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Germany considers relaxing strict embryo research laws

BMJ 2003; 327 doi: (Published 13 November 2003) Cite this as: BMJ 2003;327:1128
  1. Jane Burgermeister
  1. Vienna

    Germany is in the middle of a national debate on embryo research after a speech by the minister of justice, Brigitte Zypries, in which she signalled that the government is preparing to relax the country's strict laws on embryo research.

    German law currently forbids work on embryonic stem cells, with the exception of research on imported embryos left over from in vitro fertilisation that were created before 1 January 2002.

    In a speech at Berlin's Humboldt University on 29 October, Brigitte Zypries said that there was an ethical obligation to push forward research on human embryonic stem cells. She did not however spell out whether she meant that Germany should use embryos left over from in vitro fertilisation after that date or whether they should come from within Germany, rather than imported from abroad.

    She said that such research opened new perspectives for scientists trying to find cures for diseases such as Parkinson's disease.

    Brigitte Zypries, a Social Democrat, cast doubt on a key principle that has so far been the cornerstone of the legal protection offered to embryos.

    Human dignity, she said, could not be ascribed to embryos in test tubes because such embryos have only a potential for developing into human beings, and so of benefiting from guarantees to human dignity anchored in the country's constitution.

    Nevertheless, she emphasised that the government remained opposed to cloning, including therapeutic cloning, which is a different method of cultivating stem cells, through cell nuclear replacement.

    Arguing that no one has the right to decide which lives are worthy of living, she also rejected preimplantation diagnostics.

    Her statement has triggered a heated debate in Germany, which is still haunted by memories of the Nazis' euthanasia and eugenics campaigns.

    Professor Spiros Simitas, the chairman of the National Ethics Council, welcomed the debate, however. He said that the developments in genetics were complex and fast changing and that the government needed to review continuously its bioethical policies to meet the new challenges.

    However, the head of the National Chamber of Doctors—an organisation that represents the interests of doctors in Germany—Jörg-Dietrich Hoppe said that any attempt to loosen the strict laws on human embryonic research could lead step by step to eugenics.

    Dietmar Mieth, professor of ethics at Tübingen University's Catholic Faculty, said that the government is seeking to relax the laws on stem cell research because it is worried that Germany will lose out in the fast growing biotechnology industry.

    The German chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, has made it clear that he is in favour of biomedical research that can save lives and secure jobs.

    The daily newspaper Die Berliner Zeitung also noted that the German government seemed reluctant to ratify an international treaty sponsored by the United Nations banning all forms of cloning, preferring instead to limit the ban to reproductive cloning.

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