THE POLITICAL PAGE
Stem Cell Research Against Human Dignity
1. Stem cells — what is it all about?
Stem cells mainly emerge in the early embrionic phase (‘embrionic stem cells'); but also in the organs of people (‘adult stem cells'). Stem cells have the capacity to develop into one of 200 different kinds of cells within the human body. Because of this , they are called ‘pluripotent' i.e. they are ‘capable of self-renewal many times'.
Adult stem cells can be found in the umbilical cord, in bone marrow but also in approx. 20 organs of the human body. Today they are used clinically in the fight against leukaemia and other diseases. It is not clear whether the adult stem cells have the same pluripotent flexibility of the embrionic stem cells, i.e. the capacity for a further development into many other forms of specialized cells.
But embryonic stem cells have this capacity. There are three ways of extraction . (1) From the sexual cells of aborted embryos. (2) From embryos which were ‘left over' after an in-vitro-fertilisation (artificial insemination outside the womb), i.e. which have not been implanted in the uterus, or from embryos which were specially created for research purposes. This embryos are extracted after approx. 4 days, when the embryos reach the stage with approx. 100-200 cells. This leads to a numbness of the embryos. (3) A third way is the production of embryos by cloning. To do this (e.g. the famous ‘production' of the Dolly sheep) the nucleus needs to be extracted from an unfertilized ovum, and the nucleus of an other donor implanted. After that the cell is stimulated for division. The living thing resulting from it is identical to its donor and has the same genetic make-up.
2. Targets – to be achieved
Until now, adult stem cells have been used in therapies. Regarding the embryonic stem cells, science got stuck in the basic research. The healing of chronic ailments such as myocardial insufficiency, diabetes mellitus, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer's disease, cancer, tuberculosis, anaemia etc. are the main focus of science. The potential is huge. In the present state of research no one knows for certain yet whether or when it will be possible to achieve these goals.
3. The Conflict – Research versus Ethics
Technical genetic manipulations in plants have been done for many years and used in agriculture (e. g. genetically-modified maize). Now genetic engineering has started in humans, which prompts fundamental questions.
On the one side there is the research whose freedom is guaranteed . “Art and science, research and teaching are free.” Art. 5 (3). Germany research should be allowed to develop and be shared and not confined within frontiers. Research is carried out worldwide nowadays. If German scientists are hindered by German laws, they will either emigrate or breakthroughs will be made in a nation with fewer restrictions. Breakthroughs will be made anyway.
As this sector of the health market promises tremendous growth, every scientist in this area is eager to patent its inventions. There are enormous advantages for individuals, and perhaps for nations, attached to the economic exploitation of genetic engineering. Can Germany, as a scientific country, afford not to participate in the key discipline of stem cell research?
On the other side, it is a matter of human dignity . It is one of the foundations of our western Christiano-humanist culture. Ever since the French Revolution and the American Declaration of Independence, it has been the basis of all democratic states of the world. It is also included in the UN Charter of Human Rights as it is in the Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany. It says here, in Art. 1 (1): “H uman dignity is untouchable. It is the duty of all state authorities to respect and safeguard it.” And Art. 2 (2) explains what it means: “Everybody has the right of an unscathed life and body.” It is self-evident that, when they clash, these statements stand above those of the freedom of research and teaching. And this is the case here because the 4 day old embryos die after the extraction of the stem cell. Only by pointing to the chances and hopes for healing can the two most important rights, the “rights to live” and the “dignity of man” be eliminated. But this cannot be justified. One life can not be offset against another life; especially not an existing, present and obvious life against a future possible life. Also the fact that 'left over' embryos have no life expectancy cannot justify ethically their ‘consumption'.
4. When is a human considered to be a human?
The Director of the American Research company ACT, Michael D. West, is of the opinion that: “From a biological point of view, the objects we create are not individuals: They are only living cells without human life“. Only after the implantation in the woman's uterus do they become alive. Before the implantation, they have to regarded as a stem cell depot.”
