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German Ethics Panel Allows Restricted Embryo Testing

Government-appointed council says couples concerned about potential life-threatening diseases in their offspring, should be allowed to pre-test their artifically-inseminated embryos.


Testing would only be allowed under special pre-conditions.

In a decision that has riled German associations for the handicapped and religious groups, the country's National Ethics Council issued a recommendation on Thursday to permit the restricted testing of artificially inseminated embryos before they are implanted in a woman’s body.

The opinion by the National Ethics Council says couples who have reason to believe their child could suffer from life-threatening genetic or chromosomal defects have a right to decide whether or not to abort the child. At the same time, the council made sure to narrowly define who had the right to choose that sort of testing, called PID. The hope is that the debate will now enter the public realm before politicians bring it before German parliament.

Pre-testing "justifiable," says government

The decision, supported by 15 of the 24 council members, was readily accepted by Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s Social Democratic-Green coalition government. The ministers of health, research and social issues welcomed the decision in a join statement praising the strict conditions outlined by the ethics council.

"With consideration for the affected women, we feel the possibility of a PID under strict conditions and limitations is justifiable," read the statement.

Only couples who are faced with the risk that serious and life-threatening hereditary diseases could be passed on to their children are allowed to pre-test. Also, couples who could pass on a serious chromosomal defect onto their offspring that could threaten the child’s life after the birth are allowed to pre-screen.

Slippery slope to pre-selection?

Opponents fear such strict requirements might later be loosened, possibly leading to the type of pre-selection that invokes Hitler’s dream of a master race. Critics also say the pre-implant testing also violates the rights of the child, which the German constitution says begins when sperm meets egg.

"Humans will be killed, that needs to be said clearly," said Wolfgang Wodarg, a health expert with Schröder’s Social Democratic Party and an opponent of PID.

The Central Committee of German Catholics, in a statement, said it "regretted" the decision. Associations advocating for the handicapped said pre-implant testing on a case-by-case basis was impossible.

"A little bit of PID is as impossible as a little bit pregnant," said Robert Antretter, head of a national aid organization for people with mental handicaps.

In the end, the council’s opinion is just that. In seeking a more defined, and legally binding position on the debate, politicians will most likely heed the reaction to their decision and also take into account another committee’s conclusion in 2002 that emphatically opposes PID.

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