BRUSSELS, Belgium - European Commission President Romano Prodi plans to provoke further debate on research into new medical treatments based on cells taken from human embryos.

He said he has no intention of embarking on legislation, but he wants the European Commission "to contribute to the debate" - a way of saying he would like the 15 European Union member states to widen the scope for research in this field. European Union rules currently allow each member state to legislate independently on ethical matters, so there is wide diversity across Europe.

"The technique of cloning for therapeutic purposes raises major ethical questions," he said Monday. "But can we remain indifferent to research which holds out the hope of treating hitherto incurable diseases? A debate is taking shape and different sentiments have been expressed in the European Union. We must respect these differences. However, I believe the Commission can contribute to an open debate that can bring Europeans together around shared values. We must strike the right balance between rigorous ethical standards based on a refusal to exploit the human body for commercial ends and our duty to meet therapeutic needs."

The current EU research program excludes from funding any projects involving the cloning of human embryos for reproductive purposes. No research project on therapeutic cloning is currently being funded by the EU, although financial support is being given to bioethical research projects on the potential risks and benefits of cloning technology. The EU also finances complementary approaches aimed at developing new cell therapy techniques, particularly on the basis of major work on cell differentiation.

The European Commission's Group on Ethics is due to deliver an opinion on the subject in November.

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