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Embryos Act [The Netherlands]

The Embryos Act, which contains rules relating to the use of human gametes and embryos, allows the use of spare embryos for scientific research (including obtaining stem cells from such embryos for the purposes of research), subject to review of the research protocol by the Central Committee on Research Involving Human Subjects and Embryo Research (CCMO). The Act prohibits the creation of embryos for purposes other than reproduction (s. 24a), which applies to therapeutic cloning using human stem cells. However, there is a sunset clause (s. 33 sub 2) of five years, at which point the matter will be revisited. Article 24 of the Act prohibits the creation of embryos specifically for scientific research or for purposes other than the generation of a pregnancy; performing procedures with gametes or embryos with the goal of the birth of genetically identical human individuals is also forbidden.

The Act also prohibits human reproductive cloning. Article 11 of the act prohibits the performance of scientific research with embryos specifically created for this purpose. However, this prohibition does not apply to scientific research that is reasonably likely to lead to the identification of new insights in the field of fertility, in the field of artificial reproduction techniques, in the field of congenital diseases or in the field of transplant medicine.

Under the Embryos Act, an embryo is defined as “a cell or a complex of cells with the capacity to develop into a human being.”

The Act already contains provisions for the handling of embryos created for purposes other than reproduction, which would come into force after the lifting of the ban (section 11). This complex construction was chosen in order to allow reservations to Article 18 of the European Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine (which forbids the creation of embryos for research purposes) when the Netherlands ratified the convention.

In a recent statement (June 2004), the Dutch government decided, following the recommendations of the Health Council of the Netherlands, that research involving all types of stem cells, including embryonic stem cells, should continue; the claim that adult stem cells are sufficient to address current scientific needs was rejected. The Health Council has recommended that entities resulting from the transfer of a human nucleus into an enucleated animal egg can best be considered as human embryos. According to the statement from the Dutch government, however, these embryos are not human embryos as these embryos are probably not viable.

Other normative measures

The Health Council of the Netherlands believes that the argument that an embryo has a relative right to protection cannot be used to prevent the creation of an embryo by means of somatic cell nuclear transfer (the transfer of a cell nucleus to an ovum, or another cell, from which the nucleus has been removed). The council is not convinced that allowing therapeutic cloning (defined by the council as “cloning with the aim of obtaining stem cells for the treatment of diseases”) will lead to reproductive cloning (defined by the council as “cloning with the aim of creating an organism”). Therefore, the council recommended that therapeutic cloning not be banned. In the June 2002 report released by the council, reproductive cloning is considered to be “medically extremely irresponsible” at the present time.

Consistent with this view, the council states that the legal option of generating embryos specifically for research purposes should be left open in the interest of acquiring important new knowledge that cannot be achieved by any other means. The council recommends “no ban (statutory or non-statutory) in advance on research into the possibility of nuclear transplants and the creation of new embryonic stem cell lines.” In ethical terms, the council states, the distinction between conducting research on spare embryos and on embryos created specifically for research is comparatively small.

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