updated 1/26/2007 12:16:53 PM ET 2007-01-26T17:16:53

Norway’s government on Friday proposed lifting a national ban on using human embryonic stem cells for research, saying the change might help find cures to a broad range of diseases.

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Embryonic stem cells have the ability to become any tissue in the body, leading scientists to see them as a possible source of medical breakthroughs.

Current Norwegian law, from 2003, bars use of fertilized eggs or stem cells taken from them in research and requires eggs left over after assisted pregnancies to be destroyed.

The proposed law would allow research on such eggs under strict legal and ethical limits, including consent from the parents and approval from a national ethics panel, the government proposal said.

"The government believes if is important to use the opportunities offered by science to gain knowledge that can be used to treat serious illnesses in the future," Minister of Health and Care Services Silvia Brustad said in presenting the legislation.

She noted that there is hope stem cell research could lead to treatments for a wide range of illnesses, including heart disease, diabetes, AIDS and cancer. Brustad also said a new law would be more in line with those of other European nations.

U.S. law currently bans federal funding of any research that harms human embryos. In an August 2001 decision, President Bush allowed federal funding for research on the few dozen embryonic stem cell lines that had been created up to that point. But researchers say they need hundreds of lines to move the science forward.

Norway’s proposed law would not allow scientists to fertilize eggs for use in research. Instead, they could only use surplus embryos created by in vitro fertilization that are not implanted because of poor quality, or because they have been stored in deep freezer for more than the allowable five years. It would also require the research to be completed within 14 days of fertilization or of the thawing of stored embryos.

Genetic diagnosis
The Norwegian bill would also ease restrictions on a fertility procedure called pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, or PGD, which is used when parents want to avoid having a child with a lethal or severely debilitating birth defect.

Under the procedure, embryos created through in vitro fertilization are screened for genetic defects. Only those without defects are implanted.

The procedure is currently only allowed with special authorization from a government panel. The revision would allow a new board, handling only PGD-type cases, to decide whether the risk of a severe, hereditary ailment was great enough to warrant the screening.

The three-party coalition government of Labor, the Center Party and the Socialist, has a majority of 87 seats in the 169-seat parliament, or two more votes than needed to pass legislation.

However, embryonic research is often hotly debated, with opponents arguing that it is wrong to sacrifice human life, even at the embryonic stage, for research. It was not immediately clear whether any members of the ruling coalition would object to the amendment.

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