Recap of Speaker Series 2017: Ethical and Legal Ramifications of Stem Cell Research

Posted by Handi Xu

Our first Speaker Series event of the 2017-2018 academic year consisted of a discussion on the ethical and legal ramifications of stem cell research. This event presented diverse perspectives on research involving the development, use, and destruction of human embryos, as well as its many potential benefits and its complexities and regulations.

Dr. Michel L. Tremblay, a leading researcher from McGill University’s Biochemistry Department, discussed the evolution of stem cell use and its current clinical applications. Notably, stem cells are capable of reproducing themselves and are also able to differentiate into other cell types. Since stem cells are difficult to isolate in humans, experiments involving embryo stem cells are usually performed using animals. These experiments aim to create stem cell mutations in order to understand normal gene function as well as their association to various human diseases such as cancer and obesity.

IMG_2747 Dr. Tremblay spoke about the current clinical applications of stem cells 

In 2006, Dr. Shinya Yamanaka, a Japanese stem cell researcher, discovered through the fusion of stem cells and tumor cells that some genes responsible for stem cell properties were dominant over other gene expressed in non-stem cells. Therefore, the fusion of these stem cells and cancer cells led the majority of the fused cells to be stem cell like.  He then discovered that only four dominant genes in stem cells were necessary to transform a normal cell into a stem cell (Induced Pluripotent Stem cells or IPS cells). He shared the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine with Sir John B. Gurdon for showing that mature cells can be reprogrammed into pluripotent stem cells. This line of work proved that it was possible to use cells other than those from the embryo to generate stem cells, hence removing one of the major ethical issues of using human embryos to obtain stem cells. Nowadays, novel technologies of genetic engineering, such as CRISPR-Cas9-technology, allow the generation of specific manipulations of genomes in any human stem cell and in other cell types.

Dr. William Stanford, an influential stem cell researcher from the Ottawa Research Institute, detailed the history of stem cells discoveries. He further discussed the use of stem cells in clinical trials to treat a great number of diseases such as diabetes, blindness, and heart disease. They are also starting to be used in the development and assessment of new therapeutic drugs. However, the remarkable potential of stem cells to improve all spheres of biomedical research and treatment has spawn great competition due to the lucrative potential of these technologies. Since the cost and ethical regulations of stem research and therapies differ among many countries, other issues such as stem cell therapeutic “tourism”, fake treatments, and non-ethical research programs in non-clinically certified centres, have resulted in harm to patients in many countries lacking regulation. There is a continuous need for maintaining a legal framework for their applications as well as constant effort to inform the public on the advances and limitations of stem cells activities.

IMG_2749 Dr. Stanford spoke about ethical complications with stem cell therapies in countries lacking proper regulation 

Finally, Me. William Brock, a partner at Davies and a leukemia survivor that underwent bone marrow stem cell transplant, expressed his opinion on stem cell research from a patient’s perspective. Not only did his treatment allow him to realize how fragile and important life is, but it also led him to acknowledge the power of science.

IMG_2753 Me. Brock spoke about his personal experience receiving stem cell therapy 

Indeed, scientific progress has permitted the 100% mortality rate of leukemia fifty years ago to drop to 10% for children and 50% for adults today. Me. Brock also explained that ethics is differently defined for everyone; while one person might find stem cell research unethical, another person’s life or death could rely on stem cells. He believes that society cannot decide for a patient whether they should be allowed to receive a stem cell treatment or not.

Event: Ethical and Legal Ramifications of Stem Cell Research

We have provided a recording of the event below:


For our first Speaker Series event of the 2017-2018 academic year we are excited to present a stimulating discussion on the legal and ethical ramifications of stem cell research. This event will present diverse perspectives on research involving the development, use and destruction of human embryos, as well as its many potential benefits and its complexities and regulations.

Speakers include:

Dr. William Stanford, Ottawa Research Institute:
Dr. Stanford is a leading stem cell researcher focusing on understanding and manipulating human embryonic stem cells for development of novel therapeutics for many human diseases including cancer.

Me. William Brock:
A partner at Davies who is also a leukemia survivor that underwent stem cell treatment. Me. Brock will give us his legal and personal perspective on the technology.

