Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Tuesday, 25 Nov 2003

Vol. 575 No. 3

Private Notice Questions. - Stem Cell Research.

I will call on the Deputies who tabled questions to the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment in the order in which they submitted their questions to my office.

asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment if she intends to support, at an EU Council meeting, the provision of EU funds, to which Ireland will have contributed, towards the cost of carrying out research which involves the deliberate ending of the life of human embryos for the purpose of obtaining stem cells from same; and the evidence she has for her statement that there is a strong risk that the Commission will go ahead with the funding of this sort of research even if the Council votes against it.

asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment if she will make a statement on the proposal by her to vote at a Council of Ministers meeting on 27 November 2003 in favour of supporting an EU investment programme into embryonic stem cell research.

asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment the reason she did not consult Dáil Éireann before committing herself to vote in favour of the taxpayer funding human embryo research; and if she will put the issue before Dáil Éireann prior to the competitiveness Council meeting on 27 November 2003; and if she will make a statement on the matter.

asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment the reasons for the Government's support for the EU Commission's proposed regulations on stem cell research.

asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment the position she intends to adopt at the EU Council of Ministers meeting this week in regard to EU funding for and regulation of stem cell research; and if she will make a statement on the matter.

I propose to take all the questions together.

It is important to focus on what the proposal before the Council of Ministers this week is about. It is not about the funding of or legislating for embryonic stem cell research in Ireland, it is about the adoption of stringent guidelines and safeguards to regulate the conduct of research in respect of embryonic stem cells. This forms part of the specific EU programme for life science, genomics and biotechnology for health within the overall €16 billion EU framework programme. Funding of €1.1 billion for adult and embryonic stem cell research was agreed when the Council of Ministers adopted a specific programme over a year ago. A moratorium on this type of research was agreed, which expires at the end of 2003. Member states asked for the moratorium to allow the Commission time to develop guidelines in governing the research. The Commission's proposals are about those guidelines.

I support the application of strict guidelines and safeguards to regulate this research at European level. The guidelines the Commission has produced are comprehensive and include important safeguards. It is vital that we understand what can happen if the guidelines are not agreed by the Council. As the Council has agreed the activity of stem cell research and the line of funding attached to it, there is no reason the European Commission should not seek to pursue that activity once the moratorium expires at the end of 2003, even if no guidelines are agreed in respect of embryonic cells. Many member states have the requisite legal and ethical regulatory regimes in place to permit such research and are strongly supportive of concerted European research being undertaken in this field.

Following the opinion of the European Parliament, the matter was recently discussed at working group level in Brussels. In those discussions, the EU Council legal services confirmed that the Commission has a duty to implement the measure even if no guidelines are agreed. It is, therefore, open to the Commission to bring forward a programme of action via the established common procedures initiated via the relevant framework programme regulatory committee. Ultimately, if the regulatory committee rejects the Commission's proposal to act, the matter will revert to Council where in this instance a qualified majority vote will be required to reject it.

Given that the majority of member states have indicated that they wish to see this research proceed, there is every reason to believe that a Commission proposal emerging via this route will be adopted. However, there is no guarantee that such a proposal will be based on the guidelines as drafted. The fact that the European Parliament has voted in favour of liberalising the guidelines by removing the cut-off date which restricts activity under this programme to embryos created before 27 June 2002 for IVF treatments and no longer required for that purpose underscores this danger. Against this background, the Commission's proposal establishes coherent, consistent and stringent guidelines and safeguards to govern EU funding of research taking place only in those member states where it is deemed legal and ethical. I stress that it explicitly respects the positions of those member states whose legal and ethical regimes forbid such research. We must not miss the opportunity to put in place controls, guidelines and parameters for the conduct of this research. It would be an unsatisfactory outcome if Ireland were to oppose the guidelines and contribute to a situation where European research in this area would go ahead in a more loosely or non-regulated fashion.

I reiterate to Deputy Gay Mitchell that the funds in question are EU funds. Framework programme funds come from Community resources collected and distributed under the legal framework of the EU treaties. This pooling of resources is fundamental to all democratic decisions. The Commission's proposal is for a Council decision on the application of guidelines and safeguards on embryonic cell stem research. No new legislation is involved in this case and the matter of funding is not at issue, as it was previously decided.

The European Union (Scrutiny) Act 2002 does not require draft Council decisions to be submitted for scrutiny. Nevertheless, my Department was happy to brief the sub-committee on European scrutiny, chaired by Deputy Gay Mitchell and to further brief the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Enterprise and Small Business on the dossier.

Only when we summoned the Department.

Seanad Éireann has also heard statements on the matter. I indicated my willingness to attend personally and speak to both the joint committee and the sub-committee, under Deputy Gay Mitchell's chairmanship, but I received no such invitation.

The Tánaiste made no such indication to attend the committees.

Deputy Mitchell should allow the Tánaiste to continue without interruption.

I said it to the Deputy in the Chamber on the Order of Business.

Manners, Deputy Mitchell.

We can check the record of the House.

I said it to the Deputy on the Order of Business.

Order, Deputy Mitchell. Allow the Tánaiste to conclude.

