Last night, the Senate agreed to let our science community take the next step in medical science. The Prohibition of Human Cloning for Reproduction and the Regulation of Human Embryo Research Amendment Bill 2006 was passed with the support of 34 Senators, with 32 voting against.
This bill implements many of the scientific recommendations of the Lockhart Review, most importantly giving our scientists the opportunity to conduct somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), sometimes referred to as ‘therapeutic cloning’.
The close vote shows that this is an emotive issue and I can understand there are probably a number of Australians who, like me, are extremely happy with the passage of this Bill, and others who are upset by it.
I’ve been involved long enough in this debate to know that some of those who are opposed to this legislation hold intractable views, and I suspect that no amount of counter argument will sway them. I will, however, explain why I feel the passage of this Bill is an important step forward for this country and, potentially, for individuals such as Dr Paul Brock.
Apart from Christopher Reeve, Dr Paul Brock great intellect and a gifted writer has been a strong influence in my decision to campaign for this research.
Brock is afflicted with Motor Neurone Disease (MND), a condition which gradually robs sufferers of their powers of movement, speech, and eventually, their ability to swallow and breathe yet it leaves their mental acuity untouched. I find it incredibly difficult to imagine what it must be like for someone of Brock’s incredible intellectual capacity to endure a disease that has robbed him of so much. But Brock does retain his powers of speech, and he has used them to become a passionate and effective advocate for medical research.
I do not want to deny hope to people afflicted with conditions like spinal injury or MND. Indeed, many Senators who voted in support of the Private Member’s Bill had either family or friends affected by serious disease or injury some even acknowledged that it influenced the way they voted.
Opponents of the Bill claim that we are peddling false hope in promoting embryonic stem cell research. That is an argument that I absolutely reject. No one in the Senate, and no scientist on whose views I relied, is claiming that cures are just around the corner.
The overwhelming evidence though, points to SCNT and embryonic stem cell research being a very promising avenue to help us understand disease processes and how we might be able to develop unique therapies to fight them. For that reason, I was keenly interested in the review conducted by the Lockhart Committee on the existing legislation governing stem cell research and argued long and hard for a debate on the Committee’s recommendations.
Research using embryonic stem cells is in its infancy eight years as opposed to 50 for adult stem cells. Contrary to the claims of opponents of this research, I believe there have been enough exciting developments in this field to justify legalising regulated SCNT .
The Lockhart Committee conducted a literature review which provided examples of developments in research using embryonic stem cells, albeit mostly at the preclinical stage. It reported that:
- Animal embryonic stem (ES) cells have differentiated into insulin-producing beta cells.
- Mouse ES cells injected into rats with spinal damage differentiated into neural cell types which improved function.
- Research into Parkinson’s disease, in which dopaminergic neurons in the brain are destroyed, has shown that mouse ES cells have the ability to differentiate into these neurons, potentially providing a source of new cells.
- Time magazine recently reported the progress of scientist, Lorenz Studer who has differentiated embryonic stem cells into ‘ just about every cell type affected by Parkinson’s disease and has transplanted them into rats and improved their mobility.’
- United States Biotech company, Geron, is apparently close to seeking permission to conduct the first human trials using ES cells to create cells that produce neurons.
On 24 March this year, I indicated that if the Government failed to provide an opportunity for a parliamentary debate on the recommendations of the Lockhart Committee , I would draft a Private Member’s Bill to ensure there was a legislative and policy framework for debate. In September, I introduced an exposure draft of a Bill, co-sponsored by Senator Ruth Webber. I always intended my draft Bill to inform the Senate on how the Lockhart recommendations could be encapsulated in legislation. I also intended it to be something of a catalyst for the Community Affairs Committee inquiry that took place in late October.
I am proud of the role that we played in bringing this debate about and happy to see that my draft Bill provided a basis for the Bill that was subsequently put forward by Senator Patterson and passed through the Senate last night.
The Prime Minister’s decision to grant a conscience vote on this issue was also a welcome one and provided an all-too-rare opportunity for me to work closely with parliamentary colleagues of Liberal, Labor and Green persuasion. If only Parliament were like this all the time.
Senator Webber and I moved amendments to this Bill where we considered our Bill offered a better approach or where feedback from stakeholders during the Committee process pointed to issues that may need to be addressed. Through one of our amendments, the maximum penalties for violating many of the offences in the Bill have been increased from 10 years to 15 years. Interestingly, some of those who opposed the Bill actually voted against this amendment.
Thanks to Scratch
My colleague Senator Andrew Bartlett also successfully moved an amendment to ban the use of animal eggs for SCNT. The animal/human hybridisation was obviously one of the more controversial elements of this legislation and although it was included for a good reason to reduce the need for human eggs in improving SCNT practice it was not scientifically necessary.
Although opponents claim that this will increase pressure on the supply of human eggs, I refute those views. The prohibition on the sale of human eggs remains, as does the requirement for egg donation to take place voluntarily with informed consent. If there are not enough human eggs obtained for research this way, the science community will just have to make do.
It is now up to the House of Representatives to pass this Bill. Indications are that the vote in the House will not be as close as in the Senate, but I do not believe we can take that for granted. I have no doubt that the opponents of this Bill will redouble their efforts to have it fail in the House, so those who are in favour of this research should make sure to convey their support to their local MP.
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