BERLIN (Reuters) - German lawmakers are considering changes to laws on stem cell research as pressure grows for an easing of restrictions that local scientists complain prevent them from keeping up with global advances.
The Bundestag lower house of parliament devoted nearly four hours on Thursday to the divisive issue -- a sensitive subject in Germany due to Nazi genetic experiments linked to creating a "master race." A vote is set to take place in mid-March.
In 2002, parliament banned the production of embryonic cells from pre-existing stem cell lines. To ensure foreign laboratories did not produce cell lines for the German market, it also barred German scientists from working on any lines created after January 1, 2002.
German laws are tighter than in some other European countries, including Britain and Sweden, and researchers have expressed frustration that they cannot take part in international projects using lines created after 2002.
"You have to take account of the fact that researchers need qualitatively better cells," Technology Minister Annette Schavan told German television shortly before the debate, adding she wanted to ensure German scientists could keep up globally.
A range of options are on the table -- from tightening the rules and banning all imports of stem cells to lifting the ban altogether. Leaving the law as it is also possible.
A proposal to introduce a more recent cut-off date, probably May 2007, for the import of stem cell lines has won most support from lawmakers so far.
Many legislators have yet to decide and the main parties are not promoting specific positions on the issue.
Thursday's parliamentary debate reflected the deep divisions in Germany which has roughly equal numbers of Catholics, who oppose stem cell research, and Protestants.
"There is no argument for killing human life for science," said Hubert Hueppe, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) who wants to tighten the rules.
Some opponents of change argued the medicinal value of stem cell research had to be proven.
"The desire to heal serious diseases through embryonic stem cell research is only a wish," said Greens lawmaker Priska Hinz.
Scientists say stem cells offer the potential to treat conditions such as diabetes and Parkinson's' disease and to regenerate damaged organs.
However, scientific advances are also likely to affect the ethical debate in future. Some researchers are using cloning technology to try to make stem cells and late last year scientists said they had found a way to make stem cells from ordinary skin cells.