What is Bioethics?

Decisions and procedures in health care include numerous sensitive issues and ethical concerns that need to be considered in order to ensure the correct provision of patient care. Bioethics is integral to these considerations because it examines the ethical, legal and social issues of advances in bioscience in a number of disciplinary domains, namely ageing and end of life, clinical ethics, life sciences, and disparities in health and health care.

Therefore, bioethics is a vital instrument in health care policy as it creates a care environment that promotes equality, fairness and justice because it helps to understand and resolve ethical problems arising within the practice of medicine, the conduct of biomedical research and the promotion and protection of public health. By bringing together ethical analysis and scientific understanding, bioethics helps to evaluate policies and regulate new developments. It plays another valuable role in that it anticipates future questions of concern, encourages awareness about them and stimulates debate within all sections of society.  

What We Do

The Bioethics Unit is responsible for advancing policy in the areas of reproductive medicine and end of life issues, particularly in relation to Advance Healthcare Directives (AHDs). The Bioethics Unit also provides advice across the Department on ethical approaches to a wide range of policy questions.

Work Programme

Legislative Provisions relating to Assisted Human Reproduction (AHR)

In February 2015, the Minister for Health received Government approval to draft a General Scheme of legislative provisions dealing with assisted human reproduction (AHR).  The legislation will cover:

  • consent;
  • welfare of the child assessments;
  • embryo transfer;
  • gamete (sperm and egg) and embryo donation;
  • surrogacy;
  • the screening of embryos for serious genetic diseases;
  • posthumous reproduction;
  • associated research and
  • the establishment of a regulatory authority.

Drafting of the General Scheme is in progress and once this process is complete the Department will conduct a widespread consultation during which stakeholders including members of the public will be invited to share their views. The General Scheme will also be submitted to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children for pre-legislative scrutiny.

Press Release: Government to legislate for Assisted Human Reproduction & Associated Research

Public Funding of AHR

On 1st February 2016, the former Minister for Health, Leo Varadkar, T.D., announced his intention to provide public funding for AHR in conjunction with the introduction of the planned legislation. The Department has commissioned an evidence review of international public funding models for AHR. This will provide a comprehensive report of the existing evidence which will be invaluable in determining the most appropriate funding model for AHR in the State.  It is anticipated that this review will be completed by the end of 2016.

Press Release: Minister for Health Announces his intention to Fund Fertility Treatment in conjunction with planned Legislation

Advance Healthcare Directives

The Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) Act was signed into law on 30th December 2015. Part 8 of the Act provides a legislative framework for advance healthcare directives (AHDs), which the Bioethics Unit was responsible for drafting. An AHD is a statement made by a person with capacity setting out his or her will and preferences regarding treatment decisions that may arise in the future, in the event that he or she lacks the capacity to provide consent.

The Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) Act

Press Release on the legislation repealing the archaic Lunatics Act and Lunacy Regulation

As part of preparing the legislative framework for AHDs the Bioethics Unit held a public consultation on the draft General Scheme in February and March 2014. This consultation involved inviting interested parties, including the general public to share their general views and also to consider specific questions outlined by the Bioethics Unit. A total of 67 responses were received: 22 responses were received from individuals; whilst 45 submissions were received from various organisations and representative groups.

Advance Healthcare Directives: Public Consultation on Draft General Scheme for Advance Healthcare Directives for Incorporation into the Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) Bill 2013

Under the Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) Act the Minister for Health is responsible for establishing a multidisciplinary working group to assist in the development of the Code of Practice to accompany the AHD provisions. The Code of Practice will provide advice and guidance on how the AHD legislation will operate on a day-to-day basis “on the ground”, including providing examples of best practice. The Code of Practice will address the needs of a variety of stakeholders including:

  • health and social care providers;
  • people making AHDs (i.e. directive-makers);
  • designated healthcare representatives appointed in AHDs;
  • as well as carers and family members of directive-makers.

Open Policy Debate – Nudging or Shoving? The Ethical Debate

On 11th May 2015, the Bioethics Unit hosted a debate on “Influencing Healthy Lifestyles: Nudging or Shoving?” in Dublin Castle. A number of experts were invited to debate the questions:

  • Should policy-makers try to influence people’s behaviour when it comes to lifestyle choices?
  • Does nudging represent an efficient yet proportionate tool of governance or might it be seen as a step towards a nanny state?

For further information relating to nudging see:

Department of Health Symposium Influencing Healthy Lifestyles: Nudging or Shoving? The Ethical Debate

A Report by the National Advisory Committee on Bioethics: Nudging in Public Health – An Ethical Framework

National Advisory Committee on Bioethics

The Bioethics Unit provide secretariat support and research services to the National Advisory Committee on Bioethics.  The National Advisory Committee on Bioethics advises the Minister for Health on the ethical and social implications of scientific developments in human medicine and healthcare.

International Events

The Bioethics Unit represent Ireland at international bioethics fora, including:


Contact Us

Chief Bioethics Officer

Dr Siobhán O’Sullivan

Assistant Principal 

Paul Ivory

Administrative Officer

Aoife Brennan