German Parliament Paves the Way for Embryonic Stem Cell Research

- Tade Matthias Spranger, Ph. D.
Research Fellow, University of Bonn,
Institute for Public Law (Dept. Administrative Law),
Adenauerallee 24-42, 53113 Bonn, Germany
Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 12 (2002), 63-4.

Human Stem Cell research, i. e. research on cells which possess the capacity to differentiate into cells of different degrees of specialisation, is one of the most promising fields of modern medicine. However, in many countries, the legal status of stem cells remains uncertain. Last year, President Bush of the United States voted for a public funding of research on existing stem cell lines. As a result, private programmes are not restricted in any way, although opponents insist on their point of view, according to which any kind of embryonic stem cell research leads to a violation of human rights, especially human dignity. In December 2001, the Ethics Committee of the Japan Society of Obstetrics and Gynecology approved a revision to its guidelines to allow the use of supernumerary fertilized eggs to obtain stem cells. Israel allows human stem cell research too, as the Jewish religion does not qualify stem cells and embryos as human beings.

Now, on 30 January 2002, after the so-called Study Commission on Law and Ethics in Modern Medicine as an interface between politics and science submitted its first report on the issue (1), the German Parliament (Bundestag) made its decision on stem cell research. In a free vote, the Members of Parliament had a choice of three inter-fractional motions.

The first proposal (2) aimed at a total ban of production and import of human embryonic stem cells and called for an improved promotion of "ethically harmless" alternatives, i. e. research on adult stem cells or animal stem cells.

The second draft (3) followed a conciliatory approach. In general, it emphasized the therapeutic potential of human stem cell research. Nevertheless, as the end does not justify any means, the prohibition of the production of human embryos to obtain stem cells should maintain. On the other hand, the import of human embryonic stem cells should be allowed as an exception if the following six requirements are fulfilled: A lack of research alternatives (e. g. research on adult stem cells) calls for an import of embryonic stem cells; the import is restricted to stem cell lines which already exist; the embryoLs parentsL informed consent must be obtained; the research purposes must be high-ranking; the ethical acceptance has to be examined by a high-level ethical committee; an authorizing authority must license the import.

The third motion (4) underlined the freedom of science and the interest of future generationsL in the development of new medical treatments. Therefore, the import of embryonic stem cells for research projects examined by a scientific and ethics committee should be allowed. In case that research on imported stem cells does not lead to the expected progress, the legislator should take additional measures into consideration.

On the first ballot, none of the three proposals achieved the necessary majority: 263 MPs called for a total ban, 226 MPs - including Chancellor Schrˆder - supported the mediatory approach, and only 106 MPs favoured an unrestricted import. On the second ballot, the third motion dropped out and majorities changed. 340 representatives pleaded for the possibility of a restricted import, 265 delegates voted for an absolute ban. The prevailing point of view serves as a draft bill. The new law regulates public research as well as private research projects and shall be enacted within the next few months.

In general, the ParliamentLs decision is to welcome as it paves the way for an outstanding and very promising field of technology which has the potential to help millions of peoples suffering from various and very serious diseases. Nevertheless, the mediatory approach seems to be inconsequent and too narrow. The solution described above gives the impression that Germany wants to participate in the advantages of stem cell research without carrying the burden of producing stem cells itself. The ParliamentLs decision tries to respond to this reasonable doubts by restricting the import to stem cell lines which already exist. However, this does not alter the fact that even if stem cell lines already exist, they do not come from out of nowhere. Hence, although the German legislator considers the production of embryonic stem cells unethical und unlawful, it wants to benefit from such creations which have taken place in other countries.

Another objection refers to the suggested handling of supernumerary embryos, i. e. embryos produced in connection with in-vitro fertilisation which are left unused after fertility treatment. These embryos are doomed to die: Sometimes, they are destroyed by means of introducing pure alcohol, but usually, they are left deep-frozen until devastation. The draft bill fails to explain the necessity to protect these embryos from scientific measures. Certainly, it would be too simple to justify research on supernumerary embryos just because their death lies ahead. Otherwise, one could even justify research measures on fatally ill adults. However, the relevant difference is that in case of supernumerary embryos death is the only reason for their existence. In an oversubtle wording: They live to die. With this in mind, scientific research on supernumerary embryos is at least worth considering.

In all, Germany did a first important step towards an improvement of scientific outline conditions (5), which aims at catching up with international developments. Only one day after the ParliamentLs decision, the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, which is the central public funding organization for academic research in Germany, announced to support research projects using imported embryos. However, it is uncertain whether the adopted motion really manages to adjust the regulation of scientific work to the international level. As already mentioned, the United States abstain from any regulation concerning private scientific research on human stem cells. Japan adopts the same course, and in the United Kingdom the Lower House and the House of Lords last year both voted to adjust the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act regulations to the demands of modern human stem cell research (6). The German approach clearly falls behind these efforts to encourage scientific progress.


1) For an English summary: [31.01.2001].

2) German Parliament, Printed Matter No. 14/8101, 29.01.2002.

3) German Parliament, Printed Matter No. 14/8102, 29.01.2002.

4) German Parliament, Printed Matter No. 14/8103, 29.01.2002.

5) In view of the economic dimension, difficult questions arise from patent law, cf. Spranger, Patentability of Human Stem Cell Procedures in Accordance with EC Law, [2002] 11 European Intellectual Property Review.

6) 2001 No. 188, Human Fertilisation and Embryology, The Human Fertilisation and Embryology (Research Purposes) Regulations 2001 (made 24th January 2001; coming into force 31st January 2001). In compliance with these provisions, so-called therapeutic cloning is permitted with careful monitoring, cf. Civin, Stem Cell Research: Back to the Future, [2001] 19 Stem Cells 356.

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