France's parliament is to debate on whether current bioethics laws prohibiting research on human embryos should be eased.
Presently, research on human embryonic stem cell (hESCs) and embryos is banned in France. However under a 2004 amendment to the country's bioethics law, scientists can obtain special dispensation for research aimed at understanding or treating serious diseases.
But there is now reportedly increasing pressure on the government to create permissive regulation. The debate comes amid protests that Catholic Church lobbying halted plans to ease existing restrictions on hESC research.
Researchers agree the 2004 amendments have been an improvement on the previous outright ban, but still leave ambiguity regarding the regulatory status of hESCs. This uncertainty could potentially be a deterrent to foreign researchers and investment by companies, explains Dr Marc Peschanski, a neuroscientist working for INSERM, the national biomedical research agency, and head of the Institute for Stem Cell Therapy and Exploration of Monogenic Diseases in Paris.
Conservative opposition to embryo research in 2004 made slow progress for pro-hESC researchers. However, scientists report the successful oversight of the national Biomedicine Agency, set up in 2004 to regulate human embryology, genetics and IVF, has had a critical role in inspiring confidence and now politicians are more comfortable with the work.
Critics of the bill believe last minute-changes by the governing conservative UMP party would mean little alteration to the currently restrictive law. The alterations have been described as a 'disappointment' after three years of debate by Le Monde, a French newspaper. 'By not changing anything, the parliamentary majority has turned the French bioethics laws into some of the most conservative in Europe', it wrote in an editorial.