Germany Still Debating Ethics and Science Issues

The debate about ethics in bio and life sciences in Germany was refueled last week: While Germany's central research funding organization, the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG), decided to revise its position on human stem cell research, the German government is finally reacting to heated public debates about sensitive issues by establishing a National Ethics Commission.

In its white paper on stem cell research published last Thursday, the DFG's senate confirmed its position that the use of adult stem cells has to have priority over embryonic stem cells. The DFG also suggests a two-step plan that would allow the use of embryonic stem cells for certain research purposes. Currently, German law (Embryonenschutzgesetz) prohibits the production of embryonic stem cells, but allows the use of imported material.

Under its new plan, the DFG proposes an international institutional cooperation to develop guidelines for cell line requirements as the first step. As a second step, the DFG suggests to discuss necessary changes in German legislation that would enable German scientists to generate stem cells themselves. The senate still strongly opposes reproductive and therapeutic cloning. While this position was welcomed by German research minister Edelgard Bulmahn, the two-step plan drew very reserved comments on the government's side. A research ministry spokesperson said it was not a good idea to push through new positions that were passing current ethical standards. Bulmahn, in fact, recommended that the DFG's positions be discussed in the National Ethics Commission.

The newly established ethics commission is supposed to become a national forum. Its tasks are to reflect different standpoints in the scientific and public discussion of life science issues, to develop ideas how to involve citizens, and to give policy advice on ethics questions surrounding new developments in the life sciences. By establishing the commission, the German government is finally reacting to heated debates about sensitive issues, such as cloning and genetically modified foods, that have been carried out publicly even in news magazines and weekly papers in the past.

Chancellor Gerhard Schröder had already laid out the framework for the commission during a speech at the Catholic Academy in Berlin in April: "We know what we don't want: the cloned, the optimized, the genetically selected human being." Schröder pointed out that the German public as a whole would have to decide which actions are justified. He pointed out the necessity for an ethics commission: "We need extensive information, but we have a lack of information, and we are going to change this." Schröder confirmed his standpoints in an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on 3 May: "There's a need for a public discussion. I am no molecular biologist."

On the other hand, Schröder's cabinet is not neglecting the huge benefits and opportunities in fields like cancer research, early diagnosis, and therapies. The government expects that the ethics commission will contribute to a more intense and transparent discussion of these issues. The commission will have 25 appointed members that represent scientific, medical, theological, philosophical, ecological, and economic interests. Among those members that have already been appointed are the DFG's president, Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker, and the president of Germany's Association of National Research Centers (Helmholtz Gemeinschaft), Detlev Ganten, as well as former justice minister Hans-Jochen Vogel.

The establishment of the commission is welcomed by many members in the scientific community. "I am not sure on what position to take--there are so many pros and cons about stem cell research, so I think there's a need for this commission," says Andrea Wagner, a doctorate student in reproductive medicine at the School of Veterinary Medicine at Hannover. Next Wave will keep an eye on further developments, so stay tuned!

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