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Political tussle over bioethics

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

By | August 8, 2005

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 Parliament."

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.

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