BRASILIA Brazil's Supreme Court is expected to decide on Wednesday whether to uphold legislation that allows research on embryonic stem cells in the world's largest Roman Catholic country.
In 2005, Brazil became the first Latin American country to legalize research with embryonic stem cells and is the only country in the region conducting such research, but the issue has been highly divisive.
Several church groups oppose the research, saying it is unethical and destroys living embryos, while supporters including the government say stem cells offer the potential to regenerate damaged organs and treat diseases such as diabetes.
Scientists complain that most new research has been on hold since 2005 when the country's chief public prosecutor questioned the biotechnology law before the Supreme Court.
"Brazil has big scientific potential in this area but we've fallen behind because of this legal instability," Debora Diniz, director of the International Association of Bioethics, told Reuters.
The legislation permits research on stem cells drawn from embryos frozen for at least three years and considered unsuitable for human reproduction. These embryos would eventually be discarded, the Health Ministry said.
After days of protests and intense public debate, Supreme Court judges began reading their arguments and voting early on Wednesday.
The case stirred so much public interest that the country's highest court held its first public hearing to obtain testimony from experts and leaders from civil society.
"Destroying, manipulating an embryo like an object to use the special powers of its cells, isn't much different from selling children to use their organs for sick people," the Brazilian Conference of Bishops said.
The government has financed research using stem cells drawn from embryos, as well as spinal and umbilical cords.
Around 25 countries, including Japan, Australia, and Canada have approved embryonic stem cell research, according to Brazil's Health Ministry.
Spain, another major Catholic country, allowed embryonic stem cell research in 2004, according to the ministry.
(Reporting by Raymond Colitt; editing by Stuart Grudgings and Jackie Frank)