COVER STORY: Cloning: time for PM to take a stand
by Peter Westmore
News Weekly, August 25, 2001
About 70 years ago in Brave New World, Aldous Huxley predicted that scientists would clone human beings. His was a nightmarish vision of a future society in which human beings were designed by genetic engineering, mass produced artificially, and controlled with mind-altering drugs and a manipulated media.
In 1997, just four years ago, scientists in Scotland confirmed that they had finally cloned an adult sheep.
Immediately, US President Bill Clinton imposed a moratorium on the use of this technology to clone human beings, and requested the respected US National Bioethics Advisory Commission to conduct an immediate inquiry into the technology, and the moral issues which it presented.
Its report, published on June 9, 1997, summarised the views of the Commission in these terms:
"The notion of using human cloning to produce individuals for use solely as organ donors is repugnant, almost unimaginable, and morally unacceptable."
What was "almost unimaginable" just four years ago is now firmly on the agenda, following decisions by the British Government, some European Governments, and, in this country, the Australian Medical Association and the Australian Academy of Sciences to support so-called "therapeutic" cloning for medical experimentation and stem cell harvesting. (All stated that they opposed the use of cloning to create human beings, the so-called "reproductive" cloning.)
Early this month, the distinction between "therapeutic" cloning and "reproductive" cloning was blurred when an Italian embryologist, Severino Antinori, announced that he intended to use 200 women volunteers in an attempt to create the worlds first cloned human baby. (Dr Antinori had earlier gained notoriety by giving a 62-year-old woman a baby through IVF.)
Dr Antinori made his announcement at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, DC, where two other teams announced that they would embark on the same quest.
The issue of cloning has become one of the most contentious public policy issues in the world, between those who regard the human person as both unique and precious - and therefore not to be the subject of experimentation or deliberate killing - and utilitarians who regard human embryos as "spare parts" factories, to be exploited, discarded and destroyed.
In the United States, the House of Representatives recently approved a broad-based ban on human cloning, including so-called "therapeutic" cloning for medical research.
"Some argue that cloning humans is the key that will unlock the door to the medical advancements of the 21st Century," said James Sensenbrenner, Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. "Nothing could be further from the truth."
Representative J.C. Watts from Oklahoma, expressed the view of the majority, saying, "This House should not be giving the green light to mad scientists to tinker with the gift of life. Cloning is an insult to humanity. It is science gone crazy." The US Senate is still to vote on a similar ban.
However, President George W. Bush said that he would allow federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, using cells from existing stocks, harvested from now dead human embryos - a decision which violated the Presidents stated principle that embryos should not be used for experimental purposes. In any case, most embryo and stem cell research in the US is conducted in the private sector, which is not subject to his decision.
Within Australia, the issue will shortly come to a head with the release of a report of the House of Representatives Inquiry into Human Cloning, which is due to report before the end of August.
Press reports suggest that the Inquiry will recommend that "reproductive" cloning should not be permitted, and scientists should not be allowed to create embryos specifically for their stem cells, but that scientists should be permitted to use human embryos left over from IVF treatment for medical research, presumably "therapeutic" cloning and stem cell harvesting.
While attempting to put a brake on embryo experimentation - as the Waller Committee in Victoria attempted to do in the 1980s and 1990s, and the US National Bioethics Advisory Commission attempted to do in 1997 - the recommendation will please nobody: medical researchers are already saying that they do not have enough human embryos for their experiments, while most people believe that any experimentation on human embryos, whatever their origin, is unethical and should not be permitted.
If one looks at the history of IVF treatment in Australia over the past 20 years - originally intended for infertile married couples, then extended to de factos, then to single women and lesbians, and most recently to a person with HIV - one can only conclude that some medical technologists believe there should be no limits to what they are permitted to do.
The ball is now in the Prime Ministers court. It is time for Mr Howard to take a stand.
Peter Westmore is President of the National Civic Council.