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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 19 Nov 2003

Vol. 174 No. 14

Stem Cell Research: Statements.

I welcome the opportunity to address the House on this matter. It is helpful to begin by placing the matter of embryonic stem cell research within the context of the overall EU framework programme for research and development. The Union organises the bulk of its research and development activity under the ambit of multi-annual framework programmes. The current programme, FP6, as the title suggests, is the sixth such programme and runs from 2003 to the end of 2006. The programme supports collaborative research involving industry, third level institutions and dedicated research organisations. Its fundamental aim is to enhance knowledge, understanding and innovation in Europe in order to raise living standards.

Over time, the framework programmes have expanded the scope of their activity. The initial focus was on information technology, whereas the current programme includes themes on genomics and biotechnology for health, information society technologies, nanotechnologies and nanosciences, food quality and safety and sustainable development.

The framework programmes are an important source of support for research and development in Ireland, supplementing our substantial national effort to become a knowledge and innovation driven society. Irish researchers secured €115 million in funding from the previous programme. To date, under FP6, which only commenced last January, we have secured in excess of €40 million. As the programme expands its scope of activities, it is inevitable that policy issues will emerge which require debate. The proposal to provide for embryonic stem cell research is one such issue.

The common position on the sixth framework programme was agreed at Council in December 2001 and formally adopted on 27 June 2002, following a co-decision procedure with the European Parliament. That decision established the overall funding for the programme at over €16 billion and the allocations for the specific themes within the programme. This included an allocation of €2.255 billion for the theme relating to life sciences, genomics and biotechnology for health. The latter includes stem cell research involving adult and embryonic cells.

Subsequently, the Council was required to formally adopt the specific programmes to allow the European Commission to activate the relevant calls for proposals in each area. This was achieved by Council decision on 30 September 2002. As part of that process, a number of member states, including Ireland, expressed concern at the lack of clear guidelines and safeguards to govern the conduct of the research work on embryonic stem cells.

As a result of this, the Council agreed to a Commission proposal to impose a moratorium until 31 December 2003 on the conduct of such research under the programme pending the development of detailed guidelines and safeguards. However, certain activities are explicitly excluded from the overall framework programme in their entirety. These are research activities aiming at human cloning for reproductive purposes, research activity intended to modify the genetic heritage of human beings and research activities intended to create human embryos solely for the purpose of research or for the purpose of stem cell procurement.

The research on embryonic stem cells is confined to those cells derived from embryos resulting from in vitro fertilisation treatment designed to induce pregnancy and no longer required for that purpose. On foot of the establishment of the moratorium, which expires at the end of this year, the Commission held an inter-institutional seminar to tease out the guidelines. It subsequently presented its proposal in on 9 July 2003. The proposal is for a Council decision to amend the research programme. It proposes to establish a detailed set of implementing provisions concerning any research activities involving human embryos and human embryonic stem cells.

Embryonic stem cell research is already provided for in the EU framework programme. Financial resources have been provided for it within the overall allocation for genomics and biotechnology for health since the decision of December 2001. What is missing are guidelines and safeguards and this is precisely and only what the Commission's proposal now provides.

The key elements and implications of the guidelines are that the proposals are based on the principle of ethical subsidiarity. In this context, this means that the European Union will not support or fund research in a member state where such research is not legal or deemed ethical. All proposals for research will be subject to ethical review both at local and EU level. The EU will only support research on supernumerary embryos derived from IVF and donated before 27 June 2002. The effect of this cut off date is that there must be no incentive to produce new embryos as a result of the programme. In addition, the creation of embryos specifically for research purposes is prohibited. This prohibition is in line with the Oviedo convention.

There is a requirement to demonstrate that the research cannot be done using adult stem cell lines. This is an important point which I would particularly bring to the attention of the House. First, it means there is no incentive to use embryonic cells rather than adult cells and it means researchers must thoroughly examine the potential of using adult cells, for which there is also funding available under the programme. No financial gain for donors is permitted. This is in line with related ethical considerations in the area, for example, of organ donations for transplantation purposes.

Researchers will be required to make stem cell lines derived available to other researchers. This requirement has the potential to reduce the number of embryos used to derive stem cell lines. It also puts the research firmly into the public domain. The European Commission is to fund a European registry of stem cell lines. This again underscores the putting of the research and the results deriving from it into the public domain. Finally, the Commission undertakes to produce a report in 2005 on the research and its outcomes. This report will underpin the formulation of future policy in this area. It will also provide valuable help in informing the debate about the relative potential of embryonic and adult stem cells.

I stress to the House that the essence of this proposal is to provide guidelines and safeguards on the conduct of embryonic stem cell research and is supported by the EU framework programme in those countries where the research is legal and ethical. Ireland does not consider it appropriate to oppose the Commission proposal as currently drafted on the basis that it does not allow for the EU funding of any research activity in Ireland which would not satisfy Irish ethical or legal requirements and in so far as other EU member states carrying out such research, Ireland would prefer that it be done under regulation, with proper safeguards in place rather than a free for all.

We want to ensure, and support the idea, that research in the area be conducted under the strictest of guidelines. In that context, I bring to the attention of the House the uncertain and unsatisfactory situation which will arise if the guidelines are not adopted. If the Council votes against the proposals, it is still open to the Commission to activate the research once the moratorium comes to an end. In other words, if the Council votes "No", there is a strong risk this research will go ahead anyway without any guidelines, or with more liberal guidelines, but certainly without guidelines we would be able to influence. There is a serious concern that a potentially unregulated scenario could open up if this were to happen. That is why we believe there is a clear and strong case for putting in place the stringent guidelines and safeguards which are at the core of the Commission's proposal.

It must be acknowledged that this is an ethically and scientifically complex area. In terms of the science, there is divided opinion on the relative merits of researching adult stem cells versus embryonic stem cells and on the potential of the two kinds of cells to yield therapies. I draw the attention of the House to a viewpoint expressed by the Catholic University of Louvain on the issue of stem cell research. I apologise for the length of the quotation.

The benefit of stem cells is considerable. Although preliminary and no doubt extensive research is still essential, the hope is that this research will lead to major advances in treatment in several fields of medicine, in particular in the treatment of various degenerative diseases.

This research raises ethical issues hitherto unseen. Some of the research will involve the use of stem cells from embryos: this raises the question of respect for the human embryo, which from the very beginning of its existence is more than just biological material. Given the suffering on the part of so many incurable people today, research is also an ethical duty.

The Catholic University of Louvain therefore recognises that it has a two-fold duty to take the initiative, but also to exercise precaution. We wish to place the ethical issues ahead of economic and scientific considerations, which themselves only have any meaning if human dignity is preserved.

We would also point out that any use of the human embryo must be accompanied by binding ethical and scientific guidelines: firstly, there must be a democratic debate involving the whole of society, and then transparent inspection and decision-making mechanisms must be defined.

It is clear that all those involved in the research are enthusiastic about its potential. The point of debate in the scientific community is about how that potential can be realised. The ethical and legal issues involved relate not just to stem cell research, but to the entire area of assisted human reproduction.

IVF treatment is practised in Ireland, as it is in many countries. As my colleague, the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Martin, remarked:

Major advances have taken place in recent years in the capacity of medical science to intervene in the process of human reproduction. Techniques such as in-vitro fertilisation, the freezing and storage of sperm and artificial insemination by donor are available in Ireland and have enabled many couples to conceive children despite impaired fertility.

As a result of current medical practice in this area, surplus embryos arise. In Ireland these embryos can be frozen, where after a period of some three to five years they will cease to be viable. Alternatively, they may be reinserted in the donor to be subsequently excreted. In certain other countries, the legal and ethical regime allows for the donation of such embryos for research. This approach was described, in the paper already referred to, by the Catholic University of Louvain in the following terms:

When the parents have fulfilled their plan, rather than authorising the simple destruction of their embryos the parents could, in a spirit of ethical solidarity, donate their embryos for the removal of stem cells to be used in research or to care for other individuals.

It has become clear over the past number of years that this is a complex, legal and ethical issue. It is precisely for this reason that the expert Commission on Assisted Human Reproduction, chaired by Professor Dervilla Donnelly, has been established. She recently outlined the role and work of the commission to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Enterprise and Small Business during its scrutiny of this matter. The terms of reference of the commission are to prepare a report on the possible approaches to the regulation of all aspects of assisted human reproduction and the social, ethical and legal factors to be taken into account in determining public policy in this area. The commission is due to report in the near future and I am sure that its findings will play a valuable role in informing the development of our national policy in this area.

In the latter regard, it is important to draw the distinction between national and European policy. There has been a tendency in some quarters to address the European Commission proposal as if it were legislating for embryonic stem cell research in Ireland when it is, transparently, doing precisely the opposite. It is, as I have stressed, providing for stringent guidelines and safeguards to underpin concerted European research only in those member states where it is ethical and deemed legal, and then only when the researchers in question have explored all possible alternatives to their planned approach to the research.

I ask the House to recall that what is involved here is the establishment of clear guidelines and safeguards to govern research at European level in member states where it is legal and deemed ethical. It explicitly respects the positions of those member states, like Ireland, whose legal and ethical regime forbids such research.

I welcome the Tánaiste to the House and thank her for outlining her views. While I do not necessarily share them, I thank her for expressing them. I am glad that she seems interested in a full democratic debate because indications so far have been otherwise and I hope ethical considerations will take precedence over monetary or economic ones.

There are important ethical, constitutional, legal and moral issues involved in this matter. We should have much more information and consideration before proceeding further. Will the Tánaiste inform us when we will have the report of the Commission on Assisted Human Reproduction or did she say we can expect to have it shortly? Will she inform us whether the Government is considering the publication of a Green Paper on this important issue, which would take account of the views of the bioethics committee and others? Surely the Government would not enter into any international commitments in this area without consulting Dáil Éireann and the Seanad in advance.

As the House is aware, three joint committees have already had some discussion on the subject, in particular the Joint Committee on Enterprise and Small Business which considered the matter at its meeting on 5 November, as a result of a referral for scrutiny. The committee heard representatives of the Department and the Commission on Assisted Human Reproduction to assist it in its consideration of the proposal. The committee on bioethics informed the joint committee that it did not consider that it could be of assistance to it on that particular occasion. Representatives of the Department made oral presentations and the committee members raised a number of issues with them. Following further deliberation, the joint committee agreed that the proposal should be opposed with a view to it being rejected at Council.

The Sub-committee on European Scrutiny has drawn the attention of both Houses to a number of matters as a result of its examination of the proposal. It makes the point that the sub-committee received no advance notice of the proposal and noted that it had not been scrutinised by the Oireachtas. It understands that a number of member states raised concerns at the Council meeting in Brussels on 29 September and that if they were to vote against the proposed measures on 27 November, their votes would constitute a blocking minority. Perhaps the Tánaiste might like to comment on that aspect. I understand that Austria, Germany, Italy and Portugal are opposed to the proposal.

The sub-committee noted all of the implications and strongly believed that they should receive appropriate consideration by both Houses before any decision is made by the Council of Ministers. The sub-committee also recommended that this measure, which will allow for the establishment of implementing provisions, including a code of conduct for research activities involving human embryos and human embryonic stem cells, should be opposed by Ireland at the Council of Ministers until the Oireachtas has completed the scrutiny process and dealt with all relevant concerns.

The sub-committee points out that the usual procedure for legislative measures under Pillar 1 is by regulation or directive. The procedure being used here is a proposal for a decision under Article 166 of the treaty. Draft regulations and draft directives must come to the sub-committee for scrutiny within four weeks of being received from the EU Commission. As this is not a draft regulation or draft directive it was not submitted. This runs counter to the spirit of the EU Scrutiny Act 2002. I am sure many Members share my concern that this important issue deserves much more consideration.

The Constitution lays down that human dignity is inviolable. It must be respected and protected. As Eamonn O'Dwyer, Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, wrote in The Irish Times a few days ago: “If human dignity is inviolable, as the Constitution states it is, then surely the human embryo is entitled to respect and protection.” He wrote that there are two compelling arguments against the use of human embryonic stem cells for therapeutic purposes. First, he said that obtaining such cells necessarily involves the death of the embryo. Can this be morally right? The answer has to be an emphatic “No”.

He also said the Constitution guarantees in its laws to defend and vindicate unborn human life, without specifying where that human life originated. If this is so, is there not a constitutional constraint on our Government in providing funding for embryonic human stem cell research, wherever such research may be conducted?

