BioWorld International Correspondent
MUNICH, Germany - Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, speaking at the University of Goettingen, injected biotechnology into the country's national election campaign by calling for greater openness in embryonic stem cell research.
"In research, there are no ultimate or eternal answers," Schroeder said. "In biotechnology and genetic technology, we must not cut ourselves off from international progress in research" because that research "would simply migrate elsewhere, possibly in such a way that ethical considerations would practically not be considered at all."
The speech was part of Schroeder's re-election campaign. His term technically extends through 2006, but recent defeats for his party at the state level prompted him to call for an early dissolution of parliament and elections at the national level. Those are expected to be held on Sept. 18. Schroeder first was elected chancellor in 1998, and he was re-elected by a much narrower margin in 2002.
German politicians' positions on biotechnology issues do not neatly break down by party. Those issues also have been a source of tension within Schroeder's cabinet, which is a coalition of Social Democrats and Greens.
Schroeder addressed one set of issues that enjoys broad support, research, and one where his party differs sharply with the leading opposition parties, stem cells. He avoided discussing agricultural biotechnology, which is very unpopular in Germany, and a field in which his party tends to differ with his coalition partners.
Germany's national government supports life sciences with more than a billion euros annually, he reminded the audience.
"Money is not enough, however; there is also a question of the legal framework," he said.
"I am convinced, particularly in light of new discoveries, that we will not be able to refrain from liberalizing research with embryonic stem cells," he said. "I want to be a part of this discussion. The legal uncertainty that faces researchers in Germany - and German scientists who are part of international collaborations - must be ended."
Germany has one of Europe's most restrictive set of laws concerning production of embryos, approaches to using them in in vitro fertilization, and uses outside of fertility. German scientists involved in international projects that use embryos or stem cells in ways not approved by the German regulations could face civil or even criminal penalties. No cases have yet been reported, but scientists have been reluctant to be active in an area of such legal uncertainty.
At present, creation of embryonic stem cells is prohibited in Germany, as is the cloning of human embryos. In addition, research on imported cell lines must use cells that came from embryos that were left over after fertility treatments, and cell lines that were created before Jan. 1, 2002.
Schroeder's position drew criticism not only from the opposition, but also from the ranks of the Greens. Maria Boehmer, deputy chair of the Christian Democrat parliamentary group, called the chancellor's speech "a biotech distraction."
"Schroeder does not have a majority in his cabinet or in parliament for allowing research on used embryos," she added. "The old suggestions that the chancellor made today for changing laws will not be followed by any action."
Volker Beck, a member of parliament from the Greens, called Schroeder's suggestion "dressed-up cannibalism." Beck added that in such fundamental ethical questions the Greens would remain "a reliable partner of the [established] churches for the ethical direction of research."
Schroeder emphasized the need to re-visit regulations in light of new developments.
"It is precisely in fundamental questions such as the use of genetic technology that we need the basic openness to weigh considerations anew and to reach new decisions," Schroeder said.