Federal MPs and senators seem to have swallowed scientists’ arguments that there will be a flight of expertise overseas if the ban on cloning human embryos remains.
For the second time this year, politics has got in the way of prudent policy-making on the most fundamental issue of all – that of human life itself.
First, the power to determine whether the abortifacient RU-486 should be permitted to be used in Australia was taken from Federal Parliament and given to the faceless bureaucrats of the Therapeutic Goods Administration.
And now, after succumbing to backbench pressure, Prime Minister John Howard has agreed to allow a conscience vote, to permit the creation of embryos for therapeutic cloning of stem cells for research purposes, should a Bill on the matter reach the Parliament.
Only a couple of months ago, Federal Cabinet decided against lifting a ban on therapeutic cloning of new embryos.
And, earlier this month, the Prime Minister had ruled out a conscience vote on the issue.
Two Private Members’ Bills
However, two Private Members’ Bills have been quickly proposed – one from Australian Democrats Senator Natasha Stott Despoja, and one from Victorian Liberal Senator Kay Patterson.
Senator Patterson is a former Health Minister who is retiring from parliament, and Senator Stott Despoja is a member of a party not expected to survive the next election.
Either Bill would seek to overturn a current ban on scientific research into embryos and reverse a decision by the Parliament almost four years ago not to permit embryo-cloning in Australia.
Regrettably, Mr Howard’s change of heart had nothing to do with science or medical research, and everything to do with the real politics inside the parliamentary Liberal Party.
Several MPs were bitterly disappointed by a Cabinet decision in June to maintain a ban on experiments on stem cells from new embryos.
Parliament put the ban in place almost four years ago when it decided to permit research on spare embryos from the IVF program on the grounds that those embryos were going to be destroyed anyway.
The Lockhart Review of that legislation recommended the ban be overturned.
It also recommended, controversially, that Australian scientists be permitted to create human-animal hybrids in certain circumstances.
In the meantime, the most damaging party room revolt in Mr Howard’s 10 years of office erupted over proposed asylum-seeker laws designed to force all boat-people into offshore detention centres.
The majority of MPs were angry with the dissident MPs, led by Victorians Petro Georgiou, Russell Broadbent and Judith Troeth.
The asylum-seeker group comprised a tiny minority of the party, but their rebellion emboldened a much larger group of MPs who are fervently in favour of widening scientific research using embryos.
Rather than face another damaging revolt, Mr Howard caved in and granted a conscience vote.
Labor leader Kim Beazley displayed both his poor political judgment and a simplistic attitude to a complex ethical issue by indicating he is in favour of relaxing laws against therapeutic cloning.
Instead of waiting for a full parliamentary debate, Mr Beazley declared his hand early.
“I am always in favour of what enhances the capacity for our research institutions to develop new opportunities for good life, good human life, so I will look at the piece of legislation that comes forward from that point of view,” Mr Beazley said.
Mr Howard said the community could handle a debate, and, unlike Mr Beazley, acknowledged there were ethical issues to consider.
“Experts tend to look at something from a necessarily narrow point of view and, I’m not being disrespectful, but it’s not just a scientific issue; it’s also an ethical issue,” Mr Howard said.
Proponents for lifting the ban have cleverly used the hope of medical breakthroughs in spinal damage, diabetes, heart disease, Parkinson’s disease to sway public opinion in favour of overturning the ban.
But even a scientist in favour, such as Sir Gustav Nossel, admits the results are decades rather than years away.
MPs appear to have swallowed scientists’ arguments that there will be a flight of expertise overseas if the ban is maintained.
This is despite the fact that all the progress in this field has been using non-controversial adult stem cells, and negligible advances using embryonic stem cells, the latter posing a grave ethical problem for a substantial section of the Australian public.