Second, he pointed out that there is increasing scientific evidence that adult stem cells may be as effective as embryonic stem cells, without having the same ethical implications. Apparently, it is a fact that the extreme versatility of embryonic stem cells makes them unpredictable and they cannot be relied on to develop as intended. Adult stem cells, on the other hand, which are further along the developmental chain, are believed to reduce that risk. Again, in The Irish Times a few days ago, Fr. Kevin Doran wrote:

Adult stem cells can be harvested without causing harm or loss of life. Provided proper consent is obtained and the stem cells are used for the purpose of developing treatments there is no ethical problem about the use of adult stem cells and funding should be directed to this area of research. The harvesting of stem cells from embryos always results in the destruction of the embryo. If it were only a haphazard cluster of cells, there would be no problem, but an embryo, although it is small and cannot smile yet, is a distinct individual human being in the process of rapid organised development.

The deliberate destruction of innocent human life is fundamentally wrong and even the prospect of wonderful new cures does nothing to change that fact. In the same article, Fr. Doran pointed out that researchers argue it is acceptable to destroy embryos as long as it is done in a good cause and that they might as well "give some meaning" to their lives. However, as he pointed out, "to be used as raw material for the pharmaceutical industry is not what gives meaning to the existence of the human embryo". We know that all humans die and embryos are no different and, again, as Fr. Doran pointed out, "the moral evil is associated not with the fact that embryos die, but with the fact that somebody decides to kill them".

There is huge concern among the churches, as I am sure the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment is aware, although I was not aware of the position of the centre at Louvain which she quoted. Scientists are also hugely concerned about this issue. Some of them take one view, but most of them appear to be opposed to this development. There has not been any vote in the Oireachtas, particularly in the Dáil, and this matter should not be rushed.

An EU legislative scrutiny Act was passed last year by both Houses to reinforce the powers of the Houses to ensure legislation coming before the Council of Ministers is scrutinised. Such scrutiny has led to the rejection of this proposal, but, as we all know, even that scrutiny came about by accident. It is wrong to proceed with this decision at the Council of Ministers. As I said, this area is a minefield which needs to be negotiated with great care. We should be extremely careful about committing Ireland's resources in such a precarious manner.

How does the Tánaiste and the Government see a vote in favour of the funding of this research as not totally at odds with the spirit of our Constitution, which specifically recognises the right to life of the unborn? Surely now is the time for the Government to take a principled stand on this issue and give moral leadership. What about the principle of collective Cabinet decision making? Will the Tánaiste's vote on behalf of Ireland at the Council of Ministers on 27 November be her own or, as would be considered more correct, will it be subject to the approval of the Cabinet? Nothing should be done which would impair our constitutional position. I again call for a Green Paper on the issue and a full debate in both Houses of the Oireachtas.

I welcome the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment to the House to explain this very complex area which is causing great debate and concern among many people. The Tánaiste has kindly agreed to respond to some of the questions that will be put by Members at the end of the debate at the request of the Leader of the House and I thank her. It is rather unusual for a Minister in her position, who is not in the health dimension, to be in this position on this issue. It appears to be an issue that should be dealt with by the Department of Health and Children and not the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment. However, I am a former Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and I dealt with many issues under the Single European Act. I appreciated that many items came to the Department at certain times and decisions on them had to be made very quickly.

Discussions took place at the Committee on Enterprise and Small Business, of which I am a member, but I was not able to attend on the day. The Tánaiste must be concerned with the recommendations of that committee, but she is not tied by a recommendation of that committee on this issue. I welcome the Tánaiste's very detailed assessment and I do not intend to go into all the details of this matter as serious ethical issues have been raised. The Tánaiste will, I presume, represent the views of the Cabinet and the decision reached on 27 November will be one agreed by the Government. The Tánaiste, as the deputy leader of the Government, will be aware of the views of the Cabinet on this particular issue. She is also aware that there was a discussion in the European Parliament and I understand the Fianna Fáil group voted against funding this research. I am subject to clarification on this as the vote took place very recently. I am not sure of the detail, but my colleagues might be.

We are in a particular difficulty as far as supporting the research in Europe is concerned. It would not take place here because it is unconstitutional to carry out such research. Would it require a referendum for the Government to agree to fund this research abroad if Irish taxpayers' money was being used to fund embryo and cellular research in any part of Europe? Our Constitution clearly states that the State is opposed to abortion in all its forms and any support for any form of research on the embryo could be seen as being in conflict with the Constitution. Has the Attorney General given the Tánaiste a guideline on this or a clear, legal interpretation of the Constitution? Irrespective of the possible benefits of embryonic stem cell research, the question of the right to life of the unborn is very important.

Statements have been made very actively by one MEP, Dana Rosemary Scallon, on this issue. She has very strong views, but her intervention in the last pro-life referendum was unhelpful and contributed to its eventual defeat. The Government supported it and went to a great deal of effort to bring that referendum to the people. It was very fair and was supported by all the churches, but, irrespective of her involvement in the stem cell research debate, her intervention in that regard was very unhelpful. I am not stating that she single-handedly defeated the referendum, but her intervention confused the electorate.

I read the details on cloning and stem cell research which were submitted to the House of Lords Select Committee on Stem Cell Research. I am sure members of the Government and the Tánaiste have also read this material. I also read a detailed document from the European Commission entitled Stem Cells: Therapies for the Future. I am, therefore, aware that the various issues of concern to the Irish people and to Members are being carefully considered.

I have tremendous confidence in the Tánaiste. I know she is concerned about this issue and is taking note of the views being expressed by Members of the House. I presume she will also have the opportunity to speak on the matter in the Lower House. She would be in a stronger position, from her point of view and that of the Government, if a vote was taken in the Lower House on this issue because it would allow her to proceed in respect of the decision that must be made. It is easy to vote "No" and, in the circumstances, I would be inclined to do so.

On 29 October 2003, representatives of the Irish Bishops' Conference met the Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern, to discuss several issues including EU proposals to fund embryonic stem cell research. The bishops representing the conference at the meeting were Cardinal Desmond Connell, Archbishop of Dublin, Dr. Joseph Duffy, Bishop of Clogher, and Dr. Patrick Walsh, Bishop of Down and Connor. On 6 November, Bishop Joseph Duffy wrote to the Taoiseach on behalf of the Irish Bishops' Conference delegation and stated:

As we pointed out during our meeting with you, research into adult stem cells is ethically acceptable and legal in all member states of the EU, and has made most promising progress in recent years. Indeed adult stem cells have been used for many years in connection with bone marrow transplants. We asked the Government to take a lead in advocating that the EU should give significant research funding to adult stem-cell research.

The conference has, therefore, given a green light to adult stem cell research. I am not sure whether the latter can be separated from embryonic stem cell research, but they are two completely different areas.

The Government must bear in mind the views of the bishops in respect of this matter. The letter to which I refer also states: "We welcome the desire which you expressed to prevent research on human embryos and embryonic stem cells here in Ireland, where it would be illegal as well as unethical." That is a clear and definite statement that such research should, under no circumstances, be carried out in this jurisdiction. The letter further states:

We also note your stated desire to safeguard the protection of human embryos at European level. As of now, however, the public impression is that the Irish Government is neutral on this matter, and the Irish delegation is understood to have made it clear on several occasions that it would not oppose the Commission proposal allowing for EU funding of destructive embryo research.

It is at this point that emotive language enters the debate because what we are talking about is the destruction of an embryo. Whether such an embryo is viable is a serious ethical question, as is that relating to whether it would be destroyed or become obsolete during research. Where then should the intervention be made? In my opinion, the direct intervention in stem cell research in respect of a viable embryo runs contrary to the spirit of the Constitution, which is pro-life. The cells in question have the right to develop and grow into a human being.

One can refer to the benefits of research of this nature in terms of the serious complaints by which many people are affected. Such views were put forward recently on "The Marian Finucane Show" to which the Tánaiste was a contributor. Some emotive telephone calls were received during which people referred to individuals with particular diseases who allegedly would be helped by the outcome of detailed stem cell research on embryos. Irrespective of this, however, we must bear in mind the rights of the unborn.

Where do we go from here? If we give Europe the green light to proceed with embryonic stem cell research, what will be the next step? What will be the position vis-à-vis cloning, which would be the ultimate development of stem cell research? Research into cloning is being carried out in various parts of the world, whether under government approval or otherwise. Cloning has already taken place in respect of animals and some people believe that research into human cloning is ongoing at present. The latter would have extremely serious repercussions.

If the Tánaiste could have the vote on this matter deferred, it would give people an opportunity to study the issues involved and allow a comprehensive debate on them to take place throughout the country. A referendum on this matter could be divisive. If the Government was to put forward a referendum, it would have to allow people to decide on the issues rather than giving a directive in respect of them. I would not campaign in favour of approving embryonic stem cell research in Europe in such a referendum.

The Tánaiste has a broader remit and is obliged to consider the overall picture in respect of research in Ireland and the benefits of research in Europe to Irish industry, etc. I respect her views and I will also respect whatever decision she will make following careful consideration of this matter, on which she is receiving extremely good advice from top officials.

The key issue is that, unfortunately, many lives have been lost as a result of abortion. The Americans have taken some action in terms of rowing back on abortion. Ireland is one of the few countries to state, on many occasions, that it will not permit abortions to be carried out in its jurisdiction. In that context, I would feel more comfortable if the Tánaiste would consider not supporting the proposal at European Union level. This would give us an opportunity to engage in further debate. If she makes a decision now, it will tie the hands of Members. As the Tánaiste stated, research in this area will proceed, irrespective of the decision made by the Government. In my view we would be showing consistency on behalf of the Irish people if we were to vote against this proposal when it arises at the Council of Ministers. If the Tánaiste votes against it, she will have our support and respect. She has strong ethical views which I respect.

I hope we will have an opportunity to debate this matter in more detail during the coming year, particularly if the Tánaiste can have the decision deferred. The making of such a decision is premature because the Irish people have not had an opportunity to discuss the ethical issues involved. The Constitution is particularly firm in respect of research in this area. Regardless of the benefits that could accrue, embryonic stem cell research on viable embryos is unethical. In the circumstances, on moral and ethical grounds, I request the Tánaiste to vote "No" when the proposal comes before the Council of Ministers at the end of the month.

Having sought a debate on this important topic, I thank the Leader for organising it. I also thank the Tánaiste for coming to the House to discuss this matter and for the clarity of her contribution.

I wish to begin with a question, which no other Member may pose. The aim of the directive is to introduce guidelines and restrictions on embryonic stem cell research. A moratorium has been put on such research in Europe until the end of the year. If the directive is not passed, can research take place in Europe, as in America, without restrictions? It is extremely important that this question should be addressed. Senator Leyden referred to cloning. A Council of Europe directive, known as the Oviedo convention, has been in place for two years but Ireland has not signed it. Why not?

Difficult considerations must be taken into account in all areas of medical research and treatment and this is particularly so in the area of stem cell research and treatment, given that the European directive on funding for science is under consideration. There is little controversy regarding the use of adult stem cells, which are harvested from the adult who will be treated with them or another person, or the use of umbilical cord blood. However, for various reasons, a number of religions do not believe blood transfusions should be taken or given and they object to the use of stem cells from bone marrow or cord blood. Their ethical views must also be taken into account.

The primary ethical problem relates to the use of embryonic stem cells. Under the directive, these are cells created prior to 1 June 2002 only for infertility purposes, which are described as supernumerary embryos. These embryos have not been created specifically for research. The Oviedo convention condemns this but Ireland has not signed it. This is difficult to follow. It has long been agreed it is unethical to produce embryos for research but, when a couple decides to undergo treatment for infertility, it may be necessary for medical reasons to fertilise the woman's egg with the man's sperm outside the man in a little glass dish. This is known as in vitro fertilisation. Each fertilised egg develops into a ball of cells called a blastocyst. Approximately three were placed in the woman's womb in the past, as this was considered to be the best way to produce one or two children. However, advances in technology mean that only one or two blastocysts must be inserted. The remaining fertilised eggs are frozen in many countries to avoid the hazards of multiple children which may develop for both the mother and children.

