Spain's stem cell battle ends

New socialist government comes to a deal with Andalusian leaders over stem cell bank

May 6, 2004
Xavier Bosch(xbosch@teleline.es)

The battle over who will control Spain's first public stem cell bank came to an end last Friday (April 30). The country's new Socialist leaders and allied officials in the state of Andalusia agreed to simultaneously drop dueling lawsuits over the bank, which the previous conservative government had claimed violated constitutional rules.

In October last year, the Spanish Parliament approved a new law on assisted reproduction that contemplated the creation of a national center to store and manage embryonic stem cell lines. But when the government became aware that the Andalusian state government had approved its own law on embryo research and oversaw the creation of its own regional center, it filed a lawsuit in the Constitutional Court on grounds that the Andalusian center was unconstitutional.

Shortly afterwards, Andalusia replied by filing its own lawsuit against the Spanish government saying the national law was a “flagrant invasion of regional competencies.”

The lawsuit by the central government led to an effective moratorium on any embryo research in Andalusia—to last until the Constitutional Court had to deliver a verdict (expected by next July). But the unexpected electoral victory by the Socialists in March meant that the row was to take a different direction, particularly as the Socialists also run the Andalusian government.

Health Minister Elena Salgado said in a press conference in Madrid that after the reciprocal withdrawal of suits, “there exist now the right conditions to start a wide and calmed debate to eventually reform [the recently approved law], overcoming its restrictions.”

Because of moral and religious considerations, the national law is far more restrictive and only permits research on surplus embryos that have been stored for more than 5 years by the time the law goes into effect. It also limits the number of embryos and eggs to be fertilized.

Researchers have applauded the agreement. It is “fantastic news,” said Josep Egozcue, a cell biologist at the Autonomous University of Barcelona.

Egozcue pointed out that the reasons for the withdrawals are different. The national government, he told The Scientist, withdrew the lawsuit because the government agrees with the creation of the Andalusian center and with the research to be carried out there.

The Andalusian government has withdrawn its lawsuit because it does not want to complicate the foreseen reform of the law. Fernando Marina, an embryologist at Barcelona's Cefer Reproduction Institute, said the previous government portrayed the law as “opening the doors to embryo research... which is absolutely false.” Couples, not the government, should decide whether to devote spare embryos to research, he said.

Jesús Avila, director of the Madrid-based molecular biology center Severo Ochoa, told The Scientist that “[the] previous Spanish government used the stem cell database as a tool for political (and pseudo religious) fights.”

The latest news hopefully means “the scientific features will be discussed in a scientific rather than in a political environment, where the scientists will discuss on facts but not on political thoughts,” he said.