MEPs vote for embryo stem cell research

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The Independent Online

Members of the European Parliament voted yesterday to allow EU cash to fund research using stem cells from human embryos, after a bitter debate on the ethics of the techniques.

Efforts led by Christian Democrat MEPs to restrict the use of stem cell research were defeated in a boost for those who see the science as a vital tool in the fight against diseases such as Alzheimer's, diabetes, and Parkinson's.

The vote in the European Parliament does not affect laws in member states. But it increases pressure on EU ministers who will decide next month whether to end a moratorium on the use of about €10m (£7m) from the EU's €17bn research programme to fund stem cell work.

The ban was imposed because the practice is barred in several countries where the Catholic Church is influential. Stem cells can be harvested from aborted embryos, those produced by in-vitro fertilisation or cloned specially.

In Strasbourg the Parliament voted 298 to 214 in favour of a report that recommends releasing EU funds for experiment on cells from human embryos that are no more than 14 days old and have been left over from infertility treatments.

The legislation lays down quality and safety standards for research but leaves the decision on whether to allow work to go ahead to individual member states.

The United States, which leads biotechnology research, has banned the use of stem cells produced after 2001. A move to establish a cut-off point of June 2002 in the EU was defeated by MEPs yesterday. The final decision on the moratorium will be taken next month by ministers from the 15 EU member states. If they do lift the ban as the Parliament wishes, they are almost certain to reintroduce the 2002 cut-off date.

Peter Liese, the German Christian Democrat who drafted the report, voted against it when the MEPs rejected the 2002 cut-off point.

Dr Liese called the vote a pyrrhic victory for those who want to lift the moratorium because at least four nations - Italy, Germany, Austria and Portugal - will be able to sign up to yesterday's outcome.

"I am very disappointed about the result of the vote," he said. "Neither the German government nor the other 'critical' governments can say 'yes' to this proposal. The European Parliament wasted its chance to give research a clear ethical framework."

David Bowe, a Labour MEP who backs the research, said the decision would be difficult for ministers because countries such as Italy, Germany, Austria, Portugal, Spain, Ireland and Luxembourg were likely to oppose the Parliament's position.

Nick Clegg, a Liberal Democrat MEP, said: "Stem cell research could provide us with the answers to debilitating illnesses such as diabetes, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, which devastate the lives of thousands of sufferers and their families. This legislation will guarantee a high level of protection in the area of quality and safety of human tissues and cells research, whilst allowing each member state to take its own ethical decisions."