Since retrieving eggs from the mother is a complex process and not without dangers, the fertilised eggs which are not inserted in the womb are kept in case the initial implantation fails and the couple decides to try for a child again or if they decide to have more children following a successful implantation. The eggs which are frozen and may not be used for implantation are at the centre of the debate. They comprise a specific group, as they were created for medical reasons before June 2002.

If couples decide not to have more children, the blastocysts can be used as supernumerary embryos provided they give their consent, no money changes hands and, above all, the research is considered ethically suitable. This is unconstitutional in Ireland and it contravenes Medical Council guidelines. There is no legislation in this area, although I tried to introduce a Private Members' Bill on this issue more than four years ago because regulation is important.

We have an ethical responsibility for embryonic fertilised eggs and we also have a similar responsibility for people who have a serious illness and who may be helped or cured through the use of embryonic stem cells. The European Organisation for Rare Diseases has made us well aware of the concerns we should have for people such as their members, young and old, who develop degenerative conditions, some with a genetic basis.

On behalf of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children, I attended a meeting on stem cell research on 15 and 16 September 2003, which was organised by the UK Medical Research Council, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and the Department of Trade and Industry. I was amazed at the progress that had been made in a few years in the use of adult, foetal and embryonic stem cells in the treatment of many conditions, a number of which are serious. Since that meeting, I have read as much as possible on the subject.

The advances made in the use of adult stem cells could not have been projected five years ago but the difficulties in using them should not be minimised and progress in the field may have to match similar progress in embryonic stem cell research. For example, adult stem cells do not exist together similar to embryonic cells. They are scattered all over an organ and they can be difficult to collect for use in a practical manner. Stem cells are in good supply, for example, in the brain but they are difficult to collect because the best ones are to be found in a part of the brain known as the substansia nigra. This is located deep in the brain and I am at a loss as to how they can be taken from a living adult. They can be harvested from the brains of the recently deceased but these cells die rapidly due to a lack of oxygen. While they are useful when harvested from the living brain, there are difficulties when they are harvested from the recently deceased in a similar manner to the harvesting of vital organs that give hope to transplant patients. This issue must be addressed.

Adult stem cells are more flexible than was believed but they are still multipotent. In other words, they try to go down the stream that one wishes them to go down. If they are myoblasts in the heart, they want to become heart cells. Similarly, if they are hepatocytes in the liver, they want to become liver cells. I witnessed terrific work where such cells could be transmitted down the portal vein into the pancreas of a diabetes patient and they began to produce insulin. This could not have happened five years ago but progress in ongoing in this field. It is important that it should not be looked on as too simple because it is not. More progress will be reported in ten years.

I have also read documents such as COM 2003/390, which is the final proposal for a Council decision on embryo research, dated 16 October 2003, and the report of the committee on culture, science and education of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly, dated 11 September 2003. Considering that progress in adult and embryonic stem cell research varies from week to week, I support the position paper put forward by the Government to the Council research group on 8 September 2003. It states:

Ireland is not opposing the Commission proposal to amend the Specific Programme to provide new guidelines to apply specifically to Community funding of research activities involving the procurement of stem cells from human embryos on the basis that the proposal does not allow for the funding of any research activity in Ireland which would not satisfy Irish ethical or legal requirements; Framework Programme activity will be strictly limited to research on embryos produced by medically-assisted in vitro fertilisation in order to induce pregnancy and that will not be used anymore for such purpose (supernumerary embryos); clear and comprehensive guidelines and conditions governing research on human embryos and human embryonic stem cells are being established; a scientific evaluation and ethical review will be required before any proposal for research activity under FP6 in this area is permitted.

That is very important. We should be represented on that committee which is to decide what will be allowed at European level in terms of research. The paper concludes: "In view of the foregoing, Ireland does not consider it appropriate to object to such research activity being carried out in member states where it is both legal and ethical". I was very pleased to see that, not only would countries have to look at their own ethical guidelines with regard to the use of these cells, but there would also be a central authority in Europe on which, as I said, we should be represented. In that way, we could review the criteria, which must be strictly and carefully controlled, even after review in the countries where this type of research is legal and ethical. I believe our views are well worthwhile.

We need to take public control of everything to do with stem cell research, more especially in the case of embryonic stem cells. I regard the situation in America with horror. There are bio-banks with cell lines which are sold commercially, which is utterly deplorable. As I have stated previously, I do not believe we should support within Europe the privatisation of the patenting of the human genome. We should take control of these issues, which should be public issues and not privately supported. I am concerned that if we do not support this directive – I look forward to the Tánaiste's reply to this debate – we may have an unrestricted situation, as is in America and which I find absolutely deplorable.

The principle of proportionality applies, of course, to the use of this research. The methods must be reasonable and acceptable and there must not be a more acceptable alternative. We may find that progress on adult stem cells will result in a future situation where we will not need to use embryonic stem cells. However, at the moment, we need them because they are truly potent and we have an ethical duty to people with degenerative diseases such as Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis and the neuro-muscular diseases of children. I was interested to note a statement by the secretary of the Irish Bishops' commission on bio-ethics, Fr. Kevin Doran, who has been quoted already. Addressing the issue of pharmaceutical companies in this country, he said: "How do we feel about the development of treatments based on embryonic stem cell research in other countries, which treatments will be produced here?" We have placed a great deal of emphasis on the fact that we are promoting biotechnology in Ireland. I ask Senators to address that also.

We must also address the issue as to whether we would consider it unethical to allow treatments, using embryonic stem cells, which were found to be useful in other countries to be used on patients in this country. Will we say also that we find that deplorable and that such treatments cannot be used here? It is important that we take account of those most serious considerations. It is fine to ban things which are not of very practical use at present, but there are issues to be considered further down the line.

In the Seanad Chamber, all of us respect each other's opinions and we speak in good faith. While we may have different views, all of us have respect for human life. Whereas I would not consider the human blastocyte, at this stage, to be a human being, it has the potential to be a human being and, therefore, has to be given the greatest respect and dignity. We should also remember that we are not the only people in Europe who have ethical concerns in this regard. This issue is being addressed with great consideration throughout the European Union. I do not envy the Tánaiste in the decisions she has to make in this area. My concern is that we may arrive at a situation which is totally deregulated, as in the United States of America.

I welcome the Tánaiste to the House and commend her on the clarity and content of her address. In debates of this nature in the House over several years, to my recollection, we have always been careful to conduct them in a dispassionate and compassionate way. We are very fortunate in having the benefit of the advice of colleagues such as Senator Henry, who has the necessary technical competence and scientific knowledge to guide the debate.

In the wider context, I welcome the EU Sixth Framework Programme on research and acknowledge its value. From an Irish perspective, it is most important that adequate research be undertaken in all areas, in terms of our competitiveness in an international market. I am conscious of the fact that what we are now considering is just a very tiny fraction of the number of scientific research projects submitted for consideration under this programme. That is not to diminish in any way the critical importance of that very small number of projects and the attendant technical, legal and ethical questions which surround them. Those are huge questions and I would not wish to underestimate their significance or sensitivity.

Having been a member of the All-Party Committee on the Constitution, which considered the abortion issue, I believe it was to the credit of Members of both Houses that those hugely difficult issues were dealt with in such a dispassionate and compassionate way. I particularly applaud the work of Deputy Brian Lenihan as chairman of that committee, which guides my views on this particular issue. It would be most unfortunate that these issues should be politicised. They have to be dealt with on an ethical, legal and technical basis and they involve very difficult questions. It would be quite outrageous to politicise an issue of this nature for purely naked political reasons. I hope that will not occur and, on the basis of my past experience, I am confident it will not.

We need to focus on what we are actually being asked to do. The matter which will go before the Competitiveness Council on 27 November is quite narrow. It involves voting on guidelines – not the funding – which will regulate the way in which EU-funded research will be conducted in the other member states. I endorse very strongly Senator Henry's comments with regard to the need for regulation. We have sufficient experience from the overall scientific area, quite apart from these difficult issues, to know that if science is not regulated, the genie can get out of the bottle. There are totally unscrupulous and unethical people in science, as elsewhere, and unless there are rules and regulations to govern them, we are liable to go down a very slippery slope.

Another confusion which seems to apply to this issue is that, somehow, we are being asked to conduct stem cell research in this country. That is not the case. We are being asked to consider whether other countries which have the necessary legal and ethical framework should be allowed to do this. That is a separate issue.

The European Union has been careful over its history to keep out of our ethical dilemmas. In other words, we regulate for ourselves how these critical, ethical issues should be dealt with. In this instance, the Medical Council would deal with this matter. However, we want to turn that on its head and instruct the European Union as to how it should universally apply a proposal to all the member states but we would say, with equal or even more force, that this proposal should not apply to Ireland. This is a two way street, and we cannot have it both ways. It is an important matter.

It must be emphasised that we are dealing with a very narrow area of activity. People have been almost suggesting that embryos at will are going to be used for this purpose. As Senator Henry and the Minister explained, it is much narrower than that. This is to do with the embryos that are left over from in vitro fertilisation that were created before a particular date and only those are under consideration. There seems to be a suggestion that this matter may wind up as a referendum issue. I cannot see how that could possibly be the case. It might wind up being a referendum issue if we decided to introduce stem cell research. That might be the case but even that is tenuous. How can the matter be a referendum issue if what we are talking about is an activity in other countries and not one here? I do not understand the logic of that argument. I do not believe the Commission has ever forced on member states proposals they would find unacceptable ethically or culturally. That is not what the European Union is about. If such research ever takes place here, it will be entirely of our volition. This country will decide that and the Medical Council would probably regulate it.

Senator Henry raised an important issue regarding the activities of the pharmaceutical companies. It seems to be the case that provided this research happens somewhere else, we are happy with it. It was almost the same in the case of the abortion debate in that provided we exported the problem, it was one about which we did not have to worry. Senator Henry raised an important matter, that if stem cell research results in drugs being manufactured or sold here by the pharmaceutical companies, that presents an ethical question. That will have to be examined at some stage.

The Commission proposal deals with a precise research topic, the derivation of stem cells from supernumerary embryos with no parental project. They are frozen as a result of in vitro fertilisation treatment and donated by the parents for research. It is critical to point out that nobody can benefit financially from such activity. The proposal does not aim to create human embryos for the purpose of stem cell procurement including the means of somatic cell nuclear transfer, commonly referred to therapeutic cloning. The creation of human embryos for research is explicitly excluded from the scope of the framework programme funding. The EU will not fund human embryonic research, stem cell research, where it is forbidden by a member state. That applies to us. Human embryonic stem cells can only be derived from supernumerary embryos that are donated for research by parents and that were created, as Senator Henry said, before 27 June 2002, the date of the adoption of the framework programme. These embryos are destined to be destroyed at some point in time.

Potential research project partners applying for EU funding must seek ethical advice at national or local level in member states where the research will take place, even in countries where obtaining such ethical advice is not mandatory. Research will be funded only when it is demonstrated that it meets particularly important research objectives. Research will be EU funded only where there is no adequate alternative available. In particular, it must be demonstrated that one cannot use existing embryonic or adult stem cell lines. Supernumerary embryos will be used only if informed consent has been given by the donor. Embryo donors will not be permitted to make a financial gain. Data and privacy protection of donors must be guaranteed. Traceability of stem cells will be required and research consortia will be required to engage in making available new human embryonic stem cells to other researchers.

The nub of the matter is that it is infinitely preferable that this matter be governed by guidelines, that they would be properly drawn up and properly applied. I support the Minister's statement that Ireland does not think it appropriate to oppose the Commission proposal, as currently drafted. She gave the basis for doing that and I support that point of view.

I look forward to the findings of the Commission on Assisted Human Reproduction, chaired by Professor Donnelly, which will assist this debate. The most germane and critical point was the final one made by the Minister. She asked the House to recall that what is involved here is the establishment of clear guidelines on safeguards to govern research at European level and in member states where it is legal and deemed ethical. What is proposed explicitly respects the positions of those member states whose legal and ethical regime forbids such research, a category into which we fall.

I welcome the Minister to the House and I thank the Leader for organising this debate which we have frequently sought in recent times. I welcome that we can finally debate this issue in advance of a vote that will be taken in Brussels at the end of this month. I also thank the Minister for giving us so much of her time this afternoon and in recent times.

