Eugenics Stir Emotions in Germany ; Discussion of Any Type of Genetic Engineering Is Particularly Sensitive Given the Country's Nazi Past

Article excerpt

Because of its dark history in Germany, genetic tinkering with human reproduction is a matter of hot debate here - hotter than in any other country in Europe and, perhaps, the world.

Lately, the temperature has jumped even higher, specifically concerning whether would-be parents should be allowed to use a medical procedure that, doctors say, eliminates the risk of hereditary diseases being transmitted to offspring.

The procedure, called pre-implantation genetic diagnostics (PGD), is forbidden in Germany but has been used in fertility clinics elsewhere since its invention in 1989.

The latest firestorm erupted last month at a Berlin conference on human reproduction, when researchers released a survey indicating that 4 in 5 Germans approve of PGD to prevent genetic diseases.

Charges of bias in the survey - and countercharges of thwarting the public's will - have been flying ever since. Feelings on the matter run so deeply that one politician, who defends the law that bans PGD, characterized the import of the debate this way: "If we break [this law], then we break the basis of our society."

The technique in question, doctors say, can prevent diseases that otherwise persist in families for generations. Muscular dystrophy and cystic fibrosis, two terminal conditions for which medical science has not found a cure, are among the diseases that can be prevented via PGD, they say.

The doctor's role, something like that of a bouncer guarding a select nightclub, is to ensure that a fertilized egg containing the troublesome mutation never gains entrance to the womb.

Though it takes the fun out of conception, the most efficient method is to collect eggs from the mother and inject each with a sperm cell from the father. After three days' growth, a fertilized embryo is big enough so that doctors can remove a single cell for analysis without harming its development.

At this point, doctors can test the cells to see which of the embryos, if any, has inherited the mutation. Embryos that test positive are discarded, and the rest are implanted in the womb. As with all in-vitro fertilizations involving multiple embryos, women are much more likely to bear twins or triplets.

But the likelihood of passing on the genetic disease, doctors say, is nearly zero.

PGD has been illegal in Germany since 1990, when the German parliament passed the Embryo Protection Law.

"There was a feeling that such new technologies required a strong national law because of fears of eugenics," says Heribert Kentenich, a member of Germany's national Board of Physicians.

Any manipulation of human embryos in Germany must pass a formidable legal gantlet, he says, "because a human embryo is considered a human being, and so it has human dignity."

The importance of protecting "human dignity" has been enshrined in the first paragraph of the German constitution since 1949.

One reason for this, of course, is historical. During World War II, the medical establishment was a Nazi stronghold, overseeing the forced sterilization of thousands of German citizens, not to mention far worse experiments carried out in concentration camps. …