The EU's 1998 directive on the patentability of biotechnological inventions explicitly prohibits the patenting of the human body at any stage of development including the germ cell, or any part of the human genome. Patenting of human reproductive cloning and the commercial exploitation of embryos or elements of the human body is also banned. Patents for genetic modification likely to cause suffering to animals for no substantial benefit is prohibited as well. The directive does regulate the conditions under which an invention that is based on biological material, may receive patent protection, according to the Commission, but it does not seek to lay down the conditions under which the research itself may be carried out.
In the meanwhile, the President of the United States, Bill Clinton, has given federal scientists the green light for stem cell research whereas in the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Blair publicly announced his support for qualified therapeutic cloning and shortly will put the matter to the vote in the House of Commons. EC President Prodi commented that the technique of cloning for therapeutic purposes raises major ethical questions. On the other hand, the different Member States retain the right to set up their own legislation on ethical matters under the Treaty of the European Union. President Prodi also admitted that it is difficult to remain indifferent to research which holds out the hope of treating hitherto incurable diseases.
The Commission's aim therefore is to combine scientific and technological development with a clear statement of the values shared by Europeans taken into account that there can only be a European Research Area (ERA) on such issues as human cloning if there is a European area of shared ethical values. The European Commissioner for Research, Philippe Busquin, in turn stated that the Commission very much intends to take the initiative to reinforce the links between the ethical committees in Europe and the exchange of a good practice for ethical evaluation of research projects. At present, the European Commission supports biotechnological research which can offer protection or benefit to human health through its Fifth Framework programme. Scientists are encouraged to respect fundamental ethical principles. Research on both reproductive and therapeutic cloning is not funded.
In the meantime, President Prodi is keen to advance the debate. A group of high level experts in the life sciences will meet in Brussels on November 6 and 7 for a discussion forum, which is hoped to further inform this debate. President Prodi stated that he awaits with great interest the opinion to be delivered by the European Group on Ethics and intends to strengthen the Group's role. He added that the Commission must strike the right balance between rigorous ethical standards based on a refusal to exploit the human body for commercial ends and the duty to meet therapeutic needs. More news on the subject is available in the VMW September 2000 article British report on stem cell research puts European Union legislative cloning approach under pressure.