Brussels, 11 Apr 2003
A report calling for restrictions on research using embryonic stem cells and a total ban on human cloning for reproductive purposes was approved by an overwhelming majority of MEPs on 10 April.
Over 80 amendments were made to a Commission proposal on setting standards of quality and safety for the donation, procurement, testing, processing, storage and distribution of human tissues and cells. These included proposals that donations of tissues and cell transplantation should be voluntary and unpaid, that EU wide rules should be laid down to ensure traceability, and that the scope of the Commission's proposal should be further clarified.
In particular, MEPs sought to address the ethical issues surrounding stem cell research and cloning. Regarding the latter, text was added to the proposal, outlawing research on human cloning for reproductive.
On the controversial issue of stem cells, MEPs noted that no consensus exists within the European Union as to whether, and in what circumstances, embryonic stem cells may be processed, although many Member States have already taken steps to ban the creation of stem cells in cases where the embryo has to be destroyed.
In light of this, a new amendment was added stipulating that research, designed to create human embryos solely for research purposes or to supply stem cells, including by means of the transfer of somatic cell nuclei, should be prohibited.
As an acceptable alternative, MEPs pointed to the use of adult stem cells and of stem cells from the umbilical cord, which is currently legal and ethically non-controversial in all Member States. Specific measures should be taken to promote this type of research by the European Union and by the Member States. Furthermore, obstacles to the processing of adult stem cells and stem cells from the umbilical cord should be removed, urged MEPs.
The vote by MEPs comes in the same week as the publication of report by the Commission, exploring the scientific, ethical and legal implications of funding science in this field under the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6). A spokesperson for the Commission said that while the Commission is not taking a position regarding the Parliament vote, it is clear that the ethical dimension which the MEPs have added is not the original angle of the directive. 'This [directive] has nothing to do with stems cells [...] the whole issue has been hijacked [but] this decision is not final.'
Concerning the stem cell report and the planned discussions at an inter-institutional seminar later this month, the spokesperson emphasised that, 'the Commission is not aiming to legislate on ethics at EU level [...]. The seminar is aimed at setting funding guidelines at EU level.' After all, it is up to Member States to decide how to legislate on such matters, he added.
According to those who voted in favour of restricting research using stem cells, the vote is a positive step towards ensuring respect for life and human dignity, 'From the moment of the conception, you create all the individual characteristics of a person,' said Austrian MEP Marialiese Flemming.
But regulating such highly controversial issues at European level is a cause of concern for some. According to David Bowe, UK Labour's environment spokesman in the European Parliament, 'it is wrong for the religious right to assert its own moral view on the rest of us. There is no moral consensus in Europe on this and it really should be left up to individual Member States to decide,' he said.
However, members of the research community in Europe remain confident that the amended proposal as it stands will not be approved by the Council of Ministers due to diverging opinions. 'We hope that European Union health ministers will reject these amendments when they are presented with the directive in June, and preserve the present established arrangement that individual Member States should be allowed to make up their own minds about research on human embryonic stem cells and therapeutic cloning,' said Lord May of Oxford, president of the national academy of science in Britain.'
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