Policies on human embryonic stem (ES) cell research are as diverse as the global community itself. Some countries' regulations are highly restrictive toward such research, while others allow almost total freedom. This is an area of rapid change, however, and many governments are reviewing their policies. What follows is a brief status report on eight countries and two international bodies, compiled with the help of LeRoy B. Walters, a bioethicist at Georgetown University and a member of the HHMI Bioethics Advisory Board. Web site addresses are provided, where available, for obtaining updates.
The law regarding human embryo research varies from state to state, but that situation may soon change. In August 2001, a federal parliamentary committee called for the legalization of research using ES cells derived from spare embryos and for the creation of a national licensing body to regulate all ES cell research. In the meantime, the committee proposed a three-year moratorium on therapeutic cloning (the use of ES cells created through nuclear transfer for research or transplantation). Six cell lines in Australia meet President Bush's criteria, making them eligible for research supported by U.S. federal funds.
» Australian House of Representatives Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs: www.aph.gov.au/house/committee/laca
Although human embryo research is currently prohibited in France, in January 2002 the Assembly of the French Parliament passed a bill that would permit research on leftover embryos from fertility clinics. Prime Minister M. Lionel Jospin had initially advocated the creation of embryos through nuclear transfer for such purposes, but negative feedback from two advisory groups showed that legalizing research on spare in vitro fertilization (IVF) embryos alone had a far greater chance of legislative success.
The Nazi era haunted discussions of bioethics in Germany for many years, causing a public reaction against anything that hinted at eugenics. Thus, existing embryo-protection legislation (1990) bans fertilizing an ovum for any purpose other than reproduction. Public sentiment is changing, however, and Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder supports a liberalization of the current law. In January 2002, the German Bundestag voted to allow the importation of stem cells derived from embryos that had already been produced by the time of the vote.
A 1998 law prohibits reproductive cloning but allows leeway for human embryo research. Talmudic law places distinct value on the embryo only after implantation and deems it to have achieved the status of a "formed" human only after 40 days. In August 2001, a national bioethics committee approved the derivation of ES cells and research into therapeutic cloning. Israel has four cell lines that meet U.S. government guidelines for federal funding.
» Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities: www.academy.ac.il
A law passed in November 2000 allows experiments with human embryos and cloned embryos in vitro, but it prohibits placing any cloned embryos into a uterus. An expert panel on bioethics recommended in August 2001 that research to derive human ES cell lines from spare embryos be permitted. In September 2001, the Ministry of Education, Science & Technology released guidelines to implement the panel's recommendations.
» English translation of the law passed in 2000: www.mext.go.jp/english/shinkou/index.htm
The lower house of the Dutch parliament approved an Embryo Bill in October 2001 that would allow the use of left-over human embryos for research. The creation of embryos for research purposes would be permitted only through a royal decree and concurrence by the parliament. Action by the upper house is expected early in 2002.
» Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport: www.minvws.nl/en/
In December 2001, the Swedish Research Council published guidelines that reaffirm Sweden's traditional policy of permitting research on surplus embryos. Although the Council did not approve the creation of embryos for research through IVF, it declared that creating embryos through somatic cell nuclear transfer "can be ethically defensible." However, this step would require that the Swedish government take steps to ensure it is legally permissible. Sweden is home to the largest number of ES cell lines (24) that meet Bush administration criteria for federal funding.
For the past decade, British researchers have been allowed to use spare human embryos, and also create embryos, for research purposes. A 1990 law initially limited such work to contraception, infertility and congenital diseases. But its scope was extended in early 2001, when Parliament adopted regulations that permit human embryo research for "developing treatments for serious disease." A clear goal of these regulations was to permit the creation of embryos for research through somatic cell nuclear transfer, and in January 2002, the Court of Appeal ruled that the 1990 law does in fact cover embryos created in that way. Since 1990, more than 53,000 human embryos have been used in research in the United Kingdom.
» Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority: www.hfea.gov.uk/
European Union and Council of Europe
Trans-European bodies have consistently supported the use of leftover embryos in research but have opposed the creation of human embryos for research purposes. In November 2000, the European Commission's European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technology concluded that using spare human embryos from IVF clinics for stem cell research is acceptable, but that creating embryos for research was not currently necessary. The European Parliament's Temporary Committee on Human Genetics recommended in November 2001 that the European Union ban all EU funding for human ES cell research; however, this recommendation was decisively rejected by the Parliament, which has budgeted substantial funds for such research from 2002 through 2006.
» European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technology: europa.eu.int/ comm/european_group_ethics/
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Reprinted from the HHMI Bulletin,
March 2002, pages 10-17.
©2002 Howard Hughes Medical Institute