Those who supporter the 'use' of the 'left over' embryos are of the same opinion because the cells were actually produced “in vitro”.
In its first decision on the termination of pregnancy, the Federal Constitutional Court noted the following in 1975: “ If there is human life it has human dignity and it does not matter whether the owner is aware of his dignity or not and whether he safeguards it or not. The potential capacities in a human being received from the very beginning are enough reason to justify human dignity.” In their second decision regarding the revision of abortion, the Federal Constitutional Court has also pronounced itself explicitly 'for' the protection of unborn life. “ Human dignity also applies to unborn human life. The law has to guarantee the legal prerequisite for the unfolding, in the sense of a personal right for the unborn life to live."
Future decisions of the Federal Constitutional Court cannot be predicted. If it continues in the tradition of dispensation of justice, it can not refuse the in-vitro-embryo's right to life as a human being.
Due to this legal position, abortion (i.e. killing) is also ‘illegal' but it goes unpunished in the first 3 month of pregnancy. Not because the embryo is not human before the three month but because the legislators of our country have ruled in this way.
For Germany it means that, as long as there is no new definition – which hopefully will not happen – a human is a human from its conception The ethics of denying this definition of human life would have consequences for our idea of mankind and human culture in our country.
It was not for nothing that Germany was the spokesperson for the nations with reservations about the liberalisation of the stem cell law in the EU. In our own country, we have already experienced how a civilized culture can change into a horror scenario ... with medical experiments permitted on living people... starting from the moment when human dignity was no longer applied to everybody. Aryans were permitted human dignity but not not for the ‘vermin' whose ‘Life is unworthy to be lived': the Jews, Gypsys, Sinties and homosexuals etc.).
Many countries in the EU, e.g. Great Britain and Sweden, and even Israel, give scientists access to ‘left over' embryos in the embryo banks of the fertilization clinics with the agreement of the biological parents. But many other countries are following Germany's example on the law for the protection of embryos and have become a blocking minority within the EU. 51 out of 99 German deputies of the European Parliament underlined this in an open letter to the Bundestag at the end of 2006.
5. The Stem Cell Law – An Arduous Compromise
On 30th January 2002, the plenum of the Bundestag voted for the “Law for the protection of embryos in connection with the importation and use of human embryonic stem cells”, in short the “stem cell law”. Endless Articles were written months and weeks ago, seminars were held and speeches and serious discussions took place.
Via “Political Page”, I also addressed all the deputies of the German Bundestag, all ministers, the Federal Chancellor and the Federal President, Wolfgang Thierse, personally with three thoughts:
Please use your vote to safeguard – without curtailing it from the very beginning – human dignity in Germany, a country which has experienced totalitarian medical research.
Wouldn't it be a profitable for the Federal Republic of Germany – in the same way as for environmental technology – to strive for a leadership role in stem cell research with adult stem cells or with stem cells from the umbilical cord or bone marrow? The state can easily achieve these benefits. I think this ethically inoffensive alternative may honour our country.
A decision of the German Bundestag is one thing, but is a German decision helpful if does not become an international right? I know that the thought of such a worldwide agreement in the form of a UN convention is almost impossible. But Rau, the Federal President, has already pointed in this direction. I think the development will be directed in a stronger, more humane direction through a determined step towards an alternative, and possibly economically more profitable way, through leading nations such as Germany.
From more then 600 deputies I addressed, I received approx. 60 answers (some very personal) in which they also expressed thanks for the intercession I mentioned. I would like to share Wolfgang Thierse's answer, and that of the former Minister of Justice, Herta Däubler-Gmelin.
of the German Bundestag
Dear Mr. Schweitzer
As you know, on 30 th January the majority of the German Bundestag decided to allow the importation and research of existing embryonic stem cells to Germany under rigorous controls. The decision was preceded by controversial discussions in which scientist, politicians, doctors and churches clearly presented their points of view. It wasn't an easy decision for the members of the parliament. Finally, it was truly a matter of their own conscience to decide on the essential question: How can freedom and research together with the hope for healing be achieved, respecting the inalienable right to human dignity.
