New developments in stem cell research enable the production of artificial germ cells and embryos. In an Ad Hoc Recommendation released today, the German Ethics Council discusses to what extent these entities are covered by relevant laws in Germany and what ethical and legal challenges ensue from these new technical possibilities. The discussion focuses on possible new challenges for the ban on cloning, as well as on ethical questions that emerge in connection with artificial germ cells.
Previously in May, following a request from the Conference of Health Ministers (Gesundheitsministerkonferenz), the German Ethics Council, in the context of a public hearing, looked into current research on human embryonic stem cells and induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells). In the recommendations now available, the Council has identified a concrete need for clarification in two areas of application for new stem cell technologies.
The first area concerns the cloning of humans by means of cell nuclear transfer or through the use of iPS cells. Against the backdrop of current research findings, the likelihood is increasing that in the future the cloning of humans for reproductive purposes will at least be technically possible.
The second area relates to the use of germ cells derived from iPS cells. It cannot be ruled out that there will be attempts in the future to employ this technology for reproductive purposes in humans, including in situations where reproduction is not possible through natural means. So, for instance, same-sex couples could try to create children that are genetically related to both parents. Also conceivable would be the conjoining of artificially created male and female germ cells from a single individual.
The Ethics Council is initially calling for more precise and standardized legal definitions in the relevant statutes, particularly for the terms 'embryo' and 'totipotency'.
Furthermore, it recommends that the ethical questions resulting from the new technical possibilities for deriving germ cells be debated. The Ethics Council is not only concerned about the medical safety of procedures and possible impacts on offspring, but is also calling for a public discussion regarding the relationship of generations to one another, as well as on the significance of naturalness and artificiality at the start of human life. Also to be clarified in the process is what it may mean, in the context of reproduction, if both the mode of having differing sexes and parentage by two people were to be ceded.
The German Ethics Council reaffirms the significance of the ban on reproductive cloning of humans and recommends, given the approaching possibilities that are technologically evident, that Germany work towards an international ban on cloning for reproductive purposes.
The full text of the Ad Hoc Recommendation can be accessed online here.