Oz approves therapeutic cloning laws
It’s rare that a proposal that is opposed by the prime minister, his deputy and the opposition leader, passes through Parliament to become law, but that’s what happened last week when the Australian Parliament approved a law enabling the creation of human embryos for use in medical research.
The new laws, approving what is termed therapeutic cloning, were passed by both houses of the Australian Parliament despite Prime Minister John Howard, Deputy Prime Minister Mark Vaile and Leader of the Opposition Kevin Rudd voting against the proposal.
Many leading medical researchers and scientists say the laws mean that Australia has an opportunity to be at the forefront of international efforts to find cures for illnesses such as Parkinson’s disease, diabetes and Alzheimer’s.
This is the second time in four years Australia has debated the ethics of research on embryos. In 2002 a law was passed to allow medical research on embryos discarded in IVF programmes.
Under the new therapeutic cloning laws researchers will be allowed to clone embryos using donor eggs and cells without sperm and then extract their stem cells for medical research. But existing bans on importing or exporting cloned embryos and on placing cloned embryos into the body of a human or an animal remain in place.
One of Australia’s most renowned medical researchers, Professor Ian Frazer, who has led groundbreaking work on the treatment of cervical cancer, wrote to all 226 federal MPs urging them to support therapeutic cloning.
Frazer says that while cures for debilitating diseases such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s and diabetes will not be found immediately, therapeutic cloning will enhance Australian research efforts to find cures.
MPs were allowed the rare privilege of voting on the new laws according to their conscience, rather than on party lines.
Howard and Rudd oppose the use of human embryos in medical research because they believe it involves the creation of a human life for the explicit purpose of conducting experiments.
Howard told the Parliament: “We do live in an age where we have slid too far into relativism, and there must be some absolutes in our society.” One of those absolutes, he said, is the sanctity of human life.
Medical researchers and scientists in Australia have been quick to welcome the new laws. One immediate benefit will be in the area of drug screening, says Dr Paul Verma, a stem cell biologist.
Verma told The Australian newspaper that drug safety trials could be carried out on human embryonic stem cells, meaning that animal trials and trials with humans could be bypassed.
But not everyone in the medical research community in Australia is pleased with the new laws. One lobby group, Australians for Ethical Stem Cell Research, says the laws could eventually lead to scientists asking for permission to create animal-human hybrids.
The group’s director, Dr David van Gend, called MPs who support therapeutic cloning, “superstitious peasants” who “believed the witchdoctors who held out hope of miracle cures from cloning”.