- The Washington Times - Monday, July 30, 2001

BERLIN — German politicians, like their American counterparts, are wrestling with whether the government should permit research into potentially life-saving therapies that use embryonic stem cells.
As in the United States, the debate is a complicated, emotionally charged affair in which politics, ethics and economics have collided. But unlike in America, the battle is complicated by the ghost of Germany's Nazi past.
German conservatives, convinced that embryos are full-fledged lives worth protecting, generally oppose stem-cell research.
But many liberals feel the same way, driven by a distrust of commercial biotechnology and memories of Nazi medical experiments on humans.
"Historically, Germany always wrestles with ethical questions like these," said Otmar Wiestler, a researcher at the University of Bonn. "Genetics, abortion, animal rights — this is nothing new."
Scientists, who believe they are on the threshold of great discoveries, are frustrated. But most have accepted that politics and science move at different speeds.
"Because the Germans have such a difficult time with this question, it's important that we have public support," Mr. Wiestler said. "We need this debate."
The fight erupted in May when German President Johannes Rau, who frequently uses the bully pulpit his office provides to speak about moral issues, cautioned strongly against stem-cell research without a full debate.
"The lofty goals of scientific research must not be allowed to determine when the protection of human life begins," Mr. Rau said in a widely publicized speech.
He reminded the public that Germany's Embryo Protection Act of 1990 prohibits the creation of human embryos — from which stem cells arise shortly after fertilization — in laboratories.
However, as his opponents hasten to point out, the law does not explicitly ban imports of stem cells themselves.
Shortly after Mr. Rau's speech, Wolfgang Clement, the Social Democratic governor of the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia — Germany's most populous ran headlong through this legal loophole.
During a visit to Israel, where stem-cell research is widely accepted, Mr. Clement negotiated a cooperative arrangement between the universities of Bonn and Haifa that foresaw bringing stem cells into Germany.
"I respect every opinion," he said. "But every opinion must also take into account that this research is already going on" in other countries. Mr. Clement had his eye on the economic benefits, particularly for his own constituency.
His state already boasts Germany's largest concentration of biotechnology companies, but the race to be the European leader is tight, with regions in Britain still a hair ahead.
"A huge market is developing here, and we have to be a part of that," said Michael Swoboda, executive director of the Chamber of Industry and Trade in Bonn, a center of research in Mr. Clement's state.
Mr. Clement's move strained his relations with Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, normally a close ally, because the chancellor is trying to manage the politics of scientific ethics through an independent ethics council that will deliver its report later this year.
It also laid bare the rift in Mr. Clement's state governing alliance with the Greens, the same coalition Mr. Schroeder has in Berlin.
Trying to contain the furor, Mr. Clement brought the issue before his provincial assembly for a vote, only to see the Greens vote with the center-right Christian Democratic Union.
But Mr. Clement still won the vote because the Free Democratic Party, Germany's free-marketers, supported him. That outcome irritated Mr. Clement's allies.
He had played into the hands of Juergen Moelleman, the state's wily Free Democrat chairman, who is angling to enter a national coalition with Mr. Schroeder after federal elections late next year, something many Social Democrats oppose.
At the federal level, Social Democrats and Greens have punted the question of changing the embryo law until after the elections.
Conservatives have their own problems. The Christian Social Union, the Christian Democrats' Bavarian sister party, is anchoring the right flank of the debate, promising no quarter in its war against the research.
"The clear majority opinion [in our party] holds human dignity and the protection of life in higher esteem than economic progress or growth," Erwin Huber, chief of staff to Bavarian Gov. Edmund Stoiber, told a local newspaper.
Right now, all parties to the debate are observing a tense truce, waiting out the summer holidays.
Researchers in Bonn, the first in line to seek imports of stem cells, have agreed to await a December decision on imports by Germany's top scientific research body, the equivalent of the National Institutes of Health in the United States. Politicians, in turn, have promised to grapple with the issue in the fall, when the ethics commission reports.
But the scientists reminded the politicians that they will not wait forever. Researchers can just as easily hop a plane to the United States or Israel and take the economic benefits of their miracle science with them, they warn.
"If stem cells don't come to me," said Bonn researcher Oliver Bruestle, "I'll go to them."

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