I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Devins, for attending the House for this debate. I am delighted to introduce the Stem-Cell Research (Protection of Human Embryos) Bill to the House. The context for the introduction of the Bill is a recent unilateral decision taken by UCC to permit the granting of licences to carry out embryo-destructive research on stem cells taken from embryos which have been destroyed, but perhaps not in this jurisdiction. This decision has been taken in the context of a complete lack of legislation in the area of stem cell research in Ireland.
The Bill is a carefully considered and progressive response to the wonderful therapeutic successes from adult stem cell research on an almost weekly basis. It provides for the maximum possible support for such productive and non-controversial stem cell research through the prohibition of unethical, non-productive embryo stem cell research. The Bill strives for the best of all worlds — real treatments applied to real life diseases in the here and now, the highest standards in compassionate and ethical practice and responsible and profitable investment in science. As a consequence of these achievements, it furthers greater social cohesion.
The core of the Bill is motivated by a profound and consistent respect for human rights. I have no doubt that every one of my colleagues in the House agrees that one of the most important developments humanity has seen over the past 60 years has been the articulation and affirmation of universal human rights. We use the language of human rights every time we sit in the House. What is more, we attempt to speak this language intelligibly, consistently and clearly, lest we weaken its impact. Hence, we recognise the absurdity of justifying any action resulting from the violation of a whole class of human beings and their rights. We recognise that all human beings deserve basic human rights. This is precisely the philosophy which lies at the centre of the Bill, the philosophy of human rights.
We have all heard, usually from non-scientists, that science, supposedly, cannot verify that the human embryo is a human being. Let us be clear. "Human being" is a biological term, and the existence of science is predicated upon its ability to exactly define the objects of its investigation. When we ask questions of science, it is vital we pose questions to the relevant branch of science. Embryology is the science of the embryo, not genetics, chemistry or nuclear physics. Embryology and all textbooks on it are unequivocal in stating that the human embryo, who is always either a he or a she, is an individual, unique and self-developing human being, or perhaps human beings in the case of future twins. Embryos are human beings with potential, not potential human beings.
Some journalists, accountants and scientists from areas outside embryology may disagree, but such a disagreement is not founded on the relevant science, but rather on ideology and prior moral assumptions. History testifies to instances when scientific evidence was repeatedly denied so as to accommodate prevailing world views. The Bill before the House today reminds us of the horrors resulting from denying the humanity of certain classes of human beings for the supposed betterment of other, less vulnerable classes of human beings. It reminds us again that what we need are human rights for all human beings.
However, not everyone here will think this is sufficient reason to turn our backs on research which may result in treatments for debilitating diseases. I recognise that the hope of health is a very powerful hope. The question, of course, is where we ought to place our hope because few things are as crushing as hope misplaced. Let us look to the evidence. Already, ethically solid adult stem cell research has resulted in 73 treatments for diseases such as Crohn's and cancer. It has also provided promising research in the area of Parkinson's disease, but there is no cure yet.
In America alone, adult stem cell research has led to well over 1,200 clinical trials. On the other hand, research on human embryos, which is ethically controversial, far from leading to a single treatment, has not even led to one clinical trial anywhere in the world, despite hundreds of millions of euro being poured into it over the past decade. The failures of embryo stem cell research are due not only to its inefficacy, but also to the fact that many of the rats treated by it form tumours due to the totally plastic or totipotent nature of the embryo stem cells. The irony is that the reason some people think embryo research has potential is also the reason it struggles so badly in the laboratory and is potentially dangerous.
I do not deny for a moment that there are scientists who wish to conduct embryo-destructive research, if only for comparative purposes. The point underlying this Bill, however, is that the same potential now is coming from a much more optimistic and life-affirming source, that is, various developments in the field of adult stem cell reprogramming and so on.
Even if embryo research could one day fulfil some of its promises, some stunning recent breakthroughs in adult stem cell research may well make the former completely redundant in the future. In 2007, two separate teams of researchers, one American and the other Japanese, managed to reprogram adult stem cells in order that they behave almost identically to embryo stem cells, thus obviating need for the latter and hence avoiding destructive embryo research. According to Dr. James Thomson, who pioneered this discovery in America, these induced pluripotent stem cells, IPSCs, with which there is no ethical problem, will make the ethics of embryo research, or the question of their ethics, "a funny historical footnote". Dr. Robert Lanza, another expert in the field, hailed the discovery as "a new era for stem cells". Importantly, the discovery of induced pluripotent stem cells did not result from embryo research and, contrary to what Professor McConnell claimed earlier today in a briefing session, IPSC research is not inextricably tied to the continuation of embryo research. There is an even greater reason for thinking that embryo research will one day be of historical interest only. Last month, a stem cell team from Harvard found a way to directly reprogram one type of adult stem cell into any other type of adult stem cell, again rendering unnecessary embryo stem cell research in the future.