I appreciate that the matter of embryonic stem cell research is an emotive issue on which Members have strong views. It is essential, however, that we do let those views obscure what is at issue. There has been a tendency in some quarters to address the European Commission proposal as if it were legislating for embryonic stem cell research in Ireland. It does precisely the opposite. The proposal reinforces the principle of ethical subsidiary and guarantees that Community supported research will not be undertaken in any member state where it is neither legal nor deemed ethical.

Having made that guarantee, it provides for stringent guidelines and safeguards to underpin concerted European research only in those member states where it is legal and deemed ethical, and then only when the researchers in question have explored all possible alternatives to their planned approach to the research. Given that what is at issue here is the application of guidelines and safeguards, I stress that it would be a very unsatisfactory outcome if Ireland were to oppose the guidelines and contribute to a situation in the EU where this research would go ahead in a more loosely or non-regulated fashion.

Is the Tánaiste aware that technology is now available allowing in vitro fertilisation to take place without the creation of spare embryos? Is she further aware that stem cells can be produced from other sources, which are more promising as material for the various therapies that are at issue here than stem cells produced from human embryos involving the killing of those human embryos? In the Tánaiste's opinion are the embryos in question human and, if they are human, do they have any human rights? If they have human rights, do the human rights of the embryos in question encompass the right not to be deliberately killed?

Does the Tánaiste think she might be accused of being a hypocrite by voting to allow Irish taxpayers' money to be used to pay for something in another country that is illegal here? Would that be almost as hypocritical as saying that we would ban experiments on human animals in Ireland but would use Irish taxpayers' money to support the carrying out of experiments on live animals somewhere else in the European Union? Is that not a position that is fundamentally not only contrary to human rights in this instance, but also hypocritical?

They fund abortions.

That is another illustration.

I am not a scientist and will not pretend to be one. While I am not familiar with all the developments in science, in recent weeks I have spoken to a number of scientists who differ on this matter, which is not black and white. Some scientists take the view Deputy Bruton has expressed that adult stem cells can do what is necessary and others take the view that the embryonic cells are much more versatile and can be converted into any one of the 210 cells we have in our bodies whereas adult cells can only be used for the purpose for which they were taken – a liver cell for a liver etc.

Clearly these embryos have the potential to become a human being if implanted in a woman. We are talking here about supernumerary embryos that remain after IVF treatment and embryos that were created before June 2002, which is the cut-off date, although I accept the European Parliament wanted that date to be removed. We are talking about embryos that are in existence and that are clearly frozen in different member states. In those member states where there are not legal or ethical issues they may in some circumstances, subject to the guidelines, which the Commission suggests, be used for basic research. We are not talking about creating new embryos.

Are they human?

They can become human if they are implanted in a woman. Clearly they have not the potential to become human by remaining in a refrigerated condition, which is what we are discussing. They are embryos that are supernumerary, that will not be used and that are donated by the couple, whose embryos they are in the first instance.

They have no human rights in the Tánaiste's view.

Of course they deserve respect and dignity. Some countries take one view and other countries take a different view. While Ireland has its own view on these matters, as the Deputy knows, we strongly believe in ethical subsidiarity in this and other issues. We have had protocols added to treaties to protect our rights in this regard in some instances and that has always been respected.

Funding is not up for discussion tomorrow. The funding issue has been settled. It is now part of the EU framework programme that up to €1.1 billion can be used to fund research on this and adult stem cells. The issue is whether it should be done under guidelines, controls and safeguards or in a free-for-all way as applies in other parts of the world. I believe, as does the Government, that guidelines and safeguards are far preferable in this area than an unregulated situation after the end of December.

This is about funding, not regulation.

Given that we had such advance notice of this impending decision, why did we not seek direction from the Irish Council for Bioethics, which we specifically set up to address difficult ethical issues like this? Why have we not heard from that body? Why has the Tánaiste not sought direction from it on what should be our position?

In the Seanad the Tánaiste seemed to indicate that scientific knowledge is now an international commodity without any real borders and that if a scientific development occurs in one country it is very difficult to prevent its use becoming applicable elsewhere. Does this mean that it will be a question of who is willing to use the latest science and that we do not really have control over what genetic research may develop because some other company – it is largely companies that are carrying out this research – will patent the results of such research? Was the Tánaiste intimating in the Seanad that we do not really have control because this is an international affair?

If the funding issue has been decided, why did the European Parliament committee, which was asked to investigate the issue on 4 November, debate a series of detailed amendments, which sought to redirect the funding in many different ways? The committee may not have sought to amend the budget but to set conditions as to what could be funded. Why did the European Parliament debate a range of amendments on where the funding should go? Was that Parliament just engaged in an exercise for show or was there real room to determine where the funding should go? How can the Tánaiste say on the one hand that the funding has been decided but on the other hand that the European Parliament has been engaged in a very strenuous debate as to where the funding should go?

Why does the Tánaiste think other countries are taking a different position in saying they will not vote in favour of the funding? While we will not know until Thursday, why will countries like Germany and Italy decide to vote against the proposals if, as the Tánaiste says, the funding has been decided and all that remains is to provide the guidelines to regulate the research to be carried out?

