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Germany

Losing the Edge on Bio-Research?

The debate on embryonic stem cell research has faded from the news schedules. In Germany, the highly emotive debate is set to continue. A parliamentary committee is against stem cell research.

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The public debate has been impassioned in Germany, where Nazi experiments with eugenics have left people deeply sensitive about the issue. Research on embryos is forbidden.

The debate has cut across political lines, pitting Chancellor Gerhard Schröder - who wants Germany to keep up with other countries on the cutting edge of scientific discovery - against the more cautious President Johannes Rau, for example.

Stem cells are master cells that have the ability to become anything in the body from nerves to bone to muscle. Because of their unique power to develop into all kinds of tissue, researchers are examining them for potential use in treating a wide range of diseases.

The controversy is over research using embryonic stem cells - which are derived from destroyed human embryos.

News that German scientists were working with imported stem cells caused an outcry earlier this year, prompting the government to call for a voluntary moratorium on all such research until a newly formed National Ethics Council has studied the question and reported to parliament.

An advisory body to the German parliament was asked to report its findings to the house on Tuesday. It has voted with an overwhelming majority of 17 to seven against allowing embryonic stem cells to be imported into Germany.

The parliamentary debate on the committee’s report is due to be held in early January. By then, chancellor Schröder would like to see a broad public discussion on the issue. And the newly formed National Ethics Council is due to report its findings on the use of embryonic stem cells for research as well.

Europe Divided on ethics of new research

The legal status of human embryo and stem cell research varies across Europe. Nine of the 15 European Union nations have legislation governing the issue.

Four countries - Austria, Germany, France and Ireland - ban all embryo research. France plans to change its law to open the possibility of stem cell research.

Spain and Finland allow embryo research under certain conditions. In Denmark, scientists may only conduct infertility research on embryos.

In Sweden, embryo research is allowed, and researchers may also create embryos for research if the project is approved by an ethics commission.

Britain has the most open laws on the issue. Scientists may conduct research on donated embryos, create new embryos for research and even make embryos for stem cell research by cloning.