GENET archive


8-Humans: Political tussle over bioethics in Germany

                                  PART I
-------------------------------- GENET-news -------------------------------

TITLE:  Political tussle over bioethics
SOURCE: The Scientist, UK, by Ned Stafford
DATE:   8 Aug 2005

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Political tussle over bioethics
Leading German researcher says opposition criticism of ethics council is
about control over stem cell laws

A leading German researcher has told The Scientist he believes Germany's
main political opposition party has been questioning the value of the
country's National Ethics Council in part because it opposes liberalizing
Germany's strict embryonic stem cell laws.

In June this year, members of the CDU/CSU opposition publicly criticized
the four-year-old council after Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder extended its
life by another four years. The politicians said they were opposed to the
council because discussions of bioethics belonged in the Bundestag's
Enquete Commission for ethics and rights in modern medicine. They called
the ethics council superfluous, alleging that the council had been
basically a conduit to promote the views of Schroeder.

Last week, Maria Böhmer, deputy chairwoman of the CDU/CSU in the
Bundestag, told The Scientist: "Without a doubt, we need a council to
debate ethical questions about the beginning of life and the end of life.
But such a council should be anchored in the Bundestag, not in the
chancellor's office."

But Jürgen Hescheler, head of the Institute of Neurophysiology at the
University of Cologne, told The Scientist the CDU/CSU's opposition had
more to do with the fact that its politicians feel uncomfortable with the
political independence of the National Ethics Council.

Hescheler said that if the CDU/CSU wins in September, party members want
an ethics forum they can control. While the 25 members of the National
Ethics Council include experts from science, medicine, law, religion,
social sciences, and philosophy, the Enquete Commission consists of 13
Bundestag members chosen on the basis of each political party's
percentage in the Bundestag, he said. Each Bundestag member on the
commission then chooses an expert to join him or her on the commission.

"The National Ethics Council is much more independent than the Enquete
Commission, and that is what the (CDU/CSU) does not like about it," he
said. "If they win in September, they will have a majority in the
Bundestag and a majority on the Enquete Commission. They would be able to
control what the Enquete Commission says in the end."

Hescheler added, "The CDU/CSU does not like human embryonic stem cell
research. They want to block everything to do with it." He has been a
vocal advocate of the need to liberalize Germany's stem cell law, which
bans production of embryonic stem cells within Germany and allows import
of only cells created before January 1, 2002. Earlier this year, German
media reported that Schroeder was considering easing stem cell
restrictions after the election.

In a statement to The Scientist, a spokeswoman for Schroeder also
defended the council, saying it is totally independent from the influence
of Schroeder and his federal cabinet. "The members of the National Ethics
Council are free of external instructions," she wrote. "They represent
their personal convictions and are subject to their conscience alone."

The German Research Foundation (DFG) also voiced support for the council.
Reinhard Grunwald, secretary general of the DFG, told The Scientist: "The
ethics council as observed by the DFG has not merely performed as a fig
leaf for the wishes of the German government, but has delivered many
worthy contributions on important questions." He then added, "The
responsibility for ethical legislation remains without a doubt with the

In November 2001, shortly before the Bundestag was to vote on a highly
controversial law to lift a ban on importing embryonic stem cells, the
National Ethics Council voted 14 to 8 to support a statement outlining
the conditions under which imports should be allowed. The law passed by
the Bundestag was similar to the council statement, banning production of
embryonic stem cells within Germany and allowing import of only cells
created before January 1, 2002.

Links for this article

N. Stafford, "Dispute over German law," The Scientist, August 3, 2004.

N. Stafford, "German ethics council under fire," The Scientist, August 1,

Jürgen Hescheler

"Schröder said mulling cloning policy switch," Deutsche Welle, May 20, 2005.,1564,1589895,00.html

                                  PART II
-------------------------------- GENET-news -------------------------------

TITLE:  Dispute over German law
SOURCE: The Scientist, UK, by Ned Stafford
DATE:   3 Aug 2005

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Dispute over German law
As politicians cheer the 'success' of a controversial stem cell import
law, scientists fume

German Research Minister Edelgard Bulmahn and Health Minister Ulla
Schmidt issued a joint statement last week patting themselves on the back
for what they described as the success of a new law that allows German
researchers to import human embryonic stem cells. But not everyone in
Germany's stem cell research community was patting along.

Stem cell researcher Jürgen Hescheler, head of the Institute of
Neurophysiology at the University of Cologne, told The Scientist: "I
would tell the ministers that they should go to the labs and speak with
the basic scientists. They never spoke with us. I guess they just assumed
the law was good."

Is he satisfied with the new law? "Definitely not," Hescheler said.

The two ministers issued their statement in conjunction with release of
an 18-page "progress report" detailing the first 18 months of the law,
which took effect July 1, 2002. After describing the law a success, the
two ministers said: "The possibilities for using human embryonic stem
cells for research made possible by the law have been seized [by

The progress report states that from July 1, 2002, through the end of
2003, some seven applications to use imported human embryonic stem cells
were submitted to the Robert Koch Institute, which must give regulatory
approval before import is allowed. Five were approved.

Koch spokeswoman Susanne Glasmacher told The Scientist that as of Monday
(August 2), a total of eight applications had been submitted under the
new law. Five were approved (including an application from Hescheler).
Two applications were still pending, and one had been rejected, she said.

Annette Schmidtmann, program director of the German Research Foundation's
life sciences division, told The Scientist that the new law is
"reasonable insofar as it provides a legal base to work on human
embryonic stem cells." But she does not see approval of five stem cell
research projects since the law took effect as reason to celebrate.

"The stem cell act did not stimulate research on embryonic stem cells,
which can be seen in the fact that only five proposals have been approved
under the new law," Schmidtmann said. "Young researchers in particular
have been hesitant to place their future on a subject area that not only
is very limited legally, but also viewed critically in the public eye."