As a Christian I am of the opinion that the artificial intervention into the human genetic make-up is more than just a technical procedure; it touches the foundation of human life. Therefore, I voted against the importation of embryonic stem cells in the German Bundestag, an application which was not supported by the majority of the members of the parliament.
The parliament which has been working on a draft law for the importation of embryonic stem cells, plans alongside the establishment of an interdisciplinary commission for ethics, to establish an office to monitor and control the keeping of future import regulations. Moreover it is not only important to create regulations for our nation but regulations which go beyond German and European borders. Because the problems of genetic engineering can not be solved only on national level, to safeguard and protect the dignity and rights of man is an international duty.
Many thanks for the friendly words and I wish you all the best for the future.
PROF. DR. HERTA DÄUBLER-GMELIN MP
Federal Minister of Justice
Dear Mr. Schweitzer,
I was very pleased to receive your blessings and greetings from our common home town, the beauty of which we both appreciate, of course. Many thanks.
I agree with you that the present bio-ethical talks are, at base, always a matter of the inviolable dignity of human life. If we don't stick to it, to protect human life from the very beginning, our conception of man and our society will change. Even though the decision of the German Bundestag on 30th January was different from what I expected, I am glad that the parliament was able to find clear words regarding the protection of life. It confirms the objective of the law for embryo protection: that embryos can only be used for reproduction purposes. Very firmly it means: “They are future children of future parents. We need to stick to this legal position. The killing of embryos for scientific purposes has to be prohibited. ”
Now, the main focus of the new law regarding the importation and use of human embryonic stem cells will be to express clearly that the importation of these cells is prohibited and that it is only allowed under special exceptions, and under rigorous conditions, and a guarantee is needed to avoid further killing of embryos for stem cell extraction.
I also appreciate the decision of the Bundestag to prioritize the promotion of ethically acceptable alternatives, such as the research on adult human stem cells. We need to increase the promotion of it.
You are right when pointing to the fact that it is not done by national regulations alone. The question on the one hand is: Which research projects are to be promoted by the European Union? We also need internationally ethically binding minimum standards in this area. Both, the German and French government have introduced the initiative to anchor the banning for human cloning at a UN level. Meanwhile many other countries and all the states of the European Union and have joined this initiative. Such an agreement would be a first step.
The fact that they implement the invitation from Jeremiah 29:7 so precisely is filling me with joy …
Herta D ä ubler-Gmelin
At that time the Bundestag had three options:
The compromise motion was accepted by the majority and than changed into a law, and the two letters already showed its outlines. Strictly speaking, the stem cell law (Federal Law Gazette N° 42, 29th June 2002, Page 2277-80) says:
In the course of the last five years, 20 applications have been handed in and almost all them have been passed.
6. Readjustment of the stem cell law – what about its balance?
The solution negotiated in 2002 was a compromise: on the one hand the research on embryonic stem cells was made possible, and on the other hand it was strongly regulated First and foremost it was strongly controlled by the existing cell regulations through the “deadline regulation” of 1 st January 2002. Ethically, the death of these embryos was accepted because it was a 'fait accompli'. But it was possible to prevent the death of other embryos.
But the development went on. More and more European countries permitted the research on HES. First China and Singapore also allowed therapeutic cloning. At present there are approx. 500 stem cell lines worldwide. These led to debates within the European Commission and in the European Parliament in 2006. Thus the EU officially promotes all research projects on stem cells except for therapeutic cloning and the specific production of embryos for research purposes, i.e. research with ‘left overs' is flourishing.
The German Research Association (DFG) points towards its benefits in other countries. First, it demands strongly the liberalisation of the political legal basis as the cell lines which are permitted at present are contaminated with viruses and thus, unsuitable for research purposes.