Dr. Michel L. Tremblay:
Dr. Tremblay is a leading researcher in the Biochemistry Department at McGill University. Dr. Tremblay will discuss techniques for modifying stem cells using CRSPR-Technology in the lab as well as the current use of stem cells in the clinic. Dr. Tremblay will also discuss pertinent ethical issues such as who owns stem cells, stem cell “tourism”, and the future of stem cells including drug development, use of stem cells for tissue/organ replacement and stem cells versus robotics-cybog.

The event will take place at the Thompson House Restaurant (3650 Mc Tavish, Montreal) on November 1st 2017 from 4:45 PM until 6:00 PM. No tickets required. Please arrive 10 minutes in advance to secure a seat.

Recruitment 2017-2018

We have officially opened recruitment for all boards on the MJLH. We invite students from all years of the McGill Faculty of Law to send your applications to any of our four executive boards: Editorial, Online, Management and Strategic Planning & Solicitations.

Notez bien que le comité de rédaction est bilingue et les rédacteurs / rédactrices travaillent avec les articles en anglais ainsi que le français. Vous avez donc l’option de soumettre une application pour le comité anglais ainsi que le comité français.

Applications for all Boards will remain open until Monday, September 11th at 11:59PM (exceptionally for the Editorial Board the deadline is September 15th at 11:59 PM). Executives for each board will hold interviews thereafter. Application instructions can be found below.

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Editorial Board:

Please download and complete the following Application Form and Assignment Instructions, along with either an English or French article that you will use to complete the assignment. Please send your completed Application Form, assignment, CV, and cover letter to: editor.mjlh[AT]mail.mcgill.ca (English) or redacteur.rdsm[AT]mail.mcgill.ca (Français). Exceptionally, applications for the Editorial Board will remain open until Friday, September 15th at 11:59 p.m.

Online Board: 

Please send your CV and a cover letter to: web.mjlh[AT]mail.mcgill.ca.

Note: Please keep in mind that you do not need to be on the Online Board to submit online articles. We solicit content for the Online blog from all law students and professors in the legal community at McGill and beyond.

Management Board:

Please download and complete the following Application Form and send the completed form along with your CV and a cover letter to manager.mjlh[AT]mail.mcgill.ca.

SPAS Board:

Please download and complete the following Application Form and send the completed form along with your CV and a cover letter to info.mjlh[AT]mcgill.ca.

Applications for all Boards (except Editorial) will remain open until Monday, September 11th at 11:59PM.

Vous pouvez soumettre votre application en français.

9th Annual MJLH Colloquium in Review: Indigenous Health and Access to Medicines in Canada

Posted By Chris Laliberté

On Saturday, February 11th, the McGill Journal of Law and Health hosted its ninth annual Colloquium Event. Held in the Moot Court, the event titled “Access and Equity: Indigenous Health and Law in Canada” featured two panels of experts and activists who regularly engage with First Nations peoples and the challenges they face accessing healthcare in Canada.

The morning panel featured Dr. Cindy Blackstock, PhD, Professor Larry Chartrand, and Dr. Janet Smylie, MD, MPH. The discussion centred on the systemic and social barriers to equitable healthcare for First Nations peoples.

Dr. Blackstock discussed the dissonance between the Crown’s spoken intentions to provide aid to First Nations communities and the repeated use of technicalities to defeat cases before the court can address the merits. In particular, she cited an instance where the Ministry of Indian Affairs failed to provide emergency aid funding for suicide prevention programs because the requests came at an awkward time in the funding cycle. Of the $200M needed, only one third – $60.38M – made it to the communities in desperate need of help.

“If it’s not good enough for the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, why is it good enough for you?” –Dr. Cindy Blackstock on Parliament’s excuses for inaction on First Nations issues

Next, Prof. Larry Chartrand offered a critical perspective on Hamilton Health Sciences Centre v. D.H., clarifying the contentious points as regards the application of s. 35 Aboriginal Rights. Chartrand argued that Western interpretations and applications of the law tend to ignore the collective nature of Aboriginal Rights so as to threaten their independence and render them meaningless. In fact, the imposition of Western notions of the “best interests of the child” inherently denies the sovereignty of First Nations peoples and the principles of First Nations law—such as the Haudenausonee nation’s core tenet to act in the best interests of their children. In the spirit of reconciliation, Chartrand asked neither agreement or even endorsement, only understanding, trust, and respect for First Nations peoples’ self-determination in healthcare.

