The use of frozen sperm, eggs or embryos after a person's death by their partner will be permitted following a one-year grieving period under draft legislation, the Oireachtas health committee has heard.
The State's chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan briefed the committee on the process of drafting the forthcoming Assisted Human Reproduction (AHR) Bill on Wednesday.
The general scheme for the Bill prohibits commercial surrogacy and will require surrogacy agreements to be authorised in advance by an AHR regulatory authority.
Part of the scheme deals with posthumous assisted reproduction (PAR), which involves the use of frozen gametes or embryos from a deceased person to achieve a pregnancy.
“These provisions enable a surviving female partner to continue a parental project after the death of her partner, provided specific conditions are fulfilled,” Dr Holohan said.
“For example, the relevant parties have received counselling and given their informed consent and provided a one-year grieving period has elapsed since the partner’s death.”
The deceased person would be recognised as a parent of any child born following PAR provided that child is born within 36 months of the person’s death.
At the Oireachtas committee, Dr Holohan said the rate of AHR procedures conducted in Irish fertility clinics was increasing, rising from 7,589 treatment “cycles” in 2009 to almost 9,000 in 2016.
“The rate of infertility and sub-fertility is increasing due to a number of social and lifestyle factors, for example, due to delayed parenthood in order to pursue a career and ensure financial security as well as higher rates of obesity and sexually transmitted infections, which can impact on a person’s reproductive health and fertility,” he said.
“The ability to conceive a child naturally is a normal human expectation and a diagnosis of infertility can be a source of severe emotional and psychological distress, physical discomfort and financial hardship.”
However, the committee heard that while AHR treatment and medicine is developing rapidly, it brings with it ethical and legal questions.
Dr Holohan said the practice of a woman delivering a child for another person or couple could create potential risks of coercion and exploitation of financially vulnerable women. There is currently no specific law in the Republic in the area and services remain largely unregulated.
“Legislation is, therefore, required in order to assist people to have children safely, to clarify the legal position of children born from these practices, and to ensure research and new reproductive technologies are carried out within a prescribed ethical framework,” Dr Holohan said.
The Bill includes the prohibition of embryo creation for the specific purpose of research, as well as practices that may be associated with stem cell research such as reproductive cloning.
There will be age restrictions for donors as well as limitations on permitted storage durations.
The regulatory authority will create a list of genetic diseases for which pre-implantation diagnosis will be allowed.
Last October, Minister for Health Simon Harris said he would create supports to help subsidise the cost of in vitro fertilisation (IVF) treatment for families, another aspect of the draft law currently under preparation.
The Department of Health will be addressing the area throughout this year in conjunction with the Health Service Executive and it plans to establish a dedicated implementation committee. The department is also consulting with the office of the Attorney General.