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Community funding for research projects (covered by the EU's Sixth Framework Programme over the period 2003-2006) involving the use of human stem cells has been frozen until the end of this year. The Council and Commission had agreed to develop more specific application provisions for this form of research before December 31, 2003.


So-called supernumerary embryo stem cells are drawn from embryos conceived through in vitro fertilisation in the context of assisted procreation, but which are ultimately not re-implanted but stored frozen.


The Presidency's compromise proposed authorising research using stem cell lines created before December 3, 2003. This proposal was only backed by Spain, Portugal, Germany, Luxembourg and Austria. It differs significantly from the position defended by the European Commission which is keen to impose a deadline not on the creation of stem cell lines, but on the conception of supernumerary human embryos used in securing stem cells: it proposed authorising research using stem cells secured from supernumerary human embryos conceived before June 27, 2002. By way of comparison, the National Institute for Health in the United States only supports research using stem cell lines created before August 7, 2001.

The Commission was ready to extend the deadline to December 3, 2003 but was not prepared to apply it to the creation of stem cell lines. Philippe Busquin insists this is a fundamental distinction. He believes introducing a deadline for stem cell lines would significantly restrict the scope for research. The Commission deadline meanwhile has a "political value" since it demonstrates that the EU is not "promoting the creation of supernumerary human embryos". The Commissioner also highlights the fact that research may be crucial in the development of new treatments.

Council discussions on this issue are therefore closed. Despite the persistence of unresolved questions the Commission will now apply the specific programme concerned ("Integrating and enhancing the European Research Area" - Decision 2002/834/EC), adopted by the Council on September 30, 2002. This programme authorises research involving the use of human embryos and human embryonic stem cells but rules out three categories:

- research into reproductive human cloning (reproductive cloning);

- research into altering the genetic make-up of humans where alterations might be hereditary (germ cell line gene therapy)

- and research involving the creation of human embryos solely for the purposes of securing stem cells, notably through the transfer of somatic cell nuclei (often dubbed therapeutic cloning).

Decision 2002/834/EC also requires ethical assessment and analysis by the Regulatory Committee of research projects involving the use of human embryos and human embryonic stem cells. This type of committee is the one that leaves the Commission the least latitude. The proposed procedure (outlined in Article 5 of Decision 1999/468/EC) is as follows: the Commission can only adopt implementing measures if they are endorsed by a qualified majority of Member States on the Committee. Failing such support, measures are returned before the Council which should decide upon their adoption by qualified majority. If, however, the Council fails to reach a decision, the Commission may adopt implementing measures unless a qualified majority against adoption exists within the Council.
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Publication:European Report
Geographic Code:4E
Date:Dec 6, 2003

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