German parliament opens debate on future of stem cell research
German lawmakers are debating whether the country should alter a 2002 law that imposes strict limits on the use of stem cells for medical research.
The lower house of parliament opened discussion Thursday on whether the rules should be changed to better facilitate scientific research — a debate that cuts across party lines and is expected to end with a vote in mid-March.
The existing law bans the creation of embryonic stem cells in Germany purely for research purposes.
However, it does allow for the importation of stem cells produced abroad before 2002 for use in projects of "overwhelming significance" where no other research method can be used.
Researchers, however, have argued that cells produced before 2002 are now unusable for their efforts to understand diseases ranging from Parkinson's to multiple sclerosis. They say they require access to more recently produced cells.
Because stem cells can turn into any cell in the human body, many scientists think understanding how they work could help cure numerous genetic diseases.
Annette Schavan, Germany's research minister, advocates allowing cells produced until May 1, 2007, to be imported for research.
Schavan, a conservative Roman Catholic, insisted the change should be viewed not as easing the rules but as reflecting rapid advances in technology. She argued that Germany must keep pace to remain competitive.
"I have to acknowledge that researchers need significantly better cells to come up with alternatives," Schavan told ZDF television. "I am urging for the current law to be further developed. I don't believe that it is a liberalization, because we are only making it possible to do what was not possible in 2002."
Some parliamentarians argue that the cutoff date should be scrapped entirely, while still others are pushing for stem cell research to be banned entirely.
But critics say the existing legislation must not be changed, arguing that stem cell research so far has failed to make significant breakthroughs.
"The wish that embryonic stem cell research will produce a cure for severe illnesses remains just that, a wish," Priska Hinz, a member of the opposition Greens, told lawmakers.