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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 26 Nov 2008

Vol. 192 No. 8

Stem-Cell Research (Protection of Human Embryos) Bill 2008: Second Stage.

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.

I second the motion and, together with my colleague, Senator Hanafin, am glad to do so. I commend Senator Mullen on his work on the Bill, as well as my intern, Dualta Redmond, on his tremendous work while researching it. It is worth reminding Members that in 1988, the High Court ruled the Offences against the Person Act 1861 protects the unborn from the moment of conception. However, the High Court judgment of 2007 that an embryo before implantation does not enjoy constitutional protection obviously has implications in this area. This matter has been appealed to the Supreme Court and Members must await the outcome. However, neither the courts nor individual judges should decide this matter; it should be the Oireachtas. This is the reason I welcome the Bill today and I am glad to second it. Members have the mandate to decide policy and should be involved in it.

It is a highly complex area from a scientific, moral, ethical and human life point of view. At the outset, I wish to state that curing debilitating conditions, such as Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease and many others, is worthy of serious and well-funded research. However, embryonic stem cell research is an avenue that should not be pursued. There is a number of valid reasons for this, including a plethora of scientific research confirming the value of adult stem cell research.

Members learned last week of the amazing results in Spain, where a 30 year old Colombian lady, who had been diagnosed with tuberculosis with complications and who struggled to breathe, presented herself for treatment. The surgeons carried out the world's first tissue-engineered whole organ transplant in a pioneering technique using a windpipe made with the patient's own stem cells. That such amazing breakthroughs using stem cells are beginning to garner publicity makes UCC's recent decision all the more disheartening.

By the narrowest of margins, the governing body of UCC voted to give the green light for the use of embryonic stem cell research for medical purposes. I understand the measure was approved on the casting vote of the chairman. It is unacceptable for UCC to decide unilaterally to forge ahead with embryonic stem cell research. It is worth noting that the chair of the ethics committee of UCC, who was instrumental in making the recommendation to the governing body, is a member of the Commission on Assisted Human Reproduction. She was also appointed by the Government to the ethics committee of the Medical Council. While I will not comment in this regard, it is essential that people of independent opinions be appointed to such bodies. If people with predispositions are appointed, the outcomes on which Government policy are based are predetermined and inevitable. There are similar instances elsewhere, for example, in civil partnership.

Professor William Reville, head of the biochemistry department in UCC, stated:

Most people do not realise that an alternative stem cell approach to curing disease is now available that is just as promising as the HESCR approach but which poses no ethical problems. I refer to induced pluripotent stem cells (IPSC). And, of course, adult stem cell research, which is likewise free from ethical problems, is also available and is producing very promising results.

As has been discussed, the reason embryonic stem cells are the focus of so much attention lies in their ability to differentiate into virtually any cell of the body. This in turn would allow for the possible regeneration of damaged brain tissue, for example. However, leading Japanese scientist Dr. Yamanaka of Kyoto University has managed to reprogram normal human skin cells to an embryonic-like form. These are induced pluripotent stem cells and have the same properties as embryonic stem cells. Along with the Spanish situation, good research along the same lines is being conducted in Toronto University.

Professor Reville has written a number of articles on and is a strong proponent of this issue. As he is also a member of my home town, I am familiar with him and know him to be a balanced individual. When he contacted us regarding this matter, he stated:

Although it goes deeply against the grain for me to oppose any research, I must oppose HESC research on ethical grounds. Biology, the science of life, tells us that human life begins at conception, thereby starting a living continuum that ends only in death. To deliberately kill the embryo is to violate its human rights.

He continued by stating that, when the ovum meets the sperm, the process of fertilisation is complete and a new life comes into being. A whole new genome is created and determines gender, height — subject to normal nutrition — and colour of skin, eyes and hair. The Irish Council for Bioethics recognises this position, but inexplicably favours embryonic stem cell research. It also favoured animal-human hybrid cell lines. With the exception of Britain, this has been banned in every country that has legislated in this area.

In an article entitled "Life Continuum" in UCC News, Professor Reville stated, “The whole process is a continuum of human essence between the boundaries of conception and death and is programmed to proceed automatically under normal circumstances.” In addition, he stated:

Each stage along this continuum is fully human, having the full human properties appropriate to its stage — zygote, foetus, baby, adolescent, adult and older person. All the genetic information in the human adult is already present in the single-celled zygote. Each point on this human continuum is dependent on the preceding part of the continuum and determines the succeeding part of the continuum. Interrupt the continuum at any point and nothing happens beyond that point. These are biological facts. Accepting these facts, it seems clear that it is arbitrary, and therefore wrong, to pick any point on this continuum and claim it marks the boundary between the preceding ‘not fully human and not deserving of protection' section and the succeeding ‘human enough to deserve protection' section. The same full human essence is present everywhere along the continuum.

He could have gone further. It is not just a life. We all started as zygotes and developed because we were not destroyed. On a pro-life basis, we must oppose the destruction of the embryo because destroying it would not only affect that life, but also the progeny it might produce. We do not have the right to destroy a genetic lineage.

The European Science Foundation's briefing on stem cell research discusses the ethical problems associated with the use of embryonic cells over adult stem cells. It refers to the use of embryonic stem cells as the "instrumentalisation of human embryos", in other words, the reduction of life to a commodity. Destroying an embryo is to end a person's story after the first sentence. Arguments in favour are utilitarian, namely, the end justifies the means. This cannot be an acceptable basis for legislation or scientific advancement. Biology is the science of life. Let us keep it that way.

As we debate this Bill, it is fair to state that each Member of this House is now better informed on the issue of stem cell research and the use of adult and embryonic stem cells than we were some time ago. This is so because the debate has been brought to the floor of the House by Senator Mullen, which is welcome.

Many countries conduct much research in this area. Until recently, however, and given UCC's decision in particular, there has not been considerable public awareness of what is occurring. Ironically, when we heard last week of the stem cell research that led to a young Colombian woman receiving a new windpipe, the general population was given a new awareness of the research's potential and possible impact on lives. The woman was donated the windpipe of a deceased person. Cells were removed from it and replaced by her own to grow and implant an entirely new windpipe. All of a sudden, the woman's bleak prospects were transformed thanks to the use of adult stem cell research.

Recently, I read an article on the issue in The Sunday Times. It outlined how, five years from now, scientists will be able to grow a larynx from a patient’s own stem cells and, within 20 years, it may well be possible to do the same in respect of colons, livers and even hearts. Furthermore, research is being carried out to grow nerve cells to treat brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. All of this is occurring using adult stem cells, a welcome development. The British Medical Council is funding the use of embryonic stem cells to treat macular degeneration, an age-related blindness that affects thousands of people. Would someone offered this treatment use it if he or she believed it would be a cure? Ethical questions are involved.

As Senator Mullen stated, much of the research is still at an early stage. The European Science Foundation stated that it is essential to proceed with research on stem cells derived from embryos, foetal tissues and adults in parallel to learn more about how they can be used in treatment. Developments are occurring at a rapid rate and I am sure people will want to avail of these treatments and be able to access them in due course. Currently, Ireland finds itself in a legal vacuum, which was most recently witnessed when the governors of UCC voted narrowly in favour of effectively using imported embryos for stem cell research.

The Commission on Assisted Human Reproduction raised an interesting question, namely, whether science can be allowed to do what science can do. The answer is "No". There are limits and a need for a legal framework. The closest that many Irish people come to considering the use of excess embryos is IVF treatment. Infertility is an increasing problem owing to environmental and physical factors. It is not well understood. The commission stated, "Infertility can be a devastating experience causing enormous emotional pain which impacts on every aspect of a person's life." It goes on to state that "IVF forces society to face the question, whether for the first time in the history of mankind human embryos may be used for purposes other than human reproduction". This observation illustrates the close link between some aspects of the legislation before the House and IVF treatment, although Senator Mullen did make the point that he excluded IVF from the Bill.

