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A less than perfect storm – embryos and Irish politics. August 11, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Bioethics, Frozen embryos, Ireland, Irish Politics, Medical Issues, Uncategorized.

This morning a leaflet from www.embryoresearch.org dropped through my door. Accompanied by a photograph of a smiling baby was the attention grabbing headline “Don’t use me for spare parts” and the slogan “Ban Embryo Research and Cloning”. The leaflet was issued by Youth Defence and goes into some detail about how it is wrong to use embryos for stem cell research.

In a way it’s a perfect storm of issues, combining distrust of politics; “We all know this government likes to please the multinationals”, a sub-Chomskyian distrust of the corporate sector and highly questionable assertions; “some bio-tech companies want to make huge profits from abusing human life…that’s because ever patient would have to pay for a cloned embryo which would be used to produce stem cells. And they would spend a fortune on drugs to prevent the embryonic stem cells being rejected by their immune system”, fear of biological catastrophe; “Messing with nature never works – our experience with mad Cow Disease should have taught us that” and the elision of unborn babies with embryos “they want to give multinationals bio-technology companies the right to experiment on unborn babies”.

Unfortunately it’s factually inaccurate. The leaflet claims that “no-one should be allowed to experiment on human life. Yet some powerful corporations want to do just that. Moreover they want the right to do it here, in Ireland”. In fact the government has been clear that such experimentation would never be permitted in Ireland. It’s also doubtful that corporations do want to experiment here when there are much more hospitable locations for such research across Europe and the US.

And, equally unfortunately it’s out of date. The leaflet was clearly generated off the back of the recent events in Europe regarding EU funding for stem cell research, which does indeed use embryo’s as noted [here]. However, it’s interesting to note the embryoresearch website hasn’t been updated in months since the EU agreed, much along the lines of the governments approach, to allow research where it was deemed appropriate by local populations.

The real ire in the leaflet is, perhaps naturally, reserved for stem cell research. Here it is littered with some interesting statements. “Embryonic stem cells have been hyped” and “after more than 20 years of experimentations involving embryonic stem cells, no-one has been cured or treated. Not one person”. Well the first statement is probably true, but the second is not entirely accurate. The first embryonic stem cell research kicked off in 1981 with experiments derived from mice embryo’s. It is only since 1998 that cells derived from human embryo’s have been successfully grown. Science takes time.

It also states that “scientists strip stem cells from human embryos. This always kills the developing baby”. Unfortunately that’s not exactly true either. A fairly widely available technique called PGD, or Preimplantation genetic diagnosis, is used in IVF where a number of cells are removed from an embryo and tested for various hereditary genetic diseases. The embryo, can then be implanted inside the womb and can lead to successful pregnancy. This technology allows a fix which the leaflet doesn’t mention. The status of the embryo is important. Away from the glossy sun-filled uplands which the leaflet basks in concerning human fertility the truth is that embryos often don’t develop – indeed I’ve previously mentioned the enormous number of fertililsed embryo’s which never implant. In many embryo’s (which can be identified through PGD) there is an incorrect number of chromosomes that from the start prevents further development of the embryo with resulting cell death. Therefore such embryo’s have no chance of ever becoming ‘human’. Howard Zucker and Donald Landry, of Columbia University [here] , argue that in effect the status of such embryos is exactly the same as that of brain-dead adults who have organs removed for transplant, since the stem cells are nonetheless perfectly adequate for research. There are other techniques which involve altering eggs prior to fertilisation which would also lead to the same outcome.

Whether it’s wise to move onto that terrain, in other words to seek to accept and bypass the objections that the leaflet raises is a moot point. The reality is that the objections raised can be overcome in ways which remain within a largely ‘pro-life’ ethic, yet none of this is mentioned or raised in the leaflet or on the accompanying website.

The leaflet keenly promotes adult stem cells, which do as certain treatments work. However there are problems with adult stem cells, unlike embryonic stem cells they do not appear to be able to develop into all tissue and cell types limiting their utility. Because they are taken from adults they are subject to wear and tear which limits their effectiveness. Hence the interest in embryonic stem cells which are obviously newer and have the potential to develop into all cell and tissue types.

The leaflet claims that the majority of Irish people are against such research, which is very questionable, but it goes on to describe such research as ‘creepy’ and ‘barbaric’. Intriguingly in polling in the US support for stem cell research is high, well above the 70% mark, even amongst those who describe themselves as religious.

