Schroeder call on stem cells
BERLIN, Germany -- Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has urged the Bundestag to allow limited imports of human embryo stem cells for research in an issue that has split Germany.
With views cutting across party lines and the government itself divided, analysts predicted approval for imports in exceptional and controlled cases -- the option favoured by Schroeder.
"This is the only way we can have a say in how this research is used," Schroeder told parliament before a crucial vote.
"Otherwise, research won't stop but could go ahead following strictly economic interests and in places where ethical concerns have less force."
The decision will resolve months of debate over the economic potential and moral implications of the move.
Scientists argue a decision to block imports would set back German medical research and crate a "brain drain" of top scientists abroad. They say the cells can be used to treat Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and other diseases.
But German church leaders have voiced strong opposition, as well as concern that allowing them could open the door to cloning.
Schroeder argued that, in allowing restricted imports, "we wouldn't be going beyond what other countries do, but we also wouldn't be disconnecting ourselves from international research."
He stressed that such research is already common in the United States, Australia, Israel and "more and more European countries."
Experimentation with embryonic stem cells is disputed because they come from embryos destined to be discarded after test-tube fertilisation. German law now prohibits the creation of embryo cells purely for research, but does not explicitly forbid imports.
President Johannes Rau, a member of Schroeder's Social Democrats, has warned the country to move carefully in the light of Nazi experiments on humans, while Schroeder's justice minister has expressed ethical qualms about allowing imports.
Opponents urged Germany to lead the way in renouncing embryonic stem-cell research.
"I'm certain that imports soon will not be enough," said conservative lawmaker Hermann Kues. "We must not take a step in the wrong direction."
Bundestag members faced three choices. They could vote for an outright ban on imports -- the ban's backers said they had support from 231 of the 665 lawmakers.
Another motion would allow imports only of stem cells that have already been produced, an option backed by 188 deputies, reported the Associated Press.
Finally, a third motion was lodged on Tuesday allowing unrestricted imports with the possibility of creating embryo cells in Germany -- with around 86 supporters.
"I believe it is medically and ethically and morally necessary that we participate in the biggest innovation of the 21st century," said conservative lawmaker Peter Hintze, leading the most enthusiastic group. "People who strictly oppose stem-cell imports see only the ethics of the healthy."
About 150 Bundestag members were still undecided as the debate got under way.
The scientist who sparked the debate was Bonn-based neuropathologist Dr Oliver Bruestle when, 18 months ago, he applied for $88,000 funding for his project on the extraction and transplantation of neural precursor cells from human embryonic stem cells.
As Germany did not prohibit the import of embryonic stem cells, Bruestle had hoped he would receive the funds he needed within a few weeks of his application. The cells were to come from Israel.
But the result was a huge national ethical and media debate and the reluctant intervention of Schroeder, who set up a national ethics panel to defuse the issue.
The chancellor's panel recommended that imports be allowed under strict conditions for an initial period of three years -- only for parliament's own ethics committee to reject stem-cell imports.
While Schroeder in backing restricted imports has stressed the economic benefits of the research to Germany's biotechnology industry, his government has showed itself to be split.
His health and economics ministers back stem-cell imports, while Justice Minister Herta Daeubler-Gmelin has stated her opposition, citing ethical qualms.
Bruestle says if he is denied he will go overseas. An import ban "would certainly mean that we would miss catching up on this line of research," he told Deutschlandfunk radio. "For scientists, the question would then arise whether they shouldn't go abroad."
The German Research Society (DFG), the public funding organisation for academic research, has promised Bruestle a definitive response to his grant request no later than Thursday, a day after the Bundestag vote.
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