A Programme for the future with one foot in the past
There were strong reasons for the EU not to miss the opportunity to take a step forward with regard to funding stem cell research.
Seven years ago, in a Press release of 22.12.2006 relating to the final adoption of the 7th Research Framework Programme (FP7), the General Secretary of COMECE stated that “given that the financial means available for research are limited, EU funding must – in order to spend the available means in the most appropriate manner – concentrate on joint priorities.” This statement was produced in view of the possibility, foreseen under the FP7, of funding research in human embryonic stem cells (hESC), a research that entails the destruction of human embryos. If this was plainly valid in 2006, it is simply incomprehensible that the new programme, Horizon 2020, that has just been adopted by the European Parliament (EP), sticks with that wrong, ethically reproachable approach to research.
A key Programme with a major ethical problem
Horizon 2020 is an EU programme to run from 2014 to 2020 and was proposed in a legislative package of proposals presented by the European Commission on 20 November 2011. As a major instrument for promoting growth through research and innovation in the European Union Horizon 2020 is to be welcomed.
After almost two years and 1824 amendments tabled in the ITRE (Industry, Research and Energy) Committee of the European Parliament, the procedure has finally came to an end. Unfortunately, as regards the ethical framework of the Programme, some shortcomings have to be mentioned; for example, no reference is made to key principles applicable in the field: protection of human dignity and the principle of primacy of the human being – putting the interests and welfare of the human being before that of society or science.
Nevertheless, the major ethical problem of Horizon 2020 is still the possibility of funding research on hESC. On 21 November last, by voting against six amendments which reproduced the Opinion adopted on 18 November 2012 by the JURI (Legal Affairs) Committee, the EP Plenary upheld the common text allowing for such funding as already agreed with the Council in the context of the trilogue negotiations. It is worth saying that JURI is the EP Committee actually competent to analyse the compliance of European Union acts with primary law and for the interpretation of European law and the analysis of ethical questions related to new technologies.
A position grounded on solid reasons
The Secretariat of COMECE has voiced its position against funding such research on many occasions ever since the proposals were published (cf. Press release of 13.09.2012 and Press release of 7.12.2011). In October 2012 the Secretariat welcomed the granting of the Nobel Prize for Medicine for research on alternatives to embryonic stem cells research (cf. Press release of 8.10.2012). Horizon 2020 as now adopted does not even prioritize funding research in alternative, much more promising research (can we still say that hESC are promising?) on non-ethically problematic sources of stem cells (see Europeinfos no. 140, of July-August 2011), and this is a matter for regret. On the other hand, the text of Horizon 2020 as adopted has not duly taken into consideration the ruling in the case of Greenpeace v. Brüstle, whereby the European Court of Justice reaffirmed the legal protection of the human embryo, defined as “any human ovum after fertilisation », and the non-patentability of inventions that make use hESC (see Europeinfos no. 139, of June 2011, and Europeinfos no. 144, of December 2011).
Inconsistency and perplexity
The EP Plenary also adopted an amendment referring to a statement of the European Commission on the ethical framework of Horizon 2020. This statement is very much the same as the one adopted by the Commission in 2006 with regard to FP7, so the status quo as concerns funding research on hESC is basically maintained. By paragraph 12 of the statement now adopted, the Commission commits itself to “continue with the current practice» which means that it will not consider «projects which include research activities which destroy human embryos, including for the procurement of stem cells», making sure however that «the exclusion of funding of this step of research will not prevent Community funding of subsequent steps involving human embryonic stem cells». This is rather inconsistent from an ethical perspective, especially if we bear in mind that such funding of subsequent steps stimulates the procurement of hESC and, thus, escalates human embryo-destructive research. The Secretariat of COMECE has always upheld the exclusion of any research involving the use of hESC including in steps subsequent to their derivation.
Meanwhile, as the European citizens’ initiative One of Us (see Europeinfos no. 150, of June 2012) calls for the EU to stop funding such kinds of research, the reply is much awaited to a Question for written answer asking what measures will the Commission take to ensure that the adoption of Horizon 2020 will not pre-empt such an initiative, the biggest so far with about 1.9 million signatures.
By way of a conclusion to what has been said above, one can say that for ethical reasons, but also in the light of new scientific and legal developments and their impact on the economic rationale of research, it is surely to regret the missed opportunity to take this step forward in the field of EU research policy with regard to stem cells.