The rapid advance of biochemistry in recent years has opened up previously unimaginable opportunities for medicine. These opportunities present real opportunities for research and may possibly yield particular results. However, such advances in biochemistry also present society with a major dilemma. It boils down to one huge ethical question, namely whether this is right or wrong. That question can only be answered by ourselves. When people research this matter, it is one on which they will have to decide for themselves. This debate and scientific advances forces us to redefine and re-explore the limits of proper scientific research. That is not something I say lightly. There are many diverse views on this area, but the issue boils down to what one is happy with when one asks oneself the ethical question or whether such research it is right or wrong, although it is not easy to weigh up the pros and cons of such a complex, diverse topic as embryonic stem cell research.

Stem cells have the ability to develop into virtually any cell in the body and may have the potential to treat medical conditions such as diabetes and degenerative diseases, such as Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis and motor neurone disease. This type of research offers people who suffer from these illnesses real hope that it may assist them at some stage in dealing with the effects of such degenerative diseases. In the case of a person who has damaged his or her spinal cord, such research may help him or her to become fully functional again one day. Irrespective of on what side of the argument one stands, such an opportunity cannot be denied to such people. One must consider the merits of giving a person real hope to make a recovery from an illness as devastating as those I mentioned.

The stem cells retain the ability to become many or all of the different cell types in the body and they play a critical role in repairing organs and body tissues throughout life. When we sought this debate I knew very little about the subject but I researched and debated it over the weekend and read many good articles setting out the views for an against it. I recently read about Christopher Reeve, the Hollywood actor, who suffered a nasty fall eight years ago. He has set up a wonderful foundation that supports research in paraplegia and for those who suffer from severed, broken or damaged spinal tissue. He has made remarkable improvements in his condition and has committed himself to walk again before a certain age. It is remarkable when one reads how determined and hopeful he is. The established research foundation is worth millions of dollars per annum. There are a number of leading scientists involved who pool financially from this resource and conduct research for people like Christopher Reeve. However, it brings us back to the ethical question.

The technicalities of the Minister's trip to Brussels at the end of November are simple. The EU announced its research budget of approximately €16 billion. There was huge controversy when it was discovered under one section of the fund that money would be allocated for embryonic stem cell research. Consequently, a moratorium was put in place. I understand at the Brussels meeting there will be expressions of opinion but no vote on the issue. Ultimately, the decision will be taken by the Council of Ministers. This may lead to more liberal actions with the budget, with less regulations and fewer guidelines as opposed to what may happen when the initial vote is taken.

This issue is not about the creation or handling of human embryos. As Senator Henry stated, it is already done through IVF. I concur with Senator Dardis that it is very interesting to hear the views of a professional who is involved in this area, such as Senator Henry. She touched on many topics in great detail. However, I will only gloss over them, as I do not claim to be an expert in this field.

It is normal to produce supernumerary embryos for IVF treatment to ensure they can be used if something goes wrong in the treatment. It must be remembered that the embryo research the EU wants to fund is using EU taxpayers' money. The research also intends to use the supernumerary embryos.

There are many facets to this debate, including the question as to when life begins. It can be either at the moment of conception or sometime later. The traditional Catholic Church viewpoint is that it begins at the moment of conception. If that is one's stand, then one must contend that an embryo represents human life and merits protection. People in favour of stem cell research will argue that life does not begin until some time later and this, therefore, allows the contention that research is good and should go ahead. Some people who seek to block this research argue that it destroys life. These statements on this complex and detailed issue are too short and simplistic. It is also too simplistic to arrive at a simple conclusion based on a small number of words.

Embryonic stem cell research is illegal in many EU member states. Senator Hanafin successfully proposed a motion at the Joint Committee on Enterprise and Small Business that prevented a consensus emerging that would allow funding for this research to go ahead. I am convinced it is an ethical question we must all ask and answer. I come down on the side of those who oppose this research for ethical considerations. However, when one discovers that through this research real hope is offered to someone who is suffering, it brings home an ethical conundrum and brings the moral dilemma back to oneself. No matter what point of view somebody has, not just in this House but in every other national parliament in the EU, – the debate needs to be sensitive, balanced and rational. No matter what the case, we must respect each other's viewpoints. I thank the Minister for addressing the House and I wish her well in Brussels.

I welcome the Minister to the House. This is not a debate on the benefits of stem cell research or how we should proceed with it, rather it is concerned with whether we should proceed with funding embryonic stem cell research. The proposal on embryonic stem cell research, COM 2003/390, recently came before the Joint Committee on Enterprise and Small Business. It was rejected by Members from both Houses, who represent the two largest political parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. I believe that a large number of the Independent Members also support us.

There are those of us who accept that the human embryo is the start of life and the smallest member of the human family. Everything that is done thereafter is predicated by that. Questions were raised during this debate as to how we regulate this area. However, if one believes, as I do, that the human embryo is the smallest member of the human family, one cannot agree to research in this area, whether it is regulated or not. Both are unacceptable.

The Minister referred to the Catholic University of Louvain. However, it does not express the viewpoint of the Roman Catholic Church. The only reason it is called the "Catholic University" is because in the 15th century that was how universities were named. The Irish Roman Catholic bishops reflected the views of the Pope in stating that embryonic stem cell research is unacceptable.

There is a democratic deficit in the European Union. During the Nice Treaty referendum we were clear in our demand for a more accountable and democratic EU. At the time, the Minister said:

. most fundamentally the European Union can only work with the basic political will of each member state, its Government and its people. I and my party believe that the best way to ensure that the Union remains fully democratic and is perceived to be so by the Irish people is to debate honestly and openly the European level policies that affect us in Ireland.

The Constitution will not be found to be in favour of the funding proposal. Neither is the Irish Medical Council or the Oireachtas joint committee. The majority of Members in this House are also not in favour. We live in a representative democracy. Clearly, the will of the people is not to support funding anywhere for embryonic stem cell research. I ask the Minister to take this on board and to remember her own words on the need for more democracy and accountability from the EU. We must reflect the viewpoints of the Irish people on this matter.

At what stage did the Government make a decision? Did this come before Cabinet for it to make a decision? The Fianna Fáil parliamentary party has expressed its views clearly both here and in Europe.

When we talk about stem cell research, we must bear in mind that there are two classes of human stem cells: adult stem cells and embryonic stem cells. Though research on each has the same end in view, the ethical evaluation of each is radically different.

There is nothing controversial about adult stem cell research. Stem cells, with the potential to repair vital organs, exist in bone marrow, body fat and umbilical cord blood. They also exist in chimera and mosaicism, which exist in many individuals, but this is a new area that is being researched. Cures have been effected by using such stem cells – bone marrow transplants have been done for years – and they have been found to be far more pluripotent than originally considered. The results – not just the research – from Australia show that the adult stem cells produce the results.

An open letter to the Australian Parliament, entitled: "No scientific imperative for destructive research on human embryos" and co-signed by various professors, including the head of the Queensland Institute of Medical Research, Michael Good, and head of the Children's Medical Research Institute, Peter Rowe, advised that, by contrast:

Research on stem cells derived from adult and placental tissues, which has seen great advances in the last three years, is quite compelling in its clinical promise, and does not involve the destruction of nascent human life.

Scientifically for serious technical reasons of tumour formation and immune rejection, trials with embryo stem cells are highly unlikely to proceed in humans while adult stem cells are already making dramatic advances in human trials even in Australia. These advances are happening in the areas of spinal injury at the PA Hospital in Brisbane, and heart disease at the John Hunter Institute in Newcastle. In the months ahead advances are expected in Parkinson's disease at the Peter McCallum Institute in Melbourne.

In Australia there have been cases of children having been cured of "bubble boy" immune deficiency. In California there have been cases of corneal blindness having been repaired. We have also seen the stabilising of advanced multiple sclerosis and lupus, and there are dozens of other clinical applications.

The controversial source of stem cells is human embryos. Everybody in this Chamber was a human embryo at one time. Extracting stem cells from a human embryo kills him or her. The embryo is no larger than a full stop but is a complete human being fully programmed to grow and mature. For the embryo to develop nothing further is added only time and nourishment and the embryo's genetic programme determines what kind of baby and adult will eventually emerge. Nourishment is part of that process. A three-day old embryo requires nourishment and care, as does a three-day old, three-week old, three-month old baby or a three-year old child.

To deliberately end an identifiable human life is crossing the Rubicon and is a bridge too far. Extravagant claims have been made for embryonic stem cell research but very little achievement has come from it and most admit that adult stem cell research shows much promise. Even if it did show more promise than it does, carrying out this type of research is very wrong. It is destructive experimentation on human beings, like the programme discovered in the United States where researchers left poor people with syphilis untreated so they could monitor the ravages of the disease. I assume researchers justified the gross inhumanity to the sufferers of syphilis by arguments along the lines that the possible good the new knowledge brought would help cure many others – arguments those whom they left to die untreated would hardly appreciate. This is the key point for people like me. We believe the embryo is a human person albeit a tiny person.

When people depart from an ethic that respects human life, they postulate other ethical propositions to indicate their principles. The ethical guidelines of the EU Commission last July agreed that embryos could be killed for research but piously stipulated that they would only be embryos leftover from IVF. It stated it was opposed to cloning and parental permission would have to be sought. It also claimed it was justified under the article on freedom of research in the Charter of Fundamental Rights. This would have justified the American researchers on syphilis previously mentioned. In the light of all our laws, our Constitution and the views of both Houses of the Oireachtas it is surprising that we would support any research as specified under COM 390/2003. It was a shock that Ireland indicated support for such unethical guidelines.

In argument, much play is made of the fact that what is being killed are embryos left over from IVF, at the start anyhow. The Italian National Bioethics Commission said firmly that embryos are human beings and there is a moral duty to protect them regardless of how they were procreated. Francesco D'Agostino, president of the commission, also added: "the other reason is of the pragmatic order; if permission were given for the use of spare embryos, there would be a risk of endorsing a fraud, namely the creation of embryos for their reproductive use, but, in fact destined for research."

The accumulation of embryos from IVF, as practised in some countries, leads to an accumulation of large numbers of frozen embryos and eventually to their deaths. Countries like Germany and Italy only fertilise what they will implant in the womb. This respects human life. Professor John Bonner and Professor Martin Clynes have stated publicly that IVF can be carried out without loss of life and it is the irresponsibility of some IVF clinics that led to these "surpluses" in the first place. However, all that is a different problem from what we are now addressing.

The proposal to fund embryonic stem cell research is an area into which the EU should never have entered. All member states are being asked to pay for it and quite a number have laws against it in their own countries. The European Parliament Committee on Legal Affairs passed a resolution making the moratorium on embryonic stem cell research permanent and stipulating that no research forbidden in any member state should be supported by EU funding, but that nations should be free to carry out research using their own funds. This was a fair proposal of freedom of conscience, not coercing any nation to fund something to which it objected.

At the moment, the EU is promoting a constitution, giving it a new and wider range of powers, of which many are wary. At each Irish referendum in the past where the subject came up, people were assured that the EU had no competence or interest in abortion and no wish to have any such competence. What do such assurances mean if in a similar and not unrelated area such as embryonic stem cell research, the EU is willing to coerce its members into accepting and funding an equally divisive proposition?

Since summer 2002, the proposal for the European Union to fund destructive embryo research polarised the 15 member states. At present, Germany, Italy, Austria and Portugal are opposed and Ireland's votes would give a blocking minority. I ask the Tánaiste to reflect the views of the Irish people as expressed by their representatives and form part of such a blocking minority. Ireland is the only country with a constitutional amendment specifically protecting the unborn and should be in the forefront on this issue with the other four countries. If this proposal goes through, because of Ireland's failure to oppose it, it will be a disgrace.

In their letter to the Taoiseach the Catholic bishops stated:

Finally, we wish to emphasise the crucial significance of the position, which will be taken by Ireland at the EU, in view of the fact that the Constitution of Ireland is known to afford protection to human life from its beginnings. Commissioner Busquin, at a meeting with the Joint Bioethics Committee of the Bishops' Conferences of England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland, on 2 October 2003, has already suggested that, as the Irish Government appears willing to support the Commission proposal, it is difficult to see why other countries which offer less constitutional protection to the unborn should have any difficulty with it.

No mandate for what is proposed exists either from the Oireachtas or from the Cabinet. This is simply not democratic. The Constitution approved by the Irish people indicates disapproval. So far, any reasons I have heard for supporting the proposal have been illogical, especially for those of us who accept the embryo is a human that needs protection. I hope that good sense will prevail and that Ireland will oppose this disgraceful measure regardless of what any other country does.

