After months of debate, the German parliament has finally approved legislation for the limited import of human embryonic stem cells for research purposes.
Cultures from embryonic stem cells
German parliamentarians voted 360 to 190 in favor of a new law allowing the restricted import of human embryonic stem cells. During the controversial debate on Thursday, parliamentarians were allowed to depart from party affiliations to vote according to conscience. As expected, their decision reflected a January 30th resolution in which the majority of representatives rejected a proposal for an outright free trade of stem cells while accepting the import under strict conditions.
Under the new law, only embryonic stem cell lines which existed prior to January 2002 may be imported and used for research experiments. Scientists may only use cells that have been derived from surplus embryos produced by artificial fertilization – and not from embryos produced specifically for research. In addition, the research and import have to be approved by a supervisory body, which is obliged to say ‘no’ if similar experiments with non-embryonic cells could produce equally useful results.
Although not all members of parliament were in favor of importing stem cells, most agreed that the passage of the bill clarifies what was previously a gray area. Only the Liberal Free Democrats appealed to parliament for a more generous import, saying the January 2002 deadline on stem cell lines would limit scientists too much in their research.
Margot von Renesse, a Social Democrat and one of the staunchest advocates of a restrictive import, said she was pleased with Thursday’s outcome. "We don’t want to have embryonic stem cells in every drug store, but we don’t live on an island in Germany", she said defending the need for a moderate position that allows German scientists to keep up with the international research standard.
The Conference of German Bishops, on the other hand, condemned the new law, saying the fundamental right to life and the unlimited protection of humans from the moment of conception is no longer guaranteed by the German government.