I recommend that everyone read the comprehensive report of the Commission on Assisted Human Reproduction, especially as it takes a nuanced and interesting approach and engages in an in-depth consideration of research carried out across the globe. The report indicates that many countries have not yet introduced legislation in respect of this area. Questions arise as to what happens to spare embryos arising from IVF. Owing to the fact that there is no legislation in place, we do not know a great deal with regard to what occurs in laboratories or what happens to frozen embryos following a certain period.

I wish to place on record the most recent legal view from the courts in respect of embryos. Many Members will recall the recent case where the plaintiff and the defendant were married and where the plaintiff had IVF treatment resulting in the creation of frozen embryos. The couple subsequently separated and the defendant wanted the embryos destroyed while the plaintiff wanted to have them inserted in her uterus with the hope that she would become pregnant. In this case, M.R. v. T.R., the High Court decided in 2006 that the word “unborn” does not include embryos in vitro and, therefore, did not relate to the frozen embryos which were at the heart of this dispute. The case in question is currently before the Supreme Court. I refer to it as an example of our understanding, and that of the courts, of the terms relating to this matter.

Fine Gael is of the view that comprehensive legislation is necessary. There is a need to establish a wide-ranging statutory framework in the area of stem cell research and the use of embryos. This issue and the debate relating to it are complex and delicate. There are deeply held views among many people across the political spectrum in respect of it. Legislation in this area is, therefore, inevitably complex. Well-intended legislation may have complex and unintended results. Such legislation might even have an impact on the Constitution.

It is crucial that we have a legislative framework which demands that research carried out is informed by our society's values while recognising legitimate scientific enquiry in the human interest and also in the need for appropriate restraint. The issues under discussion are of fundamental importance. As the commission stated, in a diverse Irish society it is unlikely that any one set of ethical or moral principles could be acceptable to all.

I do not have time to outline the detail of what the commission recommended. However, it put forward detailed proposals on this matter. The Government has failed to act on any of the Commission's recommendations and a vacuum has been created. I call on the Government to bring forward legislation in respect of this area. By introducing the Bill, Senator Mullen has continued the tradition of the Seanad playing an important role in initiating and advancing crucial national debates on issues of immense importance.

I wish to make a number of points regarding my concerns about the Bill. I accept that the Bill specifically excludes IVF and I fully accept the bona fides of Senator Mullen in this regard. Nevertheless, I was in contact earlier today with a scientist who disputes this fact. There are incompatibilities between section 1(a) and section 1(b)(i) in respect of this matter. I am concerned by the implications of the term “outside the State”, which is used on two occasions in the Bill. Does this term mean that an Irish person could not access treatment abroad?

Section 6 refers to the "responsible body". What constitutes a responsible body and to whom does the term "offence" apply? Fine Gael is concerned about some of the provisions that seek to criminalise people who may make donations of embryos. The position in the Bill in this regard is somewhat unclear. In Britain, the Warnock report stated that research on embryos could only be allowed up to 14 days.

I commend Senator Mullen on raising this issue and ensuring the Seanad once again leads the way on a major issue and embarks on a vital process wherein legislation must catch up with rapidly developing science. I have posed questions and made observations and comments. I hope these will contribute to the debate on this matter.

I welcome the opportunity to respond, on behalf of the Government, to this Private Members' Bill sponsored by Senator Mullen. Stem cell research represents one of the most important and challenging areas of investigation that scientists and clinicians will undertake in the 21st century. Much of the work with stem cells raises no ethical issues or concerns. For example, bone marrow transplants have been available for some time. The use of stem cells has the potential for a significant impact on human health in the repair of damaged tissues and in tackling some of the most intractable diseases, such as type 2 diabetes, cancer and neurodegenerative conditions.

The hallmark of stem cells is their ability to develop into many other cell types and this fundamental property needs continued research and investigation if it is to be harnessed to greatest effect. Adult stem cells can be obtained from many parts of the body, including bone marrow, brain, blood, skin, eye, muscle, liver and hair. However, they are somewhat restricted in the number of cell types into which they can develop. On the other hand, embryonic stem cells are able to develop into almost all the different types of cells needed to form the human body. The removal of these cells from the embryo would, however, result in its destruction.

Adult stem cell research can be broadly categorised in three fundamental avenues, namely, identifying new populations and sources of stem cells, understanding the fundamental properties of stem cells and developing new modes of therapy using stem cells. In Ireland, scientists are engaged, to a greater or lesser extent, in each of these areas and are using adult-derived stem cells.

A major new challenge for stem cell research will be to identify sources, or ways of generating such cells. Perhaps the most exciting of these is the ability to endow stem cell-like qualities on cells that do not otherwise share the ability to differentiate into new cell types. While these cells — induced pluripotent stem cells, IPSCs — offer a great deal of hope, much research is needed before they will be routinely used in any clinical setting. IPSCs are made by genetically reprogramming ordinary adult cells and thereby transforming them into stem cells. They are claimed to be equivalent to embryonic stem cells in every respect tested. This area of stem cell research is still relatively new and has yet to be employed to any great extent in Ireland. However, it is hoped that this technology will offer great benefits to the basic research undertaken by scientists and clinicians in the coming years. Even with the evident promise of IPSCs, there is a need for continued adult stem cell research because it will only be through their being subjected to meticulous scientific study that we will gain a better understanding of how they develop and what controls their differentiation, thereby gaining a meaningful insight into how their potential to transform to new cell types might be best harnessed.

Only last week the potency of adult stem cell research was communicated worldwide through the case of Claudia Castillo, a 30 year old Colombian mother of two living in Spain. Ms Castillo received the world's first airway transplant using an organ partly grown from stem cells taken from her bone marrow. In this ground-breaking operation, surgeons replaced a section of Ms Castillo's windpipe, which had been damaged by tuberculosis, with a donated organ that was stripped of its cells and used as a scaffold for her own stem cells. Owing to the fact that her immune system recognised her own cells in the replacement organ, she has not faced organ rejection nor has she been obliged to take powerful drugs to suppress her immune system. This technique gives great hope to many patients whose organs are damaged.

Embryonic stem cell research is a sensitive subject and it evokes different views from particular sectors of society. The main source of human embryonic stem cells for research is from embryos produced, but not used, during in vitro fertilisation, IVF, treatment. As noted by the Commission on Assisted Human Reproduction, the surplus embryos not used for immediate transfer may be preserved in a frozen state for further use by the couple that produced them, thereby avoiding the necessity of repeating the risky and uncomfortable procedure of ovarian stimulation. If frozen embryos still remain after the couple has completed treatment, the available options include donation to another couple, donation for research, the embryos being allowed to perish or continued storage.

There are many who are opposed to human embryonic stem cell research on ethical grounds and who see an outright ban on this type of research as the appropriate approach but there are also those who pin their hopes on this research activity finding new treatments for some of the most serious and distressing diseases afflicting society at large. A significant body of researchers argue that embryonic stem cells offer the best possibility of generating the knowledge that will lead to new treatments.

Human embryonic stem cell research is considered to hold significant promise in treating diseases for which there is currently no cure, namely, Alzheimer's, motor neuron disease and spinal cord injuries which cause paraplegia and other disabilities. However, other researchers argue strongly that the sourcing of such stem cells and the resulting destruction of human embryos can never be justified and is unethical. These researchers point to work on adult stem cells or induced pluripotent stem cells, which do not give rise to ethical concerns, as the most appropriate approach to follow. The view is also held that research on human embryonic stem cells and human adult stem cells is complementary and that comparison between the two is an essential element for advancing basic research.

Currently, there is no legislation in Ireland governing intervention in the natural process of creating human life. Medical practice is governed by guidelines issued by the Medical Council, which provide that the creation of new forms of life for experimental purposes or the deliberate and intentional destruction of in vitro human life already formed is professional misconduct.

