April 5th 2003

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: Iraq war: will it change everything?

EDITORIAL: Bushfires: urgent action needed

Queensland: Beattie follows Canberra on embryo experimentation

Water rights: an emerging political issue in the Murray Darling Basin

Straws in the Wind: Varieties of folly / With us or against us / Cue for a song / Hatred

NSW Election: Bob Carr's next four years

Trade deal: what will Washington do?

Euthanasia: Victorian Tribunal orders death by starvation

Has privatisation been successful?

Letters: The cost of the Victorian bushfires (letter)

How taxation hits families

School students, demonstrations and the New Civics

ASIA: North Korea's nuclear game

SARS: China the epicentre of world flu outbreaks

BOOKS: On Enlightenment, by David Stove

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Queensland: Beattie follows Canberra on embryo experimentation

by News Weekly

News Weekly, April 5, 2003
The Queensland Parliament has passed legislation banning human cloning and allowing access to "surplus" IVF embryos for scientific research. It has been a controversial process. Victor Sirl reports.

Premier Peter Beattie introduced legislation regulating research on human embryos and banning human cloning that mirrors the two bills passed by the Commonwealth Parliament. Queensland is the first state to pass legislation that is designed to give uniformity in law between the states and the Commonwealth.

However, Peter Beattie brought a needless controversy to the debate by introducing a single piece of legislation. In South Australia, where legislation has also been drafted, two bills have been put before the Parliament. In the Commonwealth Parliament the original legislation was split to give a true conscience vote by allowing members to vote separately on the two issues.

Beattie flip-flopped when Labor backbencher Ronan Lee led an ALP revolt and the Leader of the Opposition, Lawrence Springborg, publicly championed the right to a true conscience vote. The Premier, politically an illusionist of Mandrake proportions, had claimed that as members could vote against each clause in the Bill they were free to exercise a conscience vote. As Springborg pointed out in his reply to the Premier, this idea was an absurdity when the fact remained that all members would have eventually had to vote on the Bill as a whole.

Ronan Lee could not have got a majority of his own party to support splitting the Bill, and not even the Parliament itself, but he raised the prospect of embarrassing the Premier by making him appear an insensitive rogue who had cheated even his own parliamentarians of a true conscience vote. That cap would have fitted well. In this context, while his effort was both heroic and selfless, neither his party nor his faction closely aligned with Peter Beattie, publicly an "Independent", will reward him for his exertions.

Yet Australians of all political persuasions owe him a debt of gratitude because the splitting of the Bill raises the prospect of a unanimous vote against all forms of human cloning in every parliament of Australia. Other states, such as Victoria, where Steve Bracks has also introduced a joint Bill and New South Wales where Bob Carr advocates "therapeutic" cloning, will learn from the Queensland experience.

The member for Indooroopilly will continue to champion adult stem cell research and oppose the destruction of human embryos. We need more intelligent, committed pro-life parliamentarians like him in all the parties. Mike Horan, the former Opposition Leader, and Fiona Simpson, the shadow Health Minister, are two prominent members across the chamber who voted with him and exercised their hard won conscience vote.

Sadly, Lawrence Springborg did not join them. He, like the Premier, has supported a ban of all human cloning, including so-called "therapeutic" cloning. Legislation introduced last year in Queensland and subsequently withdrawn supported "therapeutic" cloning.

The comprehensive prohibition on all human cloning is a significant win for the Do No Harm coalition, and others who have opposed the commercialisation and destruction of human life.

Springborg's reasons for supporting research on human embryos were echoed by others in the debate and are worth noting when lobbying continues in the future. Firstly, he believes it is too early to "close the door" on possible medical advances based on embryonic stem cell therapies, a cliché now echoed frequently when discussing embryo research.

Surprisingly, he felt it was a uncertain when human life began. Commenting on the embryos to be used Professor Alan Trounson, when debating Dr David Van Gend from Do No Harm on Lateline, said "They're alive". Science tells us embryos are both alive and human, after all these living embryos can not be geese, frogs, spiders etc. The real issue it what status we give them, not if they are human life.

But in relation to killing them Trounson said, "No, it doesn't bother me at all, the Federal Parliament, sorry, the regulatory bodies have just approved the morning after pill, which would prevent implantation, we use the IUD, that prevents implantation, we're allowed to abort on demand ...".

In a pro-choice, utilitarian world it is not surprising some parliamentarians, such as Neil Roberts, the member for Nudgee (ALP), mimicked his remarks during parliamentary debate.

Many parliamentarians stated that they are not yet convinced that human embryonic stem cells are the only way to go.

Roberts said, "I give no commitments to support further legislation which may seek to broaden the boundaries within which this research may be undertaken, nor do I give any commitment to support any proposed therapies that may arise. When and if such proposals arrive, I will evaluate each one on its merits."

He then added, "The onus now is on the scientific community to produce the evidence, to the satisfaction of the community, and ultimately the parliament, that an extension of the proposed regulatory regime established in this bill is justified."

This makes one wonder if faking science, such as in Trounson's now infamous white rat video hoax, and making outlandish promises not supported by laboratory results will be evidence enough for Mr Roberts and his colleagues next time around.

However, parliamentarians like him must be given a chance to be people of their word.

Leading immunologist, Dr Michael Good, was reported in the Courier Mail as stating that the Bill would result in money being drained away from adult stem cell research. His comments are most disturbing because embryonic stem cell research is heavily sponsored by drug companies but adult stem cell research, that is actually making the real breakthroughs in therapies, relies heavily on public money.

Not surprisingly it was left to opponents of embryo research to highlight its links to drug testing, something sought by lobbyists like Alan Trounson and companies like Bresagen. This use of stem cells did not rate a mention from either the Premier or the Leader of the Opposition. Why is that? We must prevent politicians from avoiding this issue and force them to comment publicly.

Two years ago supporters of ethical medical research were faced with the real prospect of wholesale access to "surplus" embryos and a go-ahead for so-called therapeutic cloning amid complete public ignorance of adult stem cell research.

Today's utilitarian scientists have won some ground, and also lost some, but it has not been a blitzkrieg - we are still in the battle. In Churchillian terms this is not the end, or the beginning of the end, but if we soldier on it may yet prove to be the beginning of the beginning.

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