Germany tightens stem-cell imports

Parliament's compromise decision on embryonic stem cells rankles scientists, clergy, and communists.

When the German parliament voted this week on the importation of embryonic stem-cells, the existing political order turned upside down. As Der Spiegel news magazine put it, the controversial issue allied "scientists with moralists, bishops with communists, and feminists with prolifers."

Not surprisingly, then, a compromise was the result. On Wednesday, 340 of 618 parliamentarians voted to allow the import of embryonic stem cells for scientific research, but only under close government control.

Across Europe the debate continues on the scientific use of embryonic stem cells, which have the potential to turn into any human cell. Researchers say that the cells could hold the key to curing ailments such as Parkinson's disease, diabetes, and heart disease. But for critics, the isolation of stem cells is tantamount to murder, as it involves the destruction of a human embryo.

In few countries has the soul-searching over the promises and pitfalls of biotechnology been as intense as in Germany, in part because of the Nazis' grisly legacy of experimentation in eugenics.

Called into existence by Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, the National Ethics Council recommended the limited importation of stem cells in November. A special parliamentary commission, however, favored a strict ban.

The parliament's decision drew criticism from Germany's Catholic and Protestant churches, which said the ruling threatens the "protection of human life from the moment of conception."

Although the German parliament's decision to allow the limited import of embryonic stem cells may appear to be a liberalization, the vote actually signifies a tightening of restrictions for researchers.

Existing German law bans research on human embryos and only allows the laboratory creation of an embryo for the purposes of in vitro fertilization.

Yet the embryonic protection law, which was passed more than a decade ago, did not take into account the discovery of stem cells, and therefore did not explicitly ban their importation.

"The import was not prohibited before, it was completely free. Now we'll have a very restrictive law on the way the import is regulated, and that is more than we had before," says Regine Kolleck, deputy chair of the National Ethics Council and a specialist on health technology assessment at the University of Hamburg.

Dr. Kolleck says she would have favored a complete moratorium on embryonic stem-cell imports and still has hopes for research on so-called adult stem cells, which do not require embryos.

For Alexander Kekulé, director of the Institute for Medical Microbiology in Halle, the parliamentary decision, which has yet to be turned into an actual law, is a "lame compromise."

Although there have been some breakthroughs in the study of embryonic stem cells in the US, Sweden, and Israel, Dr. Kekulé says, the general state of research is still very much in a beginning stage worldwide.

Now that the parliament has decided that researchers can only use stem cells that have already been created, and prohibits German researchers from creating their own cells, "we therefore have a handicap in Germany," Kekulé says. "This means we'll have to do research with cells that will soon be obsolete."

For Mr. Schröder and other proponents of the importation of embryonic stem cells, German competitiveness in the biotech industry was a powerful argument.

In the parliamentary debate leading up to the vote, Schröder emphasized that by accepting a compromise on the issue, Germany was keeping up with international developments and maintaining some degree of influence on future research.

"The research wouldn't stop, it would just be continued in places where ethical considerations carry less weight," said Schröder.

Still, says Kekulé, the parliamentary resolution is a "clear restriction" on scientists. "Historically, research has hardly been restricted in Germany," he says.

Germany is not alone in grappling with the ethical implications of stem-cell research.

In France, researchers have been pushing the government to lift a ban on imported stem cells while it reviews a 1994 law that forbids research on human embryos.

In Sweden, a world leader in stem-cell research, two government ministers this week publicly expressed their support for cloning human embryos for therapeutic purposes.

While the heated debate over stem-cell research continues in most European countries, it is unlikely that there will be any consensus on a European-wide level.

"In all countries, there's a fierce debate. There's no country in Europe where there is a unanimous opinion on this issue," says Dr. Jochen Taupitz, a member of Germany's National Ethics Council and a law professor in Mannheim. "In a European comparison, Germany has some of thestrictest laws, so even with this resolution we are pretty isolated in Europe."

His colleague Kolleck, however, says that what happens in Germany could have a ripple effect on smaller countries with restrictive laws, such as Austria, Portugal, and Ireland.

"It will take some time to see whether or not there will be a common European regulation [on stem-cell research]," says Kolleck. "Germany certainly has some sort of a leading role. But as long as the German embryonic protection law is in place, other countries will stay with their restrictive regulations as well."

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