Controversial EU draft law could pave the way for genetic interference

4 mins read
Petri dishes are pictured in a laboratory. A commission representing the European Union's Catholic bishops has expressed "deep concern" over a draft EU law on the use of embryos, cells and "substances of human origin." (OSV News photo/Cancer Research UK, Handout via Reuters)

(OSV News) — A commission representing the European Union’s Catholic bishops has expressed “deep concern” over a draft EU law on the use of embryos, cells and “substances of human origin,” warning it could facilitate genetic and gender interference across the bloc’s 27 member-states.

“Unequivocally, this regulation will set the course for future discussions regarding prenatal human life … and will raise numerous ethical and constitutional conflict issues,” the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community, or COMECE, said in a joint statement with the German Church’s Catholic Office in Berlin.

“(It) degrades unborn human life to a mere ‘substance of human origin,’ equating it on the same level as skin cells or blood plasma. … Human subjects are thus subdued to be mere objects in disregard of their inherent dignity,” the statement said.

European Parliament approves draft law

The Brussels-based commission was reacting to the European Parliament’s Sept. 12 approval in a 483-52 vote, with 89 abstentions, of the draft law on “Quality and safety standards for substances of human origin intended for human use,” referred to by legislators as “SoHO.

It said the Catholic Church believed, “with many others,” that conceived life possessed its own dignity, adding that the new measure also threatened the right of EU member-states to determine their own social and moral norms.

Meanwhile, COMECE’s Brussels secretariat told OSV News it was disappointed by the European Parliament vote, but still hoped its warnings would be heeded when members of the Parliament met with the EU’s policymaking council, the European Commission, and for a “trialogue” to agree the law’s final text.

“It’s clear not all politicians understand what’s at stake in this complex law — and there’s a general appreciation that COMECE and the German Catholic Office have helped spotlight the issues,” the secretariat told OSV News in a statement via telephone.

“Even (though) the vote has gone against us, it’s good a debate has now been generated and we hope it’ll continue, as priests and bishops can explain locally why this really matters, and begin creating pressure against these proposed measures,” it said.

Human blood, stem cells and tissues

The European Commission announced plans in 2021 to update and merge two existing directives on the use of human blood, stem cells and tissues in medical experiments, to take account of “increasing commercialization and globalization” and allow “a more flexible alignment to scientific and technological developments.”

The draft law, tabled July 2022 after public consultation, was approved last October by the EU’s Economic and Social Committee and in July by its Committee on Environment and Public Health.

In a Sept. 12 communique, the European Parliament said EU patients underwent over 25 million blood transfusions, 35,000 stem-cell transplants and a million cycles of medically assisted reproduction annually, adding that the new law would respond “to citizens’ expectations for establishing common minimum healthcare standards.”

It added that the 32,000-word text, approved with 240 amendments, would be “another block in building a strong European Health Union,” in which EU member-states shared medical supplies and responded jointly to health crises.

However, in its statement, COMECE said the draft law would extend protection only to “born children,” while facilitating genetic testing on embryos and fetuses, and paving the way for life “selection.”

It added that national laws would be “overridden by the degradation of human life enshrined in EU law,” and said EU member-states must be entitled to opt out and maintain their own regulatory framework.

“Human life is not just a ‘substance of human origin.’ … Human life is not divisible,” the bishops’ commission said. “An embryo is designed to develop into a human being continuously and without qualitative jumps.”

COMECE and the dignity of human life

Set up in 1980 to represent Europe’s bishops’ conferences before EU institutions, COMECE is currently headed by Bishop Mariano Crociata of Latina, Italy, with a Spanish secretary-general and vice presidents from Denmark, France, Lithuania and Portugal.

The commission’s 16 expert staffers have urged a focus on the common good in EU policies on justice, culture and ethics, migration, ecology, religious freedom and other priorities, as well as defending the “legislative competences” of member-states, as enshrined in the bloc’s 1992 Maastricht Treaty, its foundational treaty.

However, the draft law said the “significant number of options and possibilities” for member-states to implement their own rules had created “obstacles to cross-border sharing,” adding that national laws on “substances of human origin” should in the future be “based on scientific evidence,” using “appropriate and necessary means,” and avoid discrimination “against persons on grounds of sex, racial or ethnic origin, religion or belief, disability, age or sexual orientation.”

Welcoming the Sept. 12 approval vote, the European Parliament’s French rapporteur, Nathalie Colin-Oesterl√©, said the new law was essential for “the safety of donors, well-being of patients, security of supply and development of innovative medical techniques,” adding that the members of Parliament were now ready for talks on its final shape.

Protecting viable embryos

However, COMECE said the law should be changed to ensure “with legal certainty” that viable embryos and fetuses, however created, were not treated as “mere raw materials” or relegated to the general category of “substances of human origin.”

“It is stated that this law should not interfere with ethical decisions made by member-states — this must be included in its operative text, preferably in Article 1,” COMECE said. “National primacy in ethical value decisions” must be anchored “in a legally secure manner.” “The upcoming trialogue will offer an opportunity to find suitable formulations,” it added.

Among other recent initiatives, COMECE condemned a June 2022 European Parliament resolution, backed by Social Democrat, Liberal and Green members of the Parliament, demanding that abortion be declared a “fundamental right” in all EU member-states. The resolution was a response to new abortion restrictions at the state level in the United States; the U.S. Supreme court returned the issue of abortion regulation to the states after overturning its previous rulings that made abortion access a constitutional right.

In July, COMECE joined global faith leaders in appealing for a robust EU due diligence law holding European companies accountable for environmental damage and human rights abuses.

On Sept. 14, COMECE’s president, Bishop Crociata, called on EU governments to speed up a planned pact on migration and asylum in time for European Parliament elections in June 2024.

In its statement to OSV News, the COMECE secretariat said the new draft law looked and sounded “very complex and technical,” but added that it counted on European Catholics to grasp the dangers of “placing embryos and fetuses on the same level as simple cells or plasma.”

“By creating an unacceptable equivalence, such definitions degrade the dignity and value of human life,” the secretariat told OSV News.

“We strongly support the principle of subsidiarity, particularly when nation-states offer a better policy outcome than the EU as a whole. The Catholic Church is a major grassroots actor not only here in Europe but across the world. Even when politicians don’t agree with what it says, they’d be wise to take its voice seriously.”

Jonathan Luxmoore

Jonathan Luxmoore writes for OSV News from Oxford, England.