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23 / 03 / 2009 - New EU directive may give animals more rights than human embryos
By radically restricting laboratory testing on animals, the European Union is insisting that human embryos should be used by scientists for research instead.
This means that toxicology tests on animals will be permitted only after similar research on tissue taken from human embryos has proved fruitless – according to a proposed new directive from the European Commission (EC).
Therefore, before scientists can test any new medicines on animals they will first have to determine that no other method is "reasonably or practicably available".
Such methods, according to the EC, include testing human embryonic stem cells - a procedure controversial in most European countries because the embryos are destroyed during the process of extraction of such tissue.
If the EC directive is approved by MEPs next month it will be binding on all 27 EU member states, including Ireland.
Article 13 of the directive reads: "Member states shall ensure that a procedure is not carried out if another scientifically satisfactory method or testing strategy of obtaining the result sought, not entailing the use of an animal, is recognised by Community legislation. In the absence of such a method, a procedure may not be carried out if a scientifically satisfactory method or testing strategy for obtaining the result sought, including computer-supported, in vitro and other methodologies, not entailing the use of an animal, is reasonably and practicably available."
Katharina Schauer of the Commission of the Bishops' Conferences of the European Community (COMECE) said that the directive "may have the possible outcome of obliging member states to use certain toxicology tests aimed at reducing animal testing, and so involve the use of human embryonic stem cells".
"This would constitute a blatant break from the current stance of the European institutions, which thus far have always tried to respect member states' rights to determine in each country whether research using human embryonic stem cells is allowed or not," she said, adding that the EC aimed to push the directive through with minimal debate.
"The problem is that the destruction of human embryos, which currently are the unavoidable source for the production of human embryonic stem cells, is considered a lesser evil than animal testing practices," Miss Schauer said.
An EU parliamentary committee vote is scheduled for March 31 and amendments are likely to be tabled by MEPs to change the legislation. A final vote will be taken on April 24 at the penultimate plenary session of the European Parliament.
The planned regulations "on the protection of animals for scientific purposes" aim to create a "level playing field" in animal experimentation practices across the EU.
Lord Alton of Liverpool said: "Since 1990 over two million human embryos have been destroyed and experimented upon. It shows how far we have come that we consider it preferable to experiment on human embryos rather than on animals."
Jim Dobbin, the chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Pro-Life Group, said that Article 13 of the directive "quite clearly seeks to protect animals over human life" by advancing embryonic stem-cell research as a preferential alternative.