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David Quinn: Embryo screening raises too many ethical questions

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Professor Simon Fishel, managing director of Care Fertility, with Pauline Cullen, commercial director of Beacon Medical Group

Professor Simon Fishel, managing director of Care Fertility, with Pauline Cullen, commercial director of Beacon Medical Group

Professor Simon Fishel, managing director of Care Fertility, with Pauline Cullen, commercial director of Beacon Medical Group

What should a compassionate and humane society do with those who suffer from a disability? The obvious answer is that we should help them as best we can to lead a fulfilling life.

What then are we to make of the announcement this week that the Beacon Medical Group is to offer a new service to people using IVF and other forms of assisted human reproduction which will determine, pre-implantation in the womb, whether their child will suffer from a disability?

The Beacon Medical Group has entered a partnership with a UK-based organisation called Care Fertility to provide the service.

The head of Care Fertility said its service has led to the birth of hundreds of healthy babies. But this rather begs the question, what happened to the unhealthy ones?

For example, what happens to those who are diagnosed with Cystic Fibrosis (CF)? Ireland has one of the highest rates of CF in the world. Is it really acceptable to kill CF sufferers before they have even been born? How is this not eugenics?

Or what about Down syndrome? A few years ago we patted ourselves on the back on hosting the Special Olympics and when the Irish team heads off to the Special Olympics in whatever other part of the world it is being held, it can always be guaranteed plenty of publicity.

But in the US and the UK an estimated 90pc of Down syndrome children are aborted thanks to the sort of genetic screening now routinely offered to couples. I read that the figure for Ireland is around 70pc.

Are we really saying that a Down syndrome person can't have a fulfilling life, that it would be better for them not to be born at all?

Those who are pro-life and pro-family generally receive a very bad press and are frequently accused of being judgmental and of lacking compassion.

But when it boils down to it their ethic simply says that every child conceived has a right to be born, that once the child is born the two people who brought it into the world ought to raise it, and then we should look after our old and infirm until natural death.

The issue of the right to life was in the news for another reason this week because Health Minister James Reilly announced the composition of the expert group that will examine the implications of a ruling in respect of our abortion law in December 2010 by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

That ruling, which is non-binding, says there should be greater clarity as to when a woman can and cannot have an abortion under Irish law.

The expert group is to come back to the Government with a list of options. At the top of that list must be an option that protects the life of both the mother and the unborn child.

If it is honest and objective it will make clear that as it stands Ireland is already the safest place in the world for a woman to have a child.

Our maternal death rate is typically the lowest in the world in annual tables, and if it is not the lowest in a given year, it is very close to being the lowest.

This is something of which we should be proud.

But if we were to judge the issue from the pronouncements of pro-choice organisations such as the Irish Family Planning Association (IFPA), it would be easy to imagine that Ireland is a high-risk country from the point of view of pregnant women.

The IFPA lauds Britain's abortion law, which effectively permits abortion on demand. But Britain has a higher maternal death rate than our own.

The expert group must take full cognisance of this fact and fully examine what it is that makes the Irish record so excellent in this regard. What exactly are we doing when a pregnancy runs into life-threatening difficulties that allows us to preserve a very strong ethic of care for both mother and child?

Prior to last year's general election, Fine Gael issued a commitment which said the party is "opposed to the legalisation of abortion" in Ireland.

Now it is in power with Labour and included in the Programme for Government was a commitment to establishing this expert group.

It is impossible to know in advance exactly what options the group will present to the Government and how the Government might react.

But if Fine Gael is as good as its word, it will not permit the legalisation of abortion in Ireland and it will defend our current medical practice which offers the highest degree of protection anywhere in the world to both mother and baby.

Irish Independent