European bishops oppose funding for embryo research

Europe’s Catholic bishops have called on the Council of Ministers of the European Union to reject proposed new EU guidelines on the funding of future research on embryos.

The proposals, issued by the European Commission, mean that researchers could be spending EU money as soon as next year to harvest stem cells from frozen human embryos created in vitro. Embryonic stem-cell research, which involves the destruction of the human embryo, is illegal in Italy, Austria, Portugal, Spain, Germany, France and Ireland.

Five member states – Sweden, Finland, Greece, the Netherlands and Britain – allow for the harvesting of embryonic stem cells, which are believed to hold the promise of future cures for a range of diseases. Of these, only Britain allows embryos to be created for the purpose of extracting stem cells. The other three allow stem cells to be harvested from embryos which are surplus to in vitro fertilisation (IVF).

Each cycle of IVF treatment creates around five to 10 embryos which are then frozen or discarded. They contain bundles of cells thought by researchers to be particularly promising. Sweden has about a third of the world’s known stem cell lines.

The Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community (Comece) argued on 9 July that the principle of subsidiarity required that “the decision on whether to provide financial support for research that raises such serious moral concerns should be made by individual member states”.

The EC’s proposals, which must now be approved by the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament, were delayed by stiff resistance from member states which object to the research. Although the research would be carried out only in member states where it is permitted under national law, all states contribute to the budget. Critics in Germany say this means that German money paid into EU coffers could be used to fund research elsewhere in Europe which would be illegal in Germany. Last year, the Bundestag passed a law placing heavy restrictions on stem-cell research.

The European Commission describes its proposals as “a coherent set of strict ethical guidelines”. Funding would be restricted to research on embryos surplus to IVF which were created before 17 June 2002, rather than embryos created for the purpose of stem-cell research. The donating couple or woman who donated the embryos must consent, would remain anonymous, and would not gain financially. The research would be funded only if it met “particularly important research objectives”. The guidelines are similar to those issued in the United States in August 2001, which limit federal funding to existing stem cell lines.

Comece said it welcomed the assurance that human embryos would not be created specifically for research purposes, as in Britain. But it said the proposal “does not resolve the fundamental ethical issue”, the destruction of human embryos.

The bishops added that they welcomed new medical research on stem cells, but only on stem cells extracted from adults, which they say carry strong medical potential.

“We believe that human life has an intrinsic and absolute value at every stage of its development, and it should not therefore be used as ‘raw material’. A good end cannot be used to justify any means.”

A moratorium on EU funding for stem cell research is set to end on 31 December, and the commission hopes its new rules will be in place by then. But they are likely to be resisted by Italy, Portugal, Spain, Germany and Ireland, the five most Catholic members of the EU.