The Prime Minister’s decision, taken in conjunction with State Premiers, to permit human embryo experimentation while banning human cloning, takes Australia down the slippery slope by permitting destructive experimentation on the most defenceless of human beings.
It is instructive to look at the history of government attempts to regulate the medical scientists over the past 20 years or so. The issue arose in the 1970s, as doctors attempted to address the problem of infertility arising from blocked Fallopian tubes – a problem which affects a significant proportion of women.
Two English doctors, Dr. Patrick Steptoe and Dr. Robert Edwards, were eventually successful in assisting an infertile couple to have a child, Louise Brown, through an experimental in vitro fertilisation process, in 1978. This was followed by many other IVF births in other countries.
The new technology immediately raised important ethical issues which needed to be addressed, such as whether donor sperm and eggs should be permitted in IVF programs, whether surrogate parenthood should be permitted, whether surplus embryos should be created, whether experimentation should be permitted on such embryos, and whether access to this technology should be limited to married couples.
Initially, access to IVF was strictly limited, legally and ethically.
But gradually, under constant pressure from medical scientists and the radical feminist lobby, the restraints were gradually removed. Medical scientists in some states were given permission to create and deep freeze surplus embryos, then to experiment upon them up to syngamy. Access to IVF was extended from married couples to de factos, then to single women.
The development of cloning techniques in animals, and the discovery of stem cells in the 1990s, and their possible use in treatment of a range of diseases, has led to an explosion of research into human embryos, one of the main sources of stem cells. In fact, Peter Mountford, Director of an Australian company, Stem Cell Sciences, recently announced a plan to create cloned human embryos with genetic diseases. "It would allow us to screen millions of drugs against these diseased cells," he said. (AP report, March 7, 2002)
And an Italian doctor, Dr. Severino Antinori, who some years ago made history by helping a 63 year old woman to become pregnant through IVF, has announced that he had implanted a human clone in an unnamed woman.
The fact is that there is no limit to what some medical scientists want to do. When the Prime Minister indicated, after a recent Cabinet meeting, that his government intended to prevent harvesting of embryonic stem cells, the researchers, backed by powerful pharmaceutical and biotech corporations, lobbied the State Labor Governments by threatening to pack their bags and go overseas, where they face no such limitations on their work.
Faced with these pressures, the Federal Government capitulated, agreeing to embryonic stem cell harvesting and embryo experimentation, subject to a number of conditions, but will ban "[human] cloning and other unacceptable practices". Once again, the limits of what is permitted will be extended.
Despite an unprecedented alliance of leaders of all mainstream faiths in opposition to embryo experimentation, the Prime Minister called his agreement with the states a "magnificent and enlightened outcome" which balanced competing ethical and scientific objectives.
In fact, it is yet another confused decision which arises from a failure to accept the principle that human life is inviolable, the first principle of medicine to "do no harm", and the first responsibility of government to protect the innocent and vulnerable, especially children.
The medical experimenters are already demanding more. Professor Alan Trounson, while welcoming the permission given for embryo experimentation, warned that the decision could leave Australia lagging, and force patients to travel to Britain, where cloning is permitted.
John White of the Australian Academy of Sciences, also criticised the decision, calling for the Government to permit so-called "therapeutic cloning" – where an embryo is cloned either for experimental purposes, or to harvest embryonic stem cells, which leads to death – as permitted in the UK.
Until it is accepted that human life is entitled to respect and must not be subject to destructive experimentation, there will be no end to what some medical experimenters will do.
In every area of life, society imposes prohibitions on what is theoretically possible. Why should medical science be any different?
The PM and Premiers are taking Australia down the slippery slope; and for what? Naturally occurring adult stem cells are delivering new therapies, and offer great hope for the future.
Pandering to scientists, and their powerful corporate backers, to allow them to take human life undermines the "social conservative" credentials of the Prime Minister and many of his Cabinet.
- Peter Westmore is President of the National Civic Council.