Taking the Stand for Therapeutic Cloning

*The German version of the article.

Heiko Maas has a degree in law and is the minority leader of the Social Democrats (SPD) in the Saarland's parliament. He was the SPD's first higher official in Germany to take the stand for allowing therapeutic cloning and changing current law in favour of genetic research. In Science's Next Wave, he explains his position.

Currently, a fundamental public debate about the opportunities and risks associated with genetics research is taking place in Germany. Besides the discussion about pre-implantation diagnostics, which I believe should be allowed, therapeutic cloning is also a hot issue. I am also in favour of allowing this technology in Germany after carefully weighing the scientific, constitutional, and ethical issues.

The decision of the British Lower House could be a role model. In the United Kingdom, research on embryonic stem cells is legal in the first 2 weeks of their development. By invitation of the British government, I recently had the opportunity to discuss these important questions with government and party representatives. I was impressed by both the care and great rationality that have characterised the discussion in the UK and led to the final decision. In Germany, where it is as though we are experiencing a crusade against therapeutic cloning, we could well take a leaf out of this book.

It has been recognized in the scientific community that the use of embryonic stem cells in research will become more and more important. In addition, the full potential of adult stem cells can probably only be ascertained by comparison with pluripotent stem cells from the opposite end of the developmental biology spectrum. The possibilities arising from therapeutic cloning are creating hope for millions of people who are seriously ill--for example, Alzheimer's patients, just to mention one group. Diseases that need better treatment technologies, such as heart diseases, cancer, diabetes, or neurological diseases like Parkinson's syndrome, could be treated much more effectively, and may even be cured. Finally, complete human organs could be generated, opening the door to transplants without the existing immunological problems.

Every person has the right to participate in scientific progress and to benefit from improved living conditions. As a politician, I have to ask myself whether I want to face the question 'Why haven't you done anything?' or 'Why haven't you supported research opportunities that would help me or my children?' Alongside the ethical and theoretical doubts are humans living in hope, hope that their disease will be fought and cured, and these hopes also have to be included in this discussion.

I think that the constitutional argument against therapeutic cloning is simply abstruse. A prohibition of pre-implantation diagnostics or therapeutic cloning can neither be derived from German Basic Law, nor from other existing law (such as the Embryo Protection Law--Embryonenschutzgesetz). Some people point to a German Supreme Court decision following which an embryo is protected by federal law. Thus, they consider the use of embryonic stem cells for research purposes as unconstitutional. But the Supreme Court has also included certain limits regarding the protection of embryos in its decision. Under certain circumstances, abortions are legal. That means, the killing of a fetus, a more developed embryo, is tolerated. Consequently, a fundamental argument against using embryonic stem cells and therapeutic cloning cannot be derived from existing constitutional law and additional court decisions. Citing constitutional law therefore is a blunt sword in the crusade against therapeutic cloning.

The deciding issue in this discussion is the ethical dimension. Many people see in an embryo a potential human being with its own identity and dignity. This is perfectly reasonable. These people consider using a human life for research purposes not acceptable. But at the same time, they are not against contraceptives such as the pill or the coil, which prevent the nesting off the egg in the uterus and by this means also lead to the killing of the egg. I doubt that any of those people seriously considers that these drugs or technical devices should be banned. But everyone who accepts these instruments becomes implausible when asking for a ban of therapeutic cloning and projects the near end of the Western world. It is correct that all of this has serious implications for all aspects of human life. But anyone who wants to stop a certain research development has to explain implicitly why this should be the case. In my view, this has not been achieved on any occasion in the case of therapeutic cloning.

A question which is being asked frequently is, 'Is there a possibility that things will get out of control and will not be correctable?' The frightening vision of a "designer baby" would be scary to me, too. So tight guidelines have to be drawn up to avoid misuse. Such things as a designer baby cannot be the goals of scientific research.

The question is if we should say no to everything, whilst knowing that certain techniques are legal in other countries. This leads to the creation of grey areas in German research.* In this case, I would rather say yes to a process regulated by strict legal guidelines. Therefore, we need a revised Embryo Protection Law to avoid situations that we do not want arising. This new law has to regulate what is legal and what is illegal. The current law does not answer these questions precisely enough. And the decision will have to be made soon. We will not be able to advance into the future with a wide gap between law and ethics.

In this case, it is essential that such research is not done according to scientific or, even worse, economic will, but according to strict authorization procedures. This is our political challenge and we should fulfil it.

To clarify my position: Research has its limits. I am strictly against reproductive cloning, at the same time arguing in favour of a certain research field with the primary argument that it will improve the scientific and economic infrastructure in Germany.

*Note from Next Wave's German editor: Current German law prohibits the production of embryonic stem cells, but has a loophole that allows their import.

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