In the debate on embryonic stem cell research, or its regulations, it seems that the wind is changing both in the US, where President Obama has just changed the rigid guidelines laid out by his predecessor George W. Bush, and in Austria. “There was no pre-arranged organization, however, we were not against it,” said Christiane Druml, the president of the Bioethical Commission, presenting their new recommendations on March 23. A large majority, “including 17 out of 25 women”, believe that embryonic stem cell research is “scientifically relevant, morally legitimate, and worthy of support” and recommended a substantial easing of the laws. Five members of the commission proposed the laws to be stricter (these five supporters were not present at the meeting and one of their supporters, philosopher Guenther Poeltner, criticized their absence from the audience). The previous majority was overturned. In 2002 the Austrian government almost completely blocked the entire EU research program because it called for financing for embryonic stem cells. Now they are moving in the opposite direction.
The Commission suggested: a) the use of excess embryos from in vitro fertilization procedures; b) “therapeutic cloning”; c) hybrid human and animal embryos.
Legislative uncertainty halts research.
The commission does not only want liberal laws, but also clearer laws: “Current legislative uncertainty has been an obstacle to the development of research” explained Ulrich Koertner (Evangelical Theology, University of Vienna). Although part of the legal uncertainty has been overcome, molecular biologist Erwin Wagner (IMP) two years ago was the first and only scientist to perform experiments with embryonic stem cells in Austria. This was possible under past laws by importing embryonic stem cells from the US because it was not clear if they could be produced in Austria (the minority party voted to ban production and importation).
Now their production could be authorized. Their source would be “excess embryos”, which go not lead to great ethical problems. Reserve embryos not used by medically assisted fertilization programs are frozen for ten years and then destroyed. The explicit liberalization of “therapeutic cloning” is a more delicate issue (the current law is controversial). In this case embryos would be produced for the sole purpose of creating stem cells (and then the embryos would be destroyed). Finally, “hybrid” embryos, which are currently legal only in Great Britain, could become legal (the Commission is only an advisory body). This would constitute a small revolution, which would then give the final call to researchers. Until now, no one has followed Wagner’s example, and not just for legislative reasons, but more because embryonic stem cell research requires training, and lots of funding.