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MEDIA RELEASE: Cloning left on futile life-support

“The Legislative Review into our cloning laws, tabled yesterday (July 7th), is a lame attempt by the majority of this (outrageously stacked) committee to keep the blighted science of SCNT/cloning on its futile life-support” said Dr David van Gend, national director of Australians for Ethical Stem Cell Research.

“Section 5.3 showcases the shriveled case for cloning, with only ardent supporters of cloning (Muncie, Williamson, Elefanty) being quoted in the section and no critics quoted at all. As expected, this one-sided chorus culminates in the stale old slogan of the ethically indifferent: “let’s just research everything”.

“However, even the majority position – including prominent cloning advocates Ian Frazer and Loane Skene – admits to the increasing difficulty of justifying any SCNT/cloning experiments at all, given the failure of cloning and the success of its ethical alternatives:

The Review Committee notes the lack of progress in SCNT research in animals and humans. The Review Committee believes that this must impact on the Licensing Committee’s interpretation of its statutory obligation, when it is considering any future application for a licence to undertake research involving SCNT

“The dissenting opinion by Kevin McGovern, Director of the Caroline Chisholm Centre for Health Ethics (and the report states “Dr Kaye Thompson shares Reverend McGovern’s concerns about SCNT”) is a masterpiece of clear thinking and demolishes the ramshackle apologia of the dominant committee members.

In 2006, SCNT seemed the only way to seek the benefits of regenerative medicine. With the advent of induced pluripotent stem cells, this is no longer the case. It is hard to see what SCNT now contributes to the progress of regenerative medicine. What would be lost if Australia’s regulatory regime permitted the harvesting of embryonic stem cells from excess embryos along with research with adult stem cells and induced pluripotent stem cells, but did not permit SCNT?

“McGovern has shown the way forward for an ethical society. Shame on Minister Mark Butler who, as our association predicted, cynically delayed tabling the cloning review until the last day before the long winter recess, about 6 weeks after the date the report was put on his desk. That means Senate critics like Barnett, Fielding and McGauran are gone, and Butler ensured the Review would not be examined until a safely libertarian Greens party held the balance of power in the Senate. Under a fair-minded Senate cloning would fall; it has always been unethical and now it is clearly unnecessary, as McGovern shows. The case for cloning is now so diminished that it could never carry a conscience vote like it did in the hysterically hyped days of 2006.

“Perhaps that means the vile project of creating human embryos solely with their exploitation and destruction in mind will linger as a stain on the statutes until the wresting of control of the Senate from the Greens. However, my hope is that Labor and the Coalition will unite against the Greens to turn off the futile life-support on this blighted science”, Dr van Gend concluded.

KEY QUOTE FROM REVIEW:

Recommendation 3: (by majority) The provisions in the current legislation regarding SCNT should not be amended.

However, in reaching this recommendation, the Review Committee notes the lack of progress in SCNT research in animals and humans. The Review Committee believes that this must impact on the Licensing Committee’s interpretation of its statutory obligation, when it is considering any future application for a licence to undertake research involving SCNT, to take into account ‘the likelihood of significant advance in knowledge or improvement in technologies for treatment as a result of the use of excess ART embryos or human eggs, or the creation or use of other embryos, proposed in the application, which could not reasonably be achieved by other means’ when it is considering any future application for a licence to undertake research involving SCNT.

The foregoing represents a majority view of the Review Committee. Reverend Kevin McGovern, however, notes:

The approach recommended by the Lockhart Review, which stated that ‘the greater the potential benefits of an activity, the greater the need for ethical objections to be of a high level and widely accepted in order to prevent that activity. Conversely, where benefits are not yet established, or where there is widespread and deeply held community objection, then total prohibition through the legal system may be justified.’ Reverend McGovern believes that in 2011 the latter standard has been reached for SCNT. In 2006, SCNT seemed the only way to seek the benefits of regenerative medicine. With the advent of induced pluripotent stem cells, this is no longer the case. It is hard to see what SCNT now contributes to the progress of regenerative medicine. What would be lost if Australia’s regulatory regime permitted the harvesting of embryonic stem cells from excess embryos along with research with adult stem cells and induced pluripotent stem cells, but did not permit SCNT?

Some scientists have proposed some possible benefits of SCNT, but their arguments are not entirely convincing. Dr Megan Munsie argues that SCNT-ES cells might more closely resemble ES cells than iPS cells. However, the evidence from animal work is that SCNT generally produces damaged or abnormal embryos. This strongly suggests that even if SCNT-ES cells more closely resemble ES cells, these SCNT-ES cells will still be genetically abnormal and inferior to ES cells. Professor Bob Williamson advocates SCNT to generate stem cell lines as disease models to study late-onset conditions. It is not clear, however, why SCNT-derived lines would be more useful than iPSC- lines. Beyond that, there is only the possibility of what ‘might’ be learnt if research into SCNT continues. The proposed benefits of SCNT research therefore seem not entirely convincing, sometimes rather small, and largely theoretical. On the other hand, SCNT involves the most profound of ethical concerns. It is the creation of human life which will be used in research and then destroyed. When people understand this, many people within the community are troubled by SCNT.

For all this, however, this most serious of ethical concerns has been judged less significant than the mostly theoretical benefits which might come if research into SCNT is allowed to continue. With this outcome, Reverend McGovern wonders whether the ethical concerns about SCNT research are ultimately being given anything more than lip-service.

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