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Germany

German Parliament Postpones Stem Cell Law Decision Until March

The debate over changing the laws governing stem cell research in Germany prompted a four hour discussion in the German parliament Thursday, Feb. 14 as lawmakers addressed one of science's most sensitive issues.

A sample of embrionic stem cells is taken out of liquid nitrogen in a laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland

German scientists are not allowed to use stem cell lines from after 2002

As pressure grows for an easing of restrictions that local scientists complain prevent them from keeping up with global advances, the Bundestag tackled the stem cell question, one which carries the historic overtones of the Nazis' genetic experiments linked to the creation of a "master race".

The debate over whether to change the law which was passed six years ago banning the production of embryonic cells from pre-existing stem cell lines and which also barred German scientists from working on any lines created after Jan.1 2002 raged for most of the morning without coming to a satisfactory conclusion. Instead, a vote on whether the law should be changed was scheduled for mid-March.

Researchers in Germany have complained that the tight laws in effect in their country prevents them from taking part in international projects using stem cell lines created after the current law was introduced in 2002. Other European countries, such as Britain and Sweden, have less strict laws.

Stem cell law faces many possible amendments

A scientist studies embryonic stem cells

Germans do not have the freedom of other scientists

The vote in March could present a number of different scenarios, from tightening the rules and banning all imports of stem cells to lifting the ban altogether. There is also a chance that the law will remain how it is with no changes made.

However, the proposal which has won most support from lawmakers so far is one which introduces a more recent cut-off date, probably May 2007, for the import of stem cell lines.

Traumatized by grisly experiments on humans under the Nazis and influenced by its Christian churches, Germany has agonized for a decade about the ethics of using the cells.

Critics, who argue that a human life is sacrificed when an embryo is torn apart, have welcomed newly invented ways to re-program adult stem cells to make them pluripotent, or capable of acting like embryonal cells.

But scientists said they still need embryonal cells to compare with these induced pluripotent cells.

German researchers at a disadvantage

A single cell is removed from a human embryo to be used in generating embryonic stem cells

The most likely change is an extension of the cut-off date

The amendment to the law is being demanded by 184 out of 613 deputies, supported by Science Minister Annette Schavan, who said during the four-hour debate that it was "ethically responsible."

"You have to take account of the fact that researchers need qualitatively better cells," Technology Minister Annette Schavan told German television shortly before the debate, adding she wanted to ensure German scientists could keep up globally.

A group of 129 oppose any change. Priska Hinz, Greens science spokeswoman, said claims that embryonal research would save lives had never been borne out. She said scientists could make do with adult cells and did not need a new law. "The desire to heal serious diseases through embryonic stem cell research is only a wish," she said.

"There is no argument for killing human life for science," said Hubert Hueppe, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) who wants to tighten the rules.

Germany's 69 Catholic bishops repeated Thursday their strict opposition to research on the embryonal cells.

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