November 11th 2006

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Articles from this issue:

EDITORIAL: Iraq after the U.S. elections

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Beazley relishes coming fight for workers' rights

ECONOMIC AFFAIRS: A clear lack of joined-up government

BUSHFIRES: Comprehensive approach needed to fight fires

WESTERN AUSTRALIA: Political identities probed by corruption body

VICTORIA: The ALP's abortion agenda

STRAWS IN THE WIND: The nuclear horror house / The return of religions / Arrogant Muslims / The hit-man society

SPECIAL FEATURE: 'I can never forget them': a memoir of the 1956 Hungarian uprising

OPINION: Ethics needed in science, medicine and politics

Water trading: the consequences (letter)

Country people left to choke on the dust (letter)

Chris Masters' grab for cash and fame (letter)

CINEMA: A future world without children

BOOKS: LOST! Australia's Catholics Today, by Michael Gilchrist

BOOKS: THE BABY BUSINESS: How money, science, and politics drive the commerce of conception, by Debora L. Spar

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Ethics needed in science, medicine and politics

by David Perrin

News Weekly, November 11, 2006
Ethics is what distinguishes professions from other occupations, says David Perrin.

Ethics is an essential component of professional practice. In fact, ethics is what distinguishes professions from other occupations.

Every profession has a code of ethics that determines the boundaries of activity in order to protect the members of that profession from disrepute.

This is why the current debate on human cloning and the killing of human embryos for their stem cells is so important.

Scientists are hotly debating the ethics of these issues because the reputation of their profession is at stake.

At the heart of this ethical debate is the definition of the commencement of human life and the status of the human embryos.

The recent visit to Australia by Associate Professor James Sherley from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology focussed the ethical debate squarely on these two issues.

Professor Sherley, who has extensive scientific knowledge of human stem-cell therapies, is concerned at the potential for the scientific profession to damage its reputation by not getting the ethics right.

He claims that the profession has always accepted that human life commences at the point of conception.

Human embryos are entitled to respect from conception onwards, and any move away from this definition opens the scientific profession up to moral abuse.

Political ethics

The ethical debate on the commencement of human life also has the potential to damage the profession of politics.

Like all other professions, politicians need to consider the potential damage to themselves of weak ethics.

The Australian public in general has a low opinion of politicians, and those few who display ethical views stand out from the crowd.

Politicians are judged on what they do rather than what they say because, rightly, the general public looks to actions rather than rhetoric.

Politicians, in the debate about the humanness of embryos and the ethical consequences of their destruction, need to adopt the precautionary principle of when in doubt - don't proceed.

The principle of the golden rule, do to others what you would like done to yourself, needs to apply in the case of human embryos - that is, would we, the born humans, wish to have been destroyed at our embryo stage? Clearly not.

The medical principle of first do no harm seems not to carry any weight in this debate.

Nothing new

The debate about the humanness of embryos is not a new one. Neither is the debate on experimenting on humans.

At the postwar trials of Nazi war criminals, the 1947 Nuremberg Code specified the ethical principle that voluntary consent of the human subject is absolutely essential in medical experiments. The code expressly prohibited medical experiments where death of the subject was expected. Both of these ethical principles are breached by both human-embryo experimentation and human cloning.

Then there are the ethics of wasting time and resources in pursuing embryonic stem-cell research when there is little chance of this providing any cures for diseases.

It's not as if there are no medical alternatives. There is ample medical research to suggest that stem cells from adult sources are already providing medical cures. The ethics of this waste needs to be brought home to both scientists and politicians.

Claims that human embryonic research would widen scientific knowledge of cell development, medical techniques, drug toxicity and embryo development were refuted by Professor Sherley with the simple argument that the human embryo was destroyed in the process.


Embryonic stem-cell research and human cloning that involves the creation and destruction of human embryos are unacceptable in a nation with any social conscience.

The wider community expects all its professionals to have an ethical basis for their activities, particularly when they are funded by taxpayers.

Australia's social conscience has always favoured the weak and powerless and has stood up for the underdog in the community.

No Australians are more weak and powerless than our human embryos. These underdogs need champions to defend their humanness and to bring ethics back into science and politics.

The current debate on destructive human embryo experiments and cloning are a defining moment in Australia's history.

If the scientists and politicians can't maintain the moral high ground in this debate, they can hardly criticise other professions when ethical standards break down.

The scientists and politicians must lead the way and reject embryo destruction and cloning.

- David Perrin is national president of the Australian Family Association.

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