A European bid to impose additional limits on research involving human embryos has been defeated.
European Union officials decided yesterday (May 28) that there was no need to introduce new legislation in this area, since it is already regulated, and the existing policy received endorsement from the European Parliament and member states only weeks ago.
The call for tighter controls had come from a public campaign entitled “One of Us.” The avowed goal was "to greatly advance the protection of human life from conception in Europe," and it specifically asked for an end to any EU financing of "activities which presuppose the destruction of human embryos, in particular in the areas of research, development aid and public health." The campaign was one of the first under a new EU mechanism designed to give the public a greater say in policy formation, the European Citizens' Initiative. This obliges EU officials to examine any proposal that has won the backing of one million EU citizens from seven or more of the member states.
Over recent weeks the “One of US” initiative—which had gathered two million signatures across 20 member states—had been the subject of a hearing in the European Parliament and of high-level meetings between the campaign organizers and EU officials. It was supported not only by the public but also by stem-cell researchers from Spain, Italy, France, and Poland, who said it was "scientifically grounded and necessary from an ethical standpoint." But the proposal was vigorously opposed by research organizations anxious at the prospect of new controls. It also came under attack from civil society organizations who saw it as an assault on women's rights. They warned that the campaign, "spearheaded by ultra-conservative, anti-choice movements," was seeking a ban on funding "for any organizations that are involved in the provision of indirect or direct abortion or 'abortion-related' services in low and middle-income countries."
As an indication of how seriously the EU itself was taking the campaign, the meeting last month with campaign organizers involved the European commissioner for research, innovation and science, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, as well as the Commission's director general for research and innovation, Robert-Jan Smits, and a deputy director general for development and cooperation. And the hearing in the parliament was attended by Geoghegan-Quinn and by European commissioner for development Andris Piebalgs. A formal statement from the Commission at the time said: "We at the European Commission intend to give this initiative all due attention. The Commission is very much in listening mode."
When the Commission issued its decision, it provided an extensive range of complementary material to explain and justify its rejection of the plea, ranging from detailed discussions of embryonic stem cells to accounts of EU support to developing countries on health issues, along with rebuttals of any suggestion that EU health programs promote abortion as a method of family planning. This was no more than common prudence, since it clearly anticipated the likely response from the campaign supporters.
The response was immediate. The campaigners expressed "deep disappointment towards a deaf Commission which today makes a decision contrary to ethical and democratic requirements." It complained that the Commission "claims to possess the right of veto downstream, against initiatives having yet successfully obtained the required popular support," and argued that "such veto power is illegitimate and anti-democratic."
But development and women’s rights groups were equally outspoken in their welcome for the decision. The initiative "could have had catastrophic consequences for maternal and global health," said a coalition of organizations that had opposed the petition from the outset. "In standing firmly against it, the Commission has reaffirmed its support for, and international commitments to, maternal health, family planning, and sexual and reproductive health and rights more broadly," it said. And Pierre Galand, president of the European Humanist Federation, saw a welcome sign of EU support for science in the rejection. The Commission has "clearly renewed its support for human embryonic stem cells research which remains one of the most promising fields for regenerative medicine, reproductive health, and genetic disease research,” he said.
The irony of the Commission's decision is that it comes immediately in the wake of the European Union's most traumatic setback in its history, with the massive popular vote last week revealing discontent with current EU policies right across Europe. This decision on the One of Us campaign will be cruel confirmation of their worst fears to those who see the EU as a Brussels-focused elite dismissive of public sentiment. At the same time, and by an even more exquisite irony, the action that the Commission has taken in rejecting the campaign's proposal is in fact precisely in line with those critics who demand a less intrusive EU and call for Brussels to step back from imposing its will gratuitously on every aspect of European life. Once you get a bad reputation, practically nothing you do can please your critics!