BioWorld International Correspondent
MUNICH, Germany - The German parliament passed a measure not only prohibiting all forms of human cloning in Germany, but also calling on the German government to actively pursue a worldwide ban on cloning.
The bill passed with a large majority, with votes in favor coming from both representatives of the ruling Social Democratic-Green coalition and the opposition Christian Democrats. The only organized opposition came from the Free Democrats, a mildly libertarian party; individual members from other parties also voted against the measure.
The ban on cloning for therapeutic and research purposes, as well as potential reproductive purposes, is overwhelmingly supported in Germany. (See BioWorld International, Jan. 22, 2003.)
Parliament based its opposition to cloning on the first article of Germany's Basic Law - "Human dignity is inviolable" - a core value of the postwar republic. Echoing those terms, the current measure holds that "any form of artificially creating a human embryo, regardless of technique or purpose, is incompatible with universal human dignity."
The country also has one of the strictest sets of regulations in Europe on fertility treatments and other reproductive technology. While this regulation is sometimes cited as a competitive disadvantage for German institutions and companies involved with reproduction-related research, the biotechnology industry has learned to live within the limits set forth in the "embryo-protection" rules, largely by pursuing other paths of research. Indeed, the Deutsche Industrievereinigung Biotechnologie, or German Biotechnology Industry Association, did not take an official position on the cloning ban.
Rene Röspel, a member of parliament and a trained biologist, told BioWorld International that Germany's tight regulation, compared with Great Britain, for example, limited the number of eggs fertilized for IVF procedures and also set an earlier deadline for the implantation of the fertilized cells. This meant, he explained, that fewer potential embryos were produced from these procedures and that there was both less pressure and less opportunity to use any of those cells or techniques for research. Similarly, the widely known official opposition to cloning meant that German scientists interested in such questions were already likely to be based in countries with less stringent rules.
Controversy about the current measure centered on the priority the government should give to securing a global ban on the procedures. The measure also mandates a modification of the government's stance in international negotiations on cloning. At present, Germany is working to achieve a ban on reproductive cloning, while the government of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has left open whether therapeutic cloning "might or should" be an exception to the ban.
Even the administration, however, has not been unified on the subject. Edelgard Bulmahn, the Social Democratic minister for education and research, said in January that an international agreement should have the broadest possible scope and should be supported by all countries. Kerstin Mueller, an undersecretary in the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, proposed exceptions for countries such as Great Britain and China, where research into therapeutic cloning had broader public support. He hoped that those countries could thus be induced to join a ban on reproductive cloning.
This week's decision by the parliament closes off those options and commits German negotiators to a strict course in international negotiations. Parliament also created a new experts' commission on ethics and laws for modern medicine. Röspel is one of the candidates for the chairmanship of the commission.
The government previously announced an international conference in Berlin in May to promote its views in multilateral forums, in anticipation of action from the UN General Assembly in the fall.