I welcome the Tánaiste to the Seanad. This proposal on embryonic stem cell research did not come to the Oireachtas for scrutiny in the usual way. It was discussed at the Sub-committee on European Scrutiny and was sent to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Enterprise and Small Business for scrutiny. Both of these committees recommended rejection of the proposal. Will the Tánaiste explain why she intends to proceed in the fashion proposed, going against the wishes of these two committees, and why this proposal has not been brought before the Oireachtas for full discussion and debate with a decision arising from that so she could proceed on the basis of a decision of Government and Parliament? Scientific opinion shows it is not necessary to use embryos for this type of research. Human adult stem cell research is quite sufficient, while maybe not as scientifically useful as embryonic stem cell research. We can make great progress with human stem cell research and as time goes on we know that further progress is being made. There is no evidence that research on human embryos is necessary. As the Tánaiste knows, human embryo research is not permitted by Medical Council guidelines, but for some reason it is reviewing its guidelines behind closed doors. While the Tánaiste has stated such research will not be permitted in Ireland, we will co-fund it if other EU member states decide to go ahead. The point was made by a number of Senators today that if this decision is approved the research will not take place in Ireland. That is not good enough for many of us. We do not want our money funding this type of research in other EU countries. That point is being missed by a number of Senators.

The Linacre Centre in the UK has made a detailed case against human embryo research to the House of Lords. I have the points it has made to hand, based on recognition of the embryo as a human ethical subject. I will not go into all of that because it is very detailed. The Catholic Church is absolutely opposed to embryonic research. Like Senator Hanafin I would tell the Tánaiste that to quote the Catholic University of Louvain on this issue is like a smokescreen, making it seem as if it is the Catholic Church that is stating what she has said. Even if we did accept what the Catholic University of Louvain has said, the Tánaiste attributed to it the following:

We would also point out that any use of the human embryo must be accompanied by binding ethical and scientific guidelines. Firstly, there must be a democratic debate involving the whole of society and then transparent inspection and decision making mechanisms must be defined.

I believe we have not had this democratic debate. While we welcome the fact that we are having it in the Seanad today, it should have taken place before now and before the Tánaiste had made up her mind.

The Government appointed commission on assisted reproduction has not reported, after two and a half years. However, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment claims the Department of Health and Children has advised that the role it is taking is all right. I have to ask the Tánaiste on what basis the Department of Health and Children can so advise. This whole process is a minefield, with constitutional, legal, moral, ethical and administrative questions to be answered. At the very least there should be a Green Paper before any decision is made. It appears likely that Germany, Austria, Portugal and Italy will form a blocking minority at the Council of Ministers. This gives time for the Government to reform its approach and consult the Oireachtas. My basic point is that this should have been done from the start.

The Medical Council guidelines in Ireland prohibit this type of research, although it must be noted it is meeting now in private to reconsider the guidelines, which has to ring alarm bells in all of us. Why has the Legislature not received the report of the commission on assisted reproduction? Why is there not a Green Paper? While in general welcoming the allocation of €16 billion for EU research activities for 2003-06, especially as regards information society technologies, food quality and safety, sustainable development, global change and ecosystems, some of the proposals awaiting decision by the Council of Ministers give rise to serious concern. If this proposal were agreed, all EU states would fund research on supernumerary embryos. These are embryos which were intended for implantation, but are no longer required for that purpose. This raises constitutional, legal, ethical, moral, administrative and other issues. Once again I ask the Tánaiste why this matter has not been laid before the Dáil and fully discussed.

Why is it that despite the European Union (Scrutiny) Act 2002 this proposal was not submitted for scrutiny by the Oireachtas in the normal way, but was only discovered by the Sub-committee on European Scrutiny and was sent to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Enterprise and Small Business to be examined in greater detail? Such scrutiny as this has resulted in recommendations that the Government not support proposals for an EU decision. Furthermore, the Tánaiste makes the case that if this is now blocked, it may return to a regulatory committee and the voting system may have changed next time it is considered. The reality is four EU countries, Italy, Austria, Portugal and Germany, are likely to block this in any event.

That would not be enough. There would have to be a majority to block it rather than a blocking minority.

Department officials said at the Sub-committee on European Scrutiny hearing that Ireland had indicated it would not oppose the Commission's proposals as currently drafted – having discussed the matter with the Department of Health and Children and other relevant Departments – because the funding of any research activity in Ireland which would not satisfy Irish ethical or legal requirements was not anticipated. However, if the Medical Council changes its rules, currently under review, this could satisfy Irish ethical requirements, as apart from the Constitution there is no legislation governing this area. Furthermore the Department of Health and Children, which has been consulted by the Tánaiste's Department, has a commission on assisted reproduction, which has not reported. How can that Department make up its mind on this issue without such an important report?

In point 6 of the document submitted to the Sub-committee on European Scrutiny it is stated: "Ireland has indicated that it considers it inappropriate to object to such research being carried out in member states, were it deemed to be both legal and ethical." However, that is not the point. We are not asked to object to such research taking place in other member states. That is a matter for those member states. This proposal concerns all EU states for the funding of such research and for allowing it in Ireland if the Medical Council changes its guidelines.

Scientists here could carry out such research without any change to Medical Council guidelines as these only apply to medical doctors. The European Union (Scrutiny) Act 2002 was passed last year by the Oireachtas to reinforce the powers of the Houses so that legislation coming before the Council of Ministers could be duly scrutinised. Such scrutiny has rejected this proposal, but even that scrutiny came about by accident. I hope the Tánaiste will listen carefully to all the comments made by Senators and take them into consideration when making her decision at the end of the month.

I also welcome the Minister to the House. This is a subject of enormous sensitivity and I am struck by the way in which Senators on both sides of the debate expressed their views with moderation, compassion and respect for the views of those who differ from them.

I, too, was surprised when this matter went for consideration to the Joint Committee on Enterprise and Small Business. I would not have thought it a place where people interested in ethical issues are wont to congregate, although they probably had wonderful insights on other aspects of the matter.

Two parallel debates appear to be going on and we run the risk of confusing them. The first is, if the Minister should support the proposal for research funding at the Council of Ministers. The more fundamental and widespread debate concerns what should happen in future here in regard to research, in general, and to embryonic stem cell research in particular. I speak as a former lay member of a medical school ethical research committee. There are differences of opinion on these matters with which people wrestle.

On the first issue, as to whether the research funding should be passed, less than 1% of this research budget will be spent on this particular form of research. If we were not net recipients of European funds, Ireland would theoretically contribute 1% or 1.5%. It would be disproportionate for us to try to prevent this research taking place. I was encouraged by reading the Minister's address to the House about the way in which the ethical guidelines on this matter have been framed. It is a considerable advance and reinforces the point made by Senator Terry – whether inadvertently or not – that the lack of guidelines and ethical regulations leaves it as almost a free-for-all. Important safeguards have been established in the banning of cloning and the production of embryos simply for the sake of research, which effectively bans interference with the genetic make-up of a child. It would be a great pity to lose these provisions which may happen if the measure does not go through in this form. We will lose the advantage if we say this kind of research can go on in other countries as long as it does not affect us in Ireland.

On the wider point, I am grateful for the most informative address to the House made by Senator Henry, from which I learned a great deal. This is an area that cannot be viewed in black and white. I respect the position of those who say that life begins at conception. I would not be as derogatory of the Catholic University of Louvain as some other Senators. It is not simply a flag of convenience, it is a recognised centre for Catholic-oriented thought. It is not, however, the voice of the Catholic Church. Historically the voice of the church has not always been dogmatic on these issues. I can go back to Aquinas if anybody wishes.

The production of life is a process. It is a question of when it starts, when it becomes inevitable, when, for example, ensoulment takes place. I regard the embryo in this case as potential life. Life does not become possible without implantation. There is a continuum from the egg and the sperm at conception to implantation and development. At what point does this process become irreversible? It would be easy to say, " yes, there it is, bang". The more people begin to understand the complexities of these issues, the more difficult it is to make that an absolutely fundamentalist position. I use the word "fundamentalist" in a non-derogatory sense.

The quoted article from the Catholic University of Louvain went on to discuss the need for an ethical balance in these matters. It would be wrong for this country to say that it can be done elsewhere but if it works we will take the benefits of it and advance it. It is a question of balance. It is an ethical consideration to give life, but it is also an ethical consideration to improve the quality of life for other people. I do not see a widespread industry developing in embryonic stem cell research. I see the main burden of stem cell research as being on adult stem cells. It would be unwise to close the door. What we are talking about is the possibility of transforming life for people who have been condemned to a slow death, which is also the taking of life.

Any of us who have seen a friend or relative suffer from MS for 20 or 30 years or from Alzheimer's disease or any similar disease would say it is not an unreasonable ethical trade-off to use embryos, which in five years time would die anyway and which are often flushed down the drain. I like to think of it in terms of organ donation. Embryos belongs to the parents concerned. It is not unreasonable, if it is the wish of parents, to donate embryos just as they would donate the organs of their nearest and dearest to restore to life somebody else who has been deprived of life.

This is the debate we must have in the longer term and it should be carried on throughout the country. It is a debate which the Oireachtas should have, but it is not necessary in order to enable the Government to support the present proposal for research. I encourage the Minister to do so. I also thank her for the compassion with which she presented the case and for her obvious concern for the ethical issues raised.

I wish to share time with Senator O'Toole.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I welcome the Minister to the House. I strongly support what she is doing, which seems to be a modest step which should not concern or worry anybody who is interested or involved in human rights.

A certain amount of politicking is going on here. I am sorry at the lamentable performance of the Fine Gael Party on this issue. The reading of statements by Fr. Doran into the record by some party spokespersons, in regard to the embryo being a distinct human individual, was done without conviction and solely for political purposes. This is a great pity. The Fine Gael Party will never recover its political standing until it gets a bit of genuine idealism.

The Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment has very wisely recorded the fact that certain activities are already excluded. That should reassure people. There is already a ban on cloning and on the production of embryos specifically for research purposes. We are dealing here with entities which already exist. If they are not used, they will be destroyed anyway. In the balance with that one must place the capacity to create cures for some of the most terrible and debilitating diseases. I heard people speak about this on the radio during the week. A woman spoke of looking after her husband with great love and devotion for many years and of seeing him suffer. If there is a possibility through this research of ameliorating his situation, how can anybody stand against it with theoretical arguments when the material exists and will be destroyed anyway?

We have heard a great deal about Catholicism. The House should note the Protestant proverb "waste not, want not". It is blasphemous to turn against this opportunity to better human life by discharging embryos down the drain to keep our consciences clear. It is horrendous to hear that we are, on the other hand, happy to use the results of experiments already conducted. I assure the House that if any of those who spoke against this today were suffering from a painful disease and a cure or ameliorating procedure emerged from stem cell research, he or she would accept it.

I deprecate in linguistic terms the attempt to assert that the embryo is a full human being. At the same time, Senator Hanafin very honestly said that it is the size of a full stop. It has no central nervous system and no consciousness. I cannot believe it is appropriate to describe it as a full human being. I have never seen anybody attempt to take one to a pantomime or the zoo or to secure voting rights for it. The argument is absolutely ludicrous and should be regarded as such.

I compliment Senator Henry with whom I do not always see eye to eye. She made a remarkably important speech this afternoon in which she calmly, clearly and scientifically demonstrated the hollowness behind many of the statements which have been made on this issue. Senator Henry rebutted the contention that it is easy to harvest adult stem cells when she demonstrated clearly the difficulty involved, particularly when it comes to the deep areas of the brain. I thought we had got beyond the kind of nonsense we heard during this debate. Despite our obsession with the rights of the embryo, we have not signed the Orviedo convention. Why did Members fail to clamour about that point? The convention is concerned with the real issues of cloning and the production of embryos specifically and only for research purposes. I am against such practices as that is the ethical stance to adopt.

An attempt was made to trash and denigrate the Catholic University of Louvain as not being fully Catholic. It is a distinguished university with a very long pedigree for which this country should be very grateful. In the 18th century, a relative of mine was sent to the university to train as a Roman Catholic priest during the penal period. He became a Roman Catholic bishop. That is the kind of thing Louvain did for this country.

