Rumours have circulated for some time that human embryos from abortions are being sold to industrial firms to be used for cosmetic products. The first time that I was confronted with such rumours was some months ago. A journalist told me that after a road accident in the north of France, a lorry had turned over and lost its cargo. Upon inspection, what everyone thought to be pig-meat turned out to be dead human embryos. They had supposedly been bought from a British abortion clinic and imported into France for use in the cosmetic industry. The journalist asked me what I thought of this information and I answered that I did not believe it.
A few weeks later, I had the occasion to pass the question on to my French colleagues in the Parliamentary Assembly, but they also found the whole idea too grotesque to be true.
Some of the rumours, however, have since been substantiated. In the spring, a programme on the German television reported that from 1976 to 1982, a community hospital in Munich-Schwabing had sold embryos to a laboratory from where cell material was offered for further sale. The report, of course, provoked considerable discussion and led to certain political initiatives, especially in the FRG, which are still being pursued.
At this point, I thought it proper to act. I believe it is an obligation for the Council of Europe to find out how much substance there is to this whole affair. I have therefore tabled a motion for a resolution which has been signed by a number of my colleagues in the Assembly.
Principles to be respected
First of all, the matter has to be examined carefully and thoroughly. The Council of Europe must ask all governments of the member states whether such practices exist in their country, and if they do, under which conditions. After that, we must evaluate the need for new measures. As the subject might well have international repercussions, this also means considering the global implications.
In the motion, I have put down some ideas which should at this preliminary stage serve as guidelines in the question of the use of human embryos.
It is my opinion that dead embryos should be regarded as “human material”, meaning that they should as far as possible be treated in the same way as dead bodies. The establishment of the same rules as those enabling people to decide what they wish to be done with their organs after their death is of course excluded. It might however be possible to draw up procedures for family consent in the case of the use of dead embryos.
This having been said, I hasten to add that some restrictions must be laid down. All commercial transactions should be prohibited, while medical use and scientific research might be authorized as long as they respect the normal rules for such activities as laid down for instance in the Helsinki and Tokyo Declarations, and other ethical norms.
Is the right to life involved?
To some people, this question means reopening the difficult debate on abortion. For me, this is not true, but I strongly advocate that the question of when the right to life is acquired be discussed. This might take place in connection with further work in the Council of Europe on genetic engineering, in vitro fertilization etc., which is now going on in the Committee of Ministers, on the basis of the recommendation on these subjects from the Assembly.
To my mind, the answer to the question of when the tight to life is acquired has to be decided. In cases where a woman conceives the child “normally”, there might be a conflict of interests, i.e. between the woman’s right over her own body and the embryo’s right to life. In such situations I accept that priority should be given to the woman’s interests, in the event of her wanting an abortion within a limited period from the conception (in most countries normally three months).
In other situations, where new techniques such as invitro fertilization or the cultivation of embryos in laboratories might be used one day, there are no such conflicting interests. At least not of the same kind, although “abortion” might be called for, for other reasons. In such cases, I think the right to life is acquired at an earlier stage, perhaps even from the very conception.
I admit that these questions are very complicated and very sensitive. To find valid answers to them is equally difficult.
On the other hand, there is no acceptable argument for not discussing them – above all in the Council of Europe. The organization’s whole raison d’ être being the fight for democracy and respect for human rights, we must always endeavour to strengthen, improve and update the basis and the instruments for our activities.