University College Cork (UCC), one of the biggest universities in Ireland, recently released a press statement to the effect that they had passed a new code of practice which should be followed in the event of any researcher at the university wishing to carry out research on imported embryonic stem cell (ES cell) lines. A University Research Ethics Board has been set up to advise as to the scientific merit of the research proposed, it will also look at the ethical issues arising and the source from which the stem cell lines will be imported (1).
Currently in Ireland there is no legislation surrounding such research. This is a contentious issue as the life of the unborn is given specific protection in the Irish Constitution. The Pro-Life campaign in Ireland has struck out at the decision by the university to allow the use of imported ES cell lines as hypocritical. Dr. Audrey Dillon commenting, for example, that 'the university imports the stem cells to use in their research, hypocritically denying their complicity in the killing that produced them'. She went on to state that 'a human embryo is not a potential life, it is a human life with potential'.
Dr Dermot Clifford, the Archbishop of Cashel, had similar comments to make when he publicly asked the university board to remember the fifth commandment 'thou shalt not kill' (2). Another issue which the pro-life campaign has raised issue with is that the field of adult stem cell research seems to have been glossed over as a separate issue rather than as being seen as an alternative.
On the other side of the debate, Baroness Mary Warnock, speaking in UCC on 24 November, applauded the moves taken by the university. 'I think people like Dr Tom Moore (of UCC) are not only to be congratulated on what they are doing, they would be failing in their moral duty if they did not pursue this line of research. It is often presented that scientists have no morals. That is a total misrepresentation'(3).
In 2005 the Irish Council for Bioethics endorsed the practice of using imported ES cell lines for research, stating that embryos should be given significant rather than full moral status. Despite this approval the Irish government have still not made any definite move to legislate in this area. Senator David Norris, a well know Irish Civil Rights campaigner, has come out in support of the action taken by UCC noting that they had done the most honest and courageous thing and had acted properly in the absence of any affirmative action by the government. UCC have themselves acknowledged the fact that but for the lack of any public policy or legislation in this area they would not have been forced to implement their own guidelines. According to a survey carried out by IrishHealth.com, 63 per cent of their subscribers support the decision taken by UCC (4).
This decision is a positive step in the right direction and it is hoped that at least if nothing else has been achieved the action taken by UCC will force the Irish government to revisit and look seriously to implementing guidelines or legislation in this important area.
Claire McDermott, Postgraduate Student of Medical Law and Ethics, King's College, London