The Nordic countries are made up of Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Iceland and Finland and are in the lead of biomedicine. These countries have numerous stem cell research projects in progress. Public support and government funding for science and research has led to a leading position in this field. In contrast to Norway’s Nordic neighbours however, Norway distinguishes itself by having a strict legislation regarding
embryonic stem cell. The debate about embryonic stem cell research has been huge. Through history, Norwegians have been afraid of becoming a “sorting society” which is reflected through a preamble in Norway’s biotechnology. This declares that the purpose of the law is to ensure that the medicinal use of biotechnology is utilized to the benefit of everyone in a society in which there is room for all. On the other side Norway has had a liberal abortion law since the late 1970s that have been under debate ever since. These two opposite forces have created political controversy where stem cell research has been looked at as something extraordinary, and not as a normal branch within medicine.
The first biotechnology-related law in Norway was introduced in 1987, concerning artificial insemination. The law also included a ban on embryonic research as a mean of protecting the fertilized egg and prevents it from only being used for the purpose of research. The Norwegian Parliament passed the first official biotechnology Act in 1994 and this Act was one of the first in the world that regulated the medicinal use of biotechnology. The Parliament upheld the prohibition on embryonic research from 1987. This on the other hand, was not according to the wishes of the Government and the Committee on Social Affairs at the time which suggested a use of embryos for research, although very limited. The Parliament decided that the Act was to be revised after five years, since the development within modern medicine is so rapid that there are small opportunities to foresee which area that would need legislation. The biotechnology law only regulates research on embryonic stem cells, while research on adult stem cells is allowed in Norway. Stem cells from umbilical cord, umbilical cord blood, foetus and induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells are not regulated by the law.After the world breaking news in 1997 about Dolly the sheep being cloned successfully, ban on the reproductive cloning of humans was included in the biotechnology act in 1998; this ban was also extended to therapeutic cloning. Scientists were hoping for a liberalisation of embryonic research when the Labour Party (Ap) came into power in 2000. The Labour Party had indicated that they wanted a softening of the Biotechnology Act. The Health Minister from the previous Government, Dagfinn Høybråten from the Norwegian Christian Democratic Party (KrF), wanted to ban the use of cells and tissue from aborted foetuses to research and treatment before the Labour Party came into office, this was however never implemented. The Labour Party minority government only lasted one year and a coalition government with the Norwegian Christian Democratic Party (KrF) in the lead came to power. As a consequence, the legislation in Norway became even more limited; from 2001 to 2005 Norway had the strictest stem cell legislation in Europe.
The majority of people in the Norwegian Biotechnology Advisory Board, an independent consultative body appointed by the Norwegian government in 2000, wanted to allow research on fertilized eggs and therapeutic cloning. In 2002 the Norwegian Government, with Krf in the leading position, instead proposed an amendment which specified that the ban on stem cell research also should include research on cell lines from fertilized eggs and therapeutic cloning. This amendment was implemented.
The Mehmet-case in 2004 was the final push the politicians to lift the ban on embryonic stem cell research. Mehmet was in 2004 a six year old boy with Talassemi, a common hereditary disease, and he needed stem cells from umbilical cord or a bone marrow transplant from a healthy sibling with a compatible tissue type. No one in his family however, had the same tissue type and the family whished to have a new baby through preimplementation diagnosis that could guarantee that the baby did have the same tissue type, but did not have Thalassemi. A year later it was suggested by an appointed public committee that the Mehmet’s family could go abroad for therapy.The Norwegian Parliament wanted the government to propose a revised biotechnology Act which would pave the way for limited research on embryos left over from in vitro fertilization (IVF), and a limited use of preimplementation diagnosis. The Minister of Health and Care at the time, Silvia Brustad (Ap), said that ”the government believes it is important to use the opportunities offered by science to gain knowledge that can be used to treat serious illnesses in the future”, on the proposed legislation. Fourteen years after the first biotechnology Act was passed in 1994, the ban on research on leftover fertilized eggs was lifted on January 1st 2008. Importing embryonic stem cell lines was also made legal. The law states that it is only allowed to use fertilized eggs that have been created in IVF treatment, and does no longer fulfil its purpose. Research on fertilized eggs can not be carried out later than 14 days after the egg has been fertilized. It is also important that it is not allowed to fertilize a human egg solely with the purpose of performing research on it. Left over fertilized eggs can only be utilized in research when the goals are to:
1) to develop and improve new methods and techniques for IVF
2) preimplementation diagnostics
3) attain new knowledge about new treatments against serious illnesses in humans
In a survey carried out by Perduc assigned by the Department of Health showed that there is an agreement in the Norwegian public that stem cell research has a great potential to a positive development. On the other hand stem cell research should be carried out under strict legislation as there are a lot of ethical issues surrounding the subject. At the present, from being on the most conservative countries in Europe in regards to stem cell research, Norway is now more in tune with its neighbouring countries.
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