New Genetics, an initiative of the National Network on Environments and Women's Health involving the Centres of Excellence for Women's Health.

Further Information

Information about the Biotechnology Strategy is available at the following address:
Canadian Biotechnology Strategy Task Force
Room 799B, East Tower
235 Queen Street, 7th Floor
Ottawa, ON K1A 0H5 Canada
Tel: (613) 946-2848
Fax: (613) 946-2847
E-mail: cbstf@ic.gc.ca
Web site: http://strategis.ic.gc.ca/cbs

Copies of the Roundtable Consultation Documents are available at the following address:
Distribution Services
Industry Canada
Room 208D, East Tower
235 Queen Street
Ottawa, ON K1A 0H5 Canada
Tel: (613) 947-7466
Fax: (613) 954-6436
E-mail: publications@ic.gc.ca

CBAN Cross-Canada Action on Biotech

Against manipulation, control and ownership of life forms for profit, the Canadian Biotech Action Network has grown out of public concern about biotechnology.

Their plans include shareholder actions in biotech companies, demads for labelling biotech-altered food, and an electronic mailing list for its members. Contact cmassey@sfu.ca.