Germany anguishes over embryonic life in cloning debate

An attempt by Germany's justice minister to spark a fresh debate over the ethical boundaries surrounding cloning unleashed a wave of criticism from conservatives and church leaders.

The minister, Brigitte Zypries, suggested redrawing at what point an embryo outside the womb can be deemed to have "human dignity" and thus enjoy the full protective weight of the law.

She said an embryo in a petri dish could not be ascribed a notion of human dignity because it was not capable of life on its own.

In a speech Wednesday in Berlin, she also offered researchers the prospect of relaxing the currently restrictive law on therapeutic cloning.

While her officials insisted she was merely outlining how legislation could be updated, her comments provoked a strong reaction in part because they were seen also to reflect the views of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.

Germany's Roman Catholic Bishops' Conference pleaded for "a recognition of human dignity at any stage of human life."

Manfred Kock, chairman of the Protestant Church's ruling council, called it "regrettable that ethical discussions of the past years have come to this."

Juergen Ruettgers, a deputy leader of the conservative opposition Christian Democratic Union, said all human life, "whether at the beginning or the end," deserved dignity.

Members of Schroeder's centre-left government of Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens also voiced their concerns.

Rene Roespel, the SPD head of the parliament's bio-ethics commission, said Zypries's argument was illogical and he opposed any change to the law.

Volker Beck, a senior member of the Greens, warned Zypries against "trying constantly to redraw fundamental ethical and constitutional boundaries like a business contract."

Zypries has touched off a sore point just as the debate reaches the UN General Assembly, where some countries want a worldwide convention against any form of human cloning and others want to allow limited therapeutic cloning.

Supporters of therapeutic cloning say it is a vital tool in research aimed at finding a cure for diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.

Under the process, a human embryo is cloned, cultivated for a few days and destroyed in order to extract the stem cells which have meantime developed.

These are blank cells that can develop into virtually any kind of cell. As such they are highly prized by scientists, who could use them theoretically to grow new organs or at least study how diseases spread.

The question is, does an embryo grown for experimental purposes constitute human life?

The German constitution promises to protect human dignity, and legislation agreed last year after tortuous debate extends that to all human embryos from the moment sperm fertilises with an egg. Zypries, however, said that "as long as an embryo is in vitro, it lacks the basic conditions necessary to develop, or be developed as, a human."

"The purely possibility that it can be developed in such a way does not, in my view, suffice for it to be ascribed human dignity."

But she insisted the ban on human cloning was "unimpeachable" and said she was also sceptical about therapeutic cloning, warning that it could lead to a blurring of the boundaries and would be difficult to control.

Although Germany bans cloning, researchers are allowed to work on imported embryonic stem cells produced before January 1, 2002 -- the date being set to stop new embryos being developed to order for the German market.

Zypries advised them to take advantage of the loophole as long as existing supplies lasted.

She suggested that once those supplies were exhausted, there could be a new debate on whether to ease the restrictions.