The European Commission intends to fund research involving experiments with and the harvesting of stem cells from human embryos. On 31 December a moratorium on EU funding for stem cell research ends. So far, however, the EU has not been able to draw up rules governing this type of research owing to disagreements among the member states. Some countries allow the harvesting of stem cells from so-called “spare” embryos produced during IVF (in vitro fertilisation). But in countries such as Germany, France, Ireland and Spain taking stem cells from embryos is illegal. Despite it being illegal in many member states, the Commission decided to go ahead with the funding.
The Commission determined which research programmes will receive some of the 70 billion euros which the European Union is pouring into research and development programmes from 2006 to 2013 under its Seventh Research Framework Programme. Concerned that countries where the practice is illegal will end up funding embryonic stem cell research through their European contributions, a group of MEPs (Members of the European Parliament) last week published an open letter addressed to the president of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, requesting that such research be excluded from the subsidised programmes.
The signatories ask the Commission not to fund research utilising human embryos and stem cells from such embryos. They also request restrictions on human cloning. The authors refer to a resolution adopted by the European Parliament on 10 March, which suggests that funding for such research should be left to the member states where research involving human embryos is not illegal. They argue that it would be totally unacceptable if all European taxpayers were obliged to fund this type of ethically controversial research. They repeat the statement from the European Parliament’s resolution that “the harvesting of egg cells poses a high medical risk to the life and health of women.” As egg cells are needed for each embryo there is a real risk that women will be instrumentalised as “suppliers of raw material.”
The letter was drawn up by Miroslav Mikolasik, a Christian-Democratic Slovak MEP who is a medical doctor. It was signed by 73 MEPs. Most of them belong to the Christian-Democrat group. However, some Christian-Democrats refused to sign. One of these, the Belgian MEP Marianne Thyssen said: “We are not of the same opinion as others in our group.” In this case, however, the point is not just what one thinks of the research programmes but whether the MEPs will tolerate the European Commission unilaterally taking decisions which contradict positions adopted by the Parliament. Perhaps that is why Thyssen’s compatriot Philip Claeys, an MEP of the Flemish secessionist Vlaams Belang party, was happy to sign instead.
The Commission is not going to change its plans, its spokesperson Antonia Mochan said. It is unclear how it will do this in view of the fact that it has not yet been able to lay down guidelines for research involving human embryos. The debate about which rules to apply has been going on for years but the member states remain deeply divided. It is significant for the state of democracy in the European Union that the Commission is willing to completely ignore the position adopted by the Parliament. And it is perhaps even more worrying that it is willing to use its power to undermine the laws of its member states. Even though embryonic stem cell research is banned in Germany, the Germans will be paying for such research through their government’s European Union contributions. They will not only be funding research which they find unethical and abhorrent, but the research they will be funding will be someone else’s. They, like the Irish, the French and the Spanish, would probably like to know whose.