Why did we not ask for direction from the Irish Council for Bioethics, which has about 20 scientists with specialist knowledge in this area and which we established for the purpose of providing advice for the Government and all parties here on these very difficult ethical issues?

The group that has been charged with responsibility to advise the Government in this area is the Commission on Assisted Human Reproduction, chaired by Dervilla Donnelly, which was appointed by the Government about three years ago to look at all the issues arising from IVF and which has not yet reported.

The European Parliament has a role of consultation and not of co-decision. While the European Parliament was consulted, it has no co-decision roles. The legal service's advice states: "It is clear that the Commission has to exercise its implementing powers in full conformity with the provisions of the decision of last year." It is for the Commission to initiate changes in the framework programme. Proposals are initiated by the Commission under the European Union structures.

The issue of funding has been settled and is law within the European Union. The only open issue is what will happen when the moratorium runs out. At the time the Framework Document was adopted, Ireland was one of the countries that stated we did not want to see money going into this area until there were guidelines and safeguards. There was an agreement – not a legal requirement – that a moratorium would be established giving the Commission a reasonable timeframe, which it believed was about 18 months. That timeframe has now almost expired which is why the decision must be taken at the Council meeting this week. The Commission produced its proposals in this regard in July. Those proposals followed widespread consultation with member states in the form of internal conferences, seminars and a working group. The Commission only made its proposal after the widest consultation.

The Tánaiste said she was available to appear before the committee. She made no reference to the sub-committee on EU scrutiny, only to the committee to which the sub-committee had referred the matter, the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Enterprise and Small Business.

This whole issue has been surrounded by evasiveness, selective quotes, Cabinet abdication and a sidelining of the Dáil on an issue of high ethical importance and interest. In every case there has been no discussion. As far as I can make out from what the Tánaiste has said, there was no Cabinet paper on this matter. She consulted three Ministers individually. No advice was given to the Cabinet by the Attorney General. Does this comply with the Constitution? The Dáil has not been involved in this matter beyond the examination by the Sub-committee on European Scrutiny of the Joint Committee on European Affairs which searched out this issue and scrutinised it.

Hear, hear.

The Minister's statement in the Seanad included selective quotes from Catholic Church sources. An emotional argument has been used. The commission on assisted reproduction has not produced a report. No Green Paper was produced. No concern was taken of the views expressed by the Oireachtas joint committee which adjudicated on this matter.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle

The Deputy should ask a supplementary question and not make a statement.

Does the Minister agree that this is no way to proceed on an important issue? It shows an appalling attitude to the Dáil and underlines the need for Dáil reform.

The Minister's emphasis on the cut-off date of 27 June 2002 for supernumerary embryos is irrelevant because such embryos continue to be created. Once the precedent is set, they will be available in due course because, by then, they will be old supernumerary embryos.

Does the Minister also agree that it is likely, as Deputy Ryan said, that this matter will be blocked by the Council of Ministers in any event because of the position of Italy, Portugal, Germany, Austria and others who are sitting on the fence? What the Minister told us may happen if we do not go along with this is, in fact, likely to happen.

Is the Minister aware that the only body in Ireland which has deliberated and pronounced on this so far is the Medical Council and it says this is unethical? We do not have other reports to make a decision on the issue.

How can the Minister justify outlawing the procedure in the State but assisting its funding in other member states? The Minister said Community funds would be used. Does she accept that Community funds are partly supplied by the House? Commissioners do not stand with boxes outside Schuman train station collecting money. This is our money. This is part of the subterfuge that has been used.

This is our Community.

Does the Minister agree that, in any event, this issue is likely to be turned down on Thursday? After three years of deliberation by the commission on assisted reproduction, it is time to have a Green Paper to put all the issues before the House, including those concerning research on adult stem cells, for a proper and informed debate on the matter. The Minister's claim that she speaks for Ireland on this matter simply does not stand up.

Hear, hear.

I speak on behalf of the Government.

Four Ministers.

The Cabinet approved today—

Yes. There was widespread discussion. The Deputy should not read anything into that. The Attorney General was consulted and legal advice was obtained.

Yes, today. This is the first point I wish to make, as people seem to make a big issue of it.

I confirm what I said to Deputy Kenny on the Order of Business on many occasions, as I am sure he will agree, that I was available to attend either the Joint Committee on Enterprise and Small Business or the Sub-committee on European Scrutiny, or any other committee to discuss this matter but no invitation was forthcoming.

On the issue of Community funding, I do not want to compare nuclear research with this area except to say that Ireland takes a strong view against nuclear power and nuclear research, yet Community funds have been used in this area for many years, including when Deputy Gay Mitchell was in power.

We should not be doing that either.

We know the implications of pooling funds within the European Union.

The issues raised by Deputy Gay Mitchell would be relevant if we were proposing to conduct this research in Ireland. We are not. What we are doing is ensuring that, in those member states where it is ethical and legal, it will be done under strict safeguards, guidelines and controls and that there will not be the unsatisfactory free-for-all which exists elsewhere. That is the issue.

