New approach will not replace embryonic stem cells in the short term

A LETTER from a group of Irish academics (May 13) raised a number of issues in relation to the Irish Council for Bioethics’ (ICB) opinion document on stem cell research.

We would take issue with the assertion that the council’s stem cell report “has no sound ethical, medical or scientific basis”.

On the contrary, the ICB spent 18 months preparing this report, which sets out in some detail the (peer-reviewed) scientific basis of stem cell research as well as the ethical and legal issues arising from scientific advances in this area.

A statement was made that “it is likely” that therapies for diseases will be developed using adult stem cell research and induced pluripotent stem cells, thereby obviating the need for embryonic stem cell research.

Science is based on the systematic testing of hypotheses and observation and does not rely on likelihoods for its results. While induced pluripotent stem cells hold significant promise, they will not provide a replacement for embryonic stem cells in the short term.

Reference was also made to the possibility of IVF without the need for supernumerary embryos.

Again, while future progress may indeed alter IVF practices, currently egg-freezing is a new technology and is still considered experimental. Thus, until sufficient data demonstrates a lack of increased genetic or congenital abnormalities in babies born using frozen eggs, it will not become mainstream IVF practice.

In addition, a significant body of research has also demonstrated that the majority of couples are not willing to donate their supernumerary embryos for other people’s parental projects.

Both these issues are discussed in some depth in the ICB opinion document. The assertion that the council gives “no valid reasons” for its opinion that embryos do not have the same moral status as those already born is incorrect. We would direct the signatories to pages 34-41 of the report for a discussion on issues such as moral status, personhood, potentiality and human dignity, which form the basis of our conclusions.

The ICB would agree that exaggeration of the therapeutic potential of embryonic stem cell research or indeed adult stem cell research is not in the interests of patients and their families and this places an ethical responsibility on all sides of the debate to provide balanced and accurate information.

Dr Dolores Dooley

Chairperson

Irish Council for Bioethics

Regus House

Block 4

Harcourt Centre

Harcourt Road

Dublin 2

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