Government’s green light for embryo research goes under the radar

The Assisted Human Reproduction (AHR) Bill, currently under consideration in the Seanad, has sparked some debate primarily around the issue of surrogacy. However, the Bill raises numerous other ethical issues that merit urgent attention, particularly with regard to embryo research and screening.

Although the AHR Bill prohibits the creation of embryos specifically for research purposes, it allows the usage of ‘spare’ embryos created during in vitro fertilization (IVF) treatments but not used for implantation. These surplus embryos can be utilised for research and experimentation aimed at improving IVF procedures, the Bill says. This is a blatant instrumentalisation of human beings at the earliest stage of their lives, failing to accord them the dignity they deserve.

While the Assisted Human Reproduction Bill prohibits cloning and genetic manipulation that could affect future generations (germline modification), it permits various other forms of research on human embryos for ‘medical’ purposes, further dehumanising them.

The Bill also permits pre-implantation genetic screening (PGS) and diagnosis (PGD). These processes allow embryos to be screened for genetic or chromosomal anomalies, such as Down Syndrome. Embryos identified as carrying these anomalies can be discarded, with only those deemed free from certain disorders being selected and used for implantation. This practice is profoundly immoral. The desire for healthy children does not justify the destruction of embryos considered “defective”. This process is a form of eugenics, promoting the selection of the fittest embryos and the destruction of those who do not meet certain criteria.

As disability rights advocates have rightly argued, selecting against embryos with specific genetic conditions devalues the lives of individuals living with those conditions, perpetuating negative stereotypes and discrimination. Such practices reinforce societal biases against people with disabilities or anomalous conditions.

Another contentious issue addressed by the Bill is that of the sex selection of embryos. While the Bill generally prohibits sex selection, it allows exceptions in cases where there is a risk of a child being born with a genetic disease that affects only one sex, or one sex more than another. What is presented as a medical justification is, in reality, another form of eugenics. Here again, it is not the abnormal condition that is addressed and dismissed, but the person who carries it. Sex selection is not a cure or a preventive treatment; instead, the Bill allows the selection of healthy human beings at their embryonic stage and the destruction of the defective ones.

But we wonder how clinics in will police the law against the sex selection of healthy embryos. If the commissioning adults are not allowed to request it, then will the clinic itself implant embryos without knowing their sex? Or will there, in fact, be a nod and wink between the clinic and the couple which will result in the sex selection of embryos in practice? We might never know.

In summary, while the AHR Bill aims to regulate and advance assisted human reproduction technologies, it raises severe ethical concerns. These include the potential for eugenic practices, the devaluation of embryonic lives with disabilities, the implications of sex selection, and the ethical considerations surrounding embryo research. Disturbingly, none of these concerns have been adequately discussed in the Oireachtas so far.