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Germany

Ethics Panel Head Calls for Loosening Cloning Ban

The chairman of Germany's National Ethics Committee, Spiros Simitis, has called on Berlin to revisit the debate over the country's ban on therapeutic cloning. But the members of his committee fail to find unity.

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The debate over stem cell research is heating up again in Europe


At a meeting in Berlin on Thursday, members of the committee that advises the German government on ethical issues failed to find a common position on how the country should respond to a decision last week that made the British government the first in Europe to permit therapeutic cloning for medical research. The body had been expected to issue a joint statement on Thursday, but a decision has now been postponed until September.

The German government has sought to avoid revisiting the prickly issue. "From our side, we don't see any reason for this issue to be taken up," said Ulrich Kasparick, a Social Democratic state secretary in the Ministry of Research. "There's no majority in favor of changing the cloning ban."

The latest discussion was sparked by Simitis, who called for the German parliament, the Bundestag, to issue a reaction to the British developments this week.

"The Bundestag can no longer just deal with this issues using general statements like, 'We are for or against cloning,'" Simitis, who formerly sat on the bench of Germany's highest court, the Constitutional Court, told the German edition of the Financial Times. Several of the experts on the committee -- which was assembled by Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and includes 25 independent experts from different backgrounds -- have expressed their desire to loosen the ban.

Simitis fears 'bio-tourism'

Menschliche Stammzelle p178

Multi-celled human embryo

With the help of therapeutic cloning, researchers are hoping to create tissues from a person's body that can later be used to aid in their treatment if they fall sick with illnesses like Alzheimer's disease or heart disease. Future treatments are made possible by cloning embryos and extracting stem cells during the early phase of development which can be used to generate new cells.

However, the Ethics Committee is unified in its stance against reproductive cloning -- or the full-fledged cloning of people. The only area where there are diverging interest is in whether therapeutic cloning for medical research should be permitted.

German law prohibits the practices of both reproductive and therapeutic cloning, but it does allow stem cells to be imported from abroad if they were created prior to Jan. 1, 2002, when the law went into effect.

Last week, British officials gave their first clearance for a project involving the cloning of a human embryo, a move that followed a change three years ago to British law that paved the way for approving such projects. Experts like Simitis now fear that the British project will encourage German scientists interested in therapeutic cloning to emigrate to England. And that, he says, would create a paradoxical situation: "It's just not acceptable that German researchers that go to Great Britain to do this, would come back and face criminal proceedings when they return," the Frankfurt-based law professor stated.

Bundestag members against human cloning

Thomas Rachel, spokesman for the opposition Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, on the commission, described Simitis' plan as "misguided." Simitis, he said, should respect the role of parliament as the policy-making body. Rachel also took the opportunity to call for the Bundestag , Germany's parliament, to pass a bill more explicitly supporting a proposed United Nations cloning convention that would ban the practice internationally. In a majority vote, the Bundestag issued a resolution in 2003 calling for a global ban on human cloning.

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