Keep Dogma Out of Research was a campaign aiming at securing EU funding for stem cells research in Europe.
In 2012 and 2013, European institutions negotiated the Commission’s new proposal “Horizon 2020” which sets the rules for EU funding for research in Europe for the rest of the decade. Like previous programmes, “Horizon 2020” raised ethical issues, one of which was the European funding for human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research.
The European Commission recommended preserving this funding on the basis of existing European rules. However, in the European Parliament and among Member States, several voices called for this funding to be cut in order to respect the “human dignity” of these embryos. We campaigned towards EU decision-makers to remove religious-based restrictions on this funding and protect freedom of research in Europe.
We asked Belgian scientists to answer six basic questions:
- What is an embryonic stem cell?
- Why is stem cell research so important?
- Will this lead to human cloning?
- What about ethics?
- Is this a science vs. faith issue?
- Why is EU funding so important?
We called on European researchers to join our efforts
“As humanists, secularists and scientists, we are extremely worried to hear that several religious organisations and Member-States are asking on the basis of dogma for a stop on EU funding of hESC research. We ask the EU to embrace a secular and scientific approach on this issue.
This is definitely not the case at present: during the negotiations of the Seventh Framework Program for research in 2006, the EU manifestly bowed to direct religious pressure and cut the scope of stem cell work eligible for EU funding. Even if the EU has not completely closed the door to such research, it has multiplied obstacles and so discouraged European hESC researchers. These compromises have left it with an extremely restrictive and ethically incoherent policy.
We are not asking for the unconditional promotion of hESC research in Europe: we agree that it must be conducted within strict ethical limits but we think that decisions on whether or not to allow EU funding for it should be based on relevant medical considerations only and not on religious dogma. So far, research results have shown that human embryonic stem cells (retrieved from seven-day-old embryos) have great potential for treating a number of diseases, unlike adult or induced stem cells which have not proved to be as promising as expected. So hopes are high with embryonic stem cells, but the research is quite recent and needs to be pursued further to confirm and explore their power to heal.
With “Horizon 2020”, the European Union should therefore enlarge the scope of hESC research eligible for EU funding (always subject to national legislation), make the European ethical review more transparent and encourage wide public debate on the issue. This implies abandoning the current position which excludes EU funding for the creation of new hESC lines and modifying the Commission’s new proposal “Horizon 2020”.Given the secular nature of EU institutions, this is the only coherent political attitude in a context where religious concepts of human dignity and exaggerated urging of the precautionary principle are increasingly being used by religious groups to impede scientific development”.
This call was supported by
The European Association of Global Bioethics
Véronique De Keyser, Member of the European Parliament, Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats
M. Philippe Busquin, former European Commission Commissioner for Research, former Member of the European Parliament
Pr. Dr. Guillaume Lecointre, Professor at the National Museum of Natural History (France)
Dr. Pierre Vanderhaeghen, Research Director at the Institute of Interdisciplinary Research in human and molecular Biology, Université Libre de Bruxelles (Belgium). 2011 Francqui Price in Biological and Medical Sciences
Pr. Dr. Steve Jones, FRS, Senior Research Fellow at the Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment, University College London (United Kingdom)
Pr. Dr. Inge Liebaers, Emeritus professor in medical genetics, former Director of the Center for medical genetics, Vrije Universiteit Brussel (Belgium), member of the National Advisory Committee on Bioethics
Pr. Dr. Robert A. Hinde, FRS, FBA, Emeritus Professor in the Subdepartment of Animal Behaviour, University of Cambridge (United Kingdom)
Pr. Dr. Thierry Vandendriessch, Professor at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel and the Katholieke Universiteit Brussel (Belgium)
Pr. Dr. Henri Alexandre, Professor Emeritus at the University of Mons-Hainaut and the Université Libre de Bruxelles (Belgium) member of the Belgian Federal Commission for medical and scientific research on embryos in vitro
Pr. Dr. Karin Nilsson Forsberg, Professor at Uppsala University, Department of Immunology, Genetics and Pathology (Sweden)
Pr. Dr. Karen Sermon, Professor in Human and experimental genetics, embryology and developmental biology, Vrije Universiteit Brussel (Belgium)
Mr. Guy Lengagne, former French Minister, Honorary French Deputy, former member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Honorary Mayor of Boulogne-sur-Mer (France)
Dr. Paul De Knop, Rector of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (Belgium)
Pr. Maurizio Mori, President of the Italian Consulta di Bioetica and professor of Bioethics, University of Turin (Italy)
