Tuesday, 16 June 1998
Dáil Éireann Debate
8. Mr. Shatter asked the Minister for Health and Children if he will provide details of his recent communication to the Rotunda Hospital, Dublin 1, regarding their embryo freezing programme and the reply, if any, received; the communication, if any, there has been between him, his Department and the medical director of Bourn Hall and those involved with the Clane clinic regarding the subject of embryo freezing; when it is proposed to introduce legislation on the new scientific methods of reproduction, and the status of the children born by use of these methods. [14111/98]
Mr. Cowen: My Department has been in touch with the Rotunda Hospital which has assured the Department that this procedure was introduced as part of the in vitro fertilisation service offered by a private clinic at the hospital only after the  most rigorous examination of the medical, legal and ethical aspects of the procedure.
I understand that the Irish Medical Council is reviewing its code of ethical guidelines relating to assisted human reproduction and I am awaiting the publication of those guidelines. My Department has had no communication with the Clane Clinic.
The position regarding the status of a child born as a result of embryo freezing is that where the gametes, eggs and sperm, of a couple are used there is no difficulty. However, where donor gametes are used the status of any child born has not been specifically addressed. To date there has been a presumption of paternity of the husband as provided for in the Status of Children Act, 1987.
Mr. Shatter: Is the Minister aware that under Irish law if donor's sperm is used for the conception of a child, whereas there may be a presumption that a husband is the father of that child, that presumption can be rebutted, the donor may be regarded as the father of the child and may be liable, if identified, for child support? Does the Minister acknowledge that this is an issue that is being addressed in various states throughout the European Union? Does he have any plans to introduce legislation to address this problem?
Mr. Cowen: Issues will arise because of the advancement of medical science in this whole area. For that reason a review is taking place of the guidelines of the Irish Medical Council. Before considering what steps, regulatory or otherwise, might be required, I would like to see what the review throws up.
Mr. Shatter: Does the Minister acknowledge the Irish Medical Council has no role in making legislative policy in this area? Is he telling the House that he is abdicating his role to the Irish Medical Council? Will he indicate whether he regards this issue as too hot to handle? Is he unwilling to look at what legislative initiatives are necessary in this area? Will he not accept that his Department has a very specific responsibility with regard to children to redress issues in the area of children's law in which currently there is a vacuum which will inevitably result in substantial difficulties having to be resolved by the courts if the Minister does not have the courage to address these areas?
Mr. Cowen: The legal implications of these procedures are under consideration by the Department and I have not yet been advised what the final position is or where we should go from here. In addition, a review is being undertaken by the Irish Medical Council and I would like to see what that review throws up to be informed on  all aspects, medical issues, ethical issues and legal issues. I want to try to get a handle on all of those complex areas before deciding what to do about them.
Mr. Shatter: Will the Minister indicate the nature of the review conducted so far by the Department, and the nature of the research if any into the legal systems or legislation available within other countries to address these areas? Will he acknowledge that there are two different areas of legal problem, one the parentage of children born as a result of donor ova or donor sperm, and the other the legal procedures relating to conception and the ownership of zygotes or embryos which result from the use of these procedures, their future, and the manner in which they can be used for assisted reproduction mechanisms.
Mr. Cowen: I agree with the Deputy that broadly those are the two areas that are thrown up when one considers the implications of availability of these procedures here. There are many issues involved. I have to examine the ethical, medical and legal implications. The Department, in its consideration of these matters highlights the areas of concern. The Deputy has outlined some of them. It has to be decided what may need to be regulated and what does not need to be regulated, whether legislation is required, and whether guidelines for the Institute of Gynaecologists to cover this issue would be relevant. We have to try to get a handle on these issues and get all the advice we can on how to deal with them.
Regarding the Deputy's suggestion, it is not a case of the issue being too hot to handle but of giving it the detailed consideration required so that there is some prospect of regulating the situation over and above the position as it now stands. Clearly medical science is advancing in terms of assisted human reproduction and the issues relating to it will come up for consideration at some stage.
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