And the dog that doesn’t bark? Well the leaflet states “In order to allow these gruesome practices, our government will need to amend the Constitution. they want to say that embryos have no rights unless they are implanted in their mother’s womb”. Interesting in that it doesn’t make any mention of one area, regarding which they might not get a sympathetic hearing, that of IVF. Whether Youth Defence have a position on that issue is difficult to tell from the leaflet, or indeed their website. As recent events indicate even those self-described as ‘pro-life’ have differing attitudes towards it with some accepting the necessity for IVF but seeking to place limits on the numbers of fertilised embryo’s or positing ‘adoption’ of embryo’s.

Will this run and run? Difficult to say. In some respects the leaflet is part of a campaign that lost steam almost as soon as it was dreamt up in that the core complaint is simply wrong and won’t have any impact – with the possible exception of IVF practice – in this state. Most likely it is a means of keeping ‘pro-life’ issues on the boil – particularly in an environment where the status of the embryo in Constitutional terms is wending it’s way through the legal process.

In an electoral sense it is hard to tell how this one will play. It has been striking – for me – how this society has altered even in the last ten years and how such issues have simply slid off the political and cultural agenda. Whether that betokens a vague liberalism (of a sort), or indifference, is difficult to assess. Culture war issues usually do well in times when the economy is buoyant – as seen during the Clinton years in the US – a point that it would take a thesis to tease out. On the other hand the high water mark of the ‘pro-life’ campaign – in terms of general public support – was most definitely the mid-1980s during some of the grimmest economic times this state ever saw. Now we have experienced the longest period of sustained growth and economic well-being in our history perhaps the culture wars will return.

Finally, I’ve noted before there are differing viewpoints on all these issues, and all should be considered carefully with due respect, but it does no-one any great service to overstate, exaggerate or promote inaccurate information.



1. Pidge - August 27, 2006

Isn’t it strange how they choose to use a picture of a fully birthed baby, as opposed to an embryo?

You’d nearly think that they were trying to bring more emotion into the debate…


2. Breandan O Mearain - August 31, 2006

The question is one of ethicality, not of efficiency. The use of adult stem cells may indeed be limited in scope, but the practice is ethical. The use of embryonic stem cells is, at best, questionable from an ethical viewpoint.Where any doubt exists, preference should always be given to procedures which are ethical; and efforts should be directed towards increasing their efficiency.


3. smiffy - August 31, 2006

Possibly, Brendan, but surely you’re begging the question there. You say that the use of embryonic stem cells is, at best, ethically questionable, but don’t explain why. From my perspective, there’s no ethical difficulty with using embryonic stem cells and if it’s more effective to use embryonic rather than adult stem cells then I’d argue that it’s better to use those.

Now, I’m sure you’d have a different point of view, but you’d be better off explaining why I’m wrong (and I’ll more than likely argue against your point) than simply stating that it’s ethically questionable without telling us what the ethical question actually is.


4. High Court ruling on Embryo’s… they ‘have no right to life’ « The Cedar Lounge Revolution - November 15, 2006

[…] Assisted Reproductive Techniques are difficult in some respects with regard to the ethical dilemmas that they pose. And as noted round these part previously Youth Defence , in their embryoresearch incarnation, for one has not been shy when it comes to utilising the public concern – and lack of knowledge regarding these techniques. But it really is the responsibility of the Oireachtas to deal with these in a more comprehensive fashion. A good place to start would be with the currently unimplemented report of the Commission on Assisted Human Reproduction. This document, more liberal that I could have hoped for and overwhelmingly agreed by those involved has been ignored for over a year now. […]


5. Siobhán Casey - October 28, 2008

‘The leaflet claims that “no-one should be allowed to experiment on human life. Yet some powerful corporations want to do just that. Moreover they want the right to do it here, in Ireland”. In fact the government has been clear that such experimentation would never be permitted in Ireland.’

Well, if the proposed UCC embryonic stem cell research is anything to go by, I believe Youth Defence’s projections were not far off the mark.


6. WorldbyStorm - October 28, 2008

If academic organisations within Ireland propose such research that’s qualitatively different from ‘powerful’ corporations. And it doesn’t in any sense undercut the point that the decision would rest with the government.


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