Brussels, 02 Jun 2006
Italy has withdrawn its signature from an ethics document signed by the Vatican and five other Members States opposing EU funding of embryonic stem cell research. The announcement was made by Italian Minister for Research and Education Fabio Mussi, who attended the Competitiveness Council in Brussels on 30 May.
The 'Declaration of Ethics', which was signed under the government of former Prime Minister Berlusconi in November 2005, calls on the European institutions to exclude research projects involving human embryos and human embryonic stem cells from financing under the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7), and to concentrate joint EU efforts in stem cell research on projects where ethical consensus exists. Ministers from Austria, Germany, Malta, Poland, and Slovakia also signed the declaration.
'It did not seem to me right to support the position of the Berlusconi government which placed Italy in a 'blocking minority' that was capable of stopping research funding in other European countries,' said Mr Mussi.
He went on to say that while the decision to withdraw from the joint declaration would not affect national legislation, in particular Law 40/2004 on reproductive medicine banning research on embryonic stem cells, Italy could not hold other European countries hostage that wished to conduct such research. 'Italy's role cannot be that of simply trying to export its domestic law.'
Since announcing Italy's withdrawal from the declaration, Mr Mussi has come under fire from other ministers within Prime Minister Prodi's cabinet. Minister for the Family, Rosy Bindi, criticised the Mr Mussi's move, noting that she had not been informed of the decision and believed that he had acted alone without the consent of the cabinet. Senators from the opposition party, the Union of Christian and Centre Democrats (UDC), have also criticised the decision and have asked the government to go back to the status 'quo ante bellum' and not take initiatives or decisions without parliamentary approval.
The current legislation on the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6), which the European Commission says it wants to maintain in FP7, allows, within a framework of strict ethical guidelines, for the funding of human embryonic stem cell research for the fight against major diseases. No EU funding is possible for 'research activities intended to create human embryos solely for the purpose of research or for the purpose of stem cell procurement, including by means of somatic cell nuclear transfer'. Under FP6, eight projects involving human embryonic stem cell research have been funded and nearly 100 involving human adult stem cells have received funding approval.
At a recent meeting of the European Parliament's Industry, Research and Energy (ITRE) Committee, MEPs made amendments to the FP7 budget, clarifying the areas of research that should not receive EU funding. These include human cloning; heritable modifications of the human genome; and production of human embryos solely for stem cell procurement. The amended proposal adds that: 'Research on the use of human stem cells may be financed under this framework programme, depending both on the contents of the scientific proposal and the legal framework of the Member State(s) involved.' The ITRE committee's amendments on the FP7 proposal will now be put to the European Parliament. A vote is expected to take place in June.