Why are scientists prising open the lid of the Pandora’s box of human cloning when that lid had been safely sealed by the 2002 parliamentary vote? That’s the question Father Frank Brennan, Tony Abbott and Dennis Shanahan, have asked in the recent pages of The Australian.
They have of course also answered it. It is because, they say, stealthy scientists can’t help wanting to nudge society down the slippery slope – even when society already said it didn’t want to go there.
In fact that’s not the reason why, and Abbott at least, should recall history a little better. Ahead of the 2002 legislation, the then minister for aging — Kevin Andrews — led a committee that researched stem cells and cloning. The majority of his committee recommended a ban on reproductive cloning (which copies people) but a moratorium on therapeutic cloning (which copies the cells of people). When the final 2002 bill was drafted there was no discrimination between the two types of cloning. Since no politician would risk failing to vote for a ban on reproductive cloning, they were also forced to outlaw therapeutic cloning.
By statutory requirement, Justice John Lockhart reviewed the 2002 law and recommended that the time had come to lift the ban on therapeutic cloning: that’s why we are revisiting the issue.
Besides this reason, and contrary to what is claimed, there have indeed been scientific advances that validate the merit of embryonic stem cells and therapeutic cloning.
In the US, researchers have treated bone marrow disease and Parkinson’s disease in mice using therapeutic cloning. The equivalent in people would see them receiving grafts of their own tissue, no need for anti-rejection drugs. Scientists at Johns Hopkins Medical School also achieved a holy grail this June — they showed that embryonic stem cells implanted into the spinal cords of crippled rats, could wire themselves back to the right muscles and let the rats walk again. When Alan Trounson described the early stages of this research in 2002, he was viciously attacked for spreading false hope.
The third reason to have this debate is, that as recent events show, science moves fast — the US company Advanced Cell Technology reported a technique for making embryonic stem cells that may or may not be morally palatable for some. While the ramifications of that new technique aren’t yet clear, one thing is: Australian science can’t afford to be paralysed by laws that ban; rather it needs the agility of regulatory law that can respond to new advances. Just what Justice Lockhart prescribed.