In a compromise deal that will allow current large-scale projects the finances they need to continue running, the EU agreed Monday to allow limited amounts of bloc funding for stem cell research.
European Union ministers went some way to appeasing eight of the bloc's members, including Germany, who had called for a complete ban of stem cell research funding when it was announced that the money would allow limited use of EU cash for research involving human embryonic stem cells.
The agreement bans research that involves destroying human embryos, including for the procurement of stem cells. However, the EU said unspecified "subsequent steps" involving human embryonic stem cells would not be included in the ban and would be eligible for funding.
"The financing ... from EU funds is possible, but subject to very tight ethical rules and procedures," said Jukka Pekkarinen, head of the Finance Ministry's economics department.
Eight countries -- Germany, Austria, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Lithuania Luxembourg and Malta -- were looking to block funding for all embryonic stem cell research.
But with the 51 billion euros ($65 billion) 2007-2013 financial package for science funding waiting for the green light, EU ministers were forced to compromise to keep large, long-term projects operating into next year without disruption.
Until Monday, the eight countries insisted the common EU budget should not be used for activities banned in some member states, despite the argument that such research could be crucial in finding cures for chronic diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.
Germany led the call for a ban
Germany had been at the forefront of the call for a total ban before changing its stance in the final hours of the ministers' meeting. German Research Minister Annette Schavan sent a letter last week to the EU Presidency condemning the idea of EU cash being used for stem cell research.
"The European Union science program should not be used to give financial incentives to kill embryos," she wrote before the meeting. "The current proposal from the European Commission and the European Parliament does not rule this out."
Italy, Luxembourg and Slovenia joined Germany in dropped their objections to the funding, while Poland, Lithuania, Malta, Slovakia and Austria refused to sign on to the agreement.
The EU found itself in a similar disagreement over genetic-related research before it adopted its science funding package for 2000-2006.
The outcome of that discussion produced the current system of a case-by-case approach to stem cell-based projects which needs to pass several stages of national and EU ethical committees screening.
This type of research also cannot be carried out in member states where it is banned by national legislation. But opponents of the package insist this is not enough.
The controversial issue of stem cell research is a relatively minor one in terms of the total EU funding but it is viewed as a political and ideological bombshell.