BIOETHICS: by Richard EganNews Weekly
Review of cloning and embryo research laws
, September 10, 2005
Australia's laws banning human cloning and restricting embryo experimentation are up for review, reports Richard Egan.The review of the Prohibition of Human Cloning Act 2002 and the Research Involving Human Embryos Act 2002 has now begun in earnest, with the legislation review committee producing an Issues Paper: outline of existing legislation and issues for public consideration and calling for submissions from members of the public to be received by September 9, 2005.
The issues paper reminds us that these two acts, passed by the Federal Parliament in December 2002, along with the complementary legislation in each State and Territory, taken together:
- prohibit human cloning for any purpose;
- prohibit the creation of human embryos, by any means, for any purpose other than for attempting to achieve a pregnancy in a woman;
- allow the issuing of licences permitting the use of "excess" human embryos, created originally to achieve a pregnancy, in research which is likely to lead to a significant advance in knowledge or improvement in technologies for treatment.
The paper states that the purpose of the review is not "to revisit the underpinning community debate and rationale for the two Acts. Rather, the purpose is to review the Acts in the light of any changes in scientific or community understanding or standards since 2002, and any indications that the provisions are no longer appropriate or practical in their applications."
Despite this disclaimer the issues paper invites comment, especially from researchers and "consumers' groups representing recipients of potential therapies" on the question: "How has the ban on all human cloning affected research in Australia?" The paper also asks, "Are the prohibited embryos and practices described in the Act still relevant in light of advances in biotechnology since 2002? Do they reflect community standards?"
The issues paper states that, since the Research Involving Human Embryos Act 2002 came into force, the Licensing Committee has issued nine licences which authorise the use of 1,740 excess human embryos.
The issues paper asks, "Are the provisions of the legislation with respect to the use of excess embryos clear and unambiguous? Do they appropriately reflect community standards?"
The issues paper does not detail the uses for which licences have been issued, but this information is available on the public licensing database which can be viewed at: www.nhmrc.gov.au/embryos/monitor/database/index.htm
From this database, we learn that 840 human embryos may be used for research aimed at improving the culture of human embryos for IVF. 380 human embryos may be destroyed in an effort to refine the screening processes to identify human embryos with genetic or chromosomal problems so that human embryos that don't measure up can be discarded. This includes the use of 175 human embryos as mere training tools for technicians to practise embryo biopsy.
705 human embryos may be used to derive human embryonic stem-cell lines. The justifications given for these licences vary, including:
- making stem-cell lines to characterise and study growth and directed differentiation;
- for use in diagnosis and eventually for treatment of juvenile diabetes and Parkinson's disease (this writer's emphasis);
- for treatment of diabetes;
- to make stem-cell lines "with improved properties".
Australia has done well to prohibit all forms of human cloning. It is not in line with community standards to create a human life by any means with the intention of destroying it.
Australia's position prohibiting all forms of human cloning is in line with many other countries; with the United Nations Declaration on Human Cloning - which Australia supported - which passed by 84 votes to 34; and with the resolution of the European Parliament endorsing the United Nations Declaration.
The fact that human cloning has been carried out in South Korea and in Britain does not alter the situation in Australia. Our parliaments unanimously passed the laws prohibiting human cloning, knowing it was possible and likely that scientists somewhere in the world would attempt this.
There is no reason to change the law because this has now happened. Nothing in the experiments on human cloning in Britain or Korea has improved the likelihood that this will ever lead to successful therapies. There is still not a single therapy utilising human embryonic stem-cells, whether from a cloned human embryo or an embryo created by IVF.
Furthermore, the Korean cloning experiment required an average of 17 human ova for each successfully cloned human embryo.
Questions have been raised about the exploitation of the women who "donated" the ova for these experiments and exposed themselves to the serious risks (including death) of ovarian stimulation to obtain the eggs.
Where will all the eggs come from if cloning is to be used for therapeutic purposes? Each patient treated would need their own cloned human embryo, requiring thousands of women to "donate" eggs, undergoing the risks of ovarian stimulation.
There is absolutely no scientific justification for allowing research on human cloning while there is still no evidence that human embryonic stem-cells can be used in therapies. Problems with human embryonic stem-cells, including lack of stability and the risk of tumour formation, have not been overcome.
In regard to research involving human embryos, the issuing of licences for the creation of new stem-cell lines is unwarranted as there are already sufficient stem-cell lines in existence to do all the basic research. This research has not yet established that human embryonic stem-cells will ever be able to be used safely and effectively for therapies.
The use of some human embryos as training tools in "how to do embryo biopsy" is contrary to the legislation as it is neither an advance in knowledge nor an improvement in technologies for treatment.
The entire public and parliamentary debate about the use of human embryos for research was focussed on the potential of human embryonic stem-cells for therapy. However, for only 150 out of the 1,735 human embryos, for which licences have been issued, is stem-cell therapy mentioned as a justification.Advances
While there have been no significant advances towards the use of human embryonic stem-cells for therapies since 2002, there have been great advances in the use of adult stem-cells for therapy. There are now 65 disorders which are being treated by therapies utilising adult stem-cells.
The claim that adult stem-cells are not as useful as human embryonic stem-cells because they are harder to obtain, not as easy to multiply and not as plastic as human embryonic stem-cells is no longer tenable.
The breakthrough work of Professor Mackay-Sim and his colleagues at Griffith University on human olfactory glial cells has completely demolished these claims.
His work and other breakthroughs (see: http://www.stemcellresearch.org/facts/ASCpluripotency.pdf for further references) with adult stem-cells removes any justification for deriving any further human embryonic stem-cell lines.
The Legislation Review is due to report to the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) and to all the parliaments in Australia by December 19, 2005.
After that, it will be up to the Prime Minister, premiers and members of parliament to decide whether to implement any legislative changes proposed by the review.
- Richard Egan is WA state president of the National Civic Council