- The Washington Times - Monday, July 24, 2006

BRUSSELS (Agence France-Presse) — The European Union agreed yesterday to continue financing stem-cell research, despite deep opposition from some heavily Catholic member states such as Poland.

After lengthy discussions, a majority of EU ministers in charge of competitiveness issues backed plans for financing stem-cell research from 2007 to 2013, but only if the programs followed strict guidelines.

Finnish Industry Minister Mauri Pekkarinen, whose country holds the bloc’s rotating presidency, said: “Stem-cell research will be financed but with very strict ethical principles.”

The deal comes less than a week after President Bush used his first-ever veto to block legislation that would have expanded U.S. funding for embryonic stem-cell research.

Stem-cell research is a highly sensitive issue because one way of obtaining the cells is by extracting them from human embryos, which die in the process.

Among the strict conditions for granting EU money, research to clone humans for reproductive purposes and creating embryos specifically for research purposes cannot receive bloc funding.

Research programs also would have to follow the rules of the individual member states, and, therefore, EU money cannot be used for stem-cell research in countries that ban it.

To get the backing of Germany and Italy, the European Commission also committed not to offer financing for programs in which human embryos would be killed.

EU Research Commissioner Janez Potocnik told journalists: “We clarified what actually we are doing, and we committed ourselves to continue in that direction in the future.”

A committee of EU specialists would be tasked with deciding on a case-by-case basis whether to disburse European funding for a project.

Under the agreement, the bloc will continue only with existing stem-cell research or stem cells from adults.

The ministers reached an agreement only after overcoming stiff opposition led by Germany and fueled by ethical objections to stem-cell research.

Although Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and Slovenia dropped their objections, Poland, Lithuania, Malta, Slovakia and Austria refused to sign on to the agreement.

Polish Science Minister Michal Sewerynski said: “My government, my parliament, my public opinion and my own conscience oblige me to reject the proposal.”

He said he refused to “transgress the most fundamental ethical principles.”

Stem cells are master cells that specialists say can develop into any organ. They could have a valuable therapeutic use in treating illnesses ranging from cancer to Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, according to specialists.

About 59 percent of Europeans are in favor of stem-cell research, according to a survey published by the European Commission last month.

Yesterday’s agreement was needed to go ahead with broader EU research and development plans covering the 2007-13 period and worth $63 billion.

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