After surveying experts in May, and following on the DFG request, the Council for Ethics recommended on 15th July the revision of the 2002 stem cell law by a majority of 14 to 10 votes. The revision should include:
10 members of the Council for Ethics did not agree to it and published a minority vote. It files an objection whose wording is:
Please note that this only a suggestion, not a draft. The last one has to come from the department with responsibility for it.
Annette Schavan, the Federal Minister for Research from the CDU, who is a committed Catholic, says that according to her own moral concept the work with embryonic stem cells will not be possible. But she wouldn't make a political rule out of her personal conviction. She said: “We need to combine basic considerations with the needs of research.” Therefore, she is considering postponing the deadline in view of the existing stem cell law” (F.A.Z. 26.07.07). In the framework of the German laws, German researchers would have access to 500 available stem cell lines worldwide. Also the Council President of the EKD, Bishop Wolfgang Huber from Berlin, pleads for this compromise. Also in the CDU the number of votes for the loosening of the strict regulations is increasing.
In the autumn the German Bundestag will debate, probably with a free vote, the amendment of the 2002 stem cell law.
1. Fire and Water
There are things in life, which self-exclusive. This is one example. The human dignity requested in the basic law as the highest legal asset. It has to be maintained by the state, and has twice been confirmed by the Federal Constitutional Court. It is stipulated in the law for the protection of embryos, which does not allow the use of embryos wherever and however.
Already §218, about abortion, shook the foundation of the law in 1993, but abortion remained illegal through its definition in the framework of the embryonic protection.
The next step is now at hand. It is clear that the split - i e. the fight for an agreement of both positions - becomes more difficult. §1 of the stem cell law from 2002 is like a mirror to the "purpose of the law".
Purpose of the law
The purpose of the law is to consider and protect the human dignity, and the right as a state duty, and to guarantee the right for research.
generally to forbid the importation and use of human embryonic stem cells.
to avoid the extraction of embryonic stem cells through Germany
and to determine the conditions under which the importation and use of embryonic stem cells is permitted as a special exception for research purposes.
The basic law does not allow this and it clearly puts human dignity above freedom of research and education. On the other hand, there is also pressure for unlimited research as well as specific economic considerations. Thus they stick to the ban but allow exceptions. The exceptions are no longer regarded as “illegal but with impunity” as in §218 but as “legitimate under special conditions”. The bridge between these two inconsistent shores is the “deadline regulation”. It provides research with embryos and allows the ethically concerned to agree, with a deep sigh, because they don't have to accept responsibility for the death of embryos and don't have to stop it. In 2002, the deadline was set as 1st January 2002, backdating it from the day when the debate took place on 30 th January 2002. It was also stipulated that this deadline was unshakable.
But this is exactly the core question requested of the revision by the researchers since it didn't make sense any longer to work with the cell lines from before 1 st January 2002.
Postponing the deadline (Schavan, Council for Ethics Minority Vote) offers access to fresh “material” for science and reassurance for ethical consciences.
Despite holy indignation (Rene Röspel, SPD), a new deadline will be needed and shortly granted.
So a “subsequent regulation with an automatic extension” (Günther Stock, Science Academy in Berlin-Brandenburg) was immediately suggested. The question is whether this will call for production abroad and the expected move on the German market at the next deadline change.
Therefore, after step 1: "illegal but with impunity” and step 2: “legitimate under special exceptions”, it is reasonable to call for a step 3: “legitimate without ethical reservations (deadline), only regulated by the rules of human decency (process).” With this, the Council for Ethics is giving up on the absoluteness of the basic law and the protection of embryos, and only insists on certain rules of decency in the extraction of embryos: that no embryos produced for commerce and the examination of individual cases to see whether the development criteria of these germ lines corresponds to German laws.
Great Britain, Israel and some others took the first step in giving resaearchers free access to the embryo banks in the fertilization clinics, without any ethical burden and supported with EU-money grants: € 51 billion from 2007 to 2013.
