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Germany

German politicians argue over health checks on test-tube embryos

Should a mother be allowed to have the health of a test-tube embryo checked before it is implanted in her womb? Some German politicians want to reverse a court decision allowing her to do so

A group of cells

The first step to a child - and the source of a moral problem for some

When a woman decides to have a so-called "test-tube baby," she has the possibility of letting the doctor check if the embryo which will be implanted in her womb is likely to suffer from any serious diseases. If the chances are high, she can decide not to have it implanted and to try again.

Such Pre-Implantation Diagnosis (PID) used to be illegal in Germany, but a decision by the Federal Court of Justice in June decided that such a test was legal if it was intended only to exclude a serious handicap.

Many Christians have never been happy with that ruling: they argue that an embryo enjoys complete human rights from the moment a sperm fertilizes an egg. The Christian Democratic Union (CDU) - the main party in the governing coalition - follows that policy, although so far it's done nothing about it.

Chancellor opposed

Merkel speaking to the CDU youth

Merkel is not usually quick to take a firm stand, but she has done so this time

The Chancellor and leader of the party, Angela Merkel, has now made her views clear:

"After weighing up all the arguments," she told young members of her party on Saturday, "and it's not an easy decision - it is almost impossible - in fact, it is impossible, to find a difference between a serious genetic disease and a perhaps not so serious genetic disease. And so I think that we should go for a ban."

The fear is that couples could use PID to assure themselves "designer babies," with the right sex, or even the right color hair. But the general secretary of the CDU's junior coalition partner, the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), Christan Lindner, said the FDP would not support a ban.

"If one can take away the worry from a couple," he said, "if you can fulfill their desire for a child and prevent serious genetic diseases before the embryo is implanted in the womb, then that is an ethical advance."

Caution proposed

A pregnant woman

Pregnancy should be made as carefree as possible, says Lindner

But not everyone in his party agrees. Ursula Flach, deputy head of the parliamentary party, insists that they see the need for restrictions on the use of PID.

"That way, we want to ensure that only those families are allowed to use PID where there are serious genetic illnesses in the family," she said.

Even in the CDU there are those who disagree with the party leader. Peter Hintze, head of the party in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia and a former protestant priest, points out that a woman can have an abortion if a test of the fetus shows a serious health condition.

"It's quite a contradiction if we don't allow the cells to be checked," he argues, "but we do allow the fetus to be checked in the womb. We should get rid of this contradiction."

There's disagreement within the parties of the opposition too. As a result it's been decided that there'll be a free vote when the issue comes up in the Bundestag. A spokesman for Chancellor Merkel said she had the greatest respect for those with a different opinion, and that it was a matter of conscience.

Author: Peter Stuetzle (mll)
Editor: Chuck Penfold

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