April 24, 2024


After a year of debate, Australia has legalised therapeutic cloning. In a rare conscience vote (meaning that members of Parliament are not bound by party discipline), a private member’s bill passed by a margin of 20 votes. Both the Prime Minister, John Howard, and the newly-elected leader of the Opposition, Kevin Rudd, voted against it, but this had little impact on the way their colleagues voted. The bill had already passed in the Senate.

A last-ditch effort to amend the bill to remove the possibility of using eggs from aborted girls failed. Supporters argued that the bill would then have to be returned to the Senate, where it might end up stranded in yet another debate. In the end, everything medical researchers and the IVF industry wanted was delivered, apart from permission to create hybrid human-animal embryos.

Australia’s leading IVF scientist, Professor Alan Trounson, of Monash University predicted that scientists will be using therapeutic cloning within a year to search for cures for chronic diseases. He and other scientists believe that the first application will be drug development. “Drug screening will be where the first real benefits come,” said Dr Paul Verma, of Monash. By using human embryonic stem cells, scientists will be able to bypass animal trials and some drug safety trials and the drugs can reach the market sooner and more cheaply.

Although many politicians who supported the bill spoke of cures for loved ones, sometimes choking back tears, those who knew most about the science were more guarded in their optimism. They tended to insist that therapeutic cloning was needed in the short term for drug development and research. Professor Loane Skene, a lawyer and ethicist who chaired a committee which had looked into the issue, was remarkably frank. “It is often said that scientists overestimate what they can achieve in five years and underestimate what they can achieve in 10. So I’ve been saying to people it won’t be us, you and me or our children, it will be our grandchildren [who will benefit from treatments]”.

Opponents of the bill, who included several eminent scientists, and a number of doctors, feminists, politicians and church groups — were bitterly disappointed at the outcome, although it came as no surprise. The director of Australians for Ethical Stem Cell Research, Dr David van Gend, said that politicians had been duped. “Like superstitious peasants they believed the witch doctors who held out hope of miracle cures from cloning. The credulity of these MPs was touching and pitiful. Any disease suffered by any relative became reason enough for them to declare they would not stand in the way of a cure.”