If the Bundestag follows the majority vote of the Council for Ethics, it will conclude step 3 which is slightly different from step 4, except maybe in the conscience of individual researchers.
It may be possible that the Minister for Science will not agree with the Council for Ethics but with the majority vote of the “deadline regulation”, to keep the law for the protection of embryos.
2. Faust – the Magician's Pupil – and Prometheus
In Dr. Faustus, J.W. von Goethe has strikingly presented the researcher-type who sacrificed everything for his science, who was even ready to make a pact with the Devil to satisfy his unquenchable urge to research.The question is what plagues him day and night (Faust I, 1st Night):
“So that I may perceive whatever holds
The world together in its inmost folds,
Which are the closed-loop control circuits?
“See all its seeds, its working power,
And cease word-threshing from this hour.
Not to read any longer but to discover the powers of nature.”
Faust as a natural scientist knows no borders. -
“So I have turned to magic lore.”
He knows exactly that this is a limit given to humans. But he crosses it consciously and lands in Mephistopheles' - the devil's - clutches.
HES is the urge to discover the unknown, to reveal the secrets of live, to go on without fear or limits.
Faust as a researcher-type is asking a question, and its urgent answer can be found in today's natural science: Are humans allowed to research everything , without doubts, without limits? If not – what are the limits? Who defines the limits? To whom is the scientist answerable if he pauses for a moment at a certain point?
In this context there is an additional issue: Even if I would pause for a moment, the others would do it anyway and link the discovery with their name. A moment which was unknown to Faust.
And even less the fear: …another one will make the deal.
What are the consequences of intervening in things which are not my business because I can no longer control them? Goethe writes this in his poem:
“ The Magician's Apprentice “.
Once a wizard went out. His apprentice grabbed the opportunity to transform a broom into a servant who brought him water from the river for a bath, through a formula he learned by eavesdropping on his master. The broom changed and did what he was ordered to do. He worked as a robot. When the bath was full and the purpose fulfilled, the apprentice had forgotten how to change the servant back into a broom. He lost control, the house was flooded and the raging servant continues running with the water. In his despair the apprentice took an axe and splits the broom – and all of a sudden two brooms are running. Finally, he starts shouting for help.
“Lord and Master! Hear me crying! –
Ah, he comes excited.
Sir, my need is sore!
Spirits that I've cited.
My commands ignore.“
Surely, Goethe the visionary described future times with their industrialisation with technical possibilities. And, perceiving the dangers through it, he is warning humans to intervene.
We already have the experiences of the Magician's Appentice, with respect to nuclear physics. In genetic engineering, prudent scientist are already warning us of the danger of the development of tumours, and their consequences for humanity, which are no longer controllable. And especially of the stem cell research. It will not only have an biological effect but will also effect the conception of man, which may then change a whole culture (viz. the Third Reich).
A third of Goethe's poem addresses the immediate question of stem cell research which, currently, only permits cloning in Asia.
Prometheus, a figure of the Greek mythology, a rebel against the Gods, turns into an absolute rebel, into a type of man defying God, who mocks him because he only wants to be grateful to himself. And even more: he imitates the creator by creating people in his own image.
“Here sit I, forming mortals
After my image;
A race resembling me,
To suffer, to weep,
To enjoy, to be glad,
And thee to scorn,
And also here, Goethe describes something which runs throughout the whole discussion. Who wants to set limits? It could only be God before whose might humans bow down in reverence. At this point Prometheus steps out of today's labs and declares that this Old God is irrelevant to science. I alone, the human, sets goals and limits.
3. Eve – Adam – Council for Ethics – and Churches
The story of Paradise in Genesis 2 tells about a wonderful garden in which the owner and creator has placed “the man...to work it and take care of it” (V 15). Then he shows him all the possibilities of the garden and adds: “But you must not eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die” (V 17).