It is wrong of Deputy Gay Mitchell to suggest that the reference to supernumerary embryos is a red herring. This is not the case. No new embryos can be created for the purpose of this research. These embryos cannot be used if adult stem cells can be used and the applicants must prove this to an ethical committee. The strongest possible guidelines are being put in place. Scientists will have to share the stem lines to avoid having to create unnecessary ones. That is a fact. The Commission has to come back in 2005 having reviewed the outcome regarding this research.

This is a grey area. It is a complex and sensitive issue. As a country, we are being asked whether we agree with Commission proposals for guidelines and safeguards. As one of the countries that sought those guidelines and safeguards, it would be wrong for us to use our vote now to block the guidelines being put into effect and to have the uncontrolled situation which will exist from next year. It is a matter for every member state to decide for itself what it should do in the vote. Our decision is based on our concerns and the way we believe research in this area should be governed.

Does the Minister not agree that there should have been and still should be a full and informed debate in the Dáil on this important issue before the Government proceeds? Does she agree that there are conflicting views within scientific opinion on this issue that lead to further confusion about the ethical and medical questions involved?

Will the Minister outline to the House the discussions that have taken place between and within the Government parties? All eight Progressive Democrats Members are present, yet not a single representative of the Fianna Fáil Party is in the House as we address this important issue. Is this a Progressive Democrat-driven issue or does the Minister have the imprimatur of Government for her proposed voting intent?

You wish.

Where does the Deputy stand on this matter?

It is a question—

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle

Order, please.

—I hope the Minister will answer. Have I touched a raw nerve?

He is excitable.

Will the Minister confirm that, under the proposal to be voted this week at the Council of Ministers, the EU will only fund research in those countries that seek funding and that this research is not permitted in Ireland?

In regard to the Minister's opening remarks on adult stem cell research, which was further developed by Deputy John Bruton, like the Minister I do not have the necessary scientific information to make a judgment call on this, which I imagine to be the case with many Members. This underlines my argument that we need to have a full and informed debate here.

Is it not the case that what is required here could well be addressed through research on adult stem cells as opposed to embryonic stem cell research which clearly raises a major ethical question for many people, including many Members? Given the obvious – not apparent – division within scientific opinion and what I already outlined as the need for further information and debate on this important issue, would it not be better for the Minister to abstain from voting on this matter? This would allow for a full and informed debate on a motion to be put before the House by Government, if there is agreement at Government level on this issue, and a comprehensive debate with all the information available in the House. In such a full and frank debate, we should allow for a free vote.

I answered a number of the questions already but I will repeat them. There are conflicting views from the science world in regard to this area. Some scientists are of the opinion that embryonic stem cells have greater versatility and, therefore, have a greater capacity to contribute to finding cures to many degenerative illnesses. The purpose here is basic research. Others take the different view that there is still great potential in adult cells. That is not a debate I will get involved in as I am not a scientist and I am not competent to comment on the matter.

There is no question of EU funds being provided to countries which do not allow this research legally or ethically. In fact, one of the very clear guidelines within the Commission's proposal provides that research must be legal and ethical in a member state before any application can be considered. Furthermore, applicants will have to satisfy an ethics committee that adult cells cannot be used. The need to use embryonic cells will have to be demonstrated.

Many issues arise in this debate. One of them is the question of what to do with embryos a couple no longer wishes to use after IVF treatment has been concluded. This question must be addressed which is why the Donnelly commission's report will cover it and many other matters and inform everyone's thinking including members of the Government. The vote will take place tomorrow, not on 27 November. Ireland must decide whether to vote in favour of the guidelines it sought so strongly or, as Deputy Ó Caoláin suggests, sit on the fence. It would not be satisfactory for this country to take the latter course. If it is the case that a blocking minority prevents these guidelines being adopted, how could a country which formed part of it request guidelines in January or February if research is proceeding. That would be a very difficult scenario in which to find oneself.

Taking all circumstances into account, the Government and I believe putting guidelines, safeguards and regulations in place is preferable to the situation which might exist if that action were not taken. In many member states research of this sort is supported in the private sector. We are talking here about public sector research which will come into the public domain. One of the proposed guidelines involves an EU register whereby the results of research would be made available. The research will not be the sole preserve of the private sector. Many member states feel very strongly about that matter. As Senator Henry said, we do not want to see private companies with large bio-banks in Europe. Some countries take the strong view that public funding of research is necessary to provide public information about findings.

The issue of the availability of research was raised. Knowledge knows no boundaries. If new knowledge becomes available as a result of stem cell research, I am sure companies all over the world will use it to create and develop new products and medicines. Knowledge cannot be confined to where it is researched or emerges. This is always the case with new developments and innovations.

I have some questions for the Minister with which I seek to put the debate in context. Is it the Minister's understanding that the purpose of stem cell research is to investigate the possibility of treating Huntington's disease, Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, spinal cord injuries, stroke, burns, heart disease, diabetes, osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, among others? Is it a fact that the concrete and specific proposal to be voted on tomorrow involves the funding of research only in member states in which such funding is requested? Will research only involve embryos created for medically-assisted IVF treatment which are currently frozen and which would otherwise be destroyed? Under this proposal, will embryos have to be donated voluntarily by consent of the male and female involved and without any payment? Will researchers have to comply fully with comprehensive ethical and legal rules? Will research only be funded where it meets agreed objectives and where there is no adequate alternative?