The development and use of technologies in this area, such as embryonic stem cell research, raises an array of legal, social and ethical questions that are complex and profound. It is an area that triggers diverse reactions in the public, some of which include unease and anxiety. A number of the issues involved in the broad field of assisted human reproduction treatment, science and human embryonic stem cell research go to the core of our concepts of human dignity and personhood. There was growing public concern at these developments and in view of their complex and potentially controversial nature, the then Minister for Health and Children decided that the establishment of a Commission on Assisted Human Reproduction would be an essential first step before any policy proposals were propounded. Its terms of reference included 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 largely comprised persons with expert knowledge spanning the medical, scientific, social and legal domains. This expertise was a prerequisite to a precise examination of the issues concerned. The chair also invited a number of additional experts with complementary expertise in specific areas to join work groups. These groups were established to explore particular aspects of assisted human reproduction and included experts and academics from sociology, philosophy, ecumenism and theology.

The commission conducted an intensive and analytical examination of relevant issues and its conclusions derive from this wide research. Its report was prepared after 23 meetings. The early meetings were devoted to an exchange of information between the commission members. Each discipline, medical, scientific, legal and social, prepared a report outlining the current position on assisted human reproduction in that discipline. In its letter of establishment, it was indicated that the commission would be expected to consult widely, to seek submissions from the public and to establish the views of service providers and consumers.

The commission was also expected to consult philosophical and theological experts and relevant people in Northern Ireland and Great Britain. In delivering on this aspect of its remit, the commission consulted users of services in a survey organised through the National Infertility Support and Information Group; placed an advertisement in the national press inviting members of the public and interested organisations to make submissions, to which it received 1,700 responses; recruited a market research organisation to carry out a survey of a random sample of 1,003 people aged over 15 years; conducted a survey of the services provided by 1,163 general practitioners for infertile couples; conducted a survey of 114 obstetricians-gynaecologists in maternity hospitals-units; conducted a survey of the then eight clinics providing assisted human reproduction services in Ireland and contacted the chief executive officers of the health boards to ascertain their involvement in the provision of services.

The commission held two conferences, the first being a small conference of invited experts and the second a public conference of more than 250 people. Its report, published in May 2005, which was the first step in determining a policy response to assisted human reproduction, made 40 recommendations on services in Ireland. The key recommendation was that a regulatory body to regulate services in Ireland should be established by an Act of the Oireachtas. The commission stated that the legislation should specify the procedures to be allowed and provide for the establishment of an independent statutory body, accountable to the Minister for Health and Children, that would have regulatory, advisory and executive powers over the permitted services and activities. This body would license facilities engaged in these services and activities. In addition, it should be empowered to issue guidelines on the operation of the permitted services, including, as appropriate, the freezing, storage and uses of gametes and embryos and the fertilisation of ova.

A licensing and inspection model for assisted human reproduction services and activities, in line with the recommendations of the Commission on Assisted Human Reproduction, would seem to provide a robust system of oversight, monitoring and control over the activities that are now scientifically possible within this domain, including the area of human embryonic stem cell research. Such a statutory licensing procedure, supported by an inspection regime governing centres, would achieve, with others, this main overarching objective of statutory oversight. Ultimately, it would ensure that no service or activity for which a licence is statutorily required is undertaken in the absence of approval of the designated statutory authority.

The other main recommendations of the commission, which may be largely grouped under five general headings, are access to services; donor programmes and procedures; surrogacy; procedures relating to human gametes; and possible approaches to issues surrounding the human embryo. In the area of embryo research the commission recommended, by majority opinion, that embryo research, including embryonic stem cell research, for specific purposes only and under stringently controlled conditions, should be permitted on surplus embryos that are donated specifically for research. This should be permitted up to 14 days following fertilisation. The regulatory body should stipulate under what conditions and for what purposes embryo research is permitted. Those donating embryos for research must receive pre-donation information and counselling and must give informed consent for the use of donated embryos for research. No inducement, financial or otherwise, should be offered or accepted for the donation of embryos for research. Once embryos are used for research their subsequent use for reproductive purposes should be prohibited. The commission recommended that the generation of embryos through IVF specifically for research purposes should be prohibited. Again, by majority opinion, the commission recommended that regenerative medicine should be permitted under regulation.

The commission recommended unanimously that human reproductive cloning and the generation and use of inter-species human embryos should be prohibited, but that research on gametes should be permitted provided it is governed by strict conditions set out by the regulatory body and subject to informed consent from donors.

In 2005, the Government referred the commission's report to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children for consideration. The committee will report in due course on its views of the recommendations of the commission. Given the amount of work required, the Minister for Health and Children instructed the Department to begin work on the development of an appropriate regulatory framework. Factors that will be taken into account include the report of the Joint Committee on Health and Children, when completed, with any judgment of the Supreme Court in the M. R. v. T. R. — frozen embryos — case. That case is on appeal to the Supreme Court and a hearing is expected in the near future. On that basis, the Government has not, to date, proposed legislation in this area but the Department of Health and Children has engaged in the complex preliminary work. The work that the Government is undertaking is intended to result in policy proposals for a legal framework for this area. This work involves exploring and examining areas such as legal parentage, practices on gametes and in vitro embryos — including embryonic stem cell research, arrangements for consent, and many other areas that are impacted by this wide and complex area. It is not an understatement to say that this area involves consideration of a range of ethical, legal, medical, social and scientific questions and issues that are divisive.

The work under way has a significant international dimension. The Department of Health and Children, as part of the complex preparatory work, has been examining the regulatory regimes introduced by other countries and how they went about devising their laws. This work involves a detailed review of legislation and other relevant legal instruments by which assisted human reproduction treatment and research is regulated in other countries. This is important as it gives an understanding of how legislation works in this area. The preparation for legislation on assisted human reproduction and human embryonic stem cell research involves setting out the full range of issues and identifying all of the interrelationships between these, including all of those mentioned in the Senator's Bill. Once completed, this body of work will form a platform from which a legal framework to govern the area will be derived. The Government looks forward to seeing this work completed expeditiously so that a comprehensive and robust legal framework for regulating the area can be created.

More recent scientific developments will also need to be taken into account. As mentioned earlier, induced pluripotent stem cells, IPSCs, have become available and are described as producing very promising results. This development postdates the report of the commission and is a very significant development, providing, as it does, another route to research on human stem cells without any negative ethical problems attaching to them.

The Government is embarked on a responsible and considered path to regulation in this area which requires that it receive the views of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children and the Supreme Court decision in the M.R. v. T.R. appeal to inform the regulatory framework to be introduced.

I look forward to hearing the remainder of the debate on the Bill.

The Bill addresses a complex and evolving area of medicine that can have great benefits for humankind. However, stem-cell research also raises moral questions, as has been evidenced by the contributors to the debate thus far. The Bill seeks to address these questions from a particular religious standpoint. While it is perfectly legitimate for this approach to be taken, those of us who would take a moral view must be responsible about bringing to bear our personal beliefs in society at large. We must be conscious and respectful of the other side of the argument — as Senator Mullen is on record as saying.

There are medical, financial and legal issues which must be considered. For instance, the Bill takes a clear legal position on the status of the embryo at a time when a Supreme Court ruling is due on this matter. Some scientists regard embryonic stem-cell research to be a moral obligation because their work can have genuine therapeutic benefits for people suffering from appalling ailments. The Bill does not oppose adult stem-cell research and Senator Mullen has argued that this work has great potential and his position generally has support from some scientists, as has been evidenced in e-mails I have received in recent days.

However, other scientists say restricting the research to adult stem cells could limit the potential of this field of bioengineering. We have the typical stance of opposing views on what is a very delicate subject. We must be particularly careful not to overstep our mark. It is not the role of the Legislature to make decisions on what medical research will and will not work. On the other hand, it is within our mandate to take moral positions about what happens within our borders. The choice we make concerning this complex development in medicine is one we must make carefully.

