French laws banning human embryo research should be eased to allow the use of ‘surplus’ embryos generated by in vitro fertilization (IVF) procedures, according to the country's national bioethics committee and National Academy of Medicine. But the research should only take place under carefully controlled conditions.
These are the conclusions of reports solicited from the two bodies by Bernard Kouchner, the junior health minister, in the run-up to a revision later this year of France's bioethics legislation. This was adopted in 1994 with the provision that it should be reviewed within five years to take account of changes in science and in society (see Nature 369, 599; 1994).
Current legislation only permits research on a human embryo that does not harm its ‘integrity’, which in practice puts a ban on embryo research. This contrasts starkly with the position in Britain, where legislation passed in 1990 allows research on embryos less than 14 days old, and embryos can be created specifically for research purposes (see Nature 344, 799; 1990).
As in Britain, much of the opposition to human embryo research in France comes from groups who argue that life begins at fertilization. But there is also considerable support in France for rejecting what is seen as a utilitarian view of human embryos. Axel Kahn, a prominent geneticist and member of the national ethics committee, says that France does not want to go down the British road “where the embryo is a thing until 14 days, and becomes a human after”.
The deliberate creation of embryos for research is likewise vigorously rejected by both the academy and the national bioethics committee. The two bodies each recommend limiting any relaxation of the ban to the use of surplus embryos generated by IVF. The national ethics committee adds that such use should require the consent of the parents, while all research projects involving embryos should be individually approved by a national commission.
The report of the working group of the National Academy of Medicine argues that human embryo research is a medical “duty” in that it is required to improve IVF and reproductive medicine. Indeed, some observers argue that the current French ban is hypocritical, as the country's IVF techniques benefit from embryo research carried out elsewhere.
Both groups argue that embryos used for research in vitro should not be reimplanted. Indeed, one loophole in the current French legislation is that, in theory, it would allow research on embryos provided that this was done for the benefit of the fetus and did not interrupt its development.
“In principle, the law allows you to research the effect of drugs and so on with the experimental outcome being the birth of the child; it's terrible,” says Kahn, who wants this loophole closed.
IVF drugs cause superovulation, resulting in numerous excess oocytes. Since these cannot be stored frozen, but embryos can, the oocytes are fertilized. France has tens of thousands of these excess embryos in storage. At present, the law only allows for couples who have decided not to conserve their surplus embryos to donate them to a sterile couple, or for unwanted embryos to be destroyed after five years in storage.
Critics such as Kahn argue that it is hypocritical to allow the destruction of surplus embryos but to ban their use for research. “They would be destroyed in any case,” he says.
A spokesperson for Jean-François Mattei — a physician who opposes human embryo research and, as a member of parliament (Démocracie Liberale, Bouches-du-Rhône), was the main architect of France's bioethics legislation — agrees that the fate of surplus embryos has raised difficult questions.
But he argues that recent technical progress in freezing oocytes means that surplus embryos will soon no longer be produced. Kahn argues that this is still “far off”, and that the committee's recommendations only relate to the contemporary situation.
Pressure for relaxing the embryo research ban also comes from many scientists within the research agencies. The Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), for example, is discussing with the government how the bioethics laws should be revised to take more account of researchers' other concerns — such as the copious paperwork required for even the most innocuous human genetics research.
Scientists are particularly keen to see the law on embryo research liberalized in order to explore the therapeutic opportunities opened up by progress in cloning and the creation of embryonic stem-cell technologies. The national bioethics committee has already argued that the potential of the latter area is such that it requires a dispensation from the current ban (see Nature 387, 218; 1997).
The current Socialist government is, in principle, likely to be more sympathetic to researchers' needs than its conservative predecessors.