Given that no ethical guidelines are in place, what was the Irish input into the formulation of the Commission's proposal? Was a paper produced? Can we have sight of the view of the Minister, the Government and the country on the proposed guidelines? It is claimed that if the proposal is not agreed, the existing moratorium can be extended beyond 31 December and into the Irish Presidency. Is that a fact?

The answer to most of the Deputy's questions is "Yes".

Yes, please.

Those who favour the research in question say it can advance treatment of many degenerative illnesses such as those mentioned by Deputy Howlin. Funding will go only to those member states in which such research is legally and ethically permitted. Before funding is approved, researchers will be required to demonstrate that there is no alternative to the use of embryonic stem cells and that they cannot use adult or animal stem cells. Researchers will have to make stem lines available to other researchers to minimise the number of lines which will be used. Donors cannot be paid. The donation of embryos must be voluntary.

I understand that well established guidelines exist in this area and that these formed the basis of the proposal. I am not sure who from Ireland was involved in the drafting of the Commission's proposal. It was done at working group and at Commission level. I do not have the details of our involvement in terms of technical expertise to hand, but I can forward them to the Deputy. There was widespread consultation with member states on the proposed guidelines.

The legal advice is that the moratorium will cease at the end of this year. I am not aware of any support for its extension and there may be legal implications in adopting that approach. I have not spoken to the Commission since the EU Parliament's decision. We will be informed of that tomorrow. The Commissioner was here to meet with me a couple of weeks ago and we had a long discussion about this and other matters. I took the strong view that there was no question of an extension of the moratorium. There are many countries which want to proceed with applications in this area and I am not certain they would agree to a further extension.

The Minister has said that scientists differ on the need to destroy human embryos to produce stem cells to accomplish the positive goals Deputy Howlin outlined. Given that there is doubt about the need to destroy any human embryo, the Minister would be wise to apply the precautionary principle we apply to the environment. If there are two ways of doing something, one of which creates pollution and one of which does not, we do the latter unless we are forced to take the former action. Surely, we should apply the cautionary principle to stem cell research. If there are two ways of producing stem cells, one of which destroys a potential human life and one which does not, we should only take the former action if we are satisfied there is no other option. Why have the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment and the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Cowen, who originally agreed to this programme, failed to apply the precautionary principle? Deputy Cowen has been anonymous and failed to defend his decisions in the House. The Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment is having to do so.

The argument that these human embryos will die anyway is a very tricky one to use. It is an argument which could be used to justify the carrying out of experiments on people who are terminally ill. Surely, that is not something this House would wish to justify.

I wish to probe the Minister's concept of ethics. She speaks of actions being ethically permissible in one country, but not in another. While I am not a philosopher, my understanding is that ethics are indivisible. Ethics do not change simply because one crosses to another jurisdiction. Given this is a European Union and we are citizens of it, we should not permit, vote for or accept something we believe is ethically wrong. I have been trying to establish the Minister's opinion, and I still do not have a clear picture in my mind. Does she believe it is right and necessary to destroy these potential human lives in the interest of medical research at this stage in the state of her knowledge? I am not asking her to give a scientific judgment but a political one as a principled politician. Does she believe it is right and necessary to destroy these human lives? Should we not apply the precautionary principle and try other methods of producing stem cells first?

The precautionary principle is written into the guidelines. One cannot get research funding under the programme to use embryonic stem cells if adult stem cells can satisfy. One must prove that ethically in order to get the funding.

One must prove it to the committee being established to oversee the implementation of the programme and the guidelines.

On Deputy John Bruton's last point about ethics, does he want a euro ethic? Most member states of the European Union believe abortion is ethical.

I want to know the Minister's ethic.

The Deputy wants a uniform ethic for Europe. Most member states of the European Union favour abortion. It would not be acceptable to the people of this country to have that so-called euro ethic imposed on them. We make these decisions for ourselves and the same must apply to this issue. There must be ethical subsidiarity. Ireland cannot impose its wish on countries like the United Kingdom, France and several other member states which take a different view to us.

Ethical subsidiarity is a contradiction in terms.

It is not.

Do we not have it in regard to abortion? We do not have abortion here.

On the issue of ethics, what is the role of the Irish Council for Bioethics if it is not to give advice on these complex issues of genetic engineering and the related issue which will follow on from it? The advice for which the Minister is looking, if I am correct, relates to a commission set up to investigate IVF technology. The issue we are debating today is primarily one about the ethics of the genetic engineering techniques being used. The Irish Council of Bioethics is the very body that could help us in terms of presenting the scientific argument to the Government before we reach a decision in Europe on where we stand.