It is very important that we sustain the Minister in this matter. She has made it clear that we are against cloning and the production of embryos specifically for research purposes. We seek ethical guidelines and we ask only for this position to be supported. I strongly support the Minister. A good day's work has been done. Nobody who later reads the speech Senator Henry made this afternoon could possibly make an accusation of intemperate language or illogicality against her. Despite claims to the contrary, her contribution was a model of logic. I have yet to find the same logic on the other side. I am happy to yield the floor to my colleague, Senator O'Toole.

I thank Senator Norris for sharing his time and I support his comments on Senator Henry's earlier contribution.

On a point of order, I wish to clarify my comments about the Catholic University of Louvain. Anyone who was listening would have realised that my comments referred only to any misrepresentation of the word "Catholic" in the university's name. Nothing else was meant. No reference was made to the work of the university and there was no attempt to take anything from it. I set out to indicate clearly that the university's position did not correspond to what is perceived to be the view of the Catholic Church.

I fully and completely support the position of the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment and the views she expressed earlier. She outlined the only reasonable, sensible and sustainable position one can adopt. In a sense, we are getting an easy ride in that we are able to adopt this approach. It would be wrong to try to impose whatever particular values we hold on everybody else. Our role is to protect ourselves and to safeguard our constitutional provisions which we have a right to ensure are expressed properly. The Minister's proposals are perfectly in keeping with these constraints. Her position will find support among the majority of people.

Earlier in the debate I heard a speaker use the words "referendum", "pro-life", "abortion", "viable" and "embryo" all in one paragraph. I sensed we were moving back to the future and I could feel a cold sweat breaking out on my palms. Things were being re-opened which I thought had been processed, dealt with and assimilated in a particular way. We do not need to address these matters again. In this debate there is an element of failure to recognise that it is a reality of medical science that this research will go ahead. It would be wrong on a variety of levels for us to oppose research which is not damaging anybody and has the potential to make huge improvements to the quality of life of suffering people or to ameliorate their conditions.

I listened closely to Senator Henry's statement about the production of embryos. Her point was absolutely clear and it concerned the issue which bothered me in reviewing the little I have read about this debate. I do not claim to have full knowledge, but there is a complete and distinct difference between producing embryos for stem cell research and using embryos which have already been created for the purpose of in vitro fertilisation. If we accept that in vitro fertilisation can take place, we must accept that we have embryos which have been created for that purpose to spare. They will not be used which forces us to ask whether to do something useful with them or to dump them. No matter which position one takes morally, psychologically, ethically or philosophically, the latter cannot be viewed as a good choice. I do not mean to suggest that this complex argument can be boiled down to that one issue, but it is a decision which has to be made. Nobody can argue that any decision other the one proposed by Senator Henry can be appropriate.

We have a huge amount to learn about the direction we must take. I read very closely a recent article in The Irish Times by a priest who is the secretary of one of the hierarchy's ethical groups. While I did not agree with his conclusions, I could see that he was trying to provide an honest assessment of the issue. He was also unclear about many issues. He underlined his conclusion as to where we should all be headed, but it did not follow logically from the points he made. He made the same point Senator Henry made earlier that we do not know enough about the stem cells from the embryo to use them properly and in a directed fashion. It is a point with which all Members are familiar. We know that cells from certain organs can be used more specifically. Above all else, we have seen the impact and the advances which have been made by medical researchers over the last five to six years.

It would be wrong and irresponsible of us to stand in the way of such improvements in the next five or six years in the lives of people suffering from Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease and other forms of atrophy. The emotive argument is that we should do something because people are suffering. However, if we stand back from the issue, we can make a decision which can improve the quality of the lives of people suffering under the weight of such diseases and people who may be watching a loved one withering away through some form of atrophy. Therefore, we have no choice. It would be wrong and unjustifiable and the Minister would not be able to live with herself if she were to take a decision other than that which is proposed. She would be turning her back on her responsibility as an elected public representative to do her best for all people. People who make the case for the less well-off in society abide by it as a guiding principle. There are guiding principles in this case and no one needs to bury those principles in order to make progress.

We are looking at stem cell research through which we can treat the dying organs of people and help them re-grow and reform. This could apply to people who have problems with their kidneys, liver or heart. The extent is unknown, but much can be done. On the other hand, we are clear that we are opposed to the deliberate production of embryos for research purposes and the cloning of human beings, which is a good thing. The Minister has made the best of all possible decisions and I applaud and support it.

As one who requested this debate, I welcome the Minister to the House. I heard her contribution on "The Marian Finucane Show" which, as I said that morning in the House, was honest, transparent and generous in her acceptance of the many ethical issues which have still not been resolved. It was a good presentation. The debate in this House is a benefit to democracy because there are two parties in Government which can express different views and are allowed to do so. I hope we will see that happening more often. I am sorry I am at variance with the Minister because, of all the politicians, she is one I regard exceptionally highly, both for her leadership and courage. I know she will not mind if we vary on different views because that is what debate is about.

It is a pity the debate took so long to be held, for which I do not blame the Minister. Today, we have roamed over such issues as science, law, philosophy, ethics and theology. The House of Lords select committee on stem cell research found those same issues exceptionally testing. I do not believe this issue belongs to any gender or age group or to intellectuals or professionals. Rather, it belongs to the whole human family. That is why that human family, particularly on the island of Ireland, has the opportunity of expressing its views. To date, people have not had that opportunity because of the manner in which this issue is being brought forward.

This is not an issue of funding or guidelines. Rather, it is fundamentally an issue of human life and no human life is more insignificant than another. Therefore, that must be the premise upon which we have this debate because the moment that concept is breached, as we have seen in world history, we open ourselves to all excesses. For instance, in the case of slavery the whites genuinely believed they were doing something good to build up their economy by using coloured people as slaves. They tried to convince those same people that it was to their benefit because they were not intellectually capable of looking after their own interests. Such excesses occur when one breaches the inviolable concept of all human life being equal.

I do not like to refer to a Senator's remarks after he or she has left the Chamber, but Senator O'Toole will appreciate why I must refer to his comments. One must make a decision in regard to a viable embryo as to whether or not it is human life. If it is not human life, a different debate ensues. However, if it is human life, I suggest Senator O'Toole is on dangerous ground because he is suggesting we can use one form of life, irrespective of what stage it is at, in order to enhance the life of someone else. There is no name for that other than medical human cannibalism. In a short period of time and with few reports available other than those of the House of Lords select committee, we are debating this matter when we should be dealing with a Green Paper or reports from our own committees or one set up specifically for the purpose. However, we have no option other than to deal with the House of Lords report.

The difficulty with this debate in regard to theology is that the Minister rightly says that the statement attributed to the Catholic University of Louvain is only a viewpoint. I am not sure whether that statement was expressed in a periodical or if it is a corporate opinion from the university, since that is not stated. It is more than likely an editorial in a publication but the status is not given. On the other hand, what the bishops told the Taoiseach was in a corporate sense. Therefore, if we are discussing theology, I am inclined to give the weight of balance to what the bishops said to the Taoiseach as against a viewpoint which came from a university in Louvain, Catholic or otherwise.

The moment theology is open to expediency and ethics are not regarded as sacrosanct, one will no longer be able to decide what are ethics. As a counter argument to a remark from this side of the House, a Senator stated that we would not allow embryonic stem cell research in Ireland because we have not yet decided whether it is ethical or not but that it was no reason to prevent it happening in another part of the world. This is a case where ethics are being subjected to expediency. No one has the right, on behalf of the people, to use ethics in this manner. I am not personalising this in terms of the Minister, rather I refer to it in a general sense.

There is an unresolved issue in regard to the Constitution, in the context of which we have been guided by the Medical Council. I am surprised at how muted the media has been in support of Ireland taking a "Yes" stance on this issue, since it is normally to the fore on such issues. One of the reasons for that is that they are not in a position to reflect what people want because the opportunity has not been given to people to indicate their view.

We are dealing with assumptions and my assumption is that this country is largely pro-life. I said previously during discussions on human reproduction – Senator Dardis made the same point – that debates in this Chamber have been calm and respectful and we have been allowed to put forward different points of view. I, therefore, accept that everybody participating in this debate is pro-life. I believe, however, that the view coming from the electorate is that it would not wish to sacrifice any human life at any stage of development for any purpose, for the good of society or otherwise.

I was surprised by Senator O'Toole's contribution and thought he was somewhat emotive on this issue. Most of his contribution was devoted to the question of the possible good effects that might arise. The report of a select committee of the House of Lords clearly cautioned against raising people's hopes in that regard. The main research done on Parkinson's disease, both embryonic stem cell research and adult stem cell research, has shown that the most positive results have come from adult stem cell research. People may disagree with that, but this is the information I have. If this is the case, we should not raise people's hopes, which would cloud the issue. The House of Lords select committee said there was no indication that this therapy would ensue.

The basic issue concerns the view of the people on the sanctity of human life at every stage of development, whether embryonic or at old age. From an ethical point of view, the people do not want us to support anything that runs counter to that view in Ireland or any part of the world. We should bear in mind that four other major countries will possibly disagree with the proposal.

I was not being patronising when I said the Tánaiste was a politician for whom I have the highest regard. I hope she will listen carefully to the views being expressed here because there is no political expediency involved nor disrespect for any other person's point of view. We must all speak from within ourselves and with our own conscience.

There seems to be some confusion about the two issues involved here. The first issue concerns regulation and legislation and this is something we should discuss. In this regard I welcome the Tánaiste and ask her to use her office to bring in some legislation in this area. If it is not correct at first we can amend it, but please let us have some regulation. The second issue concerns stem cell research and we would not be debating this if there was not a vote on the issue in the European Union shortly.

Stem cells are highly versatile cells in the human organism capable of both reproducing themselves and of developing to produce the more specialised cells out of which human tissue and organs are formed. At the current stage of scientific research, this offers the possibility of the injection of stem cells to repair damaged tissue, muscle, nerves or bone. Among the conditions which are potentially treatable are heart disease, Alzheimer's disease or strokes. For many years leukaemia has been successfully treated by the replacement of bone marrow, again an excellent source of stem cells.

Embryonic stem cells are harvested from human embryos while all other stem cells are referred to as adult stem cells. These can be harvested from a variety of sources, including bone marrow, cord blood, placenta and liver. Some researchers argue that because embryonic stem cells are more versatile, they have greater potential for medical use than adult stem cells, which, although they are still versatile, have already begun to develop. In recent years researchers have come to realise that there are many more sources of adult stem cells in the human organism than had previously been recognised. As a result, the potential for obtaining an adult stem cell suited to a particular need is much greater than previously thought.

Another issue which must be faced is that the extreme versatility of embryonic stem cells also makes them less predictable. They cannot always be relied upon to develop as intended and there is a risk of bone developing where muscle is required, or vice versa. The careful selection of adult stem cells which are further along the developmental chain would seem to reduce that risk. Adult stem cells can be harvested without causing harm or loss of life. Provided proper consent is obtained and the stem cells are used for the purpose of developing treatments, there is no ethical problem about their use. Funding should be directed at this area of research.

The harvesting of stem cells from embryos always results in the destruction of the embryo and this is the nub of the matter. If embryos were only a haphazard cluster of cells, there would be no problem. However, an embryo, although it is small and cannot smile yet or talk, is a distinct individual human being in the process of rapid organised development. Modern research in genetics and in reproductive technology helps to demonstrate that this is true. We now know that a human embryo can live and develop apart from its mother. We know too that a human embryo is genetically distinct from its parents and that all the genetic information required for its development is already present at the single cell stage.

Researchers argue that it is acceptable to destroy embryos as long as it is done in a good cause and the parents give consent. The deliberate destruction of innocent human life is fundamentally wrong and even the prospect of wonderful new cures does nothing to change that fact. It has been suggested that there would be no ethical problem if the research was limited to so-called spare embryos. The Tánaiste calls them supernumerary embryos. These are generally the by-product of in vitro fertilisation which are kept in frozen storage. It is said that these embryos will be disposed of anyway, once their shelf-life is over. I heard somebody from the Tánaiste's Department say that the embryos supposed to be used for experimentation would be destroyed at the end of the year anyway. I put it to the Tánaiste that many old people will die by the end of the year. Will we experiment on them too because they are from the other end of the spectrum? That argument does not hold water.

