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European Commission rejects petition on embryonic stem cells

The European Commission has, as predicted, turned down a request from more than 1.7 million citizens for new legislation to ban the funding of research using human embryonic stem cells, including those that do not involve destruction of new embryos.

Scientists are relieved. “It is a good decision for us and for Europe,” says stem-cell researcher Elena Cattaneo of the University of Milan, Italy, who works on Huntington’s disease. But One of Us, the organization that led the petition, claims on its website that the Commission has exercised an “unjustifiable veto which flouts the democratic procedure”.

The One of Us petition was among the first to be presented within the Commission’s new European Citizens’ Initiatives (ECIs) scheme, launched two years ago in a bid to widen participatory democracy. The ECIs have drawn criticism for their potential to be exploited by pressure groups wishing to reopen recently closed debates. (Nature‘s editorial pages joined the critics: see ‘The democracy carousel‘.)

Any ECI that can muster more than 1 million signatures across at least seven European Union countries automatically triggers a parliamentary hearing and a formal response from the Commission.

The parliamentary hearing for the One of Us initiative took place on 10 April.

Today the Commission published its reasoning for not proposing new legislation. It said that the EU Council of Member States and the European Parliament had last year debated the issue thoroughly, and no new information was available to warrant a return to the debate so soon. At the time, member states and parliament both agreed that stem-cell research held great promise for currently incurable diseases such as Parkinson’s disease, and it was thus in the public interest to support it. They also agreed that human embryonic stem cells are still sometimes required in such research.

In its statement, the Commission further pointed out that its funding rules already preclude active destruction of new embryos and require strict oversight of experiments.

The petitioners had referred to a 2011 judgement of the European Court of Justice, which ruled that patenting of inventions involving cells derived from human embryos was illegal. But the Commission said that ruling did not apply to research.

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