Irish Supreme Court Rules Lab Embryos Not Protected

Irish scientists who want to work with human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) got a boost from Ireland's Supreme Court today, which ruled that human embryos outside the womb are not "unborn," and therefore are not protected under the country's constitution. The case before the court, in which a woman wanted to implant frozen embryos against the wishes of her estranged husband, does not directly involve stem cell research. "It's not a green light" for hESC research, says Siobhán O'Sullivan, director of the Irish Council for Bioethics. However, she says the ruling means "that certainly hES cell research is not banned in Ireland."

Ireland has no laws governing human embryos. Assisted reproduction and research with hESCs, which are derived from human embryos, are both unregulated. Scientists have been uncertain, however, whether the Eighth Amendment to the Irish Constitution, which "acknowledges the right to life of the unborn," might prohibit derivation of hESCs. Public funding agencies have been uncertain whether they should fund research using the cells.

O'Sullivan says that because of the legal vacuum, it is difficult to say how much hESC research is going on in Ireland. "If you were using them, you wouldn't want to publicize the fact," she says. But several scientists have said they would like to work with the cells, and a handful have applied for public funding to do so.

In their ruling, the judges urged the country's lawmakers to address the legal status of the embryo. O'Sullivan says she and her colleagues have been calling for the same thing. "The fact that the government has not yet regulated this area is absolutely incredible and very unfortunate indeed," she says. "It doesn't actually matter which side of the debate you sit on; what we have right now is cowboy territory."