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Lawmakers Ban Stem Cell Imports in German Vote

Science: Only existing embryos in the country can be used for research, Parliament decides. Some see a blow to promising treatments.


BERLIN — German lawmakers Wednesday rejected a move to allow imports of embryonic stem cells for research, ignoring the pleas of a paraplegic politician as well as the warnings of scientists that the search for medical breakthroughs will go on elsewhere.

The vote after nearly five hours of debate made one concession to the scientific community, allowing research on 40,000 existing embryos.

The excess embryos had been created here for in vitro fertilization and frozen in the event their use in regenerating tissue and organs might one day be approved.

However, the "no, but" option--one of three measures facing the lawmakers Wednesday--clearly forbids using any stem cells created in Germany for infertile couples in the future or acquiring them from countries with more liberal laws governing biotechnology.

Germany has one of the world's most prosperous biotech industries, partly the result of a generously funded higher education system. But the industry has also benefited from the return of successful genetics and genome specialists who made discoveries achievable only in less restrictive environments such as Britain and the United States.

Most biotechnology research was forbidden here through the 1980s, chasing the leading researchers to foreign laboratories, where they developed everything from artificial insulin to procedures that have helped crack the human genetic code.

The curbs on biotechnology have been eased over the past decade, but Germans outside the scientific community remain deeply distrustful of any activity that can be construed as human engineering. They also are stridently opposed to genetic modification of crops and foods.

Still haunted by the country's Nazi past, when scientists engaged in human experimentation, Germans remain more wary than many Europeans of the risks of letting scientific opportunity undermine the dignity of mankind.

In the process of harvesting stem cells--the master cells that govern the development of tissues and organs--scientists destroy the fertilized eggs they are taken from, thus inviting the debate over when life begins.

As in the clash over abortion, opponents see the fertilized eggs as unborn life, while proponents see the opposite, saying early-stage embryos aren't viable outside the womb.

Supporters also argue that stem cells hold the promise of generating tissues and organs that could cure the sick and disabled.

One advocate of the defeated move to approve stem-cell imports, former Christian Democratic Union leader Wolfgang Schaeuble, who was paralyzed in a 1990 assassination attempt, urged fellow lawmakers to broaden their views about what constitutes an infraction of human dignity.

Embryonic stem cells could enable doctors to reverse the afflictions of those with damaged organs, spinal cords or debilitating illnesses such as diabetes or Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases, the conservative noted.

"Man's striving for ever more knowledge is an aspect of human life that makes it unique," Schaeuble argued before the packed session of the Bundestag, the lower house of Parliament. "Scientific freedom to develop the possibilities for improving the quality of life is part of this inviolable respect for mankind."

Others pushing for relief from restrictions on embryonic research asked their legislative colleagues how Germany will react when cures and treatments are developed in other countries and are available only to those Germans who can afford to travel and pay for services deemed criminal in their own country. The deeply emotional debate cut across political lines, with both left-leaning Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and the head of the opposition Christian Democrats, Angela Merkel, arguing for some liberalization and keeping the door to discovery open.

The Bundestag members faced three choices Wednesday: to allow imports of embryonic stem cells for scientific research; to ban such imports but permit research on excess embryonic stem cells created here for in vitro fertilization; or to ban any research on the cells.

The vote came in two stages. The first ballot gave less than 20% support for importing the cells, with the rest of the votes split almost equally between the outright ban and the qualified rejection. The latter option won, 340 to 265, on the second ballot as the disappointed supporters chose the less restrictive of the remaining choices.

Supporters of the research got backing from many of Germany's leading scientific organizations, foremost among them the prestigious Max Planck Society. Although he expressed disappointment that the most liberal option was rejected, Peter Gruss, the incoming president of the research network, said he was relieved that the political leadership refrained from the outright ban.

"If German scientists are to continue on the way to creating new therapies, the German Parliament must take up this issue again in the near future to allow Germany access to human embryos," Gruss said after the voting.

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