“For the first time, the ECJ clarifies, in a manner that is binding for 27 Member States, that human life begins at conception, and that it is deserving of legal protection,” commented Jakob Cornides, a Brussels-based human rights lawyer and expert on European legal issues. “This sets an end to all attempts of saying that the blastocyst, the embryo, or the fetus is ‘not yet’ human.”
The case has a somewhat convoluted history. The left wing environmental group Greenpeace brought the first court challenge in Germany against a patent held by Oliver Brüstle, a scientist who holds a patent for producing neural precursor cells from embryonic stem cell lines. Greenpeace based its case on a European Union directive that states stem-cell techniques are excluded from patentability if they require destruction of human embryos.
Unlike in the United States, bioethics issues in Germany are not divided left-right politically. Greenpeace’s involvement reflects the widespread opposition of German society, based on a shared abhorrence of the eugenics mentality promoted by Germany’s Nazi regime in the 1930s and 1940s, towards any commercialization of life-destroying techniques such as embryonic stem-cell research.
After Germany’s federal patent court ruled in favor of Greenpeace, Brüstle appealed to Germany’s Court of Justice. Before passing judgment, the German court referred the matter to the ECJ for determination of whether the EU directive applies universally to all embryo-based research.
The ECJ decision categorically affirmed it does. “Thus, the context and aim of the Directive show that the European Union legislature intended to exclude any possibility of patentability where respect for human dignity could thereby be affected,” the court stated on October 18. “It follows, in the view of the Court, that the concept of ‘human embryo’ must be understood in a wide sense. Accordingly, the Court considers that any human ovum must, as soon as fertilized, be regarded as a ‘human embryo’ if that fertilization is such as to commence the process of development of a human being.”
” …the Court considers that any human ovum must, as soon as fertilized, be regarded as a ‘human embryo’ if that fertilization is such as to commence the process of development of a human being.”
While the ECJ decision only protects embryos in circumstances involving commercial patents, and not from being killed for use in non-commercial research, pro-life legal experts say it lays down a key judicial marker. “This decision protects life and the human dignity in its early development,” said the European Center for Law and Justice based in Strasbourg, France.
European organizations are pressing for a wider application of the life-affirming legal precedent. “We expect the European Commission to evaluate the next Research Framework Program in the light of the judgment and adjust where necessary,” said Sophia Kuby, director of European Dignity Watch. “The EU cannot go on funding research that involved the destruction of human embryos as it does up to now.”
Cornides agrees the ECJ decision will have broader ramifications. “The ruling directly concerns only the issue of patentability,” he noted. “But it certainly has wide implications for issues such as abortion, IVF, stem-cell research in general, egg cell donation, and so on. We should analyze the judgment and use it to the maximum.”