A Calgary fertility clinic is at the centre of an ethical and political controversy after it refused to help a woman become impregnated with sperm from a donor who did not share her skin colour.
The Regional Fertility Program, a privately owned company that is the only facility of its sort in Calgary, said in a statement on Monday that one of its doctors was voicing his own opinions when he told a single Caucasian woman seeking in vitro fertilization that she could receive sperm from only white donors.
The clinic went on to say that a ban on creating mixed-race babies that was in place for decades was removed last year, but the website was not properly updated to reflect the change.
Monday's statement that the clinic had revised its approach did not come until after the old policy had received a strong rebuke from federal government and fertility experts across the country. The incident also highlighted the fact that fertility clinics in Alberta and other parts of Canada are not regulated and that the doctors who work in them set their own parameters.
Matt Gysler, the past president of the Canadian Fertility and Andrology Society, says fertility doctors "essentially write their own rules and then the clinic, which is maybe a group of physicians, will rewrite their own rules and then agree to practice in a similar way."
But the doctors are governed by the standards of their provincial colleges of physicians, Dr. Gysler said. "That's a very strong protection."
The Calgary doctor who told the woman he would not help her conceive a mixed race baby was Calvin Greene, the clinic's administrative director. He told the Calgary Herald last week that the policy against mixing races had been in effect since the 1980s and he believes it is better to raise children who resemble their parents.
"I'm not sure that we should be creating rainbow families just because some single woman decides that that's what she wants," Dr. Greene said. He went on to say the clinic's approach is consistent with the spirit of Ottawa's Assisted Human Reproduction Act, which discourages doctors from helping create "designer babies."
But federal Health Minister Rona Ambrose disagrees. "Our government believes that discrimination in any form is unacceptable," her spokeswoman said on Monday. "Race is not a part of the Assisted Human Reproduction Act."
Alberta Health Minister Fred Horne said the controversy at the Regional Fertility Program in Calgary, which is a private clinic that receives no funds from his government, has raised some important questions for Alberta as it explores the possibility of paying for in vitro fertilization.
"This is a good example of how some of these decisions are actually complex and they involve ethical considerations that really have to be worked through," Mr. Horne said.
The federal Assisted Human Reproduction Act was gutted after the Supreme Court ruled in 2010 that the provinces have the jurisdiction to regulate fertility clinics. The act continues to prohibit some practices such as creating hybrids of human and animal life forms, but it is largely left up to fertility doctors to decide what procedures are in their patients' best interests.
That can be a difficult situation, said Shawn Winsor, an ethicist at the LifeQuest Centre for Reproductive Medicine in Toronto, because they are considering what's best for someone who has not been conceived. Society has to get better at helping doctors make these decisions, Mr. Winsor said.
Gloria Poirier, the executive director of the Infertility Awareness Association of Canada, which was created to help Canadians with reproductive issues, said the Calgary clinic's old policy was entirely inappropriate.
"Clinics are private, they have standards, they have best practices, they have a code of ethics, and ... this is not something that's ethical," Ms. Poirier said. "We certainly don't support that."
And Sara Cohen, a fertility law attorney in Toronto, said she assumes the clinic had good intentions and was looking out for what it considered to be the best interests of the child. "But it is inappropriate for a clinic to make greater social policy for a province," Ms. Cohen said.
Some patients said the policy is not a concern because they are so focused on making their parenthood dreams come true or because they already planned to pick someone of the same race to protect their own privacy.
One couple, who asked to remain anonymous because because not all of their friends know about their personal history, said they were told about the policy at the Regional Fertility Program when they went for treatment a couple years ago, but were not bothered.
"We didn't have a problem with it because we wanted to keep it pretty private and have kids that look as much like us as possible," one of the parents said. "We were kind of in our own little bubble.
"I can see why some people would be bothered by it."
With reports from Tu Thanh Ha in Toronto and Allan Maki in Calgary