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German parliament postpones stem cell vote until March

18 February 2008
Appeared in BioNews 445

After a four hour debate on 14 February 2008, the German Parliament has taken the decision to postpone the vote on whether to amend the country's 2002 stem cell laws, to allow scientists to conduct research on stem cell lines created after 2002, until mid-March.

In 2001, the Bundestag made it illegal to produce stem cells from human embryo, and illegal for scientists to carry out research on human stem cells that had been imported into Germany after 1 January 2002. Last year, the German National Ethics Council - a medical ethics policy group that advises the German government - voted narrowly in favour of scrapping the ban on importing new stem cell lines.

Stem cell research is a sensitive subject in Germany, due to the history of Nazi medical experiments on humans, as well as the difficult ethical issue of destroying embryos in the name of research, with many critics arguing this is tantamount to the destruction of human life.

However, German scientists complain that the restrictions mean they are only able to work on old, unstable stem cell lines, and they are prevented from taking part in current international research projects. Hermann Barth, of Germany's National Ethics Council, has argued that the 2002 law was a compromise between embryo protection and freedom of research, and that under certain conditions, 'this compromise would best be served by opening the door to stem cell research a little wider by means of a prudent amendment of the Stem Cell Law'.

Of the 613 parliamentary deputies, 184 are asking for the law to be amended. The group comprises both Social and Christian Democrats, and includes the Chancellor Angela Merkel and Technology Minister Annette Schavan. Ms Schavan told reporters that she wanted Germany to be able to keep up globally, saying 'you have got to take account of the fact that researchers need qualitatively better cells'.

However, the political parties are not taking positions on the issue, allowing individuals to decide for themselves, and the debate on Thursday reflected the divisions between Catholics, who stand in opposition to stem cell research, and protestants. Hubert Hueppe, a member of the Christian Democrats, argued for tightening the rules stating that, 'there is no argument for killing human life for science'.

More recent advances have seen embryonic stem cells created from human skin cells. Such advances could bypass the need to use embryos in research, and dissolve the current ethical debate. However, scientists have yet to see whether these cells do behave exactly like embryonic stem cells.

SOURCES & REFERENCES
Amendments to 2002 stem cell law to be tackled by German Parliament
All Headline News |  14 February 2008
German Parliament postpones stem cell law decision until March
Deutsche Welt |  14 February 2008
German Parliament to discuss reforming stem cell law
Deutsche Welt |  13 February 2008
Germany considers changing stem cell laws
Reuters |  14 February 2008
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