Emotional and intellectual tensions rising in cloning debate

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Emotional and intellectual tensions rising in cloning debateNext week the Australian Parliament will commence debate reconsidering its 2002 unanimous ban on therapeutic cloning. The Victorian government is a strong supporter of therapeutic cloning because much of the Australian research and development is likely to occur in Victoria.

The Australian Catholic University is convening a public panel discussion on the issue on Thursday (2 November), bringing together two leading medical scientists and two ethicists who disagree over the way forward on the issue of therapeutic cloning. All four are Catholic.

There has been some tension this last week as senators have reflected on the role of religious thinking in such debates. Senator Kay Patterson responded testily to Bishop Anthony Fisher: "Dear me, I might be excommunicated! Anyway, I do not think I will be, because it is my choice, not the Church’s choice, I suppose."

The debate in Australia is focused on the use of embryonic stem cells which are derived from human embryos. There is division in the scientific community about the utility of embryonic stem cells. It makes sense for scientists to pursue both research tracks (adult and embryo) if this can be done ethically and in accordance with accepted scientific standards.

Some scientists would like a relaxation of the universal ban on embryo cloning so that they could use somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT). With this procedure, by way of example, they can take out the nucleus of a human or animal egg and implant the nucleus of an adult human skin cell. This produces an embryo.

In 2002, the majority of our politicians were supportive of experimentation on excess IVF embryos, but all who declared their position opposed the deliberate creation of human embryos only for destruction and experimentation.

Emotional and intellectual tensions rising in cloning debateThe recent Lockhart review of the legislation favoured the creation of an embryo for experimentation and destruction, provided the embryo not be implanted and provided it not be permitted to thrive beyond 14 days.

Sir Gustav Nossal is a strong advocate for embryonic stem cell research. He says, "As a Catholic, I deeply value my nine years at a Jesuit school, and my career as a medical scientist has further deepened my respect and reverence for human life. Embedded in this value is the belief that everyone should be given the opportunity to live as free from serious illness as medical science can ensure."

Sir Gustav thinks it is ethical and scientifically responsible now to permit SCNT. He says, "I cannot foretell which diseases will be cured, much less when, but it is deeply mischievous to close the door on a field that has shown so much progress in so short a time. I also find it curious that one group of people should seek to impose their views on another group of people who happen to disagree."

The other medical scientist on the panel, Professor John Martin, says: "Since the licensing system came into place in 2002, there have been no discoveries through this work, either in Australia or elsewhere, that could support arguments that there is an urgent need for somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), also often called 'therapeutic cloning'. Since this process involves the deliberate production of a human embryo to experiment on it, SCNT moves the ethical barrier to a much higher level. Many of those who accept the idea of experimentation on excess IVF embryos do not accept the deliberate production of embryos for research."

Pictured: Sir Gustav NossalMartin is suspicious of the proposed 14 day limit on embryos created with SCNT. He has told the Senate Committee that "any research on embryos generated in this way for the study of disease would certainly require embryo development beyond 14 days".

If we permit the creation of human embryos only for experimentation and destruction up to 14 days, is there any coherent ethical reason for maintaining the 14 day limit once scientists decide that their research would be assisted by experimentation beyond 14 days?

Once we permit the creation of human embryos for experimentation and destruction, are we clearing the way for experimentation and destruction on pre-viable foetuses? If we permit the creation of SCNT embryos for destructive experimentation, should we also allow scientists to create embryos with sperm and ova for such experimentation? These are some of the ethical questions that will confront the panel.

The ethicist Bernadette Tobin will reflect on her experience at the Plunkett Centre for Ethics at St Vincent’s Hospital, Sydney. Professor Max Charlesworth will share some of his recent experiences in Belgium and elsewhere in Europe.

One of the poignant moments in the Senate Committee hearings this last week was the evidence of Paul Brock, a man now confined to a wheelchair with motor neurone disease. He is a strong advocate of embryonic stem cell research. Paul spent years teaching in Catholic schools when he was a Marist Brother. He comes from a strongly Catholic family, with siblings who are priests. He told the Senate Committee:

Emotional and intellectual tensions rising in cloning debate"Can you imagine looking my 90-year-old mum, my 43-year-old wife and our 15- and 11- year-old girls in the eye, and looking me in the eye—a bloke who 10 years ago was running around like a lunatic, playing golf, playing cricket, playing the piano and doing all the things in life—now reduced to two fingers that move a bit, a brain that works, a voice which obviously works too much, and telling us it is evil? I think you need to support this because it is the right thing to do."

Paul told the committee that he was not convinced by my analogy of the fire-fighter called to a house fire where a person with motor neurone disease is trapped. Next door is a petri dish with human embryos. There is time to enter only one room. The ethical fire-fighter will rescue the person. I had argued that this does not mean it is ethical to create human embryos only for the purpose of destructively experimenting on them in the hope of finding a cure for motor neurone disease.

The panel will confront the intellectual and emotional challenges of therapeutic cloning, contributing to an informed Catholic discussion of the issue.

Eureka Street plans to make available the audio from this conference after it has taken place. Be sure to check the ES Extra section of the site for this, or sign up for the free newsletter to be notified when the audio is available.



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Sir Gustav nossal says, "I also find it curious that one group of people should seek to impose their views on another group of people who happen to disagree." But that other group of people want to impose their views, in the most deadly way, on another group of people (or human beings, if you don't want to call those embryos people) who are given no say about it at all.
I told a member fo parliament the other day that I believe that an embryo is more entitled to respect and protection than I am, because I probably have only about a quarter of my life to go, and it's at the very beginning of a life.

Gavan Breen | 08 November 2006  

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