LONDON--Several European countries have agreed to the first-ever international convention on biomedical ethics. The nonbinding treaty, signed on 4 April at a ceremony in Oviedo, Spain, sets strict limits on the use of genetic engineering in medical research, and it includes a ban on research involving human embryos.
The convention, drawn up by the 40-member Council of Europe and signed by 21 European countries, aims to protect people from the misuse of biological and medical advances by establishing the first common bioethics standards. It bans the creation of human embryos for research, international trade in human organs for transplantation, and the use of in vitro fertilization to help choose a child's sex, except to avoid a "serious hereditary condition" such as hemophilia, the gene for which lies on the X chromosome. It also limits the use of genetic engineering to areas of preventative, diagnostic, or therapeutic medicine "only where it does not aim to change the genetic makeup of a person's [descendants]."
The treaty is meant to establish common standards throughout Europe so that research groups do not shift projects from one European country to another with less restrictive rules. Council officials hope the convention's principles will also be adopted outside Europe. "Today, research is a transnational activity, and Western companies can carry out research in any part of the world," says Council of Europe Secretary-General Daniel Tarschys. "That is why it is not enough for developed countries to enact laws on their own territory." Each signatory must now ratify the treaty and write implementing laws; Germany and the United Kingdom did not sign but are expected to later.