While we may disagree on the detail, there is one fact we all share, which is we were all embryos at one stage. With that in mind I am conscious that life did not start in the reproductive process with the embryo, but human life did. That is what makes the embryo something that of its own right has dignity. It must have respect or we would cross a Rubicon over which we could never go back.

In the time since the 1960s when stem cells were first recognised to today in November 2008, more than 70 diseases have been successfully treated using adult stem cells. There is not one single successful clinical treatment arising from embryonic stem cells. The reason is very clear and quite simple. If we look at the embryo, we see a living embryo which grows and multiplies at a very fast rate. That in itself precludes it from being used for any treatments. In the attempts to prevent this growth and multiplication there have been cancerous cells growing which is why with all the money that has been wasted scientists have been consistently unable to achieve success. For that reason I am happy to be associated with seconding the Bill.

I wish to share the last minute of my time, by leave of the House, with Senator Callanan.

Normally that would be announced at the outset. Is that agreed? Agreed.

That embryo-destructive research is wrong in principle because it attacks the life of a human being at the earliest stage of his or her development is also backed up by the absolute inability of embryonic stem cells to have any successful clinical application. It is saddening to think of how much money, like the alchemists of the Dark Ages, has been wasted when so much could have been achieved for the public by placing these funds into adult stem cell research.

Recently under the heading "How they can rebuild you", a report in The Sunday Times described how scientists and doctors in Britain and Spain set about creating the first tissue-engineered trachea or windpipe, using a patient’s own stem cells. These are the “worker” cells that replenish and rebuild the body’s organs. This new stage of research and treatment builds on well-established techniques used for decades, like stem cell transplants in cancer patients to replace cells in their own bone marrow lost as a result of chemotherapy or radiotherapy. While these are stem cell breakthroughs, they use adult stem cells.

I have heard and read about the words "hope", "potential" and "possibility" about embryonic stem cell research and yet there is nothing. After all the billions that have been spent unsuccessfully it must be questionable whether it is fair to be offering hope to people when the reality is that all the success has come from adult stem cell research. The scientists doing the research that is bearing such astonishing fruit and grabbing the headlines in the news are all doing adult stem cell research. We need to invite in more of these scientists who are doing adult stem cell research. We need to make Ireland a grant rich environment for them. If we build the research centres they will come. Ireland could become as much a byword in adult stem cell research as it is in software development.

In Cologne there is a group called XCell, about which I spoke in the last term. Nothing has changed in the years that have passed since we discussed stem cell research except that more positive results have come from adult stem cell research. I note XCell is treating people with diabetes mellitus type 1, those who have suffered a stroke, those with spinal cord injuries and those with multiple sclerosis with stem cells taken from adult tissue. It is also treating people with Parkinson's disease and people with cerebral palsy. What right has it to tell people there is hope when, after 48 years, including 27 years of medical attempts, there has been no success in that regard. All the success is coming from adult stem cell research.

Senator Mullen's Bill would help, not hinder, in making Ireland an attractive destination for such scientists. There is an opportunity for Ireland — one we should not ignore in these economically difficult times — to coax some of the leading scientists in the field of adult stem cell research to come here. We can attract them here if we seize the moment and send out the message that we are putting resources into adult stem cell research. I am conscious there is a proposal that the Government invest money, as is the case in the UK, America and many other emerging first world countries, in rebooting the economy. This would present a wonderful opportunity for us to have ethical research into an attractive area that is bearing results.

I am conscious that the professor of regenerative medicine at Newcastle University, Colin McGuckin, has decided to leave the UK and relocate to the University of Lyons at the start of next year with his team of ten research personnel, all experts in adult stem cell research. The reason he is leaving Britain is that the university and the UK funding agencies are investing money first in embryonic stem cell research despite, as he said, the clinical benefits offered by adult stem cell research. Adult stem cell research is already delivering the goods. Research using stem cells got by disassembling human embryos is not producing new cures or new treatments.

The situation has not changed from the last term. First, it is ethically wrong to use an embryo which must be destroyed to get the embryonic stem cells. Second, there are no results from such research. Nothing positive has emerged. All the results are emerging from adult stem cell research.

I thank Senator Hanafin for sharing one minute of his time with me. I will say all I want to in that time. I came here specifically to speak on this substantial Bill and I compliment the three Senators who put their names to it. I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I hope the outcome of this debate will be of benefit to the Minister of State, Deputy Devins.

I put on the record that I fully support this Bill without question or equivocation. I endorse what was said by the three Senators to whom I referred and the other Senators who spoke clearly and fairly on this Bill. Specifically, coming from this side of the debate, I support in full what was said by Senators Mullen, Walsh and Hanafin.

I also want to put something else on the record. Perhaps I should not say this, but I have been the beneficiary of substantial medication during the past few years. I have been a recipient and a beneficiary of medication, but I would not wish my life to be extended by one second by the deliberate taking of another life.

I wish to share time with Senator Norris.

That is agreed.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I wish to set some context for this debate. Embryonic stem cell research is a relatively new area of research. It is within the last two decades that scientists have begun seriously to carry out research on embryonic stem cell lines. Contrary to some of what we have been hearing, the weight of medical and scientific opinion internationally is in favour of allowing this research to continue, albeit subject to strict conditions and regulations. I believe we are all agreed on the need for regulations.

I am grateful to the Minister of State for setting out clearly the findings of the report of the Commission on Assisted Human Reproduction in 2005. It is also worth noting that in 2008 the Irish Council for Bioethics made similar recommendations about the need for a robust legal framework within which embryonic stem cell research would be permitted. That is important. I would welcome regulations.

The reason for these recommendations and that scientists internationally are agreed on the potential of this research is that embryonic stem cell research offers immense potential — it is only potential at this early stage — for the treatment of neurodegenerative disorders in particular, such as Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease. With an ageing population in Ireland, we face an epidemic of these disorders in the future. At present, approximately 7,000 people in Ireland have Parkinson's disease. We should not turn our backs on even a prospect of developing treatment for such disorders by ruling out altogether such developments by putting a blanket ban on embryonic stem cell research. The drugs, on the development of which we have spent enormous resources, do not work, but embryonic stem cell research offers exciting potential.

Much has been said about adult stem cell research. I believe we are all agreed on the immensely exciting potential of such research for treating different disorders. We have already seen the treatment of blood disorders and leukaemia. That is very exciting, but the weight of medical and scientific opinion states that embryonic stem cell research offers a different and greater potential for the treatment of neurodegenerative disorders in particular.

The effect of this Bill would be to provide for an absolute prohibition on all forms of embryonic stem cell research. Where persons wished to donate embryos that they would never see develop into human beings, even for research abroad, that would become a criminal offence under this Bill.

I could not support and would have to oppose such an absolutist Bill and, on reflection, I believe most of us would agree that it is wrong to close a door absolutely. Instead, we should look at the regulations that have been provided for elsewhere. As the commission recommended, for example, it is not permitted to generate embryos specifically for research but rather only to use embryos that would not in any case develop into human beings. Currently in Ireland, as Senator Fitzgerald stated, embryos are being left frozen in liquid nitrogen indefinitely. Regulations would have to provide for fully informed consent of the parents of the embryos and that only embryos up to 14 days development could be used for research, as is the case in Britain.

The danger with this Bill is that it holds out no prospect of regulation of that sort. It simply bans this research. It includes the rather emotive term "destruction". It has implications for other developments in the future such as early detection of genetic diseases in embryos and so on. It would also send out a clear message that Ireland is not open to scientific research. There has been talk of academics leaving other countries to come to Ireland. I believe we would see academics leaving Ireland to conduct research they see as offering exciting potential to do good in other countries with less restrictive regimes. It would send out a dangerous message and it is important that the chief science adviser, Science Foundation Ireland, and others would be involved in any development of a regulatory framework. This absolutist position would not be helpful.

