Stem-cell research


MEMBERS OF University College Cork's governing body are to be commended for their stance on the ethically fraught issue of embryonic stem-cell research. Their difficult decision on Tuesday to allow the college's scientists to conduct research using stem cells derived from human embryos was passed by only a single vote. Divisions centred on the reality that such research is dependent on the destruction of human embryos from which these cells are harvested.

The governing body has rightly insisted on tight controls on the nature of any research undertaken. It has also only permitted the use of pre-existing stem cell lines, self-perpetuating cultured cells that originated from an initial embryo, and only lines imported from sources abroad. It has blocked the harvesting of stem cells directly from embryos created for the purpose or from surplus embryos arising as a result of in vitro fertilisation (IVF) treatments.

Those opposed to this technology will argue that the use of such cell lines remains morally offensive because their production can only arise from the destruction of human life, the embryo. Yet many embryos would be destroyed anyway as surplus to requirement in the IVF process, and such concerns must be weighed against the huge potential stem cell research holds for the development of powerful new treatments for currently intractable diseases.

Now other universities will also be left to consider whether they too should sanction such research in the face of such controversial ethical challenges. In truth, Cork should never have been left in a position to have to decide this for itself. It is a national issue that requires both public debate and a legislative response from government. Once again the research community has outpaced nervous parliamentarians on questions of broad ethical and moral concern.

There have already been two independent reports on the issue, one in 2005 from the Government-sponsored Commission on Assisted Human Reproduction, and earlier this year from the State-supported Irish Council on Bioethics. Both backed the limited and highly regulated use of cells derived from embryos. Yet successive governments have funked the issue, choosing to do nothing rather than face up to their responsibilities. This has left the research community in a moral vacuum, even when scientists themselves would favour transparent limits and controls. It is long past time for the Government to rectify the situation.