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Germany

Debate on Stem Cell Research Enters New Phase

In a controversial vote, the European Parliament has voted in favor of granting EU money for the use of stem cell research. The ballot could clear the way for the artificial fertilization of embryos for research.

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Stem cell research could hold the answers to curing certain diseases

The European Parliament narrowly voted on Wednesday to fund research using stem cells taken from embryos, rejecting proposals from the EU Commission, which favors tougher guidelines. Now the issue will go to the European Council of Ministers for the final word at the end of the month.

The 298 - 241 vote in parliament recommends releasing EU funds for experimenting on cells from human embryos no more than 14 days old or those left over from fertility treatments.

The result was disappointing to the European Commission and the parliament's legal committee, both of whom are opposed to using money from the EU's coffers for stem cell research. The Commission argues that any decisions should be based on its suggestion to only allow research on stem cells imported prior to June 27, 2002. A cut-off date is designed to allow the use of existing stem cells but prevent the production of new ones.

Unlike most of the cells in the body, which can only make copies of themselves, stem cells can develop into many different types of cells. That capability makes them a potential source of hard-to-get cells for transplants. Many see stem cell research as opening up new possibilities in the fight against diseases like Parkinson's or Alzheimer's.

The fact that stem cells can be harvested from aborted embryos, embryos left over from in-vitro fertilization or cloned embryos has led to opposition by the Catholic Church, which equates destroying embryos with murder. Countries that are predominately Catholic or have large Catholic populations, such as Italy, Austria, Portugal, Spain, Ireland and Germany, are uncomfortable with stem cell research.

Full speed ahead for the industry committee

The EU Parliament's industry committee has voted with an overwhelming majority to overturn the June 2002 cut-off date in a move which would facilitate the destruction of embryos for research purposes.

The committee wants to secure the right to use EU money to conduct research on embryonic stem cells from both spontaneous abortions or those carried out for medical reasons. But in a bid to prevent donors from engineering abortions for financial gain, they stress that doctors would receive no money, non-cash benefits or other payments. They add that generally speaking, research would be conducted on adult stem cells, which could be extracted from the spinal cord.

Protecting embryos

Current law in Germany is already tighter than the Commission's suggestions. As it stands, legislation dictates that only stem cells obtained prior to January 2002 can be used for research.

Germany's laws are much stricter than those in many other European states. While in Britain it is legal to conduct research for certain purposes on a human embryo up to the 14th day after fertilization, Germany currently offers the same protection to an embryo created in a petri dish as it does to those inside the womb.

Germany's Justice Minister, Brigitte Zypries, caused a stir last month when she said embryonic stem cell research opens up valuable opportunities for scientists. She suggested that lawmakers ask themselves whether Germany's current regulations are too strict. But even if the ruling is passed at the end of next month, and there is more money at Germany's disposal, it is likely to take some time before the current law is changed.

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