This week, Germany took one step closer to permitting at least some form of embryonic stem cell research to take place within its national boundaries. In so doing, Germany joins a number of countries with rather restrictive rules on the use of human embryos in research which are now rethinking their position in the light of stem cells. France, the United States, some Australian states and the Netherlands, not forgetting the UK, have all felt compelled to reconsider existing rules on embryo research in the face of the great promise of embryo stem cells.
But politicians have been slow to respond. Most would probably rather the issue went away in order to avoid controversy. But the difficulty with embryo stem cell research, as far as politicians are concerned, is that the people who might benefit from it cannot be ignored, in the same way that those benefiting from embryo research have been (as unfair as that might seem).
An editorial in this week's Nature expresses hope for an end to the procrastination which has characterised the German government's response to this issue. There does seem to be a reluctance to confront the issue. But, again, Germany isn't the only country to tread water on stem cells. The experience in many countries which have confronted the issue shows that, in politics, timing is almost everything. In Britain, whilst Blair's government went through a period of worry about embryo stem cell research, the ultimate goal was to get a change in the law through before the general election. Similarly, in the US, a new administration has meant a knock back for regulatory change.
Had Clinton been able to act more quickly, research in the public sector could have moved closer to reality.
Embryo stem cell research might not be an election issue, but it certainly is an issue that politicians know they must take seriously. By sheer force of numbers, those who might benefit command real political power.