April 11, 2003
European Parliament Votes Human Stem Cell Research Ban
The British government's explicit legalization of human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research has led American scientists to move to Britain to do hESC research. However, Britain's membership in the European Union may now cause a cessation of all human embryonic stem cell research in Britain as the EU Parliament has voted tough restrictions on the use of stem cells taken from human embryos including a ban on all cloning for reproductive or therapeutic purposes.
Ignoring pleas from EU scientists who argue that the research may produce cures for diseases such as Parkinson's and diabetes, MEPs voted to halt the creation and use of human embryos for stem cell research in all circumstances.
Curiously, in a Europe which is widely portrayed as secular and post-religious the MEPs (Members of European Parliament) from the southern Catholic states voted heavily for a large set of amendments that restrict stem cell research.
I do not profess to fully understand how decision-making power is distributed between the European Commission, European Parliament, and member states. The European Parliament is (at least according to accounts that I've read) only supposed to take up issues which the European Commission has assigned to it (the EU, it must be remembered, is not very democratic by American standards). Therefore, at least in theory, the European Commission could argue that the amendments added to this regulatory bill go beyond the assigned subject of safety and get into ethical issues which the European Parliament is not supposed to address. The European Commission is already hinting that the European Parliament has gone too far.
A spokesperson for the Commission said that while the Commission is not taking a position regarding the Parliament vote, it is clear that the ethical dimension which the MEPs have added is not the original angle of the directive. 'This [directive] has nothing to do with stems cells [...] the whole issue has been hijacked [but] this decision is not final.'
Also, it sounds like the EU requires a complete consensus of the member states in order for this bill to pass into law.
The decision by the European Union's assembly still requires approval from each of the 15 EU member states to become law.
In the short term it seems likely that this bill will be blocked from becoming law by either the Euopean Commission or by a few of the northern European states. Therefore the status quo for stem cell research regulation in the various EU states will continue.
In Germany, for example, the extraction of stem cells from an embryo is illegal, although it is legal to import stem cells from abroad. In Britain, stem cell research is subject to a licensing procedure. But some European countries have no regulations at all, while in others, there is a complete ban.
In the longer term proposals to modify current EU decision-making mechanisms to allow more decisions to be made by majority vote may well lead to the banning of human embryonic stem cell research in the EU. Also, the expansion of the EU eastward will change the balance of belief on ethical issues related to biotechnology. Though it is hard to say how the Eastern European nations will come down on this issue on balance. Plus, there is the possible further expansion to include the very large population of Turkey which again may change the balance of opinion in Europe on bioethics questions.
Regardless of what finally makes it into law as a result of the current deliberations just the threat of such legislation will have a chilling effect on biotech company funding of human embryonic stem cell work in Europe.
"The increasingly skeptical climate is scaring European biotech companies and research centers away," EU Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin warned last month.
Australian biotech companies working with human embryonic stem cells might end up being the biggest beneficiaries over the uncertainty of the future of human embryonic stem cell work in Europe.
Does anybody else find the tone of this article objectionable? It seems to be representing Europe and the EU as a backward, undemocratised area, still rooted in religeous dogma and with arkane and innefective legal frameworks. For example:
>> Curiously, in a Europe which is widely portrayed as secular and post-religious the MEPs ...from the southern Catholic states voted heavily for a large set of amendments that restrict stem cell research.
>> the EU, it must be remembered, is not very democratic by American standards
Need I remind you Americans that there are several very strong and powerful US groups that are aligned along religeous lines? It was the right-wing christian pro-lifers that caused a ban on stem-cell research in the US. As the representatives of these "southern Catholic states" (and I believe the word you're searching for is countries), surely it is their duty to reflect the views of those that elected them - vis - vote to restrict cloning?
In a truly democratic system, there would be no electoral colege. There would not be families that maintain political power for generations at a time (for example, the Bushes and Kennedies). The most senior judges would not be appointed for primarily party-political reasons (to keep the number of democrats and republicans eaven). Big buisness would not be able to buy big votes. And, a truly democratic society would understand that it is not apropreate to enforce their views upon other countries through the use of force, sanctions and the linking of aid to "reform" programs.
Anyway, it's unfortunate that there is an European ban on stem cell research - I was kind of relying on that to fix my back next time I get smashed up driving. With any luck, the democratic processes in the EU will work through to some sort of sanity and allow this research within the needed framework of checks-and-balances.
I know there are religious groups active in American political life that are fairly powerful. Europeans never hesitate to bring this up to remind Americans why they think Europe is superior. My point is that, hey, it is more like America than Europeans care to admit.
As for arcane and ineffectual political frameworks: The EU Parliament really can not take up issues that are not assigned to them. EU democracy really is so much more a top-down process where the elites decide what the lower level folks get to make decisions about. If the lower level doesn't make the right decision (e.g. where the Irish rejected EU membership) then the rules for how the decision is to be made are changed (e.g. how the funding of the Irish campaign the second time around was changed) and the vote is held again.
The whole question is, as it always has been, whether a human embryo is a separate person. If it is... then experimenting on them clearly affects their safety, and the EU parliment is perfectly within its juristiction.
If they are not persons, then there is really no objection is there, on safety, ethical or any other grounds.
Anyway the Europeans still have state supported churches, in places like Sweden etc. So they can hardly complain about the American religious politics, (witout being big fat hypocrites of course.)
Well I'm like, totally bummed out over this EU thing. I guess Singapore or bust...
By the way, nice work on the SARS virus. Here's an update that you might find some interest in, by Charlie Stross:
I really hope this guy is wrong ...
Russian Information Agency Novosti reports that Sergei Kolesnikov, an Academician in the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences, believes the virus responsible for SARS was been created deliberately, possibly as a bacteriological weapon.
According to him, the virus of atypical pneumonia is a synthesis of two viruses (of measles and infectious parotiditis or mumps), the natural compound of which is impossible. This can be done only in a laboratory, the academician is convinced. He also said that in creating bacteriological weapons a protective anti-viral vaccine is, as a rule, worked out at the same time. Therefore, the scientist believes, a medicine for atypical pneumonia may soon appear. He does not exclude that the spread of the virus could have begun accidentally, as a result of "an unsanctioned leakage" from a laboratory.
Here's a random thought: SARS showed up first in China and Hong Kong, but spread fairly rapidly in the direction of the US via air transport routes. What country in the region (a) doesn't get on very well with the Chinese government these days, (b) isn't likely to be very worried about a contagious disease like SARS because its own citizens aren't very mobile, (c) is known to be dicking around with other weapons of mass destruction, and (d) is also pissed off with the Russians right now?
Clue: it was the last link in the article below this one, and one might well wonder why Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister, Alexander Losyukov, might have felt it necessary to publicly say "We are forced to think about preventive measures to defend our national interests and - why hide it - to defend our population on territories bordering on Korea in case of a serious conflict in the region," according to Interfax.
Be afraid. Be very afraid. I know I'm prone to being alarmed by diplomatic mutterings that come to nought in the end, but there is a good chance that the djinn is already out of the bottle this time. The US pursuit of Saddam is sending a very explicit message to Kim Jong-Il, and that message is "use it or lose it". If SARS is a North Korean strategic bioweapon, it almost certainly isn't the only one. In fact, the nightmare scenario is that it may be the attenuated form of something like the ebola-equivalent mousepox strain that Australian scientists unwittingly stumbled across last year, and this release is a test run in case they feel the need to bring the house down by releasing the real thing. Dr Strangelove, eat your heart out ...
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Posted at 13:11 # G