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Vote on stem-cell research creates confusion

Controversial stem cell research is a source of hope and concern at the same time Keystone

A nationwide poll in Switzerland on permitting the use of embryonic stem cells in research pits scientific against ethical principles.

This content was published on November 19, 2004 - 16:26

Unusual political alliances and rifts within like-minded groups have marked the campaign in the run-up to November 28.

Georg Lutz, a political scientist at Bern University, says undecided voters are having trouble making up their minds.

“It’s been hard to figure out which group is for or against stem-cell research,” Lutz told swissinfo.

“Some groups on the Left have formed an alliance with groups on the Right, religious communities are divided, and even within political parties there are splits.”

Different dimensions

Lutz says the apparent confusion is a reflection of what is at stake: “It is an issue with moral and scientific dimensions. It is not only hard for voters to decide, it was also difficult for politicians too.”

Parliament approved the law last year, but religious groups and pro-life organisations, as well as leftwing opponents of gene technology have called a nationwide vote on the issue.

Latest opinion polls show supporters have a 22 per cent lead over opponents, with nearly the same percentage of respondents saying they are undecided.

Lutz says predictions for the outcome are difficult: “Too many interests overlap.”

Conditions

The new law, approved by parliament last year, permits fertilised eggs left over from artificial insemination to be used for research purposes under a series of conditions.

The production of stem cells is limited to surplus human embryos not older than seven days.

Therapeutic cloning and the trade in embryos remain banned, along with research on embryos themselves.

The legislation also envisages that research on embryos will only be possible with the written consent of the couple whose eggs they are.

Under Swiss law, eggs left over from in vitro fertilization have to be destroyed. But three years ago the National Science Foundation allowed stem cells to be imported for a research project at Geneva University.

Ethics versus science

Johannes Randegger, a member of parliament for the centre-right Radical Party representing the interests of the Swiss pharmaceutical industry, says research offers hope for many people with incurable diseases.

“I would like to see our universities and research institutes remain among the best in the world,” Randegger told swissinfo.

He said it was time to set stringent rules to remain competitive.

But Ruth Genner, a member of parliament for the Green Party, says the planned use of stem cells “clearly oversteps ethical boundaries”.

Genner warns against exaggerating the potential of stem-cell research and points to alternative research methods using other cell types.

Comparison

The proposed Swiss law is considered moderate and similar to that in neighbouring France.

The European Union is divided over stem-cell research. Austria and Ireland have introduced restrictive rules, while Britain and Belgium favour a more liberal approach.

Germany and Italy have opted for a compromise. They have banned the production of embryonic stem cells, but allow their importation.

Three years ago President Bush limited the use of federal funds for stem-cell research, and the United States supports plans for a global ban on human cloning on moral grounds.

swissinfo, Urs Geiser

Key facts

Stem cells are master cells that have the potential to grow into any human cell or tissue.
In 2001 the Swiss National Science Foundation allowed the import of stem cells for a research project at Geneva University.
Under current Swiss law, surplus eggs from in vitro fertilization have to be destroyed.

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In brief

Swiss law permits research on stem cells from surplus human embryos under strict conditions.

Parliament approved the law last year, but an alliance of religious and pro-life groups, as well as leftwing opponents of gene technology has forced a nationwide vote.

The Swiss legislation is considered moderate compared with laws in European Union countries.

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