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News, 17 May 2002

17 May 2002

17 May 2002 The Belgian parliament has voted to legalise euthanasia. The measure, which was passed by the Senate last October and had the support of the ruling coalition, was passed yesterday in the lower house by 86 votes to 51, with 10 abstentions. The law is expected to come into effect this summer, when Belgium will become the second country after the Netherlands to legalise active euthanasia since the fall of Nazi Germany. The Belgian legislation not only covers those in the final stages of terminal illnesses, but also those with incurable psychological illnesses and those with other incurable conditions who could otherwise have years left to live. The opposition Christian Democrats have said that they might challenge the law in the European Court of Human Rights. [BBC and EWTN , 16 May] The European parliament failed to add any ethical amendments to the European Union's sixth framework programme, which sets the EU's research budget for the next five years, during Wednesday's plenary session. This means that EU funds will be provided for research using stem cells extracted from the bodies of aborted unborn children and from so-called supernumerary embryos resulting from in vitro fertilisation (IVF) treatment. All EU member states, including those whose national laws prohibit destructive embryo research, will be obliged to fund such research through their EU contributions. It is reported that EU funding of research on supernumerary IVF embryos would have been blocked if Ireland had supported a statement by Germany, Italy and Austria last December rejecting certain unethical research practices. [Euro-Fam, 16 May ] A study published in the British Medical Journal has suggested that teenage pregnancy rates could be reduced if school pupils in year 10 [aged 14 to 15, below the legal age of consent] were taught about so-called emergency contraception. The study was carried out in secondary schools in Avon, south-west England, by researchers from the universities of Bristol, Cardiff and Southampton. [BBC , 17 May] A spokesman for SPUC observed that no statistical evidence existed to prove that access to so-called emergency contraception reduced rates of either teenage pregnancy or surgical abortion, and pointed out that emergency contraception often caused the abortion of pre-implantation embryos who did not figure in official pregnancy rates. Researchers in the United States have demonstrated for the first time that adult bone marrow stem cells can differentiate into functioning liver cells. It is hoped that the advance made by scientists at the University of Minnesota Cell Institute could lead to effective therapies for patients with liver disease. [ScienceDaily, 15 May ] This provides yet further evidence of the potential of adult stem cell technology as an ethical and more promising alternative to the use of stem cells extracted from embryos and to so-called therapeutic cloning. The birth rate in England and Wales last year was the lowest since records began. Figures released by the Office for National Statistics indicate that the birth or fertility rate is now 1.64 children per woman, down from 1.66 in 2000. A birth rate of 1.7 is regarded as crucial to maintain a sustainable population ratio between the young and old, while the replacement birth rate needed to maintain a stable population total is about 2.1. The situation in Britain is still not as serious as in Spain and Italy, where the birth rate is now only 1.2 children per woman. [The Times and SPUC, 17 May; also see news digest for 11 May 2001 ] The vote in the US Senate on whether to ban human cloning has been postponed until next month. It is reported that 18 of the 100 senators remain undecided on whether to back a law to ban human cloning for all purposes which has already been passed by the House of Representatives and has the full support of President Bush. [LifeSite, 16 May ]

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