Drunken Santas in a stem cell sleigh

December has been a horror month for fans of therapeutic cloning. The first scientist to create stem cell lines from cloned embryos, Korean Hwang Woo-suk, has been disgraced as a lying charlatan. The peer review process of the journal which made him an international celebrity, Science, is under a cloud. Scientists around the world are asking themselves not only why their poster-boy stumbled, but whether his 24 co-authors colluded in the fraud.

But in Australia, it was Christmas. Like drunken Santas, a clutch of ethicists, lawyers and scientists are throwing prezzies out of their sleigh to the IVF industry and stem cell scientists. Their long-awaited Lockhart Review of the 2002 legislation on embryo research and human cloning recommends that Parliament legalise cloning human embryos, which will be strip-minded for their stem cells and killed before they are 14 days old.

The Review’s press release was a bit misleading. It highlighted the establishment of a national stem cell bank and mumbled as an afterthought about therapeutic cloning. It buried a recommendation which would give Australia the most permissive embryo legislation in the world (including China, where standards are notoriously lax) -- the creation of hybrid embryos. Human genetic material is inserted into a rabbit or cow egg, creating a being which is mostly human, but part animal. No other legislature has ever authorised this ghastly insult to human dignity.

For stem cell scientists this Review is like letting kids loose in a lolly shop. Within their grasp is nearly everything for which they have lobbied over the past three years. But what does the Australian public get?

Surveys suggest that voters don’t know much about stem cells or embryos. What they understand is cures for spinal cord trauma, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. After all, this was the expectation which tipped the scales for the 2002 legislation. And it continues: a report this week in The Australian, a major national daily, was accompanied by a photo of a wheelchair-bound patient who might walk again -- if these reforms are implemented, presumably. 

But the Review has little to say about these cures. With good reason: cures are far over an ever-receding horizon, always five to ten years away, at best. The Hwang debacle is a sobering reminder that scientists still haven’t even managed to create stem cell lines from cloned embryos, the first step towards cures. And they still haven’t discovered how to prevent wildly active embryonic stem cells from causing tumours. Some stem cells are being tested in clinical trials, but they are all adult stem cells, which are not produced from embryos. No one has dared to use embryonic stem cells in a single clinical trial yet -- they are too dangerous.

What embryos and their stem cells will be good for is drug testing. “Models are being developed for testing the chemical toxicity and pharmacological action of chemical agents,” says the Review. “Further development may allow researchers to test drugs and potential chemical toxins without the use of animals”. Translation: because animal liberation activists are making animal experimentation more and more difficult, scientists can use embryos instead. Humans are cheaper.

The public is being sold a pig in a poke. In return for stuffing the Christmas stockings of scientists full of goodies, it gets gilt-edged promises. The guys in white coats, on the other hand, get jobs, research contracts and royalties on their patented discoveries. Some of them will become very rich. Drug companies will get cheaper clinical trials. And to rub salt in the wound, the report firmly states that patients must not share in profits which might arise from the use of their tissue. It may be the only categorical prohibition in the whole document.

But, wait, it gets worse. Not only will scientists and the IVF industry be free to do more or less whatever they want with human embryos, they will police themselves as they do it. The Review says that oversight of IVF services and embryo research should be handled by a licensing committee. Without consulting Parliament or the National Health and Medical Research Council, this body will be able to authorise research not covered by legislation. The experience of the last few years suggests that there will be plenty of that. Aren’t journalists always prattling on about science leaving ethics in the dust? My guess is that when an IVF clinic applies to use eggs from aborted female foetuses (Israeli researchers have looked into this, believe it or not), the committee will authorise it immediately. Parliament will only find out afterwards. 

What is most disturbing about the Lockhart Review is the utter absence of ethical brakes. The only wrong in the eyes of the committee members, so it seems, is not being permissive enough. There is no form of research involving human embryos which it would not gladly authorise, except that an ignorant public might say “Yuk”. And it has an Orwellian solution to cure the refractory public of its ignorance: “public education and consultation programs… to enable appropriate engagement and understanding” -- a stem cell propaganda department, in other words.

The Lockhart Review offers the Australian Parliament a last chance to defend the dignity of human life. A human embryo is a human being. As journalists are so fond of repeating, it is smaller than a full stop. But the entire universe was once smaller than a full stop, according to the Big Bang theory. Size doesn’t matter. The embryo has a full toolkit for developing into you and me. It is the first stage in the continuum of human life. It is precious. If we treat the beginning of human life as a commercial commodity, will it be possible to exclude the middle and the end? 

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet. He writes from Melbourne. This is a lightly edited version of an article which appeared in The Australian on December 22.


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