I take the Minister's point that we do not have to have one European ethic and that people can have different ethics. Surely, as a country, we, like the Germans or the Italians, can set out our ethics. On that basis, why has the Minister not gone to the Irish Council for Bioethics? Some 20 scientists were selected by the Government to work on a wide variety of scientific disciplines related to genetic engineering, the very type of work stem cell research is. If we are not consulting the council on this issue, why did we set it up? Will we get its advice after the fact? It is having a special seminar on the issue on 9 December next. The time is unfortunate. We should have examined the ethics behind our decision in advance of us having to vote rather than afterwards.

The purpose of that group is to advise us on what we do domestically and not to advise the other EU member states. Ireland is not taking an ethical position on what will happen here. That is not an issue. There is ethical subsidiarity and, in the event of this matter arising for discussion internally, we would consult—

It is our money. We are putting forward EU money.

It is part of the Community budget. The issue which will be voted on this week is not about money or funding. That has been settled and agreed. The moratorium runs out at the end of this year and, as a matter of interest, it does not have legal standing and is not legally enforceable.

Clearly, the Government would always seek the advice of the body Deputy Eamon Ryan mentioned on matters influencing what might happen in this State. The reason we appointed the commission a number of years ago was to report, advise, examine and consult on all the issues surrounding the difficult area of IVF treatment. It comes down to what we want to see at European level. If this research is going to be funded, do we want it to be in an uncontrolled and unregulated fashion or under the type of regime being proposed by the Commission tomorrow? Controls, regulations and safeguards are far preferable to a free-for-all.

The Minister might familiarise herself with the submission made by the Linacre Centre to the House of Lords select committee on this matter. Does she agree that if her Department and this Government are to stand over her comments in this House and if decisions of this kind are not subject to EU scrutiny by the committees of this House, then we have little or no chance of getting a referendum passed next year pretending there is a thing called proper scrutiny here and that the democratic deficit has been addressed?

The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform would be delighted.

Does the Minister agree it is an appalling abuse of this House? I am appalled to hear colleagues in this House ask leading question and being prepared to go along with an issue of such vital importance and on which the Dáil and the Government have been sidelined. The decision is being made tomorrow and the Minister brought the issue to the Government today having up to now resisted all efforts to account either to the Government or to this House for her actions. That is appalling. That did not happen in Italy, Portugal, Austria and Germany. Why does the Minister find it necessary to accommodate what the British and the French are saying? There are other member states which do not believe the sky will fall tomorrow if this decision is not made in the way the Minister has stated.

I accept what the Minister said that this is a grey, complex and sensitive area but for all of those reasons, she has handled it appallingly. She should have brought the issue before the House. I would not be adverse to a free vote on the issue. It is a matter on which people have different views but it should have come before the House. The Minister has behaved as if she was Ireland; she is not Ireland. There are genuine concerns about this issue and we should have been given the opportunity to raise them.

This issue is a minefield but it has been treated as if it was a straightforward one with which the Minister could deal or delegate to somebody to deal with over lunch. Even at this late hour and in view of the fact this matter is likely to be blocked at the Council tomorrow, will the Minister ask her colleagues in Government to come forward with a Green Paper on this complex and sensitive issue so that, once and for all, this House and the representatives of the people can deal with an important issue in the way it should have been addressed without anybody in the Opposition or elsewhere giving an excuse to a Minister who has behaved in an appalling manner.

I strongly reject what Deputy Gay Mitchell said. The Deputy and his party had several weeks to put down a motion in this House if they felt strongly enough that there should have been a debate. That did not happen. Deputy Mitchell is well aware that, according to the vote last week, three of his party's MEPs in the European Parliament supported the guidelines and the safeguards. Let us not play politics here.

There are two streams. I am a Member of Dáil Éireann and not the European Parliament, at least not yet.

Let us not play politics.

Maybe it is time one of us made this an issue—

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle

The Minister without interruption.

Maybe it is time we made this a European Parliament issue if this is the way the Minister behaves. It is appalling behaviour.

Let us not play politics here. Let us deal with the issue with the seriousness and in the calm way it deserves to be treated.

The Minister's reference to MEPs was playing politics.

It was not.

The Minister has played politics with this issue from start to finish with her so-called friends in the liberal media. She has not been honest or open with this House.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle


She has been evasive.

The Deputy should withdraw that remark.

I am not going to be provoked by those comments. There is a lot I could say but I will not.

The Minister's comments have been provocative – introducing politics into an important issue.

The Deputy should be sensitive to the matter.

The Minister introduced politics talking out of both sides of her mouth – feminine Bertie speak.

The Deputy accused me of avoiding every opportunity to discuss this matter. That is not true. As I said to the Deputy's leader in this House on many occasions – he will confirm it – I was more than happy to go to the Deputy's committee or to any other one to discuss this matter, as I did in the Seanad last week. I was ready to take questions in this House last Thursday but that did not arise subsequently. I am more than happy to debate this issue anywhere. I am also happy to debate the position the Government believes should be adopted on this matter.

I do not believe it is appropriate to have a Green Paper on this issue. We have the Commission which is due to report shortly. It has been considering these matters and the issues surrounding them for the past three years. It has expertise, competence and experience and has consulted people. It is the appropriate body to help inform our thinking, both Government and Opposition, on these issues as they affect Ireland.

