As if RU486 wasn’t enough already, it looks as if we can expect an all-in moral melee in the Parliament next year as our pols debate the review into our national stem cell research laws, passed in 2002 with a three-year sunset clause, by former Federal Court judge John Lockhart.

The review, released last week, recommends that Australia relax its current ban. Lockhart laid out his position on AM yesterday, and the political scrapping is just beginning. The Australian editorialises today:

Even those who disagree with the Lockhart review of Australia’s national stem cell legislation… should concede that this is an extraordinarily thoughtful and comprehensive document. If adopted, its recommendations would place Australia at the forefront, not only of stem cell research, but also of the establishment of open and transparent ways of regulating it. For a start, the review, chaired by former Federal Court judge John Lockhart, offers a new definition of what constitutes a human embryo. First, it extends the pre-embryonic stage to the more easily identifiable point of first cell division, giving fertility researchers a more open window of opportunity before they fall under the scope of the legislation. And second, it includes in the definition a biological entity created by processes other than the fertilisation of an egg with a sperm, including the process of cloning…

And as The Oz observes, that’s where the fun begins.

This, of course, is where the recommendations of the report are likely to be enormously controversial. The Lockhart committee supports the retention of the ban on stem cell research on human embryos created specifically for the purpose through fertilisation in the laboratory. The only fertilised embryos available for research would be, as now, those discarded in the process of IVF therapy. But in what would be a brave new world for Australian scientists, and a bridge too far for religious conservatives, the Lockhart review recommends the legalisation of therapeutic cloning, even including the introduction of human cells into the eggs of other animals.

Stem cell colonies created through cloning have far greater potential for research into diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases than those taken from adults, or even those taken from IVF embryos. This is because they can be created with cells taken from individual patients – removing the problem of rejection once they are reintroduced to those patients – and because they can be customised to particular diseases, affording scientists an unprecedented opportunity to study how those diseases work. Along with the creation of a national stem cell bank, these provisions would put us right “out there” in stem cell research and regulation, alongside Britain.

As Jewel Topsfield reports in The Age today, senior Howard Government ministers are divided over the contentious issue of cloning embryos for stem cell research. Treasurer Peter Costello says he does not believe potential lives should be created and destroyed. In contrast, Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane warns that preventing the research could mean “slamming the door” on future medical breakthroughs:

The committee’s findings are likely to trigger a conscience vote in Parliament.

Mr Macfarlane and Human Services Minister Joe Hockey support therapeutic cloning, while conservatives such as Finance Minister Nick Minchin and Health Minister Tony Abbott are ardent opponents.

The stem cell research lobby has launched a Christmas offensive in the op-ed pages.

Anna Lavelle, chief executive of AusBiotech, Australia’s biotechnology industry organisation, which represents 2,500 members covering the human health, agricultural, medical device, environmental and industrial sectors in biotechnology writes in The Australian today that we all need stem cell research, but goes on to warn:

Even though somatic cell nuclear transfer has the support of most state and territory governments and is likely to get the support of the Council of Australian Governments, there is a risk that members of the federal parliament will ignore the independent recommendations and reject the necessary legislative amendments.

Rather than the Lockhart recommendations pushing Australian stem cell research forward, we are likely to face a rerun of the fiery and often hostile debate that saw the passing of original legislation in 2002.

This should not happen. Why not? Because the federal and state governments set up and supported an independent committee to look at all the available evidence and make recommendations based on that extensive examination.

This process was designed to transcend the often polarised and partisan debate that has surrounded embryo and stem cell research and to provide a way forward that would take into account and balance ethical, cultural and scientific imperatives.

She says Lockhart’s recommendations are not radical, but “generally bring Australia into line with Britain, where this research has been regulated successfully since 2001.”

Hugh Niall, chief executive of the Australian Stem Cell Centre, warns of the bunfight ahead in The Age:

The focus of public reaction on the most controversial recommendation of the report does less than justice to its high quality, its clarity of expression and the sophistication of its dissection of the issues. Whatever the legislative outcome, Lockhart and his colleagues have provided the Government with a report that should enable informed and considered debate.

Meanwhile, Joanna Knott, the spokesperson for the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research in Australia and Director of SpinalCure Aus says in the Sydney Morning Herald that hope for many depends upon a rational debate on stem cell research laws:

Let’s hope the level of debate leading up to the likely conscience vote by Federal Parliament on the inquiry’s recommendations does not reflect the hype and sensationalism that occurred before we got the Research Involving Embryos Act of 2002.

Last time, we had misleading arguments over what adult stem cells could do with distortion by lobby groups determined to stop stem cell research.

A vain Christmas wish?