Dr. Cédric Blanpain, Researcher at the Institute of Interdisciplinary Research in human and molecular Biology, Université Libre de Bruxelles (Belgium). 2012, fourth annual ISSCR (International Society for Stem Cell Research) Outstanding Young Investigator Award
Pr. Dr. Martin E. Schwab, Chair of Neuroscience at the Brain Research Institute, University of Zurich and Department of Health Science and Technology, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (Switzerland)
Pr. Dr. Charles Susanne, Professor at the Université Libre de Bruxelles and the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (Belgium). President of the European Anthropological Association and former Dean of the Faculty of Sciences, VUB
Pr. Dr. Yvon Englert, Dean of the Medicine Faculty, Université Libre de Bruxelles (Belgium), member and former President of the Belgian Advisory Committee on Bioethics, former member of the European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies
Dr. Marie-Christine Mauroy, Medical Director of the Birth and Childhood Office (Belgium)
Pr. Dr. Dan Larhammar, Professor at Uppsala University, Faculty of Medicine (Sweden)
Pr. Dr. Walter Decleir, Emeritus Professor at the University of Antwerp, Honorary Rector of the State University Center or Antwerp (Belgium)
Dr. Michel Petein, Chief Executive Officer of the Institute of Pathology and Genetics of Gosselies (Belgium)
Pr. Dr. Robin Dunbar, Professor of Evolutionary Psychology, University of Oxford (United Kingdom)
Pr. Dr. Bernard Rentier, Rector of the University of Liège (Belgium)
Dr. Julian Huppert, Member of the Royal Society of Chemistry and the Institute of Physics, Member of Parliament for Cambridge (United Kingdom)
Pr. Dr. Bernard Rentier, Recteur de l’Université de Liège
Pr. Dr. Maurizio Balistreri, Professor of Bioethics at the University of Turin, Department of Life Sciences and System Biology (Italy)
Pr. André Van Steirteghem, Professor- Emeritus at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (Belgium), Editor-in-Chief of “Human Reproduction”, Honorary Consultant for the Center for Reproductive Medicine, UZ Brussel
Pr. Sir Tom Blundell, FRS, FMedSci, Director of Research and Professor Emeritus at the Department of Biochemistry, University of Cambridge (United Kingdom)
Pr. Dr. Jeanine Heuson-Stiennon, Emeritus Professor and Honorary Dean of the Faculty of Medicine, University of Mons (Belgium), member of the International Bioethics Committee of Unesco, member and former President of the Belgian Advisory Committee on Bioethics, member and former President of the Royal Academy of Medicine of Belgium
Dr. Helena Cronin, Co-Director of the Centre for Philosophy of Natural and Social Science, London School of Economics (United Kingdom)
Pr. Dr. Rudi Baron Verheyen, Emeritus Professor and Honorary Rector-President of the University of Antwerp (Belgium)
Dr. Georges Sand, Professor in higher technical education, Mons and Charleroi (Belgium)
We made our request heard at the European Parliament
In the framework of this campaign, we organised a public hearing at the European Parliament on 15 November 2012.
With : MEP Marc Tarabella ; Pierre Galand, EHF President ; Philippe Busquin, former European Commissioner for Research, innovation and science; Pr Pierre Vanderhaeghen, Senior Research Scientist at FNRS, Institute of Interdisciplinary Research in human and molecular Biology at ULB; Julian Hitchcock, Intellectual property & life science lawyer at Lawford Davies Denoon.
Opponents to hESC research relied extensively on the 2011 “Oliver Brüstle v. Greenpeace” decision of the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) which ruled that patent protection for inventions based on human embryonic stem cells (hESC) was forbidden in the EU. In its ruling, the CJEU argued that the destruction of human embryos for scientific research violated the principle of respect for human dignity. It took a broad interpretation of the term ‘human embryo’ to include any cell able to start the development process of a human being.
The EHF is obviously very concerned that the CJEU imposed an objectionable view of the term “human embryo” and disregarded the plurality of its moral perspectives in Europe. But it is also extremely worried to observe an abusive use of this CJEU ruling to reach conservative agendas which will surely hamper European research.
Saying that the EU should not keep on funding hESC research because of this CJEU decision is gross propaganda : as several lawyers state it, its consequences for such research may not be as dramatic as they sound.
First, because this ruling does not forbid researchers to use human embryonic stem cells as research materials where permitted. It only restricts the patentability of such research.
Second, because laboratories or businesses wherever they are based (included Europe) are still free to apply for patents on such cells in any of the worldwide jurisdictions where they are permitted.
Third, because investors can find other ways to protect hESC inventions in Europe : for instance, by patenting the complex technology (i.e. robotics, software, chemicals) needed to turn human ES cells into treatments instead of the cells themselves.
Finally, it is sometimes argued that this absence of patent protection could even create a European “research heaven” and attract hESC researchers.
Although it will take some time to work out the full implications of this ruling, hESC research will not be impeded in Europe because of this CJEU’s decision. However, it could dramatically slow down if European funding were to be cut.