March 22nd 2003

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: The future ... after Iraq

CANBERRA OBSERVED: After Iraq: the challenge facing John Howard

MEDICINE: Leading specialists reject destructive embryo research

BIOETHICS: Embryo research and state laws

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Bazaar politics/Sponsors/Beautiful People socialism

COMMENT: The real culprits in the internet porn scandal

FAMILY: Youth legal guide alarms families

MEDIA: Accord strikes a chord / 'Australian' shake-up a matter of opinion

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: Deregulation and water could be a tragedy for National Party

LETTERS: Foreign debt (letter)

LETTERS: The vision thing (letter)

How Australian support is rebuilding East Timor

WATER: Towards healthier river systems: a flawed process

NUCLEAR WEAPONS: The future of non-proliferation treaties

BOOKS: Life, Liberty and the Defence of Dignity, by Leon Kass

BOOKS: Australia And Israel: An Ambiguous Relationship, by Chanan Reich

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Leading specialists reject destructive embryo research

by Dr David van Gend

News Weekly, March 22, 2003
An Open Letter to all Australian parliaments from nine senior medical scientists warns that "undue expectations have been created in the community, particularly in those with various medical afflictions, as to the imminence and likely scope of embryonic stem cell therapy."

The Letter, entitled "No scientific imperative for destructive research on human embryos" and co-signed by various professors - including the head of the Queensland Institute of Medical Research, Michael Good, and head of the Children's Medical Research Institute, Peter Rowe - advised that, by contrast, "research on stem cells derived from adult and placental tissues, which has seen great advances in the last three years, is quite compelling in its clinical promise, and does not involve the destruction of nascent human life."

Dramatic advances

Scientifically, for serious technical reasons - that of tumour formation and immune rejection - embryo stem cells are highly unlikely ever to be trialled in humans, while adult stem cells are already making dramatic advances in human trials even here in Australia - spinal injury (Brisbane, PA Hospital), heart disease (Newcastle, John Hunter Institute), and in the months ahead, Parkinson's (Melbourne, Peter McCallum Institute).

Not to mention the Australian children cured of "bubble boy" immune deficiency, cases of corneal blindness repaired in California, stabilising of advanced MS and lupus, and dozens of other clinical applications (see

This is real and tangible science, real grounds for cautious hope, contrasting with the implausible speculation and blank score-card of embryo therapies.

As our State Parliaments commence the second round of debate on cloning and experimentation on human embryos, opinion will be polarised, as it was in the Federal arena, between those who think the embryonic human life matters, and those who think it does not.

This polarisation was evident in an exchange I had with Professor Alan Trounson, Director of the new National Stem Cell Centre, on ABC Lateline last August. I put to Trounson that "if the embryo matters, there are certain things we cannot do. We cannot define this littlest member of the human family as mere meat for the consumption of science."

The compere put the question: "Alan Trounson, is it the smallest member of the human family, the embryo?"

"Clearly human"

Trounson replied, "It's clearly human. We treat it with respect, but we have laws which say that we have to destroy it."

The compere probed further: "Does that actually bother you ethically if this is a human entity?"

At which point Trounson gave a lesson in the logic of the culture of death:

"No, it doesn't bother me at all, because 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 have abortion on demand. I mean, what suddenly tells us that the five- or six-day embryo is outside the boundaries of what we already accept that we can destroy or not allow to implant?"

This deadly logic prevailed in the Federal debate, for the first time defining a subgroup of the human family as useful laboratory animals to be dissected and exploited for science.

The depressed emptiness which settled over many of us with the Federal vote is likely to be deepened with the State parliamentary debates.

It looks like the majority of our State MPs will simply roll over to the argument that, since these IVF embryos are just going to be thrown out, "why not use them for something good?"

But they fail to ask two hard questions.

First, how did this dehumanised situation arise, where thousands of human offspring are discarded like expired meat?

We face this situation because, against the advice of every State enquiry into IVF in the 1980s, the industry was allowed to stockpile frozen embryos. Ironically, coinciding with the Federal debate, a British baby showed a way to stop the stockpiling. He was born using his mother's frozen ovum, stored until his parents were ready to conceive six months later.

A solution to the disgrace of the frozen generation is clear: freeze ova for later conception, not living embryos. The central offence of stockpiling embryos must be stopped - not perpetuated by establishing a permanent market for "surplus" offspring, desecrated as laboratory material to achieve "something good".

The second hard question is about the validity of claims that embryos will ever achieve "something good" for afflictions like Parkinson's and paralysis.

Most politicians blindly accept these claims; they lack the strength to crawl out from beneath the heap of embryonic hype. They simply believe the fevered fantasies about curing Alzheimer's and Superman and little diabetic children.

But the embryonic fantasy will continue to be fermented by miracles just around the corner, for as long as biotech companies need to ensure access to human embryos for more practical research. Such research will above all, as the Senate Enquiry heard, include drug testing (Hansard, February 17, 2002 pp.40-41), as well as training IVF technicians.

Leading embryo researchers made clear to the Senate committee that drug testing is a practical and profitable application of embryonic stem cells, Professor Alan Trounson enthusing, "These cells will be highly useful for screening drugs for both toxicology and effectiveness'' (Hansard, CA141, June 24, 2002).

There is already a market for mouse embryonic stem cells, which are similar to our own, but the drug companies would accelerate research (and add value) if they could go directly to human embryonic stem cells.

If these commercial facts of life need to be hammered home further, consider Trounson's successful application for the $46.5 million taxpayer grant to his Stem Cell Centre: "The centre will be developing pure populations of cells and plans to be primarily a supplier to screening companies for drug screening of selected cell types on a fee for service or a licence basis."

Primarily a supplier for drug screening. That is the reality behind this whole embryonic-stem-cell hoax.

Some members of State parliament, like their valiant Federal colleagues, will expose this hoax and clarify the real commercial uses for human embryos. They will rightly reject embryo stem cell cures as fanciful, useless and dangerous, a mere smokescreen for the drug companies, and affirm adult stem cell cures as ethically innocent, medically safe and actually treating humans in novel and exciting ways.

But the Research on Embryos Bill will still become law - a sad reflection on our representatives and a significant setback in the ongoing struggle to protect the littlest members of the human family.

  • Dr David van Gend is spokesman for DO NO HARM, an association promoting stem cell research but opposing human embryo destruction.

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