A Day of Reckoning

After a lively and insightful debate, the German Bundestag has finally made a long-awaited decision to allow the import of some human embryonic stem cells for research purposes, but only under tight restrictions. The debate, the climax of a lengthy and controversial discussion among most political, scientific, and public institutions in Germany over the last year, ended as 340 out of 617 Bundestag members voted for a compromise proposal. Although the passed proposal generally bans the import of human embryonic stem cells for research purposes, it leaves room for a few exceptions.

Just last week, there were as many as seven draft proposal floating around the Bundestag, but during intense discussions this week, the parties whittled the number of proposals down to the three that were discussed today (see box).

The decision, reached in two rounds of voting, imposes a moratorium--similar to the one applied by the Bush Administration in the United States--that will allow only the import of stem cell lines that were established before a yet-to-be-decided deadline. (The latest date for the deadline could be the date of the debate: 30 January 2002). Researchers will be allowed to import stem cell lines only when they prove that their project is scientifically outstanding and can be performed only by using embryonic stem cells. Scientists seeking to use these cells also would be obliged to get approval from national ethics and review commissions, both of which will have to be established under new legislation.

Three Options

In its 30 January 2002 plenary session, Bundestag members had to choose between three different proposals brought in by three different factions:

First proposal:

Main Supporters: Jochen Borchert (CDU) *, Bundestag President Wolfgang Thierse (SPD) *, Wolfgang Wodarg (SPD), and Monika Knoche (Alliance 90/The Greens). Aimed for a complete import ban on human embryonic stem cells, without any exceptions.

Second proposal:

Main Supporters: Maria Böhmer (CDU), Margot von Renesse (SPD), former Health Ministers, Andrea Fischer (Alliance 90/The Greens), Horst Seehofer (CSU) *, and Wolf-Michael Catenhusen, the Research Ministry's Parliamentary State Secretary. Supported a general import ban, but with exceptions when research is of high quality and feasible only with human embryonic stem cells.

Third proposal:

Main Supporters: Ulrike Flach (FDP), Peter Hintze (CDU), Wolfgang Schäuble (CDU), and Guido Westerwelle (FDP) *. Proposed to allow the import of human embryonic stem cells and leave open the option to produce stem cells in Germany.

The adopted motion rules out what is being called "wasteful embryonic research" (verbrauchende Embryonenforschung)--the use of embryos that have not already been used for research purposes to create new embryonic stem cells. Moreover, the motion stresses the importance of adult stem cells for research projects, and several key legislators asked that funding in this area be increased to compensate for the lack of embryonic cells.

The key speakers for the compromise, Maria Böhmer (CDU), Margot von Renesse (SPD), and Andrea Fischer (Alliance 90/The Greens), emphasised that their proposal would prohibit using further "new" embryos for research. They gave several reasons that convinced them to allow the import under restrictions, rather than banning it completely. Von Renesse pointed out that regardless of an import ban, Germany would benefit from research results and new therapies being derived from experiments outside Germany using embryonic stem cells. "No one could even prevent a German scientist on a DAAD [German Academic Exchange Service] fellowship from doing research in another country that could be banned in Germany at the same time", she added. With research becoming more and more a global issue, a total ban in Germany would not make sense.

Böhmer warned that human beings are not "spare-part compartments", but said that stem cell lines did not have the status of embryos and were therefore not protected by constitutional rights, an argument often brought up by import opponents. Fischer said that the compromise would at the same time be an "advance payment of trust for German scientists" to use the regulations in a responsible manner.

Wolfgang Wodarg (SPD) and Hermann Kues (CDU) both argued a strong case against import. Kues rejected the compromise proposal because it meant "the retroactive approval of killing embryos". Ulrike Flach (FDP) pointed out the importance of embryonic stem cells for the development of new medical applications and therapies as an argument to allow the import without restrictions. Katherina Reiche (CDU) argued that stem cell production in Germany should not be banned at the outset.

Chancellor Gerhard Schröder (SPD), Friedrich Merz (CDU), and Antje Vollmer (Alliance 90/The Greens) all savoured the high quality of the plenary session. "This debate is a good indicator for political culture in Germany", commented Schröder, who spoke in his role as a Bundestag member, not as chancellor.

The Bundestag's motion approving the restricted import of stem cells now serves as a basis on which to establish legislative groundwork that regulates the import. Wolf-Michael Catenhusen (SPD), Bundestag member and parliamentary state secretary for the ministry of research ( BMBF), announced that the Bundestag will take the initiative and that a new law may go through its first reading as early as next week. If everything moves ahead as planned, the new law could take effect in late spring or early summer.

The debate has proved that the discussion about stem cells in Germany is far from over, so watch out for further reporting on Next Wave Germany!

* CDU = Christian Democratic UnionCSU = Christian Social UnionFDP = Free Democratic PartySDP = Social Democratic Party

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