To be used as raw material for the pharmaceutical industry is not what gives meaning to the existence of a human embryo. That meaning is inherent in the act of creation and we choose either to respect it or not. All human beings eventually die and embryos are no different. The moral evil is associated not with the fact that embryos die, but with the fact that somebody decides to kill them. No advances in the treatment of disease justify the deliberate destruction of embryos irrespective of the benefits involved or whether other sources of stem cells are equally useful. We cannot cross the principle that a good end does not justify evil means. I believe embryonic stem cells should not be used for research.

The EU Council of Ministers will vote on the sixth framework programme, which is a good programme, at the end of this month. I want to ensure that the Irish delegation votes against the funding of research on embryos and embryonic stem cells. It speaks volumes that this issue is being discussed at the European Union under the headings of trade and competitiveness. Whether by accident or design, this implies that human embryos are commodities or consumer goods. Two years ago Ireland could have joined Italy, Germany and Austria to ensure that embryonic stem cell research was excluded from the programme, but it made no effort to do so. Now, the Government seems to take the view that as long as destructive embryonic research is not happening here, Ireland will not stand in the way of it happening elsewhere in Europe.

This attitude is totally at odds with the spirit of the Constitution which specifically recognises the right to life of the unborn. It leaves the door open for the Irish pharmaceutical industry to benefit from the destruction of embryos, as long as that destruction takes place elsewhere. Successive Governments have told us that we have a significant voice in Europe so let us take a principled stand on this matter. There is an issue of participation relevant to the fact that it is not proposed to allow embryonic stem cell research in Ireland. This has a specific meaning in ethics. We will be materially participating in unethical research on human embryos if we either contribute to the funding of the research or propose to benefit directly from its results, for example, by using the information gained in our pharmaceutical industry. We will also be formally participating in unethical research on human embryos if we vote in such a way as to allow this research to take place. We must either accept that our vote has some relevance or, alternatively, that it has no relevance. If it has no relevance, then we must question the relevance of our membership of the European Union.

Senator Dardis said that we have no right to foist our views on other members. That is true on most issues, but this is not about VAT on gas. It is about the sanctity of human life. I will quote a few lines from a letter to The Irish Times a few days ago:

If Ireland supports this sort of research, we will have crossed a threshold into the abuse of basic human rights under the guise of technological innovation which will lead down a very dangerous road for society. If this Government takes this path it will bear a very heavy responsibility, and it has no mandate from the Irish people to do so.

That was written by Martin Clynes, Professor of Biotechnology at Dublin City University.

The Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment should be aware that when I drove in here this morning I stopped at every red light because to go through them might have endangered human life and killed somebody or myself. We have laws in this country where if somebody kills somebody else they are incarcerated for long periods of time. We have prohibitions in the Constitution against the destruction of unborn life, except in certain circumstances, and nearly all of our laws are predicated on respect for human life and the sanctity of human life.

The Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment has a great responsibility thrust upon her, albeit in a context of collective Cabinet responsibility, although at times that seems a little dodgy. It seems in this respect the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment is being given the power to do an awful thing in a week's time. Knowing her and respecting her, I am asking her not to go down the road of destruction and death. She should go down the road of life and hope and stand up and be a moral leader, not just for Ireland, but for Europe. People will respect her forever if she takes that stance.

I wish to vary the Order of Business, with the approval of the Cathaoirleach and the House. This morning during the Order of Business it was said that the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment would reply five minutes before the end of the debate. She has told me she will require ten minutes. Is that in order?

Yes, I agree.

The Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment will reply at 4.50 p.m.

Or whenever it may be in the debate.

She will reply after the debate, at about 4.50 p.m. at the latest.

I will not take ten minutes. Are there other speakers?

There are three other speakers.

I welcome the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment to the House. I appreciate that she stayed here through the course of the debate and will take questions at the end.

In reference to Senator Norris's attack on some of my colleagues, have we learnt anything—

She will reply to the question, she will not take questions at the end.

I know that.

Have we learnt anything from the 1980s? It seems not if people cannot get up and make their position without finding it denigrated because it does not find favour with another person. I heard Senator Coghlan's remarks today and whether one agrees with Senator Coghlan or anyone else, anyone in this House has a right to make those points. People should bear that in mind.

I agree with Senator O'Toole's comments that we have to learn from past debates, particularly the debates that have bedevilled this country on the abortion issue for the past 25 years. They generated a lot of heat but I am not sure we have learned anything from them as a people. We did not focus on what is really important, which is the woman in all of these cases. I have changed my view on the abortion issue at least twice during my adult life so far, and I might even change it twice again. People are open to change and once one takes a fundamental, principled position on this issue, one is tied to it for one's life. That is not the way most people carry on. Most people change their view because of their own experience.

That is true.

My view on this matter has been changed by my own experience in life. The position I had at 20 years of age is different to the position I have now at 34 years of age and that might change ten times over.

Once we make these tablets of stone it is very difficult to move from them. The same should not be applied to this issue.

I resent all the political parties in this country suggesting that every member of a political party can have the same view on matters of conscience, which they do in effect. We have no tradition of free votes and no tradition whereby, independently, one can make up one's own mind on the floor of the House on matters like this. These are not matters of party political policy but matters of deep conviction for all of the colleagues who have spoken. We have got to grow up as a society and political class. We should allow free votes on issues such as this. I know it happens in other parliaments and we should learn from that. The idea that a political party can take up this particular issue is just nonsensical as many members of a party could disagree with a party view.

I have read the European Union (Scrutiny) Act 2002 since the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment's remarks at 2 p.m. It seems she has a difficulty in supporting this proposal on 27 November as it explicitly states in section 2(2) of the European Union (Scrutiny) Act 2002, that "the Minister shall have regard to any recommendation made to him or her from time to time by either or both Houses of the Oireachtas or by a committee of either or both Houses of the Oireachtas in relation to a proposed measure." There are two stipulations where she does not have to regard such a proposal, one is if the time limit makes it impossible for her to consult with either or both Houses of the Oireachtas or a committee, or if the information is confidential. On both of these counts that is not the case as the information has been in the public domain and we have had an adequate length of time to deliberate on the matter. The difficulty for the Government in supporting this measure on 27 November is that it is illegal. There is no legal standing to take that position where the express view, whether one agrees with it or not, of the committee on two separate occasions has been in the other direction. The Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment should refer to that in her closing remarks as it is a central point. What is the point in having a legislative basis for scrutinising proposals like this if the Government will not then take into consideration the committee's decision? It is an important issue that the Tánaiste should resolve when she comes to make her concluding remarks.

The Tánaiste said that if the Council votes against the proposals it is still open to the Commission to activate the research once the moratorium comes to an end. In other words, if the Council votes no, there is a strong risk this research will go ahead anyway without any guidelines. Most people who support the European Union would have to ask how it is possible that a proposal voted down under QMV by the Council of Ministers, can be reactivated by the Commission and brought to a full decision when the framework upon which we make our decisions in the European Union has said the opposite. The Tánaiste should refer to that again. If the Governments of Europe have taken the view that they are not going ahead with the funding at this stage, although they may go ahead with funding at some point in the future, how can the Commission then violate that by reactivating that proposal?

I welcome this debate, but we need to have it broadened to the country in general. At this stage it is premature to advance the proposals the Government is making, which is why I am cautious at this stage.

I would like to share two minutes of my time with Senator Ormonde, with the agreement of the House.

Senator Mansergh is sharing one minute with me.

Senators Brennan, Ormonde and Feeney are offering to speak. Senator Mansergh can share time with them.

Are there many other speakers?

I will share with Senator Ormonde and then perhaps Senator Brennan will follow me after that.

I wish to be clear on this. Is Senator Mansergh sharing his time three ways? Senator White is also offering.

If it helps, I am prepared to stay until 5 p.m. and reply then.

As business is ordered we have to conclude by 5 p.m. and the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment will have to reply at 4.50 p.m.

I will share with Senators Ormonde and Brennan.

That is agreed.

This is a difficult and complex issue. When I work out the pros and cons I will come to a position at the end. I must declare an interest in that I have a daughter who is engaged in stem cell research, or has been, albeit of the animal variety. It is wrong to think that there are no ethical problems involved with that. My daughter is at the University of Wales at present and, if anything, the animal rights ethical issues are more live there than are some of those we are discussing. I had a good conversation with my daughter but I also found Fr. Kevin Doran's article useful. They seemed to largely agree about the benefits of adult stem cell research.

Even in purely secular terms, the benefits of embryonic stem cell research are not proven. There are many ethical doubts about this type of research, which is at the frontiers. The position of the Catholic Church on this issue is clear and, all other things being equal, there is no doubt that the majority of people in this country would follow that view. The Minister referred to the Catholic University of Louvain. Universities do not normally adopt collective positions on academic and ethical issues. I presume she was referring to some member of staff of the university who has taken the initiative. It would be fairly unusual for a university to adopt a collective position on matters of this nature.

Opposition in respect of this matter is clearly based on the view of the Catholic Church that an embryo, from the moment of conception, is human life. In 1982, I was involved in trying to achieve some consensus between the churches on a pro-life amendment to the Constitution and I am aware that a faultline exists in this regard. Other churches would not necessarily take the view that human life begins at the moment of conception. The point has been made that last year we put forward, with the Catholic Church, a proposal which states that life commences at implantation. I am extremely uncomfortable about issues of this nature which play on the confessional divide. It is clear that the vast majority of people in this country are of the Catholic faith or were raised in the Catholic tradition and many of them feel passionately that the embryo is human life. That view would not be held as strongly outside the Catholic Church and, therefore, there might be a more pragmatic view of this proposal in existence. As already stated, even in secular terms, this is borderline.

A dilemma obviously exists in terms of what we should do about European funding for research in this area. Similar dilemmas exist in other areas. For example, we have agreed to the funding of a great deal of nuclear research despite the fact that the vast majority of Irish people are fundamentally opposed to nuclear energy and nuclear power stations. I accept the point, however, that, for all its emotiveness, the issue of nuclear power does not carry the same moral charge.

There is the added problem that we will shortly be assuming the EU Presidency, under which it will be our job to try to bring people together. There is – I accept that this would be irrelevant if one took the strong moral view expressed by many of my colleagues – the question of pharmaceutical biotechnology research and whether we are completely consistent in how we approach it.

The role of either House of the Oireachtas is to hold the Government to account, probe views, etc. However, I am not convinced that we can necessarily second-guess everything. The Minister is listening to the debate and I presume that before coming to a final decision on the matter she will be obliged to discuss it with her colleagues in Government. I am here to support the Government and, when the various issues involved and considerations put forward have been carefully considered, I will support the final decision it takes.

I am more confused than ever about this issue. My views were clear this morning when I decided to do some reading on it. This is such a complex issue that the more one analyses it, the more one cannot reach a decision. That is the problem. The debate is extremely detailed. On one hand, we are being told about the benefits of stem cell research, while, on the other, arguments are being put forward about the difference between adult stem cell research and embryonic stem cell research and whether such research destroys life. Once the latter question, to which I do not know the answer, is asked, I have a difficulty.

Has enough investigation been carried out into adult stem cell research? I am aware that the debate in this area is ongoing and that there is perhaps more potential for such research than has been adverted to. Will the Minister indicate whether research into adult stem cells be pursued further at this point? Is it necessary to go down the road of embryonic stem cell research?

I thank Senator Mansergh for sharing time. I attended the meeting of the committee which discussed the funding of EU embryo research. I agree with the views expressed by Senators Hanafin and Ó Murchú. If we are serious about protecting the Constitution, we have a duty and a unique opportunity on this occasion to make a clear statement at EU level. Views were expressed on this matter as long ago as December 2001 at EU Council level. In that context, Ireland referred to Article 43.3 of the Constitution, concerning the right to life of the unborn, and stated that no such research will be carried out here. At a time when the EU is drawing up a new constitution, it is difficult to see how this can be implemented at European level if we do not respect our Constitution.

I implore the Minister to take into consideration the views of the majority of Members of both Houses in making her decision. I would be surprised if any Government took a decision which ran contrary to the Constitution.

I thank the Cathaoirleach for allowing me to contribute at such short notice. I was enjoying watching the debate in the comfort of my office and all of the contributions have been excellent.

I wish to place on record that I am chairperson of the Medical Council's ethics committee. In that context, Senator Terry correctly quoted the council's guideline in this area. She also stated that the council is meeting in private to review the guidelines and its position. That is partly true. As chair of the Medical Council's ethics committee, I have set up a sub-committee to review the ethical code that governs doctors and consultants. The guideline on stem cells is part of the review, as are the guidelines on consent, advertising and so on. The Medical Council, therefore, is not meeting in private.

