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Why our leaders are too scared to regulate infertility treatments

Mary Roche ran out of possibilities yesterday. The High Court had already refused her appeal to be allowed to have the 'spare' embryos created in 2002 implanted in her womb. Yesterday, the Supreme Court nailed her hopes for good.

Mary Roche gave birth her second child in October 2002, following IVF treatment. She and her husband parted the same year. The process left three embryos in suspended animation. Not what the couple had ever intended, according to Mrs Roche.

Except that they're no longer a couple. Nor are they in agreement, if they ever were, about what should happen the three leftover embryos.

Yesterday, five Supreme Court judges unanimously made the decision for them both: Mary Roche would not be permitted to implant those embryos.

One of the five judges, Ms Justice Denham, admitted that a situation might arise where a woman who had never had a baby might be entitled to implantation, even if the man involved did not consent. But not in this case.

Mrs Roche's disappointment may be worsened if the Supreme Court award costs against her. They shouldn't. Because this woman has ended the silence over the failure of our politicians to act on the whole troubled area of IVF. Her case caused the court to criticise the State for failing to regulate fertility treatment.

Mr Justice Hardiman didn't put a tooth in it. He noted that this isn't the first time the courts have drawn attention to the fact that Ireland has neither laws nor regulation in this area. The judiciary has been complaining about that for 18 years.

That's the core of the problem. Politicians of all parties don't want to go near IVF regulation. They're scared it will draw the anti-abortion fundamentalists on them, waving posters of dead foetuses.

They know, only too well, that any politician, over the past 30 years, who has chosen or been forced to legislate about the unborn has come under extreme pressure as a direct result.

For example, when, as Minister for Health, Fine Gael's Michael Noonan changed the law to give women in crisis pregnancies better information about their options, protesters trampled his front garden into a quagmire while yelling at, and terrorising, his family.

Watching that kind of reaction, other politicians have decided to keep their heads down. Mr Justice Nial Fennelly yesterday commented that the State seems to have no intention of bringing in legislation on IVF. He's right. Neither Government nor Opposition parties want to touch the issue.

How do you ensure, for example, that a clinic is so solvent, in the long term, that frozen embryos stored on its premises will not be abandoned a few years down the line?

How do you prevent the mix-ups that have, in other countries, led to white women giving birth to black children? How do you ensure that sperm donors don't pass on a genetic fault? What happens when a lesbian couple ask a friend to be a sperm donor on the understanding that the friend will have no relationship with the resultant child -- only to find the donor later wants to exercise paternal rights?

Those questions are just the beginning. The beginning of an unaddressed legislative challenge.

Plastic

As we come to the end of the decade, the reality is that patients going for plastic surgery are better protected than patients seeking IVF treatment.

But, let's be clear. This isn't an issue of personal vanity, like a face lift. Infertility is a huge problem for the couples it affects -- and one out of every six Irish couples suffer from it.

In short, assisted human reproduction is a horror show. A horror show that happens in secret, because fertility is such a private issue. It's a horror show that isn't the fault of the clinics -- they've been lobbying for years for a legislative framework.

We don't have such a framework because politicians refuse to face up to the complications and threats. It's been easier to let the courts do the dirty work.

A good definition of courage is: acting when you're afraid to act. It's time our politicians showed that kind of courage in this difficult area.