October 20th 2001

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Articles from this issue:

EDITORIAL: Issues for the forthcoming election

TESTIMONIAL: Digger James: Why I support 'News Weekly'

CANBERRA OBSERVED: The 'other' election on November 10

ECONOMICS: Who's looking after world trade

BIOETHICS: Cloning: a mixed bag

Straws in the Wind: Come in, Spinner

SOUTH AUSTRALIA: Parents call for increased penalties for drug trafficking

TERRORISM: Why the Muslim world hates America

AFGHANISTAN: Australia must protect the innocent victims of war

Letter: Refugee analysis wrong

Letter: Free trade challenge

Letter: Marriage costs

PACIFIC: After the civil war: Bougainville looks ahead

MEDIA: Mutual admiration / "Beazley-class" subs

COMMENT: Baddies are not always cowards

DOCUMENTATION: Latest data show mothers' preference for home

COMMENT: Don't hurt us, we're men

Books: 'THE LITTLE ICE AGE: How Climate Made History 1300-1850', by Brian Fagan

Books: 'One in Thirteen: The Silent Epidemic of Teen Suicide', by Jessica Portner

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Cloning: a mixed bag

by Anthony Fisher OP

News Weekly, October 20, 2001

Little reported in our national media was the conclusion of the Federal Parliamentary Inquiry into Human Cloning, chaired by Mr Kevin Andrews MP. The 282-page report on Scientific, Ethical and Regulatory Aspects of Human Cloning and Stem Cell Research is very much a compromise document.

At present, destructive experimentation on human embryos is regulated or banned in some parts of Australia but not in others. The Andrews Committee has now recommended a nationwide ban on "cloning for reproductive purposes", that is, cloning so as to bring to birth babies who would be genetically identical twins of other babies or of adults. They would also ban manipulating the germ line, fusing animal and human cells, and purchasing or selling human embryos, sperm or eggs. These proposals are acceptable to the biotech lobby.

Should we create human embryos with a view to destroying them so as to get 'just the right stem cells' for therapies? Should we destroy existing embryos 'left over' from IVF programs in order to get stem cells for research? At the heart of the cloning and stem cell debate is the question: is it ethical to kill one human being - even a very tiny one - in order potentially to save others?

Six of the 10 members of the Committee supported research on 'spare embryos'. The other four, including the Chairman, would restrict research to existing human embryonic stem cell lines, as the Americans have done, provided these stem cells cannot develop into an embryo.

The majority position amounts to acquiescing in destructive experimentation on IVF embryos, and opens the way to specifically creating embryos for this purpose in the future. This is a real victory for the biotech lobby. How Federal and State governments will respond is unclear.

Were the Report to be followed in its entirety we would be in the ironic position of banning the morally better examples of cloning - where the intention, at least, is to let the baby be born - and allowing the most morally repugnant examples - where embryos are created with a view to their 'cannibalisation' by others.

This reflects the campaign by some to confuse the public into thinking 'reproductive cloning' is nasty cloning and 'therapeutic cloning' is nice cloning. Both are in fact reproductive; neither is remotely therapeutic for the embryo concerned; both are a profound offence to human dignity.

Even if the inflated claims about the potential of embryonic stem cells were to be believed, the fact is that we would be immorally killing some in order to save others, and doing so when there are real alternatives without such ethical downsides. The Committee reported that there was universal support for cloning techniques involving adult and placental stem cells. "There is a growing appreciation that these cells may provide the key to future advances in medicine without the ethical problems associated with embryonic stem cells," Mr Andrews said.

The Committee made a number of proposals on how we might better regulate this area of research here in Australia. Mr Andrews rightly concluded, "These are not matters to be decided behind closed doors by scientists or lawyers, however expert and sincere, without widespread community consultation. Nor are they matters that can be resolved by doing nothing. As a society we are confronted with profound issues that require ongoing attention and discussion."

  • Very Rev Professor Anthony Fisher OP is Episcopal Vicar for Health Care in the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne

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