I felt more comfortable viewing the debate from my office. Unfortunately, my brother in law is seriously ill and suffers from Parkinson's disease. Stem cell research is an emotive issue and, as with all such issues, deep rooted feelings run high. There are things worse than death and I would love people to witness the life my sister leads together with her lovely husband and the terrible burden they must bear.

A school of thought exists among the medical profession that adult stem cells are as beneficial as embryonic stem cells but, scarily, there is another school of thought, according to which the result of embryonic stem cells research have been horrifying, with people who have terrible, debilitating illnesses being turned into monsters.

I wish the Minister well because she will be in a difficult position. However, when she weighs up the pros and cons, she will do what is right for the Government and the country. Like Senator Mansergh, I will fully support the Minister and the Government, whatever conclusion is reached.

I thank the Minister for coming to the House. All scientific developments have been accompanied by many negative voices throughout history but, at the end of the day, they lead to a happier life for us all. IVF treatment was rejected by the Catholic Church originally but it has been accepted as the norm in a short time. The Pope spoke out against contraception in Humanae Vitae in 1968. It was illegal in Ireland then, but it is legal today. I respect the view and sincerity of every Member who contributed but I have confidence the Minister will progress this issue while taking all legal and ethical aspects into consideration. She stated: “It does not allow for the EU funding of any research activity in Ireland which would not satisfy Irish ethical or legal requirements.” That is important. If Members or the public do not want research conducted in Ireland, that must be accepted. However, I have confidence in the Minister and the Government that they will make the correct decision for the future development of mankind. I will support them.

I thank the Minister for attending. She did not display tardiness because she wanted to be present. She said she would forego her appointments this afternoon and respond to the points raised. Few politicians would have been as frank, open and generous with their time as the Minister.

The debate has been fascinating. Senator Henry elucidated on a number of points using plain language that we could all understand. Every Member spoke with passion and from the heart. We are faced with major dilemmas but, as Senators Brian Hayes and White said, there has not been a period when our hearts and minds have failed to develop on such issues. One does not grow up with a fixed position on points A, B or C. Issues such as contraception and divorce have led us to change our minds. We have not done so wilfully but through our experience of issues within our own lives and within society.

The debate has only begun. The House has been manifestly a voice for those who did not have one on this issue and it shows the House has great use when such a topic can be freely debated. I respect the views of everyone who has contributed and I express my appreciation to the Minister.

I thank all the Members who contributed to this worthwhile and thoughtful debate. They expressed different points of view honestly and sincerely. I did not unilaterally adopt a position on behalf of Ireland. When this issue arose, I consulted the Minister for Health and Children in the first instance. The question was raised regarding whether this issue is more appropriate to the Department of Health and Children. However, the research budget is under the remit of the competitiveness Council and during the life of the previous Government, my colleague, Deputy Treacy, dealt with the research agenda. Following the general election, I took on the research agenda, which comes under the remit of the competitiveness council.

Economics, trade and business do not come before ethical, health and quality of life issues. As somebody who likes to see the country progress, I am depressed by much of the so-called progress we have witnessed in recent years. Recently in Limerick my former colleague, Des O'Malley, asked how is it the Limerick of Angela's Ashes had virtually no crime while the Limerick of the Celtic tiger has so much crime. That says a great deal. Much has happened in Ireland and the European Union that I wish did not happen and I would love to turn the clock back. I refer to the spirit of volunteerism and being good neighbours. People lead busy lives and, for example, they are stuck in traffic every day. That has changed the way people operate and, therefore, all progress is not necessarily good. I would be the first to articulate that, notwithstanding my political philosophy.

Fine Gael is making an issue of the process and procedure. The procedure outlined by Senators Brian Hayes, Terry and Coghlan applies to regulations under Article 161. This is not such a proposal and there is no requirement to refer it for scrutiny. If there was, I would be first person to do so. I enjoy debate and I want to engage in debate about this and other issues. I have attended more meetings of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Enterprise and Small Business than any of my predecessors. I am in politics because I genuinely want to debate ideas and issues. Politics is about ideas, perspectives and issues. I also believe that any Government Minister, let alone a leader of a political party, who does not listen and engage with people on this and other issues would be very foolish indeed.

This issue has been around since the summer of 2002. The vote which is to take place is not about funding. I am being asked not to vote for funding, but it is already EU policy that there will be funding, although there is a moratorium on its use until the end of this year. If we do not have guidelines and regulations by 1 January – this relates to Senator Hayes's question – the matter will go to a committee of which we are members. We are also members of the ethical committee. If the committee does not agree to a funding proposal from the Commission, the matter goes to the EU Council. At that level, it can be blocked by a blocking majority. Since at least ten countries are in favour of this proposal, there is no question of there being a blocking majority. Accordingly, the research will proceed without any guidelines.

There is also an issue that some countries which are anxious to carry out this research may well decide to take legal action against the Commission on the basis that although it is EU law, having been duly agreed by the EU, they are being prevented from applying for research as no programme has been opened up. There are real issues and dangers involved, of which I would like people to be aware. That is the reason, when I consulted with the Minister for Health and Children, the Taoiseach and other members of the Government, we said Ireland should vote to have strict guidelines and safeguards in this area, rather than what is broadly described as a free-for-all, about which Senator Henry spoke so well, as in the United States.

I do not wish to have the private sector, in Ireland or any other European country, operating what are described as bio-banks. Would we not be appalled if, in the case of organ donation, one had to go to a company to buy a kidney or a heart? That could well happen in this area if we do not have controls and guidelines. This is a question of public research being in the public domain and available for public benefit. Currently, as I understand it, the research takes place in the private sector. Some countries, such as Italy which is voting against the Commission guidelines, allow it in the private sector for imported embryos, which may come from aborted foetuses if animal and adult cells cannot supply the requirements.

It also applies in Germany.

Yes. There are huge issues involved. From my experience in this Parliament over 26 years, these debates are always painful, difficult and emotive. In our most recent abortion referendum, the question of when life begins was a major issue, including the question of implantation, which caused a great deal of concern. Since I am neither a scientist, a doctor nor a lawyer, I am not in a position to say what the legal implications of all this may be. However, I understand there has been no judicial guidance on the subject of embryos outside the womb. Accordingly, I do not believe that I, or anybody else, can state the legal or constitutional position of an embryo outside the womb.

I wish to reiterate, once again, what we are discussing. We are speaking of embryos which are created for IVF. I understand that eight or 12 eggs are fertilised and, according to Senator Henry, two are inserted – I had understood the number to be three. The rest are frozen. If the two succeed and a child is born, the couple may decide to try again, using two further embryos. Perhaps, at the end of the process, there are four, six, eight or whatever number left. Under the Commission proposal, it would be a matter for those donors to decide whether to leave the embryo in its frozen state which, I understand, will no longer be viable after three to five years and, therefore, cannot be used for human life. In any event, it cannot become a human being unless it is implanted into the womb of a woman.

The question then arises as to whether, in certain circumstances, one should use an embryo for research into Parkinson's, Crohn's or other diseases. I am greatly taken by Senator Feeney's remarks. Without being personal, in any sense, some of us may have loved ones who are very ill. If we believe that those who cannot speak as a result of a stroke, are unable to walk or cannot look after themselves could be cured, I ask each Member to consider what he or she might do in those circumstances. It is a very grey area; it is not black and white, as Senator Hayes said.

The question for discussion and decision is with regard to the guidelines under which it can happen. The donor couple can decide to make the embryo available for research under strict conditions, for example, that no money will be paid and that the embryo can only be used if adult cells cannot be used – it would have to be proven, in very strict circumstances, that adult or animal cells could not be used for these purposes. It would apply only in those circumstances. I believe, in all the circumstances, that it is better to have guidelines.

Since I came into the Chamber, I have received a note to the effect that the European Parliament has voted by approximately 300 to 200 in favour of a much more liberal approach – it does not want a cut-off date of June 2002 or any cut-off date. The significance of the cut-off date is that one cannot create embryos for this purpose. There are huge issues involved and they will not be easy to resolve. I consider the Commission proposal rather conservative, but it is a step in the right direction, in that it gives guidelines and safeguards. I do not believe it falls into what might be described as the liberal category at all. Presumably, that is the reason the European Parliament did not consider it good enough.

Clearly, these are matters for Government, at the end of the day. I will attend a meeting next week, as I did two weeks ago, at which there will be 30 or 40 items on the agenda. I am not, by any means, equating this particular matter with any other issue – it comes into a completely different category and, accordingly, one consults with other Government colleagues who are involved in many of these issues at European level, including the Minister for Health and Children, the Taoiseach and the Minister for Foreign Affairs. That process will continue. This is not a decision for Mary Harney alone. While there may be a theory that I take decisions on my own, I have no intention of exercising power which I do not have. I do not wish to have anybody under any illusion that I have committed Ireland to something for which it is not prepared to sign up. Unfortunately, however, the position we are adopting is being misunderstood. People think we are engaged in voting Irish money for this research in other countries. That is not the case. What we are setting out to do is to put controls, guidelines and parameters on how this money can be spent. I honestly believe that is very reasonable in all the circumstances.

With regard to the Catholic University of Louvain, in response to Senator Hanafin and others, if I created the impression that I was quoting it as an authority of the Catholic Church, I apologise for that. That was certainly not my intention. I simply quoted what was said there to explain the difficult ethical complexities which arise in this whole area, which I believe it spelled out extremely well. I have not got the precise source within the relevant faculty, but I have no doubt that reference can be readily obtained after this debate.

With regard to pharmaceutical companies, knowledge knows no boundaries. If a pharmaceutical or bio-pharm company in Ireland becomes aware of research emerging in the United States, China or India, I cannot declare in this House that they will not use it. I do not know how one can stop knowledge from being transferred. In the modern world, knowledge transfer is the order of the day. The fact that something is researched in one place does not limit its use to that particular place – that could not be the case. We are speaking of multinational, global companies. If they carry out research within the company in a particular country, can they confine the resulting products of that knowledge to being developed in that country? I do not believe they can. These are difficult and unclear areas.

I have received a great deal of correspondence, as Members may know, in connection with this matter from both sides of the argument. Some women have written in very traumatic terms about IVF treatment in Ireland. One woman told me she did not become pregnant but, four years later, the embryo was inserted into her body, outside her womb and she excreted it. I can say that she found that an extremely emotionally traumatic experience, as it is.

With regard to Irish Medical Council guidelines or whatever approach we take in Ireland, I hope that, when the Commission reports, we can have the type of debate which has been called for. I also hope we can have legislation in this whole area. To a large extent, as I understand it, we are operating only under Medical Council practice rather than guidelines. We do not have any laws in this area and I am not suggesting they will be easy to frame. However, I am certain we will hear a great deal more in this regard. We, in Ireland, need to decide for ourselves, on the basis of the facts and expert information as it becomes available. There is a lack of agreement among the experts, whether in the area of medicine, science or law. One of the wonderful features of experts is that they can take differing points of view while being equally convincing sometimes. I find this a particular feature in relation to law. The Personal Injuries Assessment Board Bill will be before this House tomorrow. Some lawyers will argue very strongly that it will not work. Equally, there will be some who will say how well something will work. That is what is wonderful about the professions and the reason we need them.

If we are to have legislation or guidelines, we need to make our decision ourselves. What is wonderful about the EU in this area – it is a point Ireland has always strongly maintained and sold to our people – is that in regard to ethical matters, there must be ethical subsidiarity. Do Members of this House want to wake up one day and be told that they have to have X or Y in Ireland? They do not. Although we pool our sovereignty in many areas, we retain autonomy on the issues that matter deeply to us. That is the way it should always be.

I thank the Cathaoirleach and the Leader of the House, in particular, for asking me to come to the House for a debate on this matter. She said the House wanted it and I said I would attend. I thank all the Members who participated in the debate and those who are in ongoing discussions with me on this matter. Even now, as a result of a European Parliament vote, there may be uncertainties as to what exactly the Commission will do. I believe it will stick with its original proposal but it will be accused of ignoring the democratic Parliament. As Members can appreciate, there are no easy answers in this area. I want Members to know that Ireland will vote for, if a vote is called, guidelines, safeguards and regulations and not for such research being carried out in the free for all environment that occurs in other places with all the dangers attached to it.