Swiss Approve Stem Cell Research | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 29.11.2004
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Swiss Approve Stem Cell Research

In a referendum on Sunday, Swiss voters overwhelmingly approved a law that allows medical research on stem cells taken from human embryos but bars cloning. Other European countries have adopted more liberal laws.


Now legal in Switzerland

Some 66.4 percent voted in favor of the law and 33.6 percent opposed it, according to national results.

The referendum challenging the medical research law adopted by the Swiss parliament in 2003 was launched by anti-abortion and religious groups, which oppose the principle of using "living" human embryos.

"The law on stem cells withdraws the right to life from living, defenceless humans," said Antoine Suarez, an opponent from a bioethics group. "This kind of idea always leads to the destruction of humanity."

But others argued the law was still limiting research possibilities and Swiss scientists risked falling behind their European counterparts when it comes to making medical breakthroughs.

Menschliche Stammzellen

A German researcher with imported stem cells

"It's a very restrictive law but it allows us to continue our work," Yvan Arsenijevic, a scientist specialized in adult stem cells at the Jules Gonin hospital in Lausanne, told Reuters news agency. "We, the scientists, were the ones who were seeking to have this restrictive law in place because there are potentially huge ethical problems with research on stem cells."

Strict limits

The Swiss government had urged voters to accept the law, saying it set "clear and strict" limits on the use of embryos and stem cells compared to other countries and brought the hope of cures for heart ailments, paralysis and Parkinson's Disease.

"In view of the suffering caused by these serious and today incurable illnesses, it would be misguided to prevent such research in Switzerland," the Federal Council told voters. "Research on stem cells is not synonymous with cloning, contrary to what some opponents of the law say."

Under the law, all research projects must be passed by ethical and science committees, while the use of specially-produced embryos for research, or any cloning to produce embryos, is forbidden in an attempt to counter abuse.

Different laws elsewhere in Europe

Symbolbild Stammzellenforschung Mensch

Human cell and ovum with nucleus removed

Researchers will be allowed to use excess stocks of embryos produced naturally for artificial insemination as a source for stem cells, the government said. Denmark, France, The Netherlands and Spain have adopted similar laws while Germany and Austria are much more restrictive, only allowing research on imported cells.

More liberal regulations have been adopted in Belgium and Britain, where legislators in August gave the go ahead for human cloning, granting a licence to scientists to create stem cells for medical research from a cloned human embryo.

Couples whose embryos are stocked for research purposes also have a right to veto their use under the Swiss law.

Scientists vow to abide by law

Stem cell research is denounced by conservative and religious groups in many countries, which argue that scientists are destroying human life in the course of their experiments.

Aktivisten gegen das Klonen

Activists demonstrate against cloning at a Berlin Hotel in 2003

"We believe that some unscrupulous researchers will be tempted to do human cloning, while the pharmaceutical industry will also be tempted to produce embryos purely for research purposes," said Maximilien Bernhard, of the small Federal Democratic Union party.

Karl Heinz Krause, a researcher on ageing at Geneva University, said Swiss scientists, who had put research on hold while the referendum was decided, would abide strictly by the law.

"If we are to have results in a reasonable delay we need stem cell research from embryos and I think this message was heard by voters," Krause told Swiss television.

A regional breakdown of the results in Switzerland showed that stem cell research was even approved by clear majorities in rural, more devout cantons that had been expected to oppose the law. Switzerland is also the home of several major pharmaceutical multinationals and biotechnology companies and the government had argued that the Swiss industry would suffer if there was a complete block on stem cell research.

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