Dr. Janet Smylie, as a practicing physician, recounted her first-hand experiences with the injuries and deaths suffered by First Nations patients due to negligence motivated by racist assumptions among hospital staff. Smylie emphasized the need for intersectional approaches to law and healthcare, pointing to systemic, epistemic, and attitudinal racism as predominant barriers to the equitable provision of health services. She cited the tragic Brian Sinclair case and the demonstrable failure to provide emergency interventions for First Nations patients as examples of death by discrimination. To combat the underlying prejudicial effects of colonialism on the health of First Nations peoples, hospitals and staff in Canada must implement anti-racist training and practices to account for unconscious bias and provide more equitable care.

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After a short lunch, the afternoon panel featured Mr. Normand D’Aaragon, Dr. Christopher Lalonde, PhD, and Dr. Ronald Niezen, PhD. The discussion centred on the causal relationships underlying the high rates of suicide among many First Nations communities, and means of addressing this crisis.

Mr. Normand D’Aragon opened the afternoon with a discussion of his work helping First Nations families heal the wounds of intergenerational trauma due to a history of colonial violence and oppression. D’Aragon relayed his experiences working with two families. The first family, he said, had lost their eldest son to suicide, and feared for the well-being of their second. He traced their family’s story to the grandmother’s two brothers, who never returned from residential schools. Future sons in the family, he said, were deprived of their individuality as a result of the unresolved grief over the ancestral loss of life. Another case concerned a family in which a girl who attempted suicide had lost three cousins and an uncle to self-harm. D’Aragon traced this grief back to the trauma of the great grandparents, who lost five children in infancy due to toxic water on the reserve and neglectful treatment at the hospital.

Dr. Christopher Lalonde presented his team’s work quantifying the suicide crisis among First Nations communities so as to identify pain points and causation in an effort to direct and distribute interventions that will result in healing for the affected communities. Among other misrepresentations, Lalonde dispelled the implication conveyed through the media that being of First Nations heritage is itself a risk factor for suicidal ideation, an idea he described as “insulting and clearly false”. In fact, First Nations communities show immense variability in suicide rates by health region and census region, with over half showing a 0 rate of suicide. The data collected by Lalonde’s team suggest an inverse correlation between the suicide rate and a variety of social factors, including cultural continuity, inclusion of women in government, political autonomy, and access to mentorship and education services. Communities proved healthiest when granted the autonomy to preserve and promote traditional practices while navigating a clear and unified path towards the future.

“Give Cindy Blackstock all the money she ever asks for.” –Dr. Christopher Lalonde on activism for First Nations peoples access to medical care

Dr. Ronald Niezen concluded the panel by recounting his experience working with First Nations communities, and his observations as to the social patterns underlying the development of suicide crises. In the six months he spent working with intervenors on the reserve, there were 144 reported interventions and 9 suicides. Niezen explained that suicide clusters like this one emit a certain social influence that encourages mutual action, and that the ideation of suicide spreads throughout the community as a response to colonial trauma. He also expressed concerns that the publicity given to interventions creates a tension between the call to action for relief funding and the risk of stereotyping First Nations peoples in the public perception.

Recap of the 9th Annual MJLH Colloquium: Assisted Reproduction Law Reform Post-Term in Canada

Posted By Chris Laliberté

On February 6, 2016, the McGill Journal of Law and Health hosted its 9th annual Colloquium to explore the legal framework surrounding assisted reproduction practices in Canada. The controversial issue brought together doctors, lawyers, and professors to discuss the impact of the Assisted Human Reproduction Act (AHRA) and the criminalization of third-party reproduction on Canadian families.

Panelists for the day included fertility law practitioners Sara R. Cohen and Sherry Levitan, doctors Arthur Leader and Neal Mahutte, and professors Margaret Somerville and Françoise Baylis.

Me Sara R. Cohen opened the discussion with a practical, what she called “on the ground”, perspective of the issue through her work with clients seeking to start a family through surrogacy. She spoke about how in her work with Fertility Law Canada, she aims to help hopeful parents-to-be overcome the complex legal hurdles that mark the track from the pre-conception planning stage to the finalization and execution of the surrogacy contract.