Before the new law took effect, use of human embryos in Germany had been
banned for all purposes except reproduction. The highly controversial new
law was passed by the German parliament only after much public debate and
ethical input from religious leaders, philosophers, scientists, lawyers,
and others.

The law requires that imported stem cells come from embryos produced by
in vitro fertilization but not needed for pregnancies and that couples
providing the stem cells are not paid money. But the requirement most
often criticized by German scientists is that only stem cells that date
before January 1, 2002, may be imported into Germany.

Hescheler, of the University of Cologne, said that older stem cell lines
are adequate for basic research, but that new stem cell lines are needed
for clinical research. Banning the import of new stem cell lines
effectively makes it impossible for Germany to participate in a proposed
European stem cell bank, an initiative he supports, he said.

One of the biggest problems in stem cell research is immunologic
rejection, Hescheler said.

"This problem can only be solved with a stem cell bank," he said, adding
that to be effective, such a bank would have to have anywhere between "a
few hundred stem cell lines to more than 2000."

Oliver Bruestle, head of the Institute for Reconstructive Neurobiology at
the University of Bonn and one of Germany's most celebrated stem cell
researchers, spoke out on the issue in May, saying that the import ban on
newer embryonic cell lines must be lifted.

Schmidtmann, of the German Research Foundation, agreed: "The current stem
cell act is not very future oriented, as it prevents scientific
experiments on clinically applicable cell lines in Germany."

In an interview with The Scientist, Research Ministry spokesman Florian
Frank said that Minister Bulmahn was well aware that new stem cell lines
would be needed for clinical research.

"But at the moment, at this very moment, we are doing only basic research
in Germany," Frank said. "We do not yet need a new law." When the time
comes for German scientists to start clinical stem cell research, "then
we will have a new [legislative] discussion," Frank said.

Hescheler disagreed: "It is important now to have the right regulations.
If we want to go in 5 to 10 years to clinical applications, then we must
now have a clear statement that Germany is ready to do this."

Links for this article

"Federal Government submits first master cell report," Federal Ministry
for education and research press release, July 28, 2004.

Jürgen Hescheler

Robert Koch Institute

N. Stafford, "Law hinders German research," The Scientist, May 10, 2004.

German Research Foundation

                                  PART III
-------------------------------- GENET-news -------------------------------

TITLE:  German ethics council under fire
SOURCE: The Scientist, UK, by Ned Stafford
DATE:   1 Aug 2005

------------------- archive: -------------------

German ethics council under fire
Opposition politicians say ethics advice should be anchored in
parliament, not the Chancellor's office

With German national elections looming, leading members of the main
opposition parties have expressed deep dissatisfaction with the way that
the country's National Ethics Council operates.

The council, formed by Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in 2001, comprises 25
members from science, medicine, law, religion, social sciences, and
philosophy. Their mandate is to provide guidance about ethical questions
in the life sciences, and to act as a public forum for debate.

On June 23 this year, Schroeder extended the life of the council by a
further four years, but the move prompted criticism from several members
of the conservative CDU/CSU coalition, who said that bioethical
discussions belonged in the Bundestag's Enquete Commission for ethics and
rights in modern medicine. They called the National Ethics Council
superfluous, alleging that the council had been basically a conduit to
promote the views of Schroeder.

Thomas Rachel, a CDU/CSU member of the Enquete Commission, was quoted in
the German press as describing the survival of the National Ethics
Council as "more than questionable," strongly criticizing Schroeder for
renewing the council's mandate, despite looming national elections.

This week, a top official from the coalition hinted that Germany's
National Ethics Council would be dissolved if her party coalition wins in
national elections in September. In an interview with The Scientist,
Maria Böhmer, deputy chairwoman of the CDU/CSU in the Bundestag,
Germany's lower house of Parliament, said that her party had always been
opposed to the council in its current form because it had been created by
Schroeder and not by the Bundestag.

Schroeder is now in an uphill battle to hold his job against CDU/CSU
candidate Angela Merkel. When asked whether a Merkel victory in September
would mean the end of the National Ethics Council, Böhmer declined to
answer directly. "Without a doubt, we need a council to debate ethical
questions about the beginning of life and the end of life. But such a
council should be anchored in the Bundestag, not in the chancellor's
office," she said.

Böhmer acknowledged that the council members are technically independent,
but said that in practice it has always backed the positions of Schroeder.

Kristiane Weber-Hassemer, chair of the council since June, strongly
disputed any assertion that the council would unquestionably support any
position promulgated by Schroeder. "All of us on the council, we think
very independently," Weber-Hassemer told The Scientist. "So when they say
we are not independent, that is just not true."

Asked how she felt about hints from the CDU/CSU that the council would be
dissolved if Merkel wins the election, Weber-Hassemer said. "Not well.
Not well at all. This I do not like to hear."

Weber-Hassemer, a former district court judge who has been a council
member since 2001, pointed out that other European Union nations have
ethics councils that are independent of their parliaments. She said the
Bundestag's Enquete Commission was to help advise members of parliament
on legal issues, while the National Ethics Council was for the voters.
"We are for the people of Germany," she said.

She said that because of Germany's Nazi past, an ethics council
representing the people was important to provide guidance on medical
research in life sciences. "In Nazi Germany, scientists did horrible
things," she said. "For Germans, research in medicine is much more
complicated to discuss than it is in other countries."

Links for this article

D. Sturm, "Juristin Weber-Hassemer neue Vorsitzende des Ethikrates Union
erwägt Abschaffung nach Wahlsieg," Die Welt, June 24, 2005.

Maria Böhmer

Kristiane Weber-Hassemer


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