Tomorrow's decision does not affect Ireland. It concerns whether in those EU states where this research will be carried out it should be done in a regulated controlled environment or under a free-for-all regime. I strongly believe, and those with concerns in this area would share my view, that it is preferable that there are safeguards and controls and that an unregulated situation does not emerge.

The Tánaiste should have put that case here.

I am putting the case here.

I wish to revisit a question I put earlier. What imprimatur does the Tánaiste bring in terms of her voting intention tomorrow on this issue? Does she have the full and unanimous support of Cabinet? Has the issue been discussed within and between both component parts of the coalition? Is there unanimity on the issue within the Government and within the two parties in Government? The Tánaiste's intentions are already declared and her answers offered but, having listened to all the voices and arguments this evening, would she not agree that it would have been better if, prior to tomorrow's vote on the issue, a full and informed debate had taken place in this House to ensure that the matter was properly aired?

This issue has existed since December 2001. It was not kept behind closed doors or kept secret. It was in the public domain that it formed part of the sixth framework programme. For almost two years people have been aware that this was part of the EU framework programme.

It only came to Cabinet today.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle

The Tánaiste without interruption.

In case the Deputy is in any doubt, there was political discussion on this issue throughout. Fine Gael had an opportunity to put a motion before the House but chose not to do so.

The Tánaiste is talking doublespeak. She brought it to Cabinet today.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle

Order, please.

Sneering ill becomes the Tánaiste.

Deputy Ó Caoláin asked about unanimity. I doubt there would be unanimity in any forum on such issues. They are difficult for everybody – me, the Opposition and everybody in the House. There are huge grey areas facing anybody who considers the issues. That is the reason I believe that, if we are to have research in Europe in the area, it should be done in a regulated and controlled environment where there are safeguards and not in an alternative environment. I believe that would be the view of the vast majority of the people.

Whenever we have an ethical debate in the House, I never cease to be amazed by the absolute certainties some people bring to these matters. Everybody has ethical standards, as does everybody who wrestles with these issues. There are balancing issues that need to be addressed.

I have a question on the broad issue whereas what we are debating is a rather confined and narrow issue, important as it is. Would the Tánaiste accept that the broader issues of stem cell research as opposed to this specific funding programme, what takes place in this country and the laws we enact need to be addressed in the House as a matter of urgency? What, to the Tánaiste's knowledge, is the extent of human somatic stem cell research in Ireland? As far as she is aware, what is the current position regarding frozen or so-called supernumerary embryos which have been created in this State as a result of in vitro fertilisation?

Does the Tánaiste accept that there is need for the debate, called for by many, on the much broader issues to which we have alluded in terms of the ethical implications of in vitro fertilisation and research we have invited into the country and sought for the future? How are we as a society with strong ethical principles to regulate and control that? When will we see such legislation? Is this a priority for this Administration?

On the broad issues raised by Deputy Howlin and on the innovation science agenda, there is need for more debate and more informed thinking. That is the reason that some time ago I put together a group of representatives from the Dáil and Seanad, known as friends of science, to begin the process of examining some of these issues. I would like us some day to have an Oireachtas committee which would examine science issues. We have some expertise in the House. Deputy Upton is one of our greatest experts and is a member of that group.

Does she know whether it is a human life or not?

I am told that whatever research might be done here on adult stem cells is limited. We have no information but it is probably limited. I understand that, at present, the embryos created in vitro are frozen and stored. In some cases the medical practice is to insert them back into the woman outside the womb and she excretes them. That is the practice that operates here. There are issues as to what we do with embryos that remain after IVF treatment. Some countries take the view that, if they can be used to research medicines that help cure the degenerative illnesses referred to earlier, that should happen. That is not a view we have taken but it has been taken by others.

I preface my comments by saying that this is not my specific area of scientific expertise. Any comments I make are not dictated by my supposed expertise in this area – far from it.

There is no doubt that scientists are in disagreement on this delicate issue. The nub of the matter is whether embryonic stem cell research or adult stem cell research serves a specific function, leaving aside the ethical issue. A recent publication in the proceedings of the National Academy for Science indicates that there is a strong case to be made for adult stem research and for the merit of that research. I refer back to a Council of Europe document which stated: "This means that ethically disputed research regarded as having high priority objectives should not be given attention while ethically less controversial methods of research are being pursued". Is it not reasonable, sensible and ethical to pursue the other alternatives?

Hear, hear.

The Tánaiste placed much emphasis on our role and input to the guidelines, but it seems from the answer she gave already that we had little or no input to the guidelines in Europe. What exactly was our input? The Tánaiste has expressed concern for us by way of our input to these guidelines.

The Committee on Assisted Human Reproduction has not yet given a report. If and when it reports it takes a different view to the one we are now pursuing, what are the implications for us?

On the issue of adult stem cells having the capacity to be of greater use, this is the reason precaution is written into the guidelines. The precautionary approach about which Deputy John Bruton spoke is in the guidelines. Embryonic stem cells can only be used where it can be proved to the ethics committee which will oversee the funding in this area that adult stem cells cannot be useful. That is part of the guidelines and the reason they are so important.

