Dutch hospital disregards parliament's call to withhold embryo tests
The hospital says that it has already contacted five patients since last week and will proceed with the embryo screenings.5 June 2008
THE HAGUE - The Dutch parliament is due to convene an emergency meeting Thursday to debate whether Dutch hospitals may screen embryos resulting from IVF treatment for certain genetic diseases, reports said Wednesday.
After screening, only those embryos free of the gene that may later cause a person to develop the disease will be implanted in the uterus.
The emergency meeting follows after members of the smallest coalition party Christian Union demanded last week that Dutch deputy minister of health Jet Bussemaker (Labour) recall her letter to parliament of 26 May, which said the government supported extending the list of genetic diseases for which patients could request embryo screening.
The AZM hospital, however, has decided to proceed with the screening. After receiving the letter of approval from the deputy prime health minister, the hospital has immediately contacted the five patients it has on its waiting list for years.
"We cannot promise our patients to help them on Monday and call them back on Thursday, saying that the government has changed its mind," Joep Geraedts, head of the clinical genetics department said.
"That would be neither humane nor ethical."
The importance of testing
In the last 10 years, only the AZM hospital, a teaching hospital affiliated with the University of Maastricht in the southern Netherlands, is allowed to perform so-called pre-implantation genetic diagnostics (PGD).
PGD enables people who are carriers of serious genetic diseases to start IVF treatment. The resultant embryos are subsequently screened for the genetic diseases.
Only embryos that do not carry the genes responsible for these particular diseases are implanted in the womb.
So far, PGD has been allowed only for serious diseases such as Huntington's disease, a neurological disorder characterised by abnormal body movements, and Duchenne's muscular dystrophy.
Carriers of these genes have a 100-percent certainty of developing the disease.
But the AZM and other Dutch hospitals also want to perform PGD on embryos who carry the gene of a serious disease, but who have a less than 100 percent chance of actually developing that disease.
These include genetic breast cancer and cancer of the intestines.
In some families, where women have lost their mother, grandmother, aunts and cousins to breast cancer, other women in the family are estimated to have an 80 percent of developing breast cancer or ovarian cancer.
If these women have a child, their children also have an 80 percent chance of developing the disease.
The AZM wants to enable such women to undergo IVF and PGD.
But Dutch politicians are divided over the issue of whether or not to extend the list of diseases qualifying for PGD.
In 2006, Bussemaker's predecessor, Clemence Ross said PGD should only be allowed for diseases with a 100 percent chance of developing.
Ross promised to investigate the matter, and the AZM decided to put PGD for these women on hold, even though Dutch law permitted the hospital to make its own medical judgment and accept these women for PGD.
Meanwhile Dutch legislators have done little, forcing Dutch patients - around a dozen in the entire Netherlands - who could benefit from PGD for these types of genetic diseases to go to Belgium to undergo PGD.
Mixed reactions from politicians
Two of the three coalition parties, the Christian Union and the Christian Democrats, criticised the AZM hospital for going through with the IVF and PGD before the government had taken an official position.
But vice prime minister Wouter Bos, leader of the second largest coalition party, Labour, publicly expressed his support for extending the list of diseases qualifying for PGD and added "PGD is matter of principle for Labour no less than it is for the Christian Union."
His remark sparked speculation of a government crisis between Christian Union and Christian Democrats on the one side, and Labour on the other.
Meanwhile the physicians' association KNMG warned Dutch politicians on Wednesday that Dutch patients must not be harmed due to the slow decision-making process by the government.
KNMG also emphasised that the decision as to whether PGD is permitted should be up to doctors and medical-ethical committees, and not be left to politicians.
[dpa / Expatica]