Germany's National Ethics Council (NEC) has announced that it will continue to oppose the cloning of human embryos for research despite calls for the prohibition to be lifted. Edelgard Bulmahn, Minister of Education and Research, who presented the Council's decision, stated that 'the moratorium is appropriate for the current stage of research', but said that penalties for breaking the law should be more clearly defined.
The NEC was created in 2001 to advise the German government on ethical issues in the life sciences. It comprises scientists, theologians, jurists, business executives and trade union representatives, and opinion has long been divided within the Council on the issue of cloning. All 25 members are opposed to the use of cloning for reproductive purposes, but they could not reach a unanimous agreement on the use of cloning in embryonic stem cell (ES cell) research - often known as therapeutic cloning - with three different positions on how to regulate cloning being supported. Because of this, the latest advice is said to be 'more of a political than an ethical recommendation'.
All forms of human cloning have been prohibited in Germany since the Embryo Protection Act of 1991. German scientists can undertake research on imported ES cell lines, subject to certain restrictions, according to a law passed in 2002, but they cannot create ES cells for research. The issue was raised again when the UK's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) approved its first licence for cloning in August. Immediately after HFEA's decision, the NEC called on the German government to relaunch the debate. Its chairman, Spiros Simitis, said that the German parliament (Bundestag) should reconsider national laws on cloning for research purposes. Several members of the independent committee were in favour of loosening the prohibition on research cloning, but many were not.
Last week, Economy Minister Wolfgang Clement told the German parliament that Germany must abandon all its restrictions on stem cell research if it wants to promote research and development and create a strong biotech industry. 'We have to allow unlimited research on stem cells in Germany', he said, during a debate on the 2005 budget.
The NEC report comes a few weeks ahead of a scheduled United Nations debate on a global convention to prohibit cloning. The US is pushing for a global ban, while the UK and others, with support from international science academies, are urging the UN to pass a global ban on reproductive cloning only, allowing 'therapeutic' cloning to continue in countries that wish to develop it. The UN debate has been suspended for a year, because nations were bitterly divided on the issue.