Many speakers referred to the meaning of human life and asked when does human life begin. All of us have different views on that and we must be respectful of each other's views, but whatever views we take, none of us can prove scientifically when human life begins, when an embryo becomes a human being.

The Senator's time has concluded. She is now using some of Senator Norris's time.

May I finish on this point? The key here is to achieve a balance. We must achieve a balanced approach. We do not know whether life has begun with a two week old embryo, but we know that a two week old embryo left under liquid nitrogen storage indefinitely is not the same as a seven year old girl with leukaemia——

——a 32 year old woman with multiple sclerosis or a 55 year old man with Parkinson's disease. I want to refer to a letter from a senior neuroscientist in Trinity College who made that comparison directly and who pointed out that all those patients — patients are not mentioned in this Bill — deserve as much help as possible from society and it would be far more morally wrong to close a door on developing research that might have potential. We must act with compassion, care and caution on this issue and not in an absolutist way simply to prohibit outright all forms of embryonic stem cell research.

I welcome the clear and balanced position adopted by the Government in the Minister of State's speech. I was very heartened by it. I do not support the Bill. I do not believe a fertilised embryo is a full human being. I never have believed that and I never will. It reminds me of the abortion debate in which I do not think the men in this House distinguished themselves by valuing their spouses at the same level as a microscopic cluster of cells. I do not deride that but that is the equation. I would not want to be married to a person who had that view.

The argument has certain characteristics. There is a template here that I have observed with concern in recent times. There is the invocation of compassion, the adoption of the language of human rights and the colonisation of language such as "embryo-destructive". A lot of embryos get destroyed. They get destroyed by nature. That happens frequently. What about that? Is that an accident? Is God not in control in those circumstances? The view comes from the theological perspective of the dominant religion in this country. That needs to be taken into account. It is not just Christian, it is denominational and it places a particular view on those matters.

Then there is the scare tactic that a lot of money will be wasted and there is the possibility of cancer. It is said that the money is being wasted because the results have been produced by adult stem cell research alone. That is not true. That is Reader’s Digest science combined with rhetoric. The recent wonderfully positive experiments in Spain that had success with a woman was as a result of the interdependence of research on adult and embryonic stem cells. The discovery of the first IPS cells came out of systematically testing 400 genes in embryonic stem cells until they found the four genes that appeared to be necessary and sufficient to induce pluripotency in adult stem cells.

Senator Callanan said he received medical treatment because he has a condition. So have I, but I am not going to go on about it. I would never say to anybody else that he or she should do something. I have a number of letters, some of them very nasty and others which impugn the ethical position of scientists. That is wrong and it is destructive. I also have a letter from the mother of a quadriplegic, a woman who is paralysed for life. She does not take the same view as Senator Callanan and she is just as entitled to her view as anybody else.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Devins, and the opportunity to discuss this Private Members' Bill. I congratulate Senator Mullen on bringing it forward. There is a need for comprehensive debate on stem cell research, especially the merits of embryonic stem cell research versus adult stem cell research. Unfortunately, due to the lack of debate, there has also been a lack of regulation in this area, which compares poorly to the United Kingdom where embryonic stem cell research has been legal since 2004. The research there is regulated extremely carefully under specific legislation and statutory regulation by an Act of the Westminster Parliament and is controlled tightly by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority.

In Ireland, by comparison, while research on adult stem cells is legal and some of the research has been publicly funded, the legal position regarding embryonic stem cell research is not clear. We do not have legislation to deal with, for example, embryos left over after IVF treatment. The Medical Council produced guidelines in 2004 that forbid the "deliberate destruction of embryos in addition to the creation of embryos specifically for use in research, therapeutic cloning." However, those guidelines do not apply to scientists. The importation of embryonic stem cell lines created in other countries is not illegal in Ireland. We have a vacuum and, as legislators, we must respond to that. The start of the process is to have a comprehensive debate and this Private Members' Bill will facilitate that.

Stem cell research is an important area of research because stem cells are immature cells that have the potential to develop into any one of the 216 different cell types that make up the human body. In effect, they are a repair kit for the body and they are found in humans at all stages of life, from embryonic through to adulthood as well as in umbilical cords and placentas. Great strides have been made in this area.

Other speakers referred to the great day for medical science when there was a successful replacement of a damaged windpipe with a donor organ treated with adult stem cells. That line of scientific research shows immense potential for development in the fight against disease and in preventing the rejection of organ transplants. There are great hopes for its use, in particular with patients with Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease.

The issue that is particularly relevant to us as legislators is the use of public funding, namely, taxpayers' money, for stem cell research. Irish scientists and researchers deserve to be given the maximum financial and other support to play a leading role in this field. However, ethical issues intrude on any funding policy and they are ones which we as legislators must take seriously. The protection offered to the life of the unborn in the Constitution makes clear that Irish people have a deep sense of the value of human life and a particular understanding of when human life begins. Others may have different views but the matter will have to be clearly defined when it comes to embryonic stem cell research. For some, what they would see as the destruction of embryos would be completely unacceptable ethically.

We heard a geneticist speaking at a briefing session today for Members of the Houses of the Oireachtas who said that as far as he was concerned he does not regard an embryo in the first 14 days of its existence as early human life. It is only after that that he believes the cells develop the properties he would consider as the early stages of human life. As legislators, we have serious questions to debate and on which to seek greater clarity so the public can be informed also.

I do not speak on behalf of the Green Party per se because our party has had difficulties in the past with arriving at a party policy position on abortion. We deal with such issues by permitting them to be a matter of individual conscience. I could not enunciate a position on behalf of the party on embryonic stem cell research because one would find the same divisions among the party membership as one would find among the public.

Adult stem cell research provides much potential. The advantage of it is that it is uncontroversial. Adult stem cell research does not involve the destruction of embryos. Adult stem cells can be developed from umbilical cord blood and placenta, which are rich in adult stem cell potential. Cord blood banking has already been used to treat more than 80 known diseases and it appears to hold great promise for treating additional diseases and disorders. Cord blood stem cells are used primarily for hematopoietic, or blood forming reconstitution, for diseases such as leukemia and lymphoma. Because every cell in the human body has the same genetic information and approximately 200 programmes for using the genetic information, it is clear that it should be possible to make a stem cell from any cell in the body. As other speakers indicated, scientists have already figured out how to do that from skin cells and induced pluri-potent stem, IPS, cells. The advantage of such stem cells is that they can be made from any human being and thus have the potential to allow a human being to regenerate his or her own tissue. That is the best possible scenario given that our immune system rejects almost all cells and tissues from other humans.

From research carried out it appears that it is possible to reprogramme skin cells to become induced pluripotent stem cells, a state which is virtually identical to that of embryonic stem cells. There are some disadvantages attached — as there is a limited quantity of such cells, they can sometimes be difficult to obtain in large numbers and they may be more difficult to reprogramme to form other tissue types.

I welcome the fact that Senator Mullen has introduced this Bill and stimulated this debate. I hope we will carry it to a further stage and, in the process, clarify many of the ethical issues that arise for the Irish public.

I wish to share time with Senator Healy Eames.

I, too, welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate. I thank Senators Mullen and Bacik for arranging information briefings for Senators. These very much helped us to understand the scientific aspects of the issue. Information and education on this complex issue will help Members of every opinion in trying to understand it and make constructive contributions on the Bill.

I am not a scientist and do not pretend to be an expert in this area but I have genuine concerns about unregulated research on human embryos. I am conscious also that this is an emotive and very sensitive issue and that it has the potential to be very divisive. This issue raises serious ethical and moral questions for us all.

