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21st century baby

Irish Times, Wed, Nov 23, 2011

THE FIRST live birth following in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) just over 30 years ago marked the start of a reproductive revolution. It involved fertilising a woman’s eggs with sperm, before transferring them back into the uterus a few days later. Today, assisted human reproduction in Ireland is a booming industry. Couples are increasingly choosing to have children later in life, which increases the likelihood of fertility problems. Restrictions on international adoption mean that many would-be parents are exploring other ways of having a child. As a result, up to 3,000 children are born here each year thanks to IVF and other high-tech interventions.

Yet there are no laws to regulate the industry. Ireland is almost alone in Europe in failing to provide any legislation or meaningful regulation. This gap is leaving many families, children and clinicians caught in a complicated web of legal and ethical uncertainty. As documented in Carl O’Brien’s 21st Century Baby series in this newspaper, the legislative gaps mean we have stateless children born by surrogacy with no legal parents; hundreds of children born as a result of anonymous donor sperm or eggs who will never know their genetic parents; parents who are forced to go abroad for donor assistance due to the State’s failure to provide any certainty for potential donors here.

It is now over a decade since the government established the Commission on Assisted Human Reproduction to advise on how the area could be regulated. Six years ago, the group issued a series of considered recommendations. The government of the day pledged to introduce legislation as a priority issue. But there is still no sign of these proposed regulations.

Drawing up laws to safeguard the rights of children and parents will not be easy. It is confusing ethical terrain. What is right, and what is wrong? What is in the best interests of society? What is in the best interests of the child? We have yet to even grapple with these questions.

In addition, scientific advances are allowing forms of family life that were never possible before: single women or men who have decided, in the absence of a partner, to have a child, or gay couples who are co-parenting. The lack of a debate surrounding support for these family units means we have yet to face up to what, in time, may become one of the most socially influential technologies of the 21st century.

We urgently need our legislators to stop burying their heads in the sand and face up to how society is changing. Its failure to do so means that legal and ethical uncertainty will continue to be a gnawing source of stress for parents, and vulnerable children will be caught up in the fallout.

Ultimately, reproductive science is a testament to what we will do to have the children we love and long for. If anything, the creation of family life will become even more complex with the development of new technologies. Doing nothing is not an option because these issues are not going to go away.

2011 The Irish Times

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