Speech by Mr Micheál Martin, T.D., Minister for Health and Children, on the occasion of the opening of the conference organised by the Commission on Assisted Human Reproduction
I would like to thank the Commission on Assisted Human Reproduction, in particular its Chairperson, Professor Dervilla Donnelly, for inviting me to address this conference. I would also like to welcome all participants to Dublin Castle today, including the very eminent panel members from home and abroad. It is wonderful to have available such a wealth of wide ranging experience and expertise. I believe that this will prove to be of immense value in facilitating discussion and debate on the very complex social, ethical and legal factors involved in the sphere of assisted human reproduction services. I know, from my own experience, that the Conference Chairman, Dr John Bowman, will ensure that the proceedings remain focused and that the conference runs smoothly.
As you will be aware, in line with a Government Decision on the matter, I established this Commission in 2000 to prepare a report on the possible approaches to the regulation of all aspects of assisted human reproduction and the social, ethical and legal factors to be taken into account in determining public policy in the area. At the time, it was evident to me that the absence of statutory control of the area was a source of concern and that, while guidelines issued by the Medical Council governed medical practice in this area, such guidelines would be ineffective in the case of individuals other than registered medical practitioners.
Recent reports of births of cloned human babies, albeit unconfirmed, within the last few weeks have underlined and added a degree of urgency to the importance of effective control in this area. The need to address all of the concerns involved in an appropriate and comprehensive manner and in a way which takes into account the rapid nature of technological and scientific advancements in the area is a matter that cannot be delayed unduly.
The issues that come within the terms of reference of the Commission’s examination are highly complex and sensitive covering matters of medical, scientific, social, legal and ethical concern. In establishing the Commission, therefore, I believed that it was important to ensure that its composition and method of operation were such as to facilitate a detailed review of the many issues involved. The membership is drawn from a variety of relevant fields, including medicine, science, law and social science. Additionally, at the outset, I specifically requested the Commission to initiate a consultation process in order to seek the views of all concerned, including service providers, consumers, philosophical and theological experts and the public. This was with a view to ensuring that the deliberations of the Commission would be informed by as comprehensive a consultation process as necessary with a view to ensuring that the Commission has the benefit of a wide range of perspectives in reaching its conclusions.
I am aware that the Commission has made a number of efforts to elicit the current state of public opinion in Ireland on assisted human reproduction. These include the placing of advertisements in the national newspapers inviting interested members of the public, professional or voluntary organisations and other parties who wished to do so to make written submissions. The fact that over 1600 submissions were received in response to this invitation is positive and provides an indicator both of the degree of interest in the area and the issues that are of particular concern. In addition, various information gathering exercises including surveys of GPs, clinics providing assisted human reproduction services, Obstetricians and Gynaecologists have also been conducted. A one-day conference facilitated an exchange of views between experts in the various fields from Ireland, the UK, France and Germany. The hosting of this public workshop here today in Dublin Castle represents a further initiative on the part of the Commission to engage those with an interest in the area in the process and to ensure that they have an opportunity to assist and contribute to its work. I trust that all those in attendance today will find the workshop informative and useful in terms of facilitating an exchange of views and generating worthwhile discussion.
I would also like to take this opportunity to acknowledge the work of and express my appreciation to all members of the Commission for their efforts to date. I am aware that you are all busy individuals and that membership of the Commission brings with it an additional heavy workload. The task of the Commission is not an easy one. The range of issues which comes under its remit is highly complex as is clear from the core issues which have been identified and signalled to the Commission for examination. These include:
- whether regulation is best achieved by legislation or reliance on medical ethics, or a combination of the two;
- the replacement, freezing and subsequent usage or disposal of embryos;
- the freezing and subsequent usage or disposal of sperm;
- the regulation of who may use the services, for example, the age and marital status of individuals involved;
- the regulation of donor programmes, surrogacy, legal parentage, succession rights, registration of births, etc.;
- possible screening of embryos for genetic conditions;
- research on embryos, and
Finally, issues such as licensing of facilities, qualifications of staff, conditions of storage of embryos and other human reproductive material, optimum number of treatments in an individual case, testing of infectious diseases, record keeping and data collection will also need to be considered.
What is of major concern to me, ultimately, is that the best and most appropriate regulatory framework is put in place. I have every confidence in the ability of the Commission to deliver a report which will provide the basis for informed public debate before the finalisation of any policy proposals. In this sense, the work of the Commission is very much the first essential step before any policy proposals are brought forward.
It is clear that the application of science to the human reproductive sphere has brought with it many benefits, for example, allowing couples who have problems conceiving to have children. Techniques such as in-vitro fertilisation, the freezing and storage of sperm and artificial insemination by donor are available in Ireland and have undoubtedly enhanced the quality of life for many people. It is vital that such techniques are conducted within an appropriate regulatory framework which safeguards the interests and dignity of all concerned and ensures that quality standards are in line with best practice.
It is also, however, clear that the ability of science to intervene in, control or even alter the natural process of the creation of human life poses fundamental ethical problems for all of us.
I would also like to take this opportunity to make clear the Government’s total opposition to human cloning. This issue is, of course, among the various issues under examination by the Commission on Assisted Human Reproduction. I know that the vast majority of Irish people find the whole notion of producing cloned babies unsettling and unacceptable and that guidelines issued by the Medical Council provide that the creation of embryos for experimental purposes would be professional misconduct. I am firmly of the belief that our approach to date in terms of seeking to have all of the issues that come within the ambit of assisted human reproduction, including human cloning, examined, in the first instance, by the Commission on Assisted Human Reproduction with a view to producing a comprehensive set of recommendations is the best one. I would also like to take this opportunity to reassure everybody that once the Commission has produced its report that there will be no undue delay in advancing the next stage of the process in terms of bringing forward policy proposals to regulate the area.
Finally, it merely remains for me to wish everybody every success with the conference. I hope it will be a valuable and worthwhile experience for all. Again I would like to express my appreciation to Professor Donnelly for inviting me to address you here today. I look forward to the publication of the Commission’s report in due course.