The decision taken by University College Cork over a month ago to proceed with embryonic stem cell research, albeit under specific conditions and according to specific criteria, has put this issue on the agenda. I am concerned that colleges and academics are setting the agenda and protocol on this important matter. I respect the views of others and believe our colleges and research facilities must have academic freedom to progress science for the benefit of the human race, but that should not take place at any cost and without considering the implications of scientific decisions for society. This is where the Houses of the Oireachtas have a role.

There is a legal vacuum in Ireland regarding stem cell research. There is genuine concern that there is nothing to prevent individuals or institutions from carrying out unrestricted research in this area. There are concerns that such research could lead to human cloning and animal-human hybrid generation, which would be unacceptable in Irish society. Such cloning is already scientifically possible and thus requires regulation. We need to understand whether this Bill addresses these issues in a comprehensive manner or whether there is a need for further examination of this entire area and further comprehensive legislation and regulations.

Stem cell research has very obvious potential and gives hope to those who suffer from serious permanent injuries and degenerative diseases. However, the research is very much in its infancy and we must be very careful not to raise false hopes among those who are suffering. That, in itself, would be unethical. People need to know the truth regarding scientific progress in this area of research and must be fully informed, in an objective and realistic manner, of any medical breakthrough and the realistic timeframe for progress in respect of their individual conditions.

The serious ethical and moral questions need to be teased out fully. The answers thereto will fundamentally dictate our responses to this issue and this Bill. While the fundamental questions remain unanswered in science and in Irish legislation, we must ask why our colleges are engaging in stem cell research without any legislation or guidance. Many believe that because an embryo genetically programmed with the unique DNA characteristics of a human being has special momentum to develop into a full person, it should therefore be afforded protection. We must ask whether we need to become involved in embryonic research when there is considerable progress and potential in the area of adult stem cell research, which does not represent any threat to embryos and to life.

Adult stem cell research does not pose the same ethical or moral dilemmas as embryonic stem cell research. It is scientifically much more advanced than embryonic stem cell research and it is therefore a much more appropriate area to develop. Research in this area should be allowed to achieve its full potential. This approach must continue to be resourced and receive financial support. I thank Senator Mullen for raising this important issue and I look forward to hearing the contributions of other Senators.

I welcome the Bill as a first step in thinking about this important issue. There are many good provisions therein. The human embryo has the potential to become a person or persons. The Bill proposes the banning of the creation of human embryos for research that could lead to cloning or human-animal hybrids and the donation of human embryos for these purposes. It rules out the deliberate creation of human embryos for the purpose of research. It states adult stem cells and pluripotent cells are subject to more advanced research in terms of finding cures for some debilitating diseases. That is debatable.

The Bill poses some very important ethical questions. I define ethics as the intention not to do harm but to do good. The Bill contains a range of sections detailing criminal offences and we need to proceed with care in this area. Let me highlight in particular the issue of in vitro fertilisation, IVF. Approximately 10% of the Irish population is challenged with infertility. Many of the affected families have been assisted through IVF or human-assisted reproduction to have a baby. Many have undergone IVF with no success. In the IVF procedure, the sperm and egg are fertilised outside the womb in a laboratory setting. Embryos created in this way do not live for more than five days outside the womb, which is important to note. Currently in Ireland, we replace up to two embryos and, in some cases, three. Surplus embryos created in the laboratory can be frozen or, if the couple does not desire this, they are allowed to die naturally. I am concerned that this Bill could be a legislative step that will in some way contribute to the criminalisation of these couples, or women, in the future. Given the nature of the IVF procedure, the women have lost embryos at the neck of the womb or, as is happening at present, have allowed embryos to die naturally that they did not wish to have frozen.

I fully accept this is not the intention of the Bill, yet it could be the effect. Therefore, legal clarification is essential. We do not want to have circumstances in which a court might rule in such a way as to make current practices difficult or illegal and thus subject Irish couples to criminal sanctions.

Consider the fate of surplus embryos that are allowed to die naturally outside the womb and which are known not to have been created deliberately for the purpose of research. Would it not be better to have the option of saving them for research instead of losing them forever? The Commission on Assisted Human Reproduction also made this point, as is evident from the speech of the Minister of State. Saving the embryos allowed to die naturally outside the womb for research could potentially lead to cures for debilitating diseases such as dementia and Parkinson's disease. In doing so, it would be a question of saving a life, lengthening a life and improving the quality of life. It is for this reason that we need to proceed extremely carefully. I welcome the Bill as an important first step. We must learn a lot but we need regulation and broader, more comprehensive legislation.

Science is and will continue to be our new frontier. Its terrain is infinite and its scope is vast. History has illustrated how it has reflected the best and worst aspects of the human race. It has the potential to be the most positive, constructive force in our lives, yet, unchecked and unbridled, it has the potential to be the most destructive.

We cannot here begin to imagine the potential of stem cell research. It represents one of the most important and challenging areas of investigation that scientists and clinicians will undertake in our time. The use of stem cells has the potential to have a significant impact on human health, not only in the areas of treatment, repair and recovery, but also in the generation of hope for patients and their families. Stem cell research creates challenges for scientists and clinicians but, undoubtedly, it creates significant challenges for our society and legislators, not least because of the sourcing of stem cells and the ethical issues that arise.

As with other Members, I do not have the answers this evening. I welcome the opportunity to debate this issue and thank Senator Mullen for raising it. It is only through such debate that we will have the opportunity to think this through in all its dimensions with the aim of arriving at a position that best serves the people and future generations. For such debates to be effective, it is important that we listen to each other and know our starting points and that we are prepared to be informed by and learn from what we hear. Ultimately we may change our views as a result of such debates and discussions.

A considerable responsibility is placed upon us and most of us do not have a scientific background. However, we may have strong personal or religious beliefs, or have a close family member facing into a serious illness or disease. We all recognise the importance of this area, the necessity to consider the challenges facing it and the role society must play in its governance and regulation. Regardless of our perspective, we all recognise the dangers of leaving such an area without guidelines and regulation.

As legislators, we wish to see ethical issues addressed. We will have different views on how that should be done but as legislators we also want to ensure that Ireland and its scientific community are at the cutting edge of research in fully realising its potential. As legislators, we want to ensure that our citizens have access to the best possible quality of life and medical treatment. Although most of us are not scientists, we are faced with the responsibility of legislation and, as legislators, we must do this based on the facts.

The following are some of the facts we should consider. Stem cells have a special and unique property to develop into many other cell types that aid treatment. Stem cells can be sourced from embryos but this results in the destruction of the embryo. Stem cells can be developed from umbilical cord and from bone marrow. To date, 214,793 papers on stem cells have been published in peer-reviewed journals. Of those, 132,662 are papers on human stem cells. Incidentally, 150 of the latter grouping are Irish. I say to the Minister of State that it is very important that we support our scientific community.

These papers have shown that stem cells have the potential to treat some of the most horrific diseases mankind has ever faced. An example mentioned by previous speakers is the trachea that was constructed this year from stem cells. The cells in question were transplanted from bone marrow.

Bristol University is about to start clinical trials on 60 heart attack patients, injecting stem cells into damaged heart tissue. In Britain, scientists will grow human liver cells from stem cells taken from umbilical cord. In Newcastle University, scientists will create sperm, again from bone marrow stem cells.

I wish to draw attention, somewhat unusually, to a quotation from President George Bush.

While we must devote enormous energy to conquering disease, it is equally important that we pay attention to the moral concerns raised by the new frontier of human embryo stem cell research. Even the most noble ends do not justify any means.

Some scientists argue that stem cells harvested from bone marrow and umbilical cord are not as useful as embryonic stem cells. However, ten years ago, the same scientists argued that embryonic stem cells were the only show in town. As a result of the stance taken by President Bush, which gave them no choice, they created the technology to develop stem cells from non-embryonic tissue.

