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Article appeared in European Voice, 31.3.-6.4.2005 

What conditions should be placed on EU funding for embryonic stem cell research and why?

On March 10th, the European Parliament gave the European Commission a broad hint for its presentation of the 7th Research Framework Program. A resolution on egg cell trade adopted by the Parliament states: no EU funding for embryonic stem cell projects since this kind of research is forbidden in several member states. Or differently put: the Commission should "apply the subsidiarity principle in connection with other forms of embryo research and embryonic stem cell research so that Member States in which this kind of research is legal fund it from their national budgets."

This is reasonable. Why should member states who oppose and even put under criminal law embryonic stem cell research be forced to co-finance such activities? Tax payers in Germany, Austria, Ireland, Italy or Portugal would not understand such practices. The European Parliament did of course not ask to forbid this kind of research in members states where it is allowed such as for example in the UK - as far as it is funded by national budgets. But the big majority in the European Parliament for the resolution was surely also due to the fact that the scandalous egg cell trade between the UK and Romania creates doubts if declarations about the reliability of embryonic stem cell research are well founded.

There is no need for embryonic stem cell research. A number of promising alternatives are worth to be focused on. Inter alia, adult stem cell research tells a growing number of success stories - without meeting the ethical problems of the harvesting of eggs for embryonic stem cell research. For the later, shortly put, life is created intentionally to be destructed later. Therefore the Commission should not put down ethical borders and concentrate on financing non-controversial projects.

Considering the fact that the EU funds for research contribute only 3-5% to national research budgets there is no need to fund embryonic stem cell research. The already limited EU research funds should be given to the numerous good projects which are not controversial. The Parliament's resolution recommends concentrating on alternatives like "somatic stem cell and umbilical cord stem cell research, which are accepted in all Member States and have already led to successful treatment of patients". Furthermore, one needs to bring the conviction of a number of scientists home that existing stem cell lines are already sufficient.

The supporters of embryonic stem cell research are lacking in answers of one question: where do they get the necessary embryos? Recently even Ian Wilmut, the Scottish cloning researcher known also as "Mr. Dolly", had to admit, that 400 egg cells are "by far" not sufficient to create good stem cell lines for his research on amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. In South-Korea a team of researchers met this need of fresh, high quality eggs by taking them from women being either part of the team itself or being close to it. Surely this cannot be a suggestion for Europe.
No women will become deliberately pregnant in order to let the embryo be destructed afterwards. And tactics such as approaching pregnant women in abortion clinics directly before their treatment in order to get their consent to "spend" cells are dubious. It is against human rights that women are only seen as 'suppliers of raw material'.

Financing embryonic stem cell research could furthermore risk the rising creation of so-called "supernumerary embryos" which would be ethically unacceptable. The argument that "supernumerary embryos" are "destined for destruction" is fallaciously. It does not justify people in destructively experimenting upon them. The dignity of men can not be divided between humans, like the philosopher Kant states: "to respect the mankind in each human". In order to reduce "supernumerary embryos" and to facilitate in vitro fertilisation for women, we always asked for funds to intensify and strengthen alternatives for the prevention and treatment of infertility such as the research on freezing of egg cells.
Years ago, genetic therapy has been the talk of the town. Until now, nobody has been cured by it. This example shows that we should not overestimate false promises.
Hopefully, the European Commission does not unnecessarily risk an ethical divide but understands the clear message of the European Parliament and shows that the European Union functions as a community of values.