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May 24, 2001 Listen to citizens' groups on reproduction issues, says political scientist



Francesca Scala

Public policy expert Francesca Scala

Photo by Andrew Dobrowolskyj

by Frank Kuin

Public policy commissions and inquiries should give more weight to the views of community groups if they are to provide truly democratized guidance to governments on how to regulate issues such as genetically modified foods and reproductive technologies.

That’s the view of Francesca Scala, a public policy expert and a new professor at Concordia’s Political Science Department. Scala, an MA graduate from Concordia, is rejoining the university this summer, while preparing to defend her PhD thesis at Carleton University’s School of Public Administration.

“Expert” knowledge favoured

In her PhD thesis, Scala has analyzed the proceedings of the Royal Commission on New Reproductive Technologies as a case study for how Royal Commissions reconcile voices from different groups in society. In 1993, this Commission cautiously came out in favour of allowing fertility treatments such as in vitro fertilization in Canada.

Scala found that in reaching this positive conclusion, the Royal Commission tended to favour “expert knowledge” by doctors, biologists and other scientists over “non-expert” input by groups with non-quantifiable, ethical concerns, such as feminist groups or anti-abortion activists.

“There was a hierarchy,” Scala said. “The medical-legal experts were seen as providing objective expertise that could easily translate into usable knowledge for the government,” whereas community groups that participated in the hearings “weren’t regarded as experts in their fields or as true representatives of their constituents. They were also seen as biased.”

The Royal Commission on New Reproductive Technologies, therefore, did not succeed in opening up the debate to non-medical or non-legal perspectives, Scala found. “If we believe in democratizing policy analysis and bringing different voices to the table, we have to organize these kinds of inquiries in a very different way.”

Community involvement essential

Scala’s main recommendation is to make inquiries more inclusive by providing community groups with equal weight to that of scientists in public consultations. This could be done by funding independent research projects that community groups need to underpin their viewpoints, she said.

A model for how to conduct an inquiry, in Scala’s eyes, is the Berger Commission of some 30 years ago. It examined the construction of the Mackenzie Valley pipeline in the Northwest Territories. The Commission made sure that community groups were involved throughout the whole process, Scala said. “They gave the elders in the aboriginal communities the same expert status as regular experts or researchers.”

The main challenge is how to use the information from such public consultations. “It’s not enough to just hear what people have to say. What we have to do is try to find a way to incorporate it in a real way into the policy-making process.”

Not that Scala disagrees fundamentally with the outcome of the Royal Commission on New Reproductive Technologies. Its final report, titled Proceed with Care, struck a cautious note. But more than the concerns of some feminists, who find new reproductive technologies potentially oppressive towards women, this caution may have been the result of fiscal constraints, Scala noted.

Expensive fertility treatments remain largely uncovered by medicare.

New draft legislation on the topic introduced earlier this month by Health Minister Alan Rock reflects the final report, Scala said. The government wants to ban human cloning, paid surrogacy, and the commercialization of embryos and eggs.

“These were some of the issues where there was consensus,” Scala explained. “They’re the issues that are on the extreme. But when it comes to issues like whether a 55-year-old woman should have access to fertility treatments and who should be funding them, that’s something that I don’t think the federal government is able to address in an effective way.”

At Concordia, Scala plans to undertake a comparative analysis of American and Canadian policies on embryo research. “It’s a dream come true to come back and teach at Concordia,” she said. “I’m very happy to be back.”