This is a horse that has enormous potential but, unsaddled and unreined, it is a dangerous beast. We do not suggest stabling the horse, merely making sure that it does not harm anyone. To do this we must introduce legislation. The questions such legislation must address include the fundamental issue of the use of embryonic stem cells. Such legislation must prohibit human cloning and must support our scientific community and ensure best possible practice. Although we are not as ideally equipped as we would like to be, we must play our role, base our work on fact and arrive at legislation through discussion and debate and, above all, a willingness on all our parts to listen and learn.

I welcome this debate in the Seanad and I compliment those who spoke and sought to wrestle with this difficult question. I state clearly at the outset that I would not, and do not, support the Bill introduced by Senator Mullen. I do not believe it is the way to deal with this complex problem. A Bill that is, essentially, founded on criminal sanctions or at least includes such sanctions as a crucial component in respect of embryonic stem cell research is not the way to deal with it. I agree, however, with those who said that this issue must be wrestled with and dealt with by the Legislature.

I compliment the Minister of State on the comprehensive treatment he gave to the topic. However, ringing in his ears and in the ears of all of us are the demands and very strong suggestions from a number of bodies for regulation to be introduced and for legislation in this crucial area. As recently as this year, the Irish Council for Bioethics made such a demand. Regulation is the way in which we should approach this matter.

I am sure Senator Mullen has a continuing interest in this topic. However, it is probably true that this debate, or at least the occasion for it, was triggered by the decision of UCC some weeks ago. Whatever one might say about the particular call made by the ethics committee in UCC and, ultimately, by the governing body of the university, at least they wrestled with this question and came up with actual decisions. It may be good for us to be uncertain, as it were, about where we stand. This may not be something to criticise. Let us consider somebody coming into this House or standing up in the media or elsewhere, who makes all the arguments for and against, while we are struggling with this. From an intellectual point of view, I understand and appreciate someone who takes that viewpoint but ultimately decisions must be made.

Senator Corrigan referred to President Bush. I remind the House that President Bush vetoed a Bill passed in the Senate in respect of the promotion and funding of stem cell research. President-elect Obama proposes to reverse that veto. These are decisions made in a much more complex and wealthier country which, no matter what way one looks at it, is likely to be at the forefront of these issues more quickly than we ever will be. Americans have faced up to the fact that they must make decisions.

Again and again, with regard to complex moral questions and issues, we have allowed decisions to be made elsewhere and have permitted the effects of decisions made in other countries to wash into this country. We have taken the benefit, or at least potentially stand to take the benefit, of decisions made in respect of research and advances made in other countries. These include medical advances in respect of which some of us may have difficulties or questions. We do not say that we will not permit Irish citizens to benefit from those medical advances nor do we say that we will seek to ensure that Irish citizens can gain such benefit. If we do not legislate in respect of these matters there will continue to be, as is the current position, a free for all. At present there is no legal impediment on the importation to this country of embryonic stem cell lines or their use here by scientists. That is extraordinary. We must all agree it is not good to be without regulation.

By all means we can have this debate and it is good that we have it. The Minister of State gave a strong indication that there would be legislation and I know this is one of the issues the Attorney General is considering, as is the Law Reform Commission. I fervently hope that we will have legislation to regulate these issues, sooner rather than later.

Senator Norris queried what he described as the appropriation of the language of human rights by some advocates of the Bill. When this debate was signalled last week, Senator Mullen or another colleague expressed the hope that people on either side of the argument would not be demonised. While I subscribe to that view and share the Senator's hope, it pains me to hear colleagues criticising professional scientists for cynically generating false hope among people who are ill and vulnerable to attract Government funding for their projects and activities. This is an example of demonising people which does not have a place in this debate. Whether one wishes to refer to an embryologist or research scientists, in a debate such as this one can pick one's scientist because scientists on different sides of the argument make conflicting claims and arguments. This reinforces the point that the decision on this issue ultimately will be one for politicians.

From what I have understood from reading about this issue, if one were to use a crude measure and take a poll — legislators have many things to do and must try to get a sense of where the balance lies — one would find that the weight of scientific opinion is in favour of at least not banning embryonic stem cell research. The trigger reaction of prohibiting this type of research and imposing fines is not the correct approach.

On the issue of adult stem cell research versus embryonic stem cell research, I fundamentally disagree with the view expressed by Senator Mullen, in making a point in respect of resources, that we must choose between these forms of research because we cannot do both. This is an unsustainable position. Why would we have to make a choice or set one form of research off against another? Both forms of research have been demonstrated to be valuable.

Senator Hanafin emphasised that there has not been a single clinical trial in respect of embryonic stem cell research. In all areas of scientific research there are no guarantees of success. No one engaging in research in any field will ever state that success is guaranteed as there is always in scientific research an element of contingency and doubt. If, next month or next year, a breakthrough is achieved arising from embryonic stem cell research, will my colleagues change their minds?

I welcome the Minister of State to the House and thank him for the contribution he advanced. I compliment Senator Mullen on introducing the Bill and on his cogent, balanced and compassionate contribution.

As a result of rapid changes in Irish society, we have had many human and ethical debates on questions which had not arisen previously or may have lain dormant. At times, we were counselled that discussion of issues of this nature created division and was emotive. I do not subscribe to that view. Who would argue, for instance, that the protests on medical cards or by teachers are not emotive or divisive or that any political action is not divisive or emotive? I believe the reason this point of view was advanced was to stultify debate, which is a pity.

My contribution to this debate emanates from an ethical disposition. I will refer to medical issues only in so far as they have been advanced to support the idea of embryonic stem cell research. A debate of this nature is a matter of "To thine own self be true". One must, therefore, listen to all points of view, try to understand them and ascertain to what extent they are compatible with one's own position.

This has been an exceptionally good debate. If anyone other than an Independent Senator had introduced the Bill, I do not believe the debate would have been so positive. In saying this, I do not mean to be critical of the Government, my party or any other party. However, I expect Senators will understand from where I am coming in that respect.

I take an ethical position on this issue and have questioned myself on some of the points Senators made which, as I indicated, we must try to understand. It was suggested that something that is done internationally should necessarily apply to this country. The international community has allowed millions of people to die of hunger, even though it has the wherewithal to save them, allowed millions of people to die of AIDS, even though the necessary medication is available and could be provided at a reduced cost, and stood silent on the invasion of Iraq which created a new generation of terrorists and bred greater violence. Besides the mercenary aspects of the way in which the global economy has developed, war has been a factor in recent economic developments. For these reasons, the international community should not be held up as an example.

I do not propose to ask questions in a God-like manner as I will leave that to Him. However, the point made about embryos dying accidentally does not amount to an argument. People die accidentally in car crashes but that does not change the position that we respect human life and its sacredness. As human life is sacrosanct in our community, the argument about the accidental death of embryos does not carry any weight with me.

Let us focus on the real issues, therefore. This debate is on one of the most intrinsic issues with which any of us, as legislators, will be confronted. The reason I avoid using the word "fundamental" is that the tag "fundamental" would follow. This also stultifies debate and it is important to allow discussion to flow.

Let us take on board whatever advice is available to us. On the medical aspect, there is not a Member of the Oireachtas, including me, who does not have a loved one or acquaintance who has not suffered from a serious disease for which stem cell research could prove beneficial. The person about whom I am speaking has departed this life. I grappled with my conscience on this issue on many occasions but this is a much more all-embracing issue than the immediate concerns of one individual. It is a question of human life itself and whether we will accept destroying one form of human life to help another form of human life. If we accept that proposition, the discussion becomes much more complex and we must take much greater care and have a greater sense of responsibility in the debate. I do not accept that proposition, however, because I believe when one opens the gates in that regard, it opens to question the concept of human life being sacrosanct and legislators acting as the defenders of human life. To suggest that it might be only initial experimentation or whatever does not change this in any way.

I hope that this Bill will progress to the next level. That is what I would like to see happening. I certainly would like to see the debate developing. I can tell Senator Rónán Mullen that I am very supportive of this Bill because it comes back to the issue of us as individuals. It should be possible for us to reach a consensus, but that consensus must respect human life in all its form, born and unborn. For me at any rate that is not questionable or capable of compromise because I believe this issue supersedes political affiliation.

