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Germany

German Ethics Council fails to decide on test-tube embryo screening

Genetic screening of test-tube embryos has been the subject of hot debate for months in Germany. A week before parliament debates imposing a ban, the German Ethics Council has failed to issue a clear recommendation.

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Screening could save heartache for couples predisposed to disorders

The German Ethics Council on Tuesday admitted that it could not issue a recommendation over whether doctors should be allowed to screen test-tube embryos for genetic defects. Parliament is sue to debate proposed legislation on the matter next week.

A narrow majority on the Council, which serves to make independent recommendations to the German parliament and government, said they were in favor of allowing pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) in cases where potential parents are predispositioned to miscarry or pass along serious genetic disorders.

But the Council as a whole refused to issue a recommendation: of the Council's 26 members - composed of doctors, scientists, lawyers, philosophers, and theologians - 13 were in favor of limited use of PGD, eleven members were strictly against it, and one issued an independent opinion.

PGD has been the subject of hot debate in Germany since June of last year, when the Federal Court of Justice ruled that the formerly illegal practice should be allowed in some cases. Concerned that PGD could be a first step towards eugenics, many conservative politicians, including Chancellor Angela Merkel, have called for a ban.

A pregnant woman undergoing ultrasound

Conservative politicians say women should wait until they are pregnant for fetal genetic screening

Ethics Council Vice-Chair and Catholic theologian Eberhard Schockenhoff expressed surprise at the council's vote, after nearly two-thirds of the Council advocated allowing genetic screening in 2003 - and with much less strict limitations.

A 'historic first'

In its nearly 110-page review of the issue, the Council expressed concern that the abuse of PGD could lead "for the first time in reproductive history to genetic selection from several embryos before the establishment of a pregnancy."

Council member and Protestant bishop Wolfgang Huber said he objected to PGD because it could pose the possibility of "discarding a human life due to undesired traits."

However, the Council's 13 advocates of PGD said that in cases of serious genetic defects it was more morally acceptable to terminate artificially inseminated embryos outside the uterus than to have potential mothers abort implanted fetuses. Abortion remains a legal option in Germany for potential mothers of children with genetic disorders.

The Council's genetic-screening advocates stressed that the procedure should only be used in cases where the prospective parents carried a strong risk of passing on hereditary disorders that could lead to grave illness or disability.

Church condemns PGD

Bishop Huber

Huber said PGD threatened human dignity and the right to life

The German Bishops' Conference came out against the Council's vote Tuesday, with Bishop Anton Losinger saying pre-implantation screening was a "massive violation of the word and spirit of Germany's Basic Law and embryo protection law."

"What's being achieved here is an ethical breach, because the human embryo is an embryonic human from the moment when egg and sperm come together," Losinger said.

Germany's Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger meanwhile welcomed the Ethics Council's position, adding that the Council's division over the matter represented the need for an "open discussion [in parliament] without pressure to toe party lines."

The justice minister herself came out in favor of pre-implantation screening under defined circumstances: "Especially couples with high genetic risk factors need a way to fulfill their desire for children together."

Parliamentary debate

Next week, Germany's parliament is set to read three pieces of proposed legislation on PGD: one out-and-out ban and two proposals to allow screening under certain circumstances.

The ban proposal, supported by a group of parliamentarians including former Health Minister Ulla Schmidt, claims that PGD threatens human dignity, as well as the right to life and gender equality. They argue that it is not up to humans to decide which life may come into existence and which may not.

Angela Merkel

Merkel favors a ban on PGD

A second proposal, put forth by Christian Democrat Peter Hintze and Free Democrat Ulrike Flach, would allow the use of PGD in cases where potential parents are aware of hereditary risks or where there is the threat of stillbirths or miscarriages. Hintze and Flach claim PGD to be a more humane alternative to tests on fetuses and abortion.

The third bill, drafted by a group including Bundestag President Norbert Lammert, would allow PGD in cases of hereditary risks or potential pregnancy complications – but only as determined on a case-by-case basis by an ethics commission.

Author: David Levitz (AFP, KNA, dpa)

Editor: Michael Lawton

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