The chairman of Germany's National Ethics Committee (NEC), Spiros Simitis, has said that the German parliament (Bundestag) should reconsider national laws on cloning for research purposes. Several members of the independent committee, which advises the German government on ethical issues in the life sciences, are in favour of loosening the prohibition on research cloning, but many of the 25-member panel are not. All members remain opposed to the use of cloning for reproductive purposes.
Germany's current law, the 1991 Embryo Protection Act, prohibits human embryo research and the use of cloning technology for either reproductive or research purposes. German scientists can undertake research on imported embryonic stem cell (ES cell) lines, subject to certain restrictions, according to a law passed in 2002. The NEC was expected to issue a statement in response to the news that the UK's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) granted its first research cloning licence last week, making the UK the first country in Europe to formally permit research cloning. The NEC statement was expected on Tuesday, but because of a lack of agreement on the issue among its members, a decision has now been postponed until September.
The German government sees no reason why the cloning debate should be re-opened. 'There's no majority in favour of changing the cloning ban', said Ulrich Kasparisk, a Social Democratic Party secretary based in the Ministry of Research. But Simitis said that 'the Bundestag can no longer just deal with this issue using general statements'. He fears that German scientists interested in conducting cloning and stem cell research might leave Germany for the UK, or elsewhere where the research is permitted. In addition, Germany's liberal Free Democrat Party (FDP) believe that the UK decision was a 'logical step'. Ulrike Flach, chairwoman of the Bundestag research committee and an FDP member, said that it would be irresponsible to promote 'patient tourism', which it believes would be an inevitable consequence of continued research restrictions, in order that Germany could 'stay in its own ivory castle'.
Simitis' worries and plans to relax the law were described as 'misguided' by Thomas Rachel, a spokesman for the opposition Christian Democratic Union party. Rachel also used the opportunity to call for the Bundestag to pass legislation more explicitly in support of a proposed United Nations convention that would place an international ban on all forms of cloning. In addition, a number of other politicians and the German Medical Association called for the government to 'take a strong position' and push for an international ban, as well as a Europe-wide law to protect embryos. The UN is re-launching a debate on the cloning convention in September, after a year's delay.