More MS news articles for Jan 2002

Germany to allow limited imports of stem cells

January 30 2002 20:29
By Hugh Williamson in Berlin
The German parliament on Wednesday voted in favour of allowing limited imports of human embryonic stem cells. The decision represents a compromise between supporters and opponents of the import of such cells, and marks the end - at least temporarily - of the intense debate in Germany in recent months over the ethics of embryo research.

The extraction of human embryonic stem cells in Germany for research purposes is illegal, but, until Wednesday, there were no clear rules determining whether such cells could be imported for research in Germany.

Wednesday's decision lays the groundwork for a law that would ban the import of human embryonic stem cells, but would provide loopholes to allow the import of cells under strictly controlled circumstances, including that only stem cells extracted before a particular cut-off date - probably Wednesday - can be imported.

The decision is likely to be welcomed by Germany's medical research community, where it was feared that the country would fall behind other western nations unless imports were allowed. Several research teams have been waiting months for permission to start research using imported cells.

In a rare move, the obligation on legislators to vote along party lines was lifted ahead of Wednesday's vote, and the outcome remained unpredictable throughout the four-hour debate.

Chancellor Gerhard Schröder spoke in favour of the successful motion. Two other motions - imposing a complete ban, and allowing unrestricted imports - were defeated after two rounds of voting.

The debate over embryo research has been particularly charged in Germany, in light of the experiments on humans undertaken under the Nazi regime. Johannes Rau, the German president, last year spoke out against allowing the selection of human life, and drew parallels with the Nazi policies.

Church groups, human rights activists and others had opposed allowing research on embryonic stem cells - whether imported or not - because the embryos are killed when the stem cells are extracted. Research on stem cells from adults is allowed in Germany.

Medical researchers and other supporters of the use of embryonic stem cells argued that such cells have special qualities - for instance that they have the potential to develop into any other type of cell - and that their use could help provide cures for multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease or other illnesses.

Wednesday's decision leaves Germany with significantly tougher restrictions on research on embryonic stem cells than the UK and several other European countries.

© Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2002