Inter-institutional debate on stem cell research reveals extent of ethical split within Europe

April 28, 2003

Brussels, 25 Apr 2003

In his closing remarks at the inter-institutional seminar on stem cell research held in Brussels on 24 April, EU Commissioner for Research Philippe Busquin welcomed the professionalism of participants in debating such a contentious issue. But despite the polite tone of the discussions, the ethical divisions between EU Member States were clearly evident.

At the start of the day, Mr Busquin had reiterated to the assembled scientists, MEPs, national delegations and observers that it was not the role of EU institutions to legislate on ethical issues. The debate, he said, should focus on the possible conditions under which stem cell research could be funded by the EU framework programmes for research, and would provide input to the Commission proposal on the issue to be published in May or June.

Focussing the debate yet further, the Director General of the Commission's Research DG, Achilleas Mitsos, emphasised that the three so called no-go areas, namely the creation of embryos solely for research purposes, the creation of living human clones, and permanently changing the human genetic code, would not be funded under Community programmes.

But despite all attempts to reduce the scope of the ethical debate, on the crucial issue of research using spare human embryos created for in vitro fertilisation purposes, the fundamentally incompatible moral positions of different Member States could not be reconciled.

The German Member State representative stressed that a national debate on the issue is currently ongoing, and whilst he did not predict the outcome, he warned that if the use of human embryos for research purposes were to be outlawed in Germany, its government and citizens would oppose the use of EU funds, to which Germany contributes, to fund such research in other countries.

The Austrian delegation called for an extension to the current de facto moratorium on embryonic stem cell research, and the representative from Italy, where a legislative review of the issue is also under way, asked: 'Is it conceivable that practices could be funded under the Sixth Framework Programme which are considered crimes in Member States?'

Challenging such a position, Carlos Westendorp y Cabeza, Chairman of the Industry, Trade, Research and Energy Committee in the European Parliament, argued: 'It is hard to understand why some Member States would wish to block EU funding for a particular practice, whatever the conditions in their own country, as this runs counter to the principles of the EU. What if Austria or Luxembourg were to oppose the common fisheries policy simply because they have no coastline, or other countries object to the EURATOM treaty because they chose not to allow nuclear energy production?'

Other countries expressed an ethical approach to the issue of embryonic stem cell research that was well summed up by the comments of the representative from Luxembourg, who said that in the context of the protection of human dignity: '[T]he dignity of a human embryo weighs less heavily in the ethical balance than of a suffering human patient, and should be reflected in the eventual outcome of the debate.'

Mr Busquin and the Commission now face the task of drafting a proposal on the issue aimed at achieving a consensus of opinion, although it is difficult to imagine what form a viable compromise could take. The Commissioner stressed that any final decision would be taken in consultation with both the Council and the European Parliament, where opinion is likely to be most markedly divided.

Mr Busquin concluded by underscoring the reasons behind the Commission's desire to achieve consensus, restating the fundamental goals of the European Research Area: 'The Sixth Framework Programme could never seek to cover all aspects of stem cell research, and some will have to be left to individual Member States, but if we truly want European research to become a global reference we have to attempt to move away from the national approach, even in contentious areas such as this.'

CORDIS RTD-NEWS / © European Communities

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