The case for protecting the human embryo

The case for protecting the human embryo

The case for protecting the human embryo in Ireland

Why a new law is urgently needed

The Constitution protects human embryos in their mother’s womb. But in December 2009, the Supreme Court ruled in the R-v-R case that Article 40.3.3 does not protect human embryos outside the mother.  They may be destroyed with legal impunity. The Government and the Oireachtas must bring in a new law to protect them, as in some EU countries like Italy and Germany. 

The Human Embryo is already one of us

Each one of us started life as an embryo. When the father’s sperm fuses with the mother’s egg, a new human life begins. Although very tiny, this new human being is not just a potential life – it is already an actual human life with potential, unquestionably alive, unquestionably human. Human embryos outside the mother should be entitled to protection for their lives from this first moment. 

This is an equal rights issue

Democracy means respecting the equal dignity of every human being, including, not excluding, human embryos outside the mother. We are equal before the law in our right to life – they should be too. And like us, their other rights are based on this first fundamental right. 

The Irish people support a law to protect embryos

The latest research by Millward Brown Lansdowne in 2010 found substantial majority support for legislation to protect human embryos.  In the poll conducted just after the Supreme Court decision in R -v- R, of those who expressed an opinion, 83% thought the Government should introduce a law to protect embryos against destruction in assisted human reproduction or research.

The CAHR Report is no basis for a law to protect embryos

Nearly ten years ago, the Government set up the Commission on Assisted Human Reproduction (CAHR) to examine how assisted human reproduction in Ireland should be regulated. It issued its Report in 2005. The Government is currently drawing up legislation in response to R -v- R and has signalled its intention to base the new law on this Report. 

It recommended legalising research that would destroy living human embryos. 

Only one of the 25 CAHR Members objected. This shows the bias against the pro-life view in the Government-appointed membership of CAHR, despite widespread public support for protecting embryos. 

Some of the Report’s recommendations have been overtaken by recent scientific breakthrough, especially in adult stem cell research.  

From an ethical and scientific standpoint, the CAHR Report is certainly no basis for legislation to protect human embryos.

Protecting Human Embryos in Assisted Human Reproduction (AHR)

The Supreme Court ruling in R -v- R leaves human embryos outside the mother with no legal protection. R and R were a married couple who separated. They had embryos by assisted human reproduction that were frozen and stored. The mother asked that they be transferred to her womb so she could have another child. The father refused so the case came to court. Because the Supreme Court ruled that embryos outside the mother are not protected as ‘unborn’ under Article 40.3.3, a new law is needed to protect their lives in assisted human reproduction, as some other EU jurisdictions have done.

Protecting Human Embryos in Research

The ruling also leaves embryos outside the mother at risk of destruction in research. Without a new law to protect them, they will not be treated with respect; they will be destroyed in huge numbers. British laws legalised:

Cloning embryos for research,

Creating embryos that are part animal part-human

Creating ‘saviour siblings’, embryos picked to be born because they have something needed by a born child with a serious medical condition.

Principal campaigner for the British laws, Baroness Mary Warnock, admitted it is hypocritical to speak of respecting human embryos when one is destroying them and pouring them down the sink. 

Making Ireland a centre of excellence for adult stem cell research

Adult stem cell research does not involve destruction of human embryos. 

Treatments based on it do not carry the heightened degree risk of tumours associated with stem cells from embryos, or the risk of the patient’s body ‘rejecting’ them where the stem cells are from the patient’s own body.

Adult stem cell research attracts investment because it is producing significant breakthroughs in the management and treatment of medical conditions. 

Ireland should promote itself as a centre of excellence for adult stem cell research, putting in place incentives and infrastructure to attract top talent. 


The following recommendations refer to human embryos outside the mother from the start of fertilisation. The Pro-Life Campaign calls for a law –

To protect human embryos outside the mother from deliberate destruction or discarding or exposure to injury in assisted human reproduction, research or otherwise.

To adopt a restrictive ethical regulatory framework for assisted human reproduction, ruling out embryo freezing given its lethal and insoluble threat to the life of the embryo.

To rule out reproductive and therapeutic cloning.

To exclude importing cells or tissues obtained by destroying human embryos, or cell lines cultured from them, and patenting of elements or processes deriving from embryo destruction.

To promote Ireland as an international hub of excellence for the adult stem cell research that is already achieving the breakthroughs in the treatment of medical conditions.

A win-win solution for ethics and science

These recommendations are the minimum protection a democratic society owes human embryos outside the mother. It is possible to bring in a law that cherishes and protects human life at its most fragile stage while at the same time promoting adult stem cell research that is bringing in medical breakthroughs. We must not pass over this opportunity to unite ethics and science and strive for a win-win solution that cherishes and protects all human life.

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