COVER STORY: Embryo experiments: are there any limits?
by Peter Westmore
News Weekly, August 24, 2002
Within days, Federal Parliament will commence debate on the contentious Research Involving Embryos and Prohibition of Human Cloning Bill 2002, which will set the ethical and medical ground rules for research on human subjects for years to come.
While many of the issues of principle - in particular destructive research on human embryos, and the harvesting of embryonic stem cells (which destroys the embryos) - have been discussed previously in these columns, new issues arise which highlight the moral and ethical dangers which these practices entail.
One of these was the admission, by Professor Alan Trounson - whom the Prime Minister, John Howard, has announced will head a multimillion dollar research institute into stem cell research - that there was no impediment to the use of tissue from aborted human fetuses. (The Australian, August 6, 2002)
Interestingly, Professor Trounson's academic qualifications are in animal husbandry, not medicine - he was a Research Fellow in the UK Agricultural Research Co's Unit of Reproductive Physiology and Biochemistry, before becoming a Ford Foundation Research Fellow in Monash University's School of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, and then Scientific Director of the Infertility Unit at Monash in the early 1980s. (Who's Who, 1985)
The attitude of the medical researchers towards experimentation with early human life was dramatically demonstrated last March, when Dr Peter Mountford, the Chief Executive Officer of Stem Cell Sciences, described a claim by a Chinese scientist that she had created dozens of cloned human embryos and harvested from them embryonic stem cells as "an excellent step forward". (Sydney Morning Herald, March 8, 2002)
The cloning of human embryos would be illegal under the proposed Federal Bill.
Interestingly, Dr Mountford also suggested that any government-imposed restrictions on research would lead him to go overseas.
A short time later, Dr Mountford was quoted as supporting the use of defective cloned human embryos for testing of drugs by the pharmaceutical industry. (The Australian, April 1, 2002)
Interestingly, a study in the United States concluded that US Congressmen and Senators who strongly pushed for federally subsidised embryonic stem cell research have received more than $US4 million in political donations from the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries, which stand to benefit from that research.
The investigative report by the Center for Public Integrity (www.publicintegrity.org) was based on an examination of funding of candidates over a number of years.
It highlighted the fact that the strongest backers of government-funded embryonic stem cell research, Senators Specter and Harkin, introduced legislation in both 2000 and 2001 that would allow companies to use federal money to procure stem cells from embryos, and to use them in subsequent research.
Interestingly, Senator Specter, a Republican, received $US207,080 ($383,480) from the pharmaceutical and biotech industries from 1995 to 2000. He was heavily funded by Amgen, the world's largest biotech companies.
Senator Harkin, a Democrat, received $US54,307 ($100,570) from these industries between 1995 and 2001.
Among recipients of largesse by the biotech and pharmaceutical industries are conservative republicans like Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, a staunch opponent of abortion.
Over a number of years, Senator Hatch was the largest recipient of contributions from the pharmaceutical and biotech industries, which gave $US337,870 ($625,685) to his campaign war chest.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the Utah Republican was the number one recipient of money from the pharmaceutical manufacturing industry when he ran for re-election in 2000.
His $US278,024 total topped that of all candidates for office, including President Bush, who received $US267,633 from these industries.
Senator Hatch supported the Specter/Harkin Bills, and last year wrote to President Bush calling on him to allow continued funding, after the Bush Administration stopped federal funds being spent on embryonic stem cell research.
After the Bush decision, attempts were also made in the US Congress to permit human embryo experimentation. The study showed that the principal supporters of this legislation had also received funding from biotech and pharmaceutical interests.
While there is no evidence that Australian legislators have been paid by the pharmaceutical industry, there is no doubt that Australian parliamentarians are influenced, if only indirectly, by what happens in other countries.
There is also no doubt that the promise of a financial bonanza from biotechnology is the driving force behind efforts by the Queensland, New South Wales and Victorian Governments to encourage embryo experimentation and human embryonic stem cell research.
The question which Federal Parliament must determine is whether it will draw the line.
- Peter Westmore is President of the National Civic Council