February 29, 2024



By a vote of 34 to 32, the upper house of the Australian parliament has opened the door to the legalisation of therapeutic cloning. A private member’s bill appears likely to pass in the House of Representatives as well, although possibly with amendments. One of the leading lobbyists for cloning, Professor Bernie Tuch, of the University of New South Wales in Sydney, to the assassination of US president John F. Kennedy — not the most felicitous of analogies, perhaps, but an indication of how momentous the decision is for the IVF industry and stem cell scientists. "Reason has prevailed," he says.

The bill’s critics saw things differently. In an emotional debate about potentiality, 34 senators discerned this elusive quality in the promises of miracle technology but failed to see it in human embryos. The bill’s opponents appealed to their colleagues’ sense of consistency: little had changed in the basic science, so why should Parliament alter a law which it had approved unanimously only four years before? (Embryonic stem cell research became legal in 2002, after the longest debate in the history of the Australian parliament, but a moratorium was declared on cloning.)

This argument failed. Embryonic stem cell science in Australia has been surfing an unstoppable tsunami of hope. Its supporters even managed to frame their lack of clinical success as an argument in their favour. If we had the resources, they argued, then we would surely deliver the goods. Opposition to the bill on ethical grounds was also tarred as a Christian, and especially as a Catholic, obsession. This poisoned it for many secular-minded MPs.

Public opinion had clearly shifted, perhaps due to a campaign by supporters of the research which began directly after the last bill was passed in 2002. The word "cloning" no longer sent frissons of disgust down the spines of MPs. In its original version, the bill’s fine print specifically authorised the creation of embryos using eggs from aborted foetuses, but this provision was simply shrugged off or ignored by senators. The bill’s opponents did manage to delete from the bill a provision authorising the creation of animal- human hybrids. But Professor Alan Trounson, of Monash University, Australia’s best-known stem cell scientist, that this will limit research.

Surrogacy surprise: Another factor which had hitherto passed unnoticed was blazoned on the front pages of newspapers this week: parliamentarians’ personal involvement in reproductive technology. A leading figure in the Opposition Labor Party, Senator Stephen Conroy, , says that the Conroy case shows that state and Federal laws on surrogacy need to be harmonised — and presumably liberalised.


Killing disabled infants should be an option, says the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecology in the UK. In a submission to an inquiry by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics about prolonging the lives of newborn babies, the College says that "active euthanasia" should be part of the range of management options for "the sickest of newborns". At the moment, euthanasia is clearly illegal in Britain, although supporters claim that paediatricians already kill disabled babies.

A very disabled child can mean a disabled family," says the College. "If life-shortening and deliberate interventions to kill infants were available, they might have an impact on obstetric decision-making, even preventing some late abortions, as some parents would be more confident about continuing a pregnancy and taking a risk on outcome."

The London Times had no difficulty finding prominent doctors and ethicists who were prepared to back the proposal. One of these was John Harris, a member of the Blair government’s Human Genetics Commission and professor of bioethics at Manchester University. "We can terminate for serious foetal abnormality up to term but cannot kill a newborn. What do people think has happened in the passage down the birth canal to make it okay to kill the foetus at one end of the birth canal but not at the other?" he said.

However, Dr John Wyatt, a neonatologist at University College London hospital, opposed the idea: "Intentional killing is not part of medical care. The majority of doctors and health professionals believe that once you introduce the possibility of intentional killing into medical practice you change the fundamental nature of medicine. It immediately becomes a subjective decision as to whose life is worthwhile."

If a doctor can decide whether a life is worth living, he said, "it changes medicine into a form of social engineering where the aim is to maximise the benefit for society and minimise those who are perceived as worthless".

Ethical defence: The College’s proposal has coincided with a defence of involuntary infant euthanasia in The Netherlands in the Journal of Medical Ethics, a British publication with a utilitarian bent. , Nov 5; Journal of Medical Ethics, November


Scientists are failing to disclose their financial interests in the form of patents, claims the lobby ground GeneWatch UK in this month’s Journal of Medical Ethics. It examined research papers on molecular biology and genetics in the leading science journal Nature between January and June 2005 and found that the authors of seven papers did not reveal that they had made patent applications and the authors of an eighth paper did not reveal connections to the biotech industry.

"Publishing a scientific paper will be come to be seen as concealed commercial advertising if journals don’t take steps to bring scientists into line", said Dr Sue Mayer, GeneWatch’s Director and author of the research. "If they are to be held in respect, scientists are going to have to start operating to the standards of others in public life".

Good practice for scientific publications requires authors to reveal any competing interests so that readers can consider whether there may be any bias in the research or the way in which it is presented. Nature, like many other journals, requires authors to declare patent applications and any other financial or other competing interests, but Gene Watch argues that scientists are not following the rules.