The Irish Council for Bioethics (ICB) has backed human embryo research for the first time following a year of public consultation, and has called for a state authority to be formed to oversee the practice.
In a report into stem cell therapies the governmental advisory body has backed research on surplus IVF embryos, providing the couple they belong to consents, rather than being destroyed once couples have completed their families, as is currently the case. This is likely to anger the Catholic church and pro-life groups.
The ICB does not consider an embryo to have the full moral status of a person, but rather to possess 'significant moral value', and would therefore consider sanctioning human embryonic stem cell research in specific circumstances. The ICB hopes that the research will yield cures for diseases like Parkinson's disease or multiple sclerosis in the future.
The Pro Life Campaign has criticised the ICB's recommendations. They point to the ICB's survey results, in which 70 per cent of respondents did not support embryo research, believing that the embryo reached full moral status at the point egg and sperm joined. Only 25 per cent of respondents backed embryo research, believing that the embryo only achieves full moral status once it is implanted in the womb.
The report, which will be circulated to government departments and all members of the Oireachtas, falls short of backing the creation of embryos specifically for research, which it does not believe is justified. The report states that 'this is based on the recognition of the need to avoid the instrumentalisation of embryos and women and on the value of the embryo as a symbol of how we treat each other as members of the human race'.
The ICB report also criticised the lack of legislation for stem cell research. Dr Siobhan O'Sullivan, Scientific Director of the ICB, said, 'failure to provide a comprehensive and cohesive regulatory system to govern stem cell research and its application undermines the moral value of the human embryo. It may also hinder developments in this field of research in Ireland'.
The Government would not give a specific timeline for following up on the report, with a spokesperson from the Department of Health commenting that 'the department's position is that the report and recommendations will be considered as part of our current work in developing a legal framework for assisted human reproduction and related practices and procedures'.