Me Cohen argued that the state of the law in Canada, in particular the criminal sanctions imposed pursuant to s. 6(1), 6(2), 6(3) and 7(1) of the AHRA, contravene the regulatory purposes of protecting women who wish to provide surrogacy services, and families who have chosen surrogacy as the preferred, and in some cases, only means to start a family. For example, the s. 6(1) prohibition on payment has created a spirit of secrecy due to fear of harsh penalties under the law, says Me Cohen. Although she admitted to no knowledge of charges brought against women offering surrogacy services or the families who hired them, the practitioner emphasized that the threat of enforcement alone causes harm through engendering reproductive tourism and a lack of medical safety from deregulation.

Professor Margaret Somerville then took the podium to defend the Canadian criminal prohibitions as a means of preventing the commodification of human lives and bodies. She first contended that the current debate suffered from an error in perspective: the needs of the parents are placed at the forefront while the best interests of the child are seemingly left out of consideration. Professor Somerville went on to claim that the child, in the context of a surrogacy contract, is treated as a product rather than as a party. Her reasoning framed the discussion as a conflict between the rights of a child to a happy life and the rights of adults to be parents. She argued in defense of a child’s right to the equal freedom afforded by a natural birth through the “genetic lottery” rather than the predestination of a genetic design, which she likened to manufacturing a product.

Professor Somerville also argued that the decriminalization of surrogacy services would threaten the safety of socioeconomically disadvantaged women, who are most vulnerable to exploitation. She compared the power dynamics to those involved in prostitution, making the claim that consent to these arrangements cannot be free and enlightened when a woman in a desperate situation has to choose between offering her body or starving. Me Cohen would rebut this point during the Q&A period, arguing that the situation is not so bleak in the Canadian context, and that proper regulation would advantage and empower women in our healthcare system, not subject them to exploitation.

Professor Françoise Baylis closed out the first half of the day with a critical look at what the legislation states and, with greater scrutiny, what it fails to say. In her presentation, she argued that although the legislation, as it is written, clearly defines the state of the law, Health Canada’s reliance on an evasive interpretation of outdated legislation allows for uncertainty due to voluntary omissions where clear regulatory guidelines could dispel any need for quasi-legal circumnavigation. A defined regulatory framework would allow purchasers and providers of surrogacy services to understand how best to proceed without risks of sanctions. Further, the inaction of Health Canada in enforcing the current legislation only creates greater confusion as to what is and is not permitted, or, what will be allowed in spite of the statutes.

Dr. Arthur Leader, a specialist in fertility treatments, opened the second half of the Colloquium with a brief, but insightful comparison of the legislation regarding in vitro fertilization (IVF) and surrogate pregnancies in the UK and in Canada. His presentation holds the UK model as an example for what fertility medicine regulations could look like in Canada after substantial revision. The Canadian model could better serve its people by lifting or loosening restrictions on surrogacy and IVF research and treatment, which would allow the Canadian healthcare community to drive innovation in the field and give Canadian citizens domestic access to the services they need, rather than forcing them to travel abroad.

The Q&A session that followed, co-chaired by Dr. Leader, Dr. Neal Mahutte, and Me Sherry Levitan, touched on a broad spectrum of issues faced by legal and medical practitioners in the field of assisted reproduction. The panel responded to concerns ranging from the framework for IVF funding, to the lack of statutory guidance in disputes over the ownership of frozen embryos, to the effects of donor anonymity on a child’s rights to access their medical history.

Overall, this year’s colloquium has made clear that the legal framework surrounding third-party reproduction in Canada remains oblique at best. As legislators continue to grapple with ethical concerns and struggle to keep pace with advances in medical technology, the absence of clearly defined regulations poses many challenges for Canadians in need of these services to start a family. Until the government addresses this gap in the law, collaboration between fertility doctors and fertility lawyers will continue to prove invaluable in granting these families access to the treatments and services they require.

To join in on the discussion, make your voice heard on the MJLH website, Facebook page, or Tweet @McGill_JLH. For those interested in getting involved with fertility law, Dr. Baylis invites passionate writers to contribute to her website, Impact Ethics. For law students interested in the practice of fertility law, Me Sherry Levitan invites you to contact her about a student position with her firm in Toronto.