BioWorld International Correspondent

LYON, France - The French government plans to bring in legislation amending the country's 1994 bioethics act, which effectively would legalize therapeutic cloning, despite the clear opposition to the practice expressed by President Jacques Chirac in his opening speech to the BioVision 2001 World Life Sciences Forum here on Thursday.

The divisions between the president and Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, who said in November that he was thinking of allowing scientific research on supernumerary embryos obtained in vitro and on "stem cells obtained by the transfer of somatic cells," reflect those of different French advisory bodies.

The day before Chirac spoke, the National Consultative Committee on Ethics (NCCE) backed the draft bill, albeit by a slender majority of 14 to 12, while a few days before that the National Consultative Committee on Human Rights, again by a small majority, opposed therapeutic cloning, saying that priority should be given to research on superfluous embryos donated by couples after IVF treatment.

Chirac picked up this point in his speech. While conceding that "the prospects opened up by cell therapies may justify some change, as the National Consultative Committee on Ethics and the Council of State [the guardian of the constitution] concluded," he insisted that "the absolute ban on creating embryos for scientific purposes has, of course, to be maintained. The only research that could be authorized should thus be on embryos preserved for some years," i.e., following IVF treatment.

He suggested, moreover, that the authorization given for this type of research should be limited in time, and that this period should be used "to launch and finance research programs on adult stem cells at both a national and European level. Although this research is only beginning, it gives the hope that it will be possible in the future to avoid the use of embryonic cells." And he went on: "I am not in favor of authorizing therapeutic cloning. It leads to the creation of embryos for research purposes and for the production of cells, and despite the ban, makes reproductive cloning physically possible and creates the danger of an illegal trade in ovocytes."

President Chirac also called for the ethical regulation of stem cell research, including the use of embryonic stem cells, to be vested in an international body, saying it would be ineffective if it was confined to the national or European level. Recalling France's role in drawing up the Universal Declaration on the Human Genome, he said that initiative needed to be "followed up to ensure complete compliance with the fundamental principles of respect for the dignity of human life, the nonpatenting of the human body and the ban on reproductive cloning."

Maintaining that "we have yet to draw all the conclusions of the consecration of the human genome as the common heritage of mankind," he turned to the question of intellectual property. "The conditions for awarding patents should not limit the freedom to use a gene or a gene sequence for the sole reason that they have already been used to develop a product that has already been patented for a completely different application from the one envisaged." That was why France recently asked the European Commission to "take another look at the provisions of the European biotechnology directive covering the legal protection of biotechnological inventions."

Although it has not yet received an official reply from the Commission and possibly because there is little prospect of a new European biotechnology directive being drafted or of the existing one being amended, the French government is now planning to amend its own legislation with the aim of, among other things, transposing the provisions of the European directive into French law. The bill approved by the ethics committee was drafted by a parliamentary fact-finding commission and will be formally submitted to the French cabinet next month. It is expected to be introduced into Parliament in June, but is thought unlikely to become law before 2003.