Stem Cell Division: Abortion Law and Its Influence on the Adoption of Radically Different Embryonic Stem Cell Legislation in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Germany

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A seventeen-year international race to capture and sustainably culture human embryonic stem cells ended in 1998 when a team of scientists from the University of Wisconsin isolated and cultured human embryonic stem cells for the first time.1 Their highly publicized success may have "profound implications for transplant medicine and drug discovery" and eventually lead to the eradication of many debilitating and lifethreatening human diseases.2

Despite its potential to revolutionize modern medicine, however, research on pluripotent embryonic stem (ES) cells remains highly controversial. In order to obtain ES cells, scientists must destroy a living human embryo by placing an extraction device into the embryo's inner cell mass to remove the cells. The procedure-called derivation-is decried by many as ethically abhorrent and akin to murder since the developing embryo perishes as a result.

An intense and persistent public debate has arisen on both sides of the Atlantic over the moral, political, and legal implications surrounding ES cell research.3 Nations legislating on the issue, including the United Kingdom, the United States, and Germany, are facing many significant challenges; they must balance the promise of novel lifesaving biomedical technologies thought possible through the advancement of ES cell research against the need to defend and preserve the sanctity of human life at its very origin. Since 1998, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Germany have responded to this formidable task by adopting ES cell legislation that is radically different in both scope and design.

For the past fourteen years, the United Kingdom has had a progressive and well-developed embryonic research licensing and regulatory regime. In response to recent scientific advancements in human ES cell research, in 2000, the United Kingdom adopted legislation broadening its already existing research regulations to encompass and legitimize additional types of ES cell experimentation. As a result, the United Kingdom has one of the most "liberal" stem cell research programs in the world, allowing for the creation and destruction of human embryos for purely scientific purposes.

Conversely, over the same period Germany strictly prohibited most types of embryonic research and in 2002 adopted highly restrictive ES cell legislation in response to scientific progress. The 2002 legislation outlaws the derivation process from occurring within German borders and makes experimentation on ES cells possible only if the ES cells were derived before January 2002 and imported to Germany under strict regulatory controls. As a result, Germany has some of the most restrictive ES cell experimental prohibitions of any Western nation.

Unlike her European counterparts, the United States has yet to adopt national ES cell legislation. Instead, the federal government has taken a laissez-faire approach toward stem cell research, permitting virtually unregulated private sector experimentation (although several individual states have adopted regulations). Further, in contrast to both the United Kingdom and Germany, the U.S. debate has not focused on the establishment of national regulatory controls, but instead, on whether U.S. federal tax dollars should be utilized to fund embryonic research programs. Recently, President George W. Bush announced his decision to allow federal funds to be utilized in ES cell research, albeit only on stem cell lines derived prior to August 2001. Bush's decision ended a twenty-year moratorium on the federal funding of stem cell research in the United States.

The United Kingdom, the United States, and Germany are nations with relatively similar institutions, political ideologies, religions, and marketplace forces.4 Yet, these nations have enacted radically different legislation in responding to the same basic questions: When does life begin? How should science and morality interact? …


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