Press Release 05/2014

The future of reproductive medicine in Germany

What challenges do the procedures offered by reproductive medicine represent for our understanding of self-determination, family and society? Should the creation of so-called three-parent babies be allowed? What individual and social problems and opportunities might egg donation and surrogacy, as well as long-term egg freezing, bring to the women, children and families involved? And what needs for political action may arise from this? At its Annual Meeting in Berlin on 22 May, the German Ethics Council discussed these and many other questions together with speakers, three members of the Bundestag and more than 350 guests.

"The triad of individual life concepts, family and society is particularly important to the Ethics Council, because reproductive medicine is not simply a question of how an individual determines his or her own life – it is also about responsibility: for another person – the child – and future generations", explained Christiane Woopen, Chair of the German Ethics Council, at the start of the event.

In his opening speech, Georg Griesinger, from the Universitäres Kinderwunschzentrum (University Fertility Centre) in Lübeck, reported on new and developing possibilities in modern reproductive medicine, including vitrification as a highly efficient procedure to preserve unfertilised eggs.

Dagmar Coester-Waltjen from the University of Göttingen discussed the legal framework for reproductive medicine in Germany. She explained that relevant legislation in this field, the Embryonenschutzgesetz [Embryo Protection Act], prohibits egg donation, surrogacy and germline interventions. In contrast, other areas, such as 'social freezing', are not regulated. Coester-Waltjen argued the case for comprehensive legislation dealing with reproductive medicine.

Eberhard Schockenhoff and Claudia Wiesemann, who are both members of the German Ethics Council, then engaged in ethical controversy about the future of the family and reproductive autonomy. This was followed by a lively discussion with the audience on how to interpret the terms family, parental responsibility and reproductive freedom.

In his speech, Schockenhoff stated that the model of family life based on marriage has remained astonishingly stable as a place of complete reliability, social learning and experiencing the sense of existence. In his view, there are no other alternative lifestyles that could permanently replace the role of the family.

For Claudia Wiesemann, however, marriage and blood relationships are not requirements for starting a family. In fact in her view, reproductive freedom – the freedom to decide alone or together with a partner whether, when and how someone wants to reproduce – is a fundamental right, the extent of which may however still be restricted by other basic rights.

In the afternoon, attendees discussed three key themes in forums running in parallel, each forum including three speakers.

The focus in forum A was on interventions in the germline, considering the issue of so called "three parent babies". Behind this headline grabbing term are efforts to prevent mitochondrial genetic diseases. In methods developed thus far, which are still at the experimental stage, the nuclear genome of the affected egg is transferred either before or after fertilisation to a donated egg whose nucleus has already been removed and which contains healthy mitochondria. A child created in this way would have the DNA of its father and mother in the nuclear genome, and the DNA of the egg donor in the mitochondria.

Participants in forum B tackled the subject of egg donation and surrogacy. The discussion concentrated in particular on weighing up the risks against the right of women to decide for themselves whether they want to donate eggs or become a surrogate.

The debate in forum C revolved around 'social freezing': young women freezing their own eggs so that they can use them for pregnancy years later. During the discussion several participants were against stigmatising egg freezing as a lifestyle choice, while others see new social constraints on women. Both sides agreed that good advice was crucial if responsible decisions are to be made.

The outcomes of the forums were presented to kick off the final panel discussion, which included members of the Bundestag Hubert Hüppe (CDU), Kathrin Vogler (Die Linke) and Harald Terpe (Bündnis 90/Die Grünen) in discussion with the audience.

In her closing speech, Christiane Woopen highlighted that the Annual Meeting had shown the importance of a broad social debate in view of the developments taking place in reproductive medicine. In addition, she stated that further regulatory developments need to be considered, since the Embryo Protection Act fails to regulate some important areas and lacks clarity in other places, whilst in yet other areas its regulations are clear but socially highly controversial.

All contributions to the Annual Meeting, including the forums and the final discussion and online survey of participants, can be downloaded here (in German).