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EU: Union To Support Controversial Stem-Cell Research

  • Breffni O'Rourke

The European Union is moving to provide funding support for the highly controversial field of stem-cell research. Stem cells taken from human embryos are seen as a key tool in the future development of cures for a wide range of illnesses. But opponents of this type of research say it is unethical to use embryos for this purpose.

Prague, 15 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The European Parliament has voted to give initial approval to funding for stem-cell research, a new technique that involves the use of material from human embryos.

The parliament in Strasbourg yesterday voted by a wide margin to include this type of research in the European Union's next research budget, despite strong objections from opponents who say it is unethical.

Stem cells are master cells that can transform themselves into other cell types. They are seen as a possible cure for neurological diseases like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, as well as others. But the best stem cells come from human embryos, which are destroyed in the process.

The EU's research budget foresees some $2 billion for biotechnical and genome research between 2003 and 2006. French European Parliament Deputy Gerard Caudron, who is guiding this piece of legislation through the assembly, hopes to have the matter finalized in the coming months, despite opposition. EU member states must also approve the budget.

Caudron's legislative assistant, Gaelle Lebouler, recognizing the controversy surrounding the stem-cell technique, says the measure contains restrictions on the use of embryos: "What the parliament voted on yesterday in the sixth [research] framework program is that the European Union would be enabled to support research involving embryos, not on embryos created [especially] for research but those which come [mainly] from abortions."

Lebouler says the use of "spare" embryos, discarded in the process of artificial fertilization, would also be permitted. But she said Caudron supports the restriction on the use of funding for specially created embryos.

However, a majority on the parliament's genetics committee opposes the use of embryos for research in any form, and its members may try to block final approval of the budgetary allocation.

The research has the backing of the EU's Executive Commission in Brussels. A commission spokeswoman for research, Andrea Dahmen, defended the decision to fund the controversial technique: "Certainly, one part of this program, and one idea of this program, is [for Europe] to be at the cutting edge, and the cutting edge of research in biotechnologies involves, among many other things, stem-cell research. And that is why we feel we should not entirely close the door on this type of research, just because some member states forbid any such research."

Dahmen played down the media attention that the move has received: "Stem-cell research is one relatively small part of what is a very, very big research program that is due to start in 2003. Yesterday, the vote was not on stem-cell research alone. It was on this framework research program, which for us is an important step."

However, opponents of the technique question the need for such research at all. Moral theologian Professor Hille Haker of Bamberg University in Germany said, "It is not that obvious that we do need, urgently, embryonic stem cells, because the alternative of adult stem cells, of the potential of adult stem cells, has not yet reached its limit. So from an ethical point of view, I would always say that insofar as there are serious alternatives to embryonic stem-cell research, these alternatives should be considered first."

Haker welcomes the ban on funding related to the creation of embryos especially for research, but she says that even the use of aborted and discarded embryos invites moral hazards. This is because a form of "market" for such embryos is created.

"We are at least in danger of creating a new market, a new need for embryos, where maybe [intentional] hormone stimulation of women in reproductive medicine is pressed forward and pushed so as to give more eggs, and thus to be able to create more embryos. This is a development we have had already in pre-implantation diagnosis."

And as to the use of aborted fetuses, Haker says the risk is that women who seek to terminate their pregnancies will be made to fit into a "schedule" of abortion which suits research interests.