TCS Daily

Problems Enlarged

By Peter Mitchell - May 21, 2003 12:00 AM

Human embryonic stem cells are the next thing to magic. They can grow into any kind of human tissue, including neural tissue. Moreover, in the last five years it has turned out to be technically possible to cultivate immortal lines of these cells, which can reproduce without limit.

So there are now great hopes among medical researchers that stem cells can be used to produce grafts for treating currently incurable diseases such as Parkinson's, or severe injuries such as burns.

There are several top-ranking stem cell research groups in Europe, the best known being Scotland's University of Edinburgh. So there is every chance that Europe can take a world lead in the field, ahead even of the U.S. Unfortunately its chances stand to be wrecked by a wrangle over the ethical issues.

These issues are right at the heart of European cultural diversity. The problem is that the most prolific and effective stem cells are derivable only from human embryos or fetuses - which are variously considered as anything from unborn children to inanimate clumps of cells, depending on your religious and philosophical background. And European religious traditions are highly diverse.

Some member states, such as Ireland, Italy, Austria, and to some extent France, have strongly Roman Catholic populations, deeply opposed to what they see as misuse of the sanctity of human life. They argue that the destruction of embryos is tantamount to abortion, and that only adult stem cells should be used instead, as they are in the United States.

By contrast, countries like the Netherlands, the U.K. and the Scandinavian states have a more informal Protestant religious tradition in which secular liberalism is the social norm and abortion is relatively routine.

Disagreement, then, is inevitable. But that shouldn't be a problem in itself - it's absolutely standard in many European Union debates. Usually, each member government limits itself to respecting the presumed wishes of its own population and accordingly legislates for itself alone, leaving other member states to do their thing.

But here it's different. This issue, it seems, is just too thorny for a live-and-let-live approach. Instead, there have been efforts to push for pan-European regulations for moral purposes.

At a recent European Parliament session, members voted - quite unexpectedly - for a measure that would effectively block all embryonic stem cell research in every country of the Union, even those whose populations don't in general object to it (and whose researchers have already taken a lead in it).

The vote was on a directive supposedly designed merely to set minimum safety and quality standards for use of human tissues and cells, and to protect the people who donated or received them. But deputies from southern Europe's "religious right" used the opportunity to push through an amendment that banned research with embryonic tissue.

The president of Britain's influential Royal Society, Lord May of Oxford, described the motion as "cynical manipulation by a small group of zealots [that] wants to widen its scope dogmatically to impose their views on the people of the European Union." And Robert Terry, a senior officer of the Wellcome Trust, a leading medical research charity, said the addition of amendments in this way "should be resisted as ill considered. It could have far reaching negative impacts on essential medical research."

Not coincidentally, of course, the U.K. is a leader in this type of research. Now its trade department has pledged to fight the ban.

This dispute - and others like it, such as the controversy over gene patents - will become even more problematic when the EU is enlarged eastward next year. The largest accession state, Poland, is massively Roman Catholic, with about 95 percent of its 38 million inhabitants belonging to the church and about 75 percent of whom are practicing.

Hungary (population: 11 million) is two-thirds Roman Catholic and 20 percent Calvinist, while the Czech Republic (also 11 million) is 40 percent Roman Catholic and 40 percent atheist.

Future members will also pose new challenges. Romania (on a path to join the EU in 2007), with 23 million citizens, is also strongly religious with 70 percent of its citizens members of the Orthodox church. And beyond that could be the EU's first Islamic member, Turkey, a massive state of whose 57 million inhabitants, the vast majority is Muslim. Its position in the debate is unpredictable (strict Islam holds the "unborn child" sacrosanct, but some exceptions are now allowed in some sects).

So it looks as if the stem cell issue is going to become more rather than less divisive. If EU politicians persist in their search for a unified position that in reality can never exist, Europe may be throwing away one of the few chances it has to overtake U.S. biomedical research.

The stem cell battle isn't over yet. The European Parliament still has to vote on the matter again, and the Council of Ministers will have its say, too. Once again the EU has a chance to decide whether its direction will be one of minorities attempting to impose their views on one another, or one of allowing member nations diversity and freedom to pursue differing objectives to the general weal.

Deciding that direction before enlargement, rather than after, would be a bonus.

Peter Mitchell is a London-based science writer specializing in biotechnology and medicine.

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