Brussels, 09 Jul 2004
On 9 July, after three years of deliberation, the French parliament adopted a bioethics bill authorising research using human embryos but banning human cloning as a 'crime against the human species'.
The new law 'allows the introduction of a text which seeks to find a path between the hopes of some and the fears of others,' said Health Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy.
Insisting that reproductive cloning and therapeutic cloning 'are two different things', Mr Douste-Blazy added: 'We must fight [...] with the Europeans to express our disgust of reproductive cloning. All reproductive cloning must be considered a crime against humanity.'
Confronted by ethical controversies such as the cloning of Dolly the sheep in 1997, the announcement by the Raelian sect of the birth of a cloned baby in 2002, and the work of South Korean researchers who, earlier this year, succeeded in cloning human embryos for stem cell use, successive French parliaments have sought a legislative response.
The subject was first broached in 1994 under the government of Lionel Jospin, but the present bill is very different from that original text, which represented a more far-reaching bioethics 'package'.
With many French scientists awaiting eagerly, research using supernumerary frozen human embryos (conceived in vitro and without a parental project) and stem cells will be authorised within the next five years. Stem cells are created during the first days of pregnancy and can transform themselves in any cell or tissue in the body. It is hoped they can help in the discovery of treatments against diabetes, Parkinson's disease and cardiovascular disorders.
Under the revised measures, however, reproductive cloning remains strictly forbidden, and carries a maximum penalty of 20 years imprisonment. The non-patentability of the human genome is reaffirmed, and while the therapeutic cloning that Lionel Jospin had envisaged is also banned, Mr Douste-Blazy has called for a report on the issue to be drafted, and has promised to keep an open mind.
Under pressure from the senate, the parliament has also given its approval to the use of so-called 'baby medicine', whereby embryos can be selected in order to produce offspring whose genetic make-up is compatible with that of an older brother or sister suffering from an incurable genetic disease.
Furthermore, under the new bill a patient with a genetic disease will be encouraged by his or her doctor to tell his relatives, who could be suffering from the same disease. If patients refuse to do this themselves, a doctor can resort to informing their relatives anonymously, via the new agency of biomedicine set up under the new bill.
To try and remedy to the chronic deficit of transplant donors, the text widens the circle of potential live donors by including grandparents, cousins and common law husbands and wives (subject to the couple having lived together for two years.) For the deceased, the principle of tacit assent will be applied unless the individual was opposed to donations it in their own lifetime.
The present government of Jean-Pierre Raffarin has, however, backtracked on several points introduced by the Jospin government. Medical help for reproduction will only be available to non-married couples if they can prove two years of 'married life'. The current government has also rejected post-mortem implantations, that would have enabled a woman who has lost her husband to implant a frozen embryo, conceived when her partner was still alive.