The Commission, as the Deputy knows, initiates proposals within the EU. In this instance the formalised proposal was made in July. It consulted with the member states at technical and official levels in advance of that. I do not have the name of the individual who dealt with the matter on our behalf, but I can give it to the Deputy at a future stage. The Commission has been engaged since July in widespread consultation on the proposals at working group level and with individual Ministers. It has sought suggestions for improvements or changes.

The Commission will affect what we do here. I do not think it will change what will happen at EU level, as that is not its intention. The Commission has proposed at EU level that this research should take place in a controlled and regulated environment in which there are safeguards. If this research is to take place, I cannot envisage that it will happen without safeguards, guidelines and regulations. I imagine that most people would prefer research in this area to be conducted on that basis and in a controlled environment.

The only claim I will make about certainty is that I am certain that this House is being bypassed. I reject an attempt by anybody to assist such a bypass. As parliamentarians, our job is to hold Ministers accountable and I will not apologise to anybody for doing so. Is the Minister aware that the Medical Council guidelines state that human embryo research is unethical? I understand that the guidelines are unlikely to change after the examination of them, which is under way at present, has been completed. The guidelines are the only thing that prevents human embryo research in this country because there is no legislation or Government or Dáil guidelines. Does the Minister agree that there are no scientific guidelines for those who are not doctors? There is a major hiatus in this area.

Given that she has said that the report of the Commission on Assisted Human Reproduction is finally about to be published, after three years, does the Minister not agree that she should reconsider my suggestion of a Green Paper in this area? I agree that there should be proper debate and consultation on the many issues which need to be addressed in this regard before we rush into making a decision on them. Members of this House, who represent the public, should be allowed to have their say. It is sad that we had no say on this occasion.

Will the Minister reflect on the fact that there is something obscene about using a potential human life as an object for research or commercial gain? Does she agree that the fundamental issue in this debate is the objectification of human life, which is not being treated with the dignity it deserves? It is required to be treated with such dignity under the European Union's draft constitution. The first article of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights relates to respect for human dignity. Does the Minister agree that little dignity is being accorded to human embryos that are being flushed away for the sake of dubious research gains? We should explore the other available sources of stem cells, which can provide the same gains, before we engage in this area.

We are talking about human tissue.

I accept that it has the potential to become human life.

It is not just tissue.

One can argue that storing—

The Minister is tissue. We are all tissue.

—these embryos in refrigerated circumstances is not very dignified, but I do not want to proceed in that manner. The embryos in question are those that remain after IVF treatment. There is no longer a possibility that they will be implanted in women for the purposes of having children. That is what we are talking about. We are not talking about anything else.

It is not just tissue. A human embryo is not something like a nail clipping.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle

Order, please.

That is the way the Minister is referring to it.

Nobody is making such a suggestion.

I have not made such a suggestion. Deputy John Bruton is being very unhelpful and very unfair.

The Minister said that it is just tissue. She seems to think that it is like cutting one's nails.

It has the potential to become human life only when it is implanted in a woman. Is that correct?

Does Deputy Bruton believe that to be correct?

A foetus can only become a child if it is carried to term.

Of course.

There are ifs in everybody's life.

We are talking about embryos that will not be implanted because the donors have decided that they will not use them. The embryos will not become human beings because the donors have decided that they will not be implanted.

They are treating it as their property.

That poses huge issues for all of us about what is happening at the moment. The Government established the Commission on Assisted Human Reproduction, which is due to publish its report soon, for that reason and other reasons. I do not believe it would be a good idea to establish a parallel process while we are awaiting the report of the commission.

What about after the report?

There may be developments after the report. That would be a good idea. I am certain that the report will be the subject of widespread debate in the House and throughout the country. This issue is debated in many other places. The period following publication of the report would be an appropriate time for such a discussion. Deputy Gay Mitchell is right to say that the Medical Council has put guidelines in place, but I do not understand why it is relevant that other groups do not have guidelines in place, given that embryos cannot be procured from anyone other than a doctor. I do not know why the Deputy mentioned that other professions have not put in place guidelines in this area.

There are no other guidelines.

It is true that the Medical Council guidelines operate in this country in respect of this matter.

In Germany, one cannot create supernumerary embryos.

It is the law in Germany.

In Germany, they import them.

Deputy Sexton should speak up.

They import them.

The Minister said in the Seanad that we are speaking about multinational global companies. If such companies conduct research within a particular country, we cannot confine it to being developed elsewhere. It seems that those of us in Ireland cannot regulate this area because it is an international industry. Given that so much of our investment in the biotechnology and information technology areas of scientific research is aimed at biotechnology, does the Minister believe we will have to regulate to an increasing extent to allow for what is happening internationally? Multinationals will be involved in the area of biotechnology.

We probably have to examine what we do in our own jurisdiction. I said in the Seanad that if knowledge emerges from research in the US, China or other European countries, I do not believe it will be confined to such countries. I made that point in the Seanad when Senator Henry asked me whether, in the event of research emerging from other countries to prove that drugs can be made to cure illnesses, Ireland would allow such manufacturing here. I said that I do not think knowledge can be confined to within the boundaries of any one country or continent.