Crucial terms

The Bundestag will decide on Thursday whether to allow or ban preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD). Here is an explanation of important terms that play a role in the debate about genetic testing of embryos.


1. Embryo Protection Society

The Embryo Protection Act, which came into force in 1991, is one of the strictest regulations in Europe on ies related to reproductive medicine. But it is largely limited to criminal law ies, since the federal government had no legislative authority over reproductive medicine at the time the law was passed. This was only changed with a change in the constitution in 1994. That is why there have long been calls for a comprehensive reproductive medicine law in Germany.

Clearly defined is the beginning of human life. According to the law, it begins at the time of nuclear fusion of egg and sperm cell. Therefore, any "totipotent" cell taken from an embryo that is capable of developing into an individual is also considered an embryo.

The Embryo Protection Act punishes, on pain of a fine or imprisonment of up to three years, among other things: the splitting of motherhood into egg donor, surrogate mother and social parents; the creation of "surplus" embryos; sex determination in the embryo; interventions in the germ line as well as cloning and chimera formation. According to the law, any artificial insemination performed for a purpose other than to bring about a pregnancy is punishable by law.

For a long time it was considered undisputed that the law also prohibits the selection of embryos created in a test tube before they are implanted in the womb. In its July 2010 ruling, however, the Federal Court of Justice surprisingly decided that PGD does not violate the law in certain cases.

2. Prenatal diagnostics

The term "prenatal diagnostics" (prenatal examination) covers various medical examination methods that can detect malformations of a child in the womb. The palette ranges from ultrasound diagnosis to amniocentesis.

The prenatal examination methods are widely uncontroversial, as long as they can confirm the health of the child and relieve the parents' fear of a disability. If the results are negative, parents can better adjust to a disabled child. Indisputable is also the search for such diseases, which are still treatable in the womb. Critics of prenatal diagnostics, however, point out that there are still no cures for many of the embryo's identifiable diseases. They therefore warn that more and more sick fetuses are being aborted. The talk is of a selection.

In the debate about PGD, it is often argued that abortions after prenatal diagnosis would remain unpunished. Consequently, PGD should also be approved, especially since it starts at a much earlier stage and saves a lot of suffering.

3. Preimplantation genetic diagnosis

PGD is a special form of the growing range of prenatal testing methods available. In test tube fertilization, fertilized eggs are examined for genetic defects before they are implanted in the womb. Cells are taken from several embryos – usually on the third day after fertilization – and their genetic material is examined for gene defects. If there is no defect, an embryo is implanted in the uterus. If genetic damage is discovered, the embryo is destroyed.

PGD is criticized by the Catholic Church and parts of the Protestant Church, among others. They warn that PGD leads to a new form of selection between "life worth living" and "life unworth living". At the same time, they fear that the method will lead to a decline in society's willingness to accept disabled children. They also expect that in the future, with the help of new technology, not only diseases could be detected, but embryos could also be specifically manipulated. A limitation of PGD to a few severe cases they consider unrealistic.

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