God sets boundaries. It is clear to everybody. Except for that... Why? God does not explain but it is obviously his prerogative from which he excludes mankind. He reserves this as his right.
At the same time it is an existential Test of God with his man. Thus, he promotes him from a marionette to someone who is able to decide on his own, and the freedom to say yes or no to God's commandments.
In chapter 3 the couple is under the tree of knowledge. The tempter stirs their curiosity. “You will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (5)
Eve is fascinated and by looking to the tree/the possibilities everything becomes even more fascinating. She needs some time – until setting aside her moral scruples and looking at the new life possibilities and what she can do with this new knowledge – until she finally does it: She grabs it and takes a bite.
From this moment on there is no way back, because there is no way back after gaining knowledge. The result is the expulsion from Paradise, from the security in God.
“ She took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.” (V. 6).
Adam was with her. He knew about the risk of eating from it. He didn't hinder here from picking them. He kept a low profile morally, she broke the commandment and picked the fruit. He is only the follower.
In his conversation with God he behaves accordingly. “The woman you put here with me – she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” It is a useless defence for him: Culprit or follower, he is expelled together with her from Paradise.
If the stem cell research in humans and the destruction of embryos is a violation of God's orders - for which he, as the creator, reserved his rights - and the killing of human embryos is murder, then it doesn't matter who crosses the line first and who “follows”. There are Asian people in China and Singapore who do not know Christ, who are pulling the fruit from the tree of knowledge without restraint. But will the Christian people follow their example? For a long time President Bush was able to withstand the pressure. And also Germans such as Robert Antretter (SPD) in the European Parliament. And likewise Schröder's German policy. He brought it before the parliament and voted for the most extreme solution. Now it is the turn of the Federal Minister, Annette Schavan. There is great tension between God's clear “No” and the politicians need for concessions.
In my opinion, the Council for Ethics has gone beyond its competences with its recommendations. According to §9 of the stem cell law it was his duty to examine and weigh up the orders received. Not more! But what he now did, was to give moral blessing to the German Research Association's lobby and turn it into policy, i.e. the minister took a morally clear position, under pressure since she could no longer argue ethically. Thus she is pressured from both sides, science and ethics.
Moreover, also the distance of the 4 votes from 24 speaks clearly for the “unambiguity” of the position of the Council for Ethics.
Cardinal Lehmann has already taken a firm stand for the Catholic Church in December 2006. “I have a basic objection to the stipulation of the deadline since the use of embryos seems to be legitimized through it. From the very beginning it is in contradiction with the value of protecting life.” Here we cannot make exceptions. A science which kills humans is unacceptable.
There is nothing to be added to this unambiguity. It unambiguously expresses the will of God. (5 th Commandment).
Bishop Wolfgang Huber from the Lutheran side proposes to postpone the deadline to the 31st December 2005, thus he chooses the middle course and surrenders to science.
Let us set to work with confidence and pray and work. According to the Ärztezeitung of 26th January 2007, 58% of the citizens are pro- stem cells to research.
God has often answered our prayers amazingly.
F.A.Z. 20.7.06; 25.7.06; 26.7.06;27.7.06.
Rheinischer Merkur Nr. 29,2007.
Berliner Zeitung 17.07.07
Stuttgarter Zeitung 26.07.07.
Bundesgesetzblatt Nr. 42, 2002, Part I, page 2277.
Prof. Dr. A. Bauer, Research on human embrionic stem cells. What does the ethic dilemma consists of? Lecture 25.1.02 in Berlin in the Konrad-Adenauer house.
www.aerztezeitung.de/medizin/stammzellen zwischen 26.01 und 20.07.07
National Council for Ethics, Press Release 08/2007.
Kürschner Volkshandbuch, Deutscher Bundestag, 16th term of office
J.W. Goethe, Faust. First Part of the Tragedy Reclam.
Echtermeyer, German Poems, August Bagel Verlag, Düsseldorf 1958.