One of the problems of the imminent debate on overturning the ban on therapeutic cloning of embryonic stem cells is that, for many MPs, the science is bewildering and complex.
Scientists on both sides of the debate who have taken part in briefing MPs in forums in the Federal Parliament have already warned that many representatives appeared ignorant and ill-equipped to deal with the complexities of the issue.
Previous ethical debates – such as those on euthanasia and more recently, the RU486 abortion pill – have also been ethically and morally challenging, but did not have the same scientific demands.
MPs will have to become familiar with frontier science and jargon such as blastocysts, pluripotent or totipotent cells, denucleated eggs, and much more.
They will also have to become familiar with the progress of specific current research into a host of diseases and illnesses.
Some have gone to great lengths to educate themselves including taking trips overseas to talk with the latest adult stem cell research.
Many others, regrettably, will just follow the pack.
In the end though the debate is quite a simple one, and is based on the value our representatives put on human life or in permitting scientific research at any cost.
Many MPs already place little or no value on a human embryo, dismissing it because it is as small as a pinhead.
But, in a submission to a Parliamentary committee Dr John Fleming and Dr Greg Pike wrote: “Intrinsic to this first cell is the inherent capacity to manage the blindingly complex protocol of human design.
“The continuum that is human life has begun, and once initiated, if all goes well, will result in the birth of that human being.
“From the first moment, the genetic code in concert with the cellular environment, orchestrates the myriad of messages necessary to assemble the human form.” On the other hand proponents for change argue instead that embryos may have to be sacrificed for the sake of research which could lead to major breakthroughs in a host of diseases and ailments.
Four years ago, a majority of the Federal Parliament, freed to use the dictates of their own consciences, voted to permit limited experimentation on embryonic stem cells.
The research was strictly limited to embryos which had been produced during the IVF program – a program intended to result in birth, but which were going to be destroyed anyway.
In that case the utilitarian argument was successful.
But critics at the time warned that this was the “thin end of the wedge” and that in time scientists would soon be demanding more. It did not take long.
The late Justice John Lockhart reviewed the 2002 legislative decisions and his report, produced last year, recommended that the ban be lifted.
However, while Federal Cabinet considered the review, it decided there was still no sufficient justification for changing the law to lift the ban on cloning.
A concerted push by the scientific community who want to be freed of any legislative shackles on their research convinced MPs, mainly on the Coalition side, to attempt to overturn the ban.
Tasmanian Senator Guy Barnett recently summarised the key issue with the current legislation when he says MPs will be voting to permit the creation of human embryos for experiments.
“The current debate is about how the embryonic stem cells used in research are derived,” he wrote.
“The issue with Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer is whether to allow the derivation of stem cells from embryos that have been created specifically to be destroyed.”
A further fear is that a green light now for embryonic cloning research will merely be a stepping stone towards a more open slather approach in future years.
West Australian MP Dr Mal Washer, who before entering Parliament was a successful general practitioner, is a leading proponent of overturning the current ban.
But even he concedes that over time there could be pressure to change the law to allow the cloning of people and that scientists may still be pushing to do this.
“Based on cloning experiments in sheep and other animals, the potential of these embryos resulting in a live birth in humans is virtually zero,” he wrote in a recent issue of Liberal Party policy journal, The Party Room.
“An enormous amount of research into the development of techniques to alter this embryo would have to be undertaken for this to become possible; however reproductive cloning is currently (sic) prohibited by law and must remain so.”
The same argument was used to justify research into IVF embryos but in four short years, the goalposts have been shifted again.