In an extraordinary twist, Prime Minister John Howard has cast doubt on a $42 million grant to a stem cell research centre headed by Professor Alan Trounson after The Australian revealed Trounson’s “apparent misrepresentation” of US stem cell research.
Trounson claimed that a cure for paralysed rats had been effected by embryonic stem cells and could not have been achieved with adult stem cells.
He was later forced to admit that the experiment had not used embryonic stem cells but cells from aborted foetuses.
In the first week of debate on the Research Involving Embryos and Prohibition of Human Cloning Bill 2002 some fifty-four members, or more than one-third of the House of Representatives, gave Second Reading speeches. Of these, 43 supported the embryo research provisions of the bill while 11 opposed these provisions.
Those arguing in favour of allowing embryo research used a variety of arguments. Several started from the point of view that the embryo has no moral status – it is not a human life just human tissue – with some of these relying on Anglican Primate Peter Carnley’s idiosyncratic idea that human life begins only 14 days after conception.
In an ironic illustration of the slippery slope, some MPs used previous failures to protect human life – abortion, abortifacient contraceptives and IVF with its inevitable wastage and stockpiling of human embryos – to justify as necessary and consistent the giving of approval to destructive embryo research.
In the next breath they denied that this decision would in any way lead us further down the slippery slope to the deliberate creation of embryos for research or to cloning of human embryos.
Many others accepted that the embryo was a human life but shared the Prime Minister’s inability to find a sufficiently compelling moral difference between allowing the embryo to die and using it for research.
Most of those arguing for embryo research made it clear that they believed those scientists – such as Professor Alan Trounson – who have been claiming that embryo stem cells hold the best promise for therapies for a range of degenerative diseases including Parkinson’s, diabetes and spinal cord injury.
Some repeated Trounson’s outdated and inaccurate critique of adult stem cells, including his extraordinary denial – made on the Lateline program – that they have been not used to “cure anything else” than anaemias.
WA Liberal, Dr Mal Washer relayed the threats made by Trounson’s Embryo Stem Cell International, Peter Mountford’s Stem Cell Science and John Sweaton’s Bresagen that these companies would leave Australia if the bill is not-passed, depriving us of biotechnology dollars.
Sectarianism was not far below the surface, either, with several attacks on Catholicism and religion in general. In a pale imitation of the late Dr Evatt, Mark Latham fumed about National Civic Council influence in the Liberal Party.
Those opposing embryo research made considered speeches in defence of the humanity of the embryo.
South Australian Liberal, Patrick Seeker, reduced the argument, “We might as well use them for the common good so they aren’t wasted”, to absurdity by showing how it applied equally to criminals on death row. (Dr Kevorkian has proposed experiments on these people), aborted foetuses (Dr Bernard Tach has already taken this up), and concentration camp inmates (remember Dr Mengele?).
Several MPs highlighted the evidence that adult stem cells were proving more promising in developing actual therapies for a range of degenerative diseases and that embryonic stem cells faced perhaps insurmountable barriers, such as tumour formation, genomic instability and immune rejection, before they could be safely used in human trials.
Support for a motion to split the bill – to allow MPs to vote for the ban on cloning but against embryo research – was growing, with ALP Leader Simon Crean backing down from a threat to deny ALP members a conscience vote on this procedural move and several pro-embryo research MPs calling for the split.
While the debate proceeded, Professor Alan Trounson held a “show and tell” in the office of South Australian Liberal Chris Gallus.
The key exhibit was a video from researcher Doug Kerr at Johns Hopkins University showing a partial cure of a rat with spinal injury. using, so Trounson insisted, embryonic stem cells. Trounson also stated that adult stem cells had not been able to produce such results.
However, the rats partially cured (half of Kerr’s previously paralysed rats could “shufflewalk” across the laboratory bench) were not treated with embryonic stem cells but with human germ cells derived by Johns Hopkins’ John Gearheart from the gonadal ridge of nine-week-old foetuses.
Kerr has stated that because safety and efficacy has not yet been fully tested in the animal model, human trials using his techniques are at least five years away.
Further, it is simply not true that adult stem cell work is lagging behind in treatment for spinal cord injury.
Peter Silburn, Adjunct Professor of Molecular Neurobiology at Griffiths University, is already conducting the first human trials on spinal cord injury patients using olfactory ensheathing glia, a special adult stem cell from the nose.
This follows proof of principle and thorough testing of safety and efficacy in animal models by A. Ramon-Cueto and others. This research, unlike that by Kerr, has already been published in peer-reviewed scientific journals.
Meanwhile Senator Ron Boswell has successfully moved to have the Bill referred to the Senate’s Community Affairs Legislation Committee.
The Committee has already called for submissions to be received by 13 September and announced that hearings will be held in Canberra in the second half of September. The Committee is due to report to the Senate on 20 October. This means the earliest the Senate will begin debate on the Bill is 11 November.
It seems that the debate on the fate of the smallest Australians will continue to dominate Federal Parliament for the rest of this year.
- Richard Egan