With the permission of the House, I wish to share time with Senators Twomey, O'Toole and Quinn.

First, I join in the general acknowledgement that this is a very significant debate. I congratulate Senator Mullen, who is indeed carrying on a great tradition in this House. Senator Ó Murchú was very generous when he said that Independents have led the field on issues such as this and Senator Mullen has done everybody in this House a great service by raising the issue. He has given everybody an opportunity and indeed a challenge.

This is possibly a Bill that many of us would not have welcomed because it forces us to make decisions, say things and think about matters that are politically awkward and perhaps personally difficult to decide on. I have listened to virtually the whole debate and it has been extraordinarily useful. I would like to say one or two things about it.

I do not believe that there is any denominational element in what is happening here. Just because, in the past, there have been associations of sorts with the beginning of human life with certain denominational beliefs, it does not mean that this one follows in that particular tradition. I know many people of all denominations who have totally different views on issues of this type. I was impressed by what everybody had to say, but having heard all the contributions this evening, I do not know the answer to the crucial question of where human life begins. Nobody in this House would want to take or to countenance the taking of human life if he or she thought it began at a certain point. Having listened to the debate — I was struck by what Senator Corrigan said too — I am not a scientist and I do not know for one moment, but I realise that scientists on both sides have disagreed very strongly on, when human life begins. Therefore the crux of this Bill is very difficult to decide upon.

I do not believe for a moment that any insincere views are held. I respect equally the views of Senator Mullen, which were very constructive and well articulated, and those of Senators Norris and Bacik who are opposed to the Bill. There is a necessity to regulate. I welcome the fact that this Bill has been introduced because it has given rise to a debate which must go further.

I thank Senator Ross for allowing me two minutes of his time. It must be clear that there is no protection for the embryo until implantation starts in the uterus. That is the present situation. There is no legislation whatsoever in Ireland, just Medical Council guidelines, to cover the period from fertilisation to implementation. The only people in this Chamber who cannot do research into embryos in this country are the Minister of State, Deputy Devins, and me because we are medical doctors. There is no protection for women who receive IVF and no protection for their embryos and foetuses. That is a shame on both Houses of the Oireachtas. It is fine to wear our souls on our sleeves tonight on this issue and I feel strongly about it. The Minister of State, Deputy Devins, and other Members of this House served with me on the Joint Committee on Health and Children from July 2005 to December 2006, where we talked ad nauseam about the lack of legislation for IVF and the constitutional issues on which we are, in some respects, touching tonight. We have yet to see legislation on this issue for the protection of women. We should move this legislation on and get it through the Houses of the Oireachtas as quickly as possible.

Senator Frances Fitzgerald and I feel very strongly about this issue and we wall raise it with the Leader again, particularly as it relates to IVF and the protection of women.

I also welcome the Minister of State and in particular the Bill put forward by Senator Mullen because I believe it needs to be discussed. I will read, very briefly, from a letter I received by e-mail today from a neighbour:

My son is quadriplegic, following a rugby accident in March 2004, when he was 19 years of age. He has shown remarkable strength of character since then, keeping his body in as good condition as is physically possible while getting on with his studies. He is doing all of this because of his huge hope and faith in world researchers to find a cure for spinal cord injuries like his, along with cures for many other degenerative diseases...

She goes on to say other things as well. That reminds us how important this issue is just for one family, one mother. We have a responsibility here and we cannot allow this topic to go unregulated, therefore I welcome the opportunity for the debate. I found the debate very interesting because there are very few of us here who had predetermined notions and accepted views that we were sure of. Some researchers argue that conducting research into embryonic stem cells will eventually lead to a method to grow the cells into a replacement for dead and diseased tissues. That projected outcome is the same, whether it is for embryonic or adult stem cells. We have a responsibility to debate this matter and I found the debate very interesting. I believe this should continue because the onus is on us as legislators to ensure we regulate for the good of our citizens.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. His contribution was very important. I compliment my colleague, Senator Mullen, on bringing forward this legislation. For the record, I have done everything possible to have this matter raised on the floor of the House. In line with what Senator Ó Murchú said, I believe it is crucially important that we engage with these issues. I do not purport to be an expert. I have read the Bill a number of times and, like Senator Alex White, I do not support it. That is my view, but it does not mean I am right. Neither does it mean I believe my view is any better or more strongly held than anybody else's. Certainly, it is an ethical question.

Looking at the balances, ethically, I do not know where human life begins. My view is that it begins much earlier than fertilisation in many cases. One can bring it back to the dot, somewhere along the way, and all I have heard convinces me that I want research to continue into both adult and embryonic stem cells. I firmly believe we owe it to people who are suffering from debilitating degenerative diseases and I cannot find it in my heart to stop that from happening. Equally, people on the other side of the argument have made their case. I have listened very carefully to all the debate and I respect all the strongly held views.

I thank the Cathaoirleach for giving us the opportunity of putting this together. We need to learn everything we can about this issue. We need also to continue the research. I congratulate Senator Mullen on bringing forward the Bill. I believe it is the beginning of a very important debate. The Seanad, as it has done on many issues over the years, such as HIV-AIDS and various other matters, has once again been the first to grapple with these issues. This is an important debate, which will be developed as time goes on.

I congratulate my colleague, Senator Rónán Mullen, and his co-sponsors, Senators John Hanafin and Jim Walsh, on their courage in addressing this very difficult and sensitive issue. I listened to the debate with interest and support the views expressed on the need for regulation. From listening to the contributions, particularly of the Minister, I would like to put on record my support for his comments that the hallmark of stem cells is their ability to develop into many other cell types and that this fundamental property needs continued research and investigation if it is to be harnessed to great effect. I wholeheartedly support that view on the basis of the principle of the Bill, which is to regulate this type of research and investigation.

I also support Senator Liam Twomey in the area of IVF, to which he referred. There are many other sensitive, delicate areas of which, as Senator Twomey stated, professional, qualified Members such as himself and the Minister of State, Deputy Devins, would have a greater understanding, areas in that sphere which need a certain amount of regulation and where there is no regulation at present.

I support what has been said on this Bill proposed by Senator Mullen and co-sponsored by Senators Hanafin and Walsh.

I thank all those who contributed to the debate on Second Stage of the Bill, Senators Fitzgerald, Prendergast, Hanafin, Callanan, Bacik, Norris, de Búrca, Coffey, Healy Eames, Corrigan, White, Ó Murchú, Ross, Twomey, Quinn, O'Toole and Callely. I am very grateful to them because this is an issue of profound importance.

It would be nice to have time to address issues and clarifications and give reassurances to Senators Fitzgerald, Norris and Bacik. This issue is moving very fast. It was once thought that only embryonic destroyed cells could be used to treat Parkinson's disease. There seem to be developments that offer hope and promise in the area of age-related macular degeneration, which may be possible using adult stem cells.

This is not the evening to examine every jot of the debate and to correct it. I do not come from a theological perspective, I come from a view, informed by science, that human life is present in its individuality and momentum from the earliest stage. As we are discussing human life with potential, we must move with great care. I am greatly reassured by the fact that no one tonight suggested that if we prohibit embryo destructive research we would delay by one day the cures we all hope for. I, too, hope for those cures and am greatly reassured by the fast-moving, positive developments that will, I hope, allow us to have those cures using ethical means. Ireland should be at the forefront of that and it would be a service to the world community if we opted exclusively for ethical research.

I was taken by the statement of a doctor who is an expert in this area and who said we should not demean the humanity we seek to heal. It was a wonderful injunction, issued modestly, and it invited us all to do the research and develop cures we can all live with.

Debate adjourned.

When is it proposed to sit again?

Ag 10.30 maidin amárach.