There is another dimension to the context of this Bill. We live in an uncertain economic climate and funding is at a premium. Resources are limited and every penny one proposes to spend on embryo-destructive research is a penny less for the adult stem cell research we seek, which hopefully will have the same capacity to lead to cures, albeit cures with which all can live as a society. There is no neutral position in this regard. There is a choice to be made and Ireland is a small country with limited resources. This Bill represents an intelligent and compassionate response to these challenges. Ireland has neither the funding nor the resources available to become a centre of excellence in both adult and embryo stem cell research and we must choose.
Earlier this year, an article appeared in the Cell Proliferation journal, that criticised proponents of embryo research for making false and exaggerated claims about its potential. Not only is embryo research unethical, the claims being made on its behalf also are unethical because they propagate false hope to earn government funding. More money is spent on embryo-destructive research than on adult stem cell research in America. However, it is no secret that the majority of private funding is invested into where results are to be found, namely, adult stem cells. It appears that sometimes, even the market does not lie.
I refer to the case of Professor Colin McGuckin, a leading Irish-born expert on stem cell research, who recently left Newcastle University with his research team to work in Lyons, France. He objects that little funding is being given to adult stem cell research, while hundreds of millions of pounds are being wasted on unethical embryo-destructive research. Moreover, his views are shared. For example, Professor Ian Wilmut, the scientist behind cloning Dolly the sheep, has completely given up cloning in favour of the new, promising and ethically-acceptable adult stem cell research.
One also must learn from the British experience. If one legislates for embryo research, it follows that one eventually must legislate for human cloning and human-animal hybrids. This much is clear, even from a comparison between the Commission on Assisted Human Reproduction report of 2005, which turned its back on animal-human hybrids, and the more radicalised recent Irish Council of Bioethics report, which recommends highly controversial animal-human hybrids in certain circumstances. The reason is that if one is to conduct embryo-destructive research, it will not be enough to use so-called leftover embryos from in vitro fertilisation, IVF, and one will be obliged to look for other, controversial sources.
A "waste not, want not" approach to human life in IVF clinics is utterly contrary to any notion of the ethics of human rights. I stress this Bill does not touch on reproductive areas. It aims to seek the support of people who may have no problem with IVF, even as currently practised, although practice in this regard continues to evolve. This Bill is confined to the issue of research on human embryos. People who have no problem with IVF or the morning-after pill may well support the principles contained in this Bill because they oppose research on human beings at their earliest stage and using them as a means to an end.
Some Members may have genuine concerns about where this Bill leaves us in respect of the rest of Europe. Many other countries in Europe prohibit the destruction of human embryos, although in some cases they hit on an unsatisfactory halfway house in which they allow research on cells taken from human embryos. This Bill proposes a consistent approach.
It will no doubt be pointed out that this Bill diverges on some points with recent commissioned reports, namely, the aforementioned Commission on Assisted Human Reproduction and Irish Council of Bioethics reports. My response is it diverges for very good reasons. Not only are these reports out of date scientifically, they ignore the fact that the majority of submissions they received argued for protecting the human embryo from destructive research. Moreover, they are progressively more radical in their claims as time goes on. Although they refer to embryo research as the gold standard, this claim has no meaning in the light of recent optimistic and promising developments in adult stem cell research, which hold out an equal hope of having cures with which all can live.
In conclusion, I wish to stress the importance of social cohesion. This Bill should be supported by people who respect the human embryo because of what it is, namely, human life with potential, not potential human life. The Bill should be supported by those who may or may not believe the embryo constitutes a human life but who do not wish to deny cures. An alternative ethical route up the mountain now is available. Although embyro-destructive research has yielded nothing thus far, the hope, backed up by eminent scientists, is that in the future, such yields can come from alternative ethical sources.
Finally, Members must not forget social cohesion. They do not seek a future in which society is divided between scientists who will gain employment and those who will not because of their ethical objections or between patients who will accept certain treatments and those who will not, because they have ethical objections. While Ireland is a small country, it can concentrate its limited resources on the noble area of adult stem cell research, as well as on all the associated exciting new areas, which hold out credible promises for cures with which all can live.
I commend the Bill to the House and look forward to the debate.