BioWorld International Correspondent

DUBLIN, Ireland - The Irish government has signaled that it will not adopt a hard-line position with respect to European Union support for human embryonic stem cell research.

Tanaiste (deputy prime minister) Mary Harney said last week that the country will not block EU funding for human embryonic stem cell research in other EU member states, even though Ireland itself remains opposed to such activity.

"I don't believe that we should put an embargo on what other countries deem appropriate," she told BioWorld International during a journalists' briefing on science policy. In other words, Ireland will not oppose EU support under the Sixth Framework Program for human stem cell research in countries where that work is permitted. The UK has the most liberal attitude in the EU to the technology, followed closely by Sweden, another important center for stem cell work. The Netherlands, Finland, Greece and, recently, Spain, also have taken liberal stances on the issue.

Harney is minister for enterprise, trade and employment and has direct responsibility for the science and technology brief within government. She will communicate the country's position at an EU competitiveness council meeting in Brussels Sept. 22-23, which is being held under the auspices of Italy's six-month EU presidency.

According to a spokesman for the Italian presidency, EU research ministers will consider the issue informally over a lunch meeting. It may then be included as a formal agenda item for the subsequent competitiveness council meeting, which will take place in Brussels Nov. 27.

Time is running out for EU research ministers to adopt an agreed-to position for funding human embryonic stem cell research. The issue was parked during negotiations leading up to the adoption of the EU's Sixth Framework Program, but, according to an agreement struck on Sept. 30, 2002, has to be resolved by Dec. 31 this year. A moratorium on funding research using human embryos and human embryonic stem cells, apart from projects involving the use of banked or isolated human embryonic stem cells in culture, will cease on that date.

In July, European Commission officials finalized proposals for defining EU guidelines on human embryonic stem cell research, but EU research ministers still appear to be divided on the issue. "There's a blocking minority emerging now," Harney said. Germany, Italy and Austria, in particular, have been opposed to the EU extending any funding for human embryonic stem cell research to any member state, regardless of the respective positions of individual countries. "I think that is an absolutely unreasonable position," Harney said.

As yet, Ireland has no legislation governing human embryonic stem cell research. Its strict opposition to abortion, which was laid down in a series of constitutional amendments passed during the last 20 years, defines its present domestic position. Two separate bodies are currently considering the issues. The Commission on Assisted Human Reproduction is due to report recommendations at year-end, while the Irish Bioethics Council is seeking submissions to its working group on the use of human biological material. The consultation period closes next Friday.