Time to legislate on stem cells


The news of another breakthrough in Oregon in stem-cell technology – the cloning of embryos using human tissues and then the ability to harvest stem cells from them – opens up new possibilities in the personalisation of therapeutic cloning. But, closer to home, it serves to draw attention once again to the lacunae in Irish law that have left most of a field of fast-developing research and the whole area of assisted reproduction unregulated, Irish scientists unable to pursue cutting edge science, funding withheld, and potential patients vulnerable to unscrupulous scientists.

Ironically the breakthrough comes as our legislators battle with abortion legislation. Both issues, tied up as they are with thorny ethical issues around where life begins and when and how embryos acquire rights, are equally politically toxic. Both have also been the subject of urgent injunctions from the frustrated courts to politicians to fulfil their responsibility to legislate. Both, crucially, also require a willingness and courage on the part of politicians to move beyond absolutist moral positions to a new legislative ethics based on pluralist values and real social needs .

Having grasped one nettle, abortion legislation, is it too much to ask our politicians to do the same with bioethics – stem cell research and provision for assisted reproduction, specifically in-vitro fertilisation (IVF)? Two reports, from the Government- appointed Commission on Assisted Human Reproduction and from the Irish Council for Bioethics, the first going back to 2005, proposed practical, conservative, guidelines for legislation that respect most of the sensitivities around ethical concerns over the production of embryos for research purposes. Crucially, they would limit researchers to using embryos that are surplus to requirements in the IVF process and which would otherwise be discarded/destroyed.

In the interim the Supreme Court in Roche v Roche (2009) has facilitated such legislation by clarifying the point at which it views the foetus as acquiring constitutional protection – implantation in the womb. Any earlier and embryonic stem cell research, IVF, and contraceptives based on preventing implantation, including the day-after pill, would have been prohibited. Of course, the absence of a constitutional protection for the early embryo does not mean an easy consensus will be reached. As the abortion debate has shown, many are only too willing to challenge and flatly deny the court’s interpretations, but its thoughtful ruling in Roche can provide a coherent rationale for the emerging middle ground of legislators and for carefully limited legislative provision for stem cell research and assisted reproduction.

It understood that legislation is currently being drafted by the Department of Health. It is now long overdue.