March 9th 2002

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Articles from this issue:

The Hollingworth Affair

Federal Cabinet decision on cloning

Media putsch overwhelms Governor-General

Will CHOGM bite the bullet, oust Mugabe?

Straws in the Wind: Rumpole arising

Environment: National parks are an unacceptable fire risk

Agriculture: Bar lowered on quarantine once again

Media: Crude but effective

Environmental optimism (letter)

Bias: in the eye of the beholder (letter)

Economics: Privatisation: the promise and the reality

Comment: Trust: a commodity in short supply

Culture: How the media exploits the US$150 billion American youth market

ASIA: WTO entry will put pressure on China-Taiwan ties

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Federal Cabinet decision on cloning

by Peter Westmore

News Weekly, March 9, 2002

The decision by the Federal Cabinet to implement nationally consistent federal legislation against human cloning, destructive embryo experimentation and other unacceptable practices, will be strongly supported by all who have been concerned by the apparent determination of some members of the scientific community to press on with destructive human embryo experimentation.

In three states (Victoria, South Australia and WA) legislation regulates human cloning and the destructive use of human embryos. In August 1999, the lack of effective legislation elsewhere in Australia prompting the Federal Government to ask the House of Representatives Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee to report on the issue.

The Committee, headed by Kevin Andrews MP, reported to Federal Parliament last September, saying that there should be uniform state and federal legislation to regulate research in these fields.

Pandora's Box

The birth of Dolly, the cloned sheep, in 1996, the isolation of human embryonic stem cells in 1998, and the mapping of the human genome have opened a Pandora's Box. Some medical scientists have strongly resisted regulation, pushing ahead with human embryo stem cell research.

Researchers are after two types of stem cells.

The ethically acceptable, and most promising for curing diseases, are adult stem cells. These occur naturally in the body. Using a patient's own cells means that any new tissue, and possibly new organs, produced will be compatible with the patient, and not face rejection by the person's immune system.

However, some scientists want to use embryo stem cells, which can only be obtained by destroying a human embryo. This is not only morally repugnant but of doubtful medical use. Tissue or organs developed for a patient could face the same problems of immune system rejection as faced by recipients of organ transplants.

The Australian Health Ethics Committee has reported that there are proposals also to use embryo stem cells for other purposes, including the laboratory testing of drugs, research into human genes, and embryo development.

Equally repugnant is the proposal to clone a person who needs, say, a replacement heart or liver, and harvest the new organ from the foetus/baby, using this newly created person as a disposable "spare parts" factory.

After World War II, when it became apparent that Nazi Germany and Japan had conducted destructive medical experiments on human beings, strong prohibitions were put in place internationally to outlaw such practices.

Federal Cabinet has recommended national legislation to stop the creation of embryos or the use of spare IVF embryos for experimental purposes, and ban human cloning. It has seized the high ground, rejecting practices which treat human beings as disposable commodities.

In Australia, the next stage in this process will involve Federal and State Government consultation, the Council of Australian Governments (COAG), with a view to obtaining uniform legislation across all states and territories.

However, over the past six months, the New South Wales and Queensland State Governments have introduced legislation, which would permit both embryo experimentation and stem cell research to continue. The NSW legislation was withdrawn after a public outcry, and the Queensland Bill has been shelved.

In South Australia and WA, new governments have come into office since legislation was passed; but neither government has declared its position on human cloning and embryo experimentation.

Whether the States follow the lead of the Federal Government will depend substantially on the public pressure brought to bear on the Premiers and State Health Ministers.

Increasingly, it is becoming apparent that the most promising research in this new area of scientific endeavour lies with adult stem cell therapy. Their use avoids the ethical problems associated with embryonic stem cells and issues of compatibility.

All members of the House of Representatives Committee on Human Cloning, whose report was tabled in Parliament last September, strongly supported adult stem cell therapy, although they differed on whether spare IVF embryos should be used for research purposes.

Their unanimous view was that research using adult stem cells should be encouraged and pursued.

The importance of this is underpinned by recent research on adult stem cells, conducted at the University of Minnesota, where scientists have discovered a previously unknown type of adult stem cell that is very flexible, able to develop into many types of human tissue.

As reported in the New Scientist (January 23, 2002), several other researchers also claim to have found these highly adaptive adult stem cells.

There is widespread enthusiasm that adult stem cell research provides a potentially new approach to the treatment of certain illnesses. It would be tragic if its potential were to be overshadowed by a cavalier disregard for the dignity of human life.

  • Peter Westmore is President of the National Civic Council

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