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Human Embryo and Foetus

The Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine (the Oviedo Convention) sets out two principles concerning embryos (Articles 14 and 18). It forbids the use of techniques of medically assisted procreation for the purpose of choosing a future child's sex (except where serious hereditary sex-related disease is to be avoided) and the creation of human embryos for research purposes. It also stipulates that, where the law allows research on embryos, it shall ensure adequate protection of the embryo.

Scientific, technological and medical developments that involve an intervention on an embryo or foetus have not stopped increasing, raising ethical and legal questions. Faced with such developments, it appears important to undertake a deeper reflection on questions relating to the protection of the human embryo and foetus and the use of medically assisted procreation techniques with a view to supplementing the protective provisions set out in the framework of the Convention. To that end, a Working Party have studied the ethical and legal problems linked to the possibilities of intervention on the human embryo and foetus.

The work of the Working Party has particularly focussed on the fundamental questions surrounding the question of the protection of the embryo and foetus in the framework of in vitro fertilisation procedures, as well as the problems raised by preimplantation diagnosis and by recent developments in the research field.

It appears that, while a large number of issues relating to the protection of the embryo in vitro are the subjects of consensus at European level, on certain points there remains a great diversity of opinion that makes it difficult to identify a common approach. In that context, it was considered that a report, making the most of the reflection within the Working Party on the protection of the human embryo in vitro , would be a useful step to advance discussions on an ethical level on these issues.

That report, made public on 19 June 2003, presents briefly and impartially the diverse positions that exist on questions related to the protection of the human embryo in vitro as well as their underlying arguments. It broaches the different questions of principle concerning the protection of the human embryo in vitro that are relevant from the point of view of all the problems touched on in the report. It then deals with the problems raised by in vitro fertilisation, research on the embryo in vitro and preimplantation genetic diagnosis respectively.

Chronology of the work

The Working Party on the Protection of the Human Embryo and Foetus held its first meeting in May 1995. Its first task was to organise the symposium on the protection of the human embryo and foetus, held in Strasbourg in December 1996. The working party was then instructed to draft the Protocol on the Prohibition of Cloning Human Beings, which was adopted by the Committee of Ministers in November 1997.

The Working Party then continued, from September 1997, to examine the ethical and legal questions related to the protection of the human embryo and foetus. The reflection mainly focussed on the protection of the embryo in vitro .

During its meeting in September 2002 the Working Party started to develop a Report on the protection of the human embryo in vitro . That Report was presented to the Steering Committee on Bioethics during its 24th meeting (17-20 June 2003). It was made public on 19 June 2003 under the responsibility of the Working Party.