No ethical, medical or scientific basis for destructive embryo research

THE Irish Council for Bioethics (ICB) recently issued an opinion which recommended that frozen IVF embryos could be destroyed for research to generate human embryonic stem cell lines.

The fact that the opinion was unanimous (13-0, a rather curious degree of unanimity, given the diversity of opinion on the topic) might signal to legislators that the recommendations represent a general consensus in the academic and biomedical communities.

This is not the case, and we wish to express our strongest possible dissent from the ICB opinion with regard to destructive research on human embryos. This opinion has no sound ethical, medical or scientific basis.

Incidentally, 69% of respondents in the council’s own public consultation believed the embryo attains “full moral status” at fertilisation.

Scientifically, it is a fact that a new, unique human individual comes into existence when the DNA from sperm and ovum come together at fertilisation. The ICB report recognises this and accepts that the embryo has a “significant moral value”, but then asserts that the embryo does not “have the same moral status as those already born”.

No valid reasons are given for this extraordinary assertion. The basis for a civilised society must be the recognition of the inherent value and basic rights of each human individual, and whenever arbitrary distinctions have been made throughout human history on the basis of race, colour, gender, religion, age, sexual orientation, etc, serious human rights abuses have followed, as the history of the 20th century clearly illustrates. We reject the ICBs reasoning in recommending legalisation of destructive human embryo research because:

The embryos are human individuals. The disturbing suggestion (from sources referred to in the ICB’s opinion) that the value of an embryo might be contingent on the attitude of parents is not consistent with any valid concept of individual human rights. Neither the fact that many embryos die nor that twinning can occur changes the fact that destroying IVF embryos is destroying the lives of human individuals.

The therapeutic potential of human embryonic stem cells has been greatly exaggerated by its proponents, out of all proportion to the scientific evidence, and patients and patient lobby groups have been unfairly misled.

There is no evidence to suggest research using human embryonic stem cells is necessary to cure disease. It is likely scientific knowledge and cures for disease can be achieved by ethically acceptable approaches, including adult stem cell research and use of induced pluripotent cells (in which adult cells can be reprogrammed to behave like embryonic stem cells).

The logic behind the ICB’s argument could in the longer term pose a threat (no doubt unintended by ICB) to other groups in society, including those with serious physical and mental disability, and the terminally ill. We also challenge the ICB’s justification of destructive embryo research on the basis that “nothing is lost” (ie, if frozen embryos are going to be destroyed, why not put them to good use?). There is, in fact, no need to destroy IVF embryos. With the recent advances in egg-freezing and the option of adoption of frozen embryos (if the parents do not wish to have them all implanted), IVF without leftover embryos is perfectly feasible, and the Government should legislate on this basis to protect the interests of parents and of the embryos generated by this technology. The issue of rights of embryos is often portrayed as a religious issue, but our position is based on scientific principles and out of concern for fundamental human rights, not on religious dogma.

Those parts of the ICB’s document dealing with destructive embryo research should (along with the corresponding majority recommendations from the Commission on Assisted Human Reproduction) have no role in the framing of legislation.

Martin Clynes

Professor of Biotechnology

Dublin City University

William RevilleAssoc

Professor of Biochemistry,


Kevin Kavanagh

Senior Lecturer in Biology

NUI Maynooth

Donal Ó Mathúna

Senior Lecturer in Ethics,

Decision-Making and Evidence

Dublin City University

Desmond O’Neill

Assoc Professor of Medical


Adelaide and Meath Hospital/TCD

Ken Carroll Senior Lecturer in BiologyI

TT Dublin

Gerry Whyte

Assoc Professor of Law,


Rosaleen Devery

Senior Lecturer in Biotechnology

Dublin City University

William Binchy

Regius Pofessor of Laws


Mette Lebech

Lecturer in Philosophy

NUI Maynooth

John Kehoe

General Practioner


Co Kildare

Seán Ó Domhnaill

Consultant Psychiatrist

Louth/Meath Mental Health Service

Ronald Grainger

Consultant Urologist

Adelaide and Meath Hospital/

TCD Des MacHale

Associate Professor of Mathematics

UCC Peter Childs

Senior Lecturer in Chemistry University of Limerick

Teresa Iglesias


Newman Research Centre, School of Philosophy

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