BERLIN, Aug 17 — The German government said on Thursday that it might take another look at its 10-year-old ban on producing human embryos, amid debate intensified by moves in Britain to relax laws on cloning.
But with deep public concern over the issue in a country that still remembers Nazi attempts to engineer a "master race," Health Minister Andrea Fischer said the government would seek wide consensus before acting.
"We have a law protecting embryos based on very strict rules and we have just started a debate on it because it is 10 years old and much has happened since," she told West German Radio.
"But we should take our time and there is no reason to make a knee-jerk reaction now based on the British decision," she said, adding she "noted with interest" a British official's call this week to relax laws on cloning.
Fischer, a member of the environmentalist Greens party, junior partners in Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's centre-left coalition, said she would invite parliament in the coming weeks to begin cross-party consultations over whether to change the law banning the production of embryos for research.
The British government's chief medical officer, Liam Donaldson, on Wednesday backed "therapeutic cloning" under which scientists would be allowed to clone embryonic stem cells to develop treatments for major diseases.
Growing and using stem cells—which develop into all the different tissues of the body—is controversial because it effectively creates human life and then kills it.
Leaders of Germany's Protestant and Roman Catholic churches have said cloning is morally wrong.
"Together with the Catholic Church we believe manipulation of the embryo is a step in the wrong direction," said Thomas Krueger, spokesman for the Evangelical (Protestant) Church.
"Our barbaric past is yet one more reason to oppose it," he said of Nazi efforts to create a "pure" race and killing of the handicapped and others with genes deemed worthless.
Some politicians and scientists have warned that Germany could miss out on a valuable new branch of medicine.
"The issue is—can I produce cells which can do everything else but which cannot be turned into humans?" said Margot von Renesse, a member of Schroeder's Social Democrats and head of parliament's medical ethics committee.
"If so, then I say with conviction 'Yes' to stem cell research," she told the Rheinische Post newspaper.
Dissenting voices were, however, in the majority. The head of the national doctors' association insisted the British government should await a Europe-wide consensus on the issue.
"This will be the first time in history that humans themselves will be used to supply raw materials," Joerg-Dietrich Hoppe, chairman of the Federal Chamber of German Doctors, said in an interview. "No one should seek to go it alone."
Ironically, however, the status quo means scientists could steal a march on their British counterparts, who in turn hope relaxing the law could help them compete more effectively with stem cell research in the United States by private firms.
A group of German scientists said in June they planned later this year to exploit a loophole in the current law that allows them to conduct experiments on stem cells—as long as they are imported rather than grown in Germany.