November 16th 2002

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: Terrorism and our population policy

VICTORIA: Bracks launches shock bid for second term

AGRICULTURE: Sugar collapse will hit Queensland economy

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Defence chickens come home to roost

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Vanity, all is vanity / That was the town that was

QUEENSLAND: ALP browns off its rank-and-file

WESTERN AUSTRALIA: Electricity: half-way to privatisation?

COMMENT: Another Pink Ribbon Day

LETTERS: Vietnam commitment (letter)

LETTERS: Democrats (letter)

Senate report on Embryo Research Bill analysed

COMMENT: Universities in 2002: what would Newman think?

ECONOMICS: Can capitalism be rescued?

COMMENT: Lack of respect for early human life must be addressed

COMMENT: Australians - better people than we know

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Senate report on Embryo Research Bill analysed

by Richard Egan

News Weekly, November 16, 2002
The 242 page Report of the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee on the Provisions of the Research Involving Embryos and Prohibition of Human Cloning Bill 2002 tabled in the Senate on October 24 is really three distinct reports.

The "Chair's Report" signed by Senator Sue Knowles does not adopt any formal recommendations. It claims to "balance the major issues and arguments relating to the subject of the Bill without attempting to formulate conclusions or recommendations that the Committee considers should be the prerogative of individual Senators in a 'free vote'".

This procedure follows the precedent set by the Senate committee report on the Euthanasia Laws Bill (the 'Andrews Bill') which overturned the Northern Territory's Rights of the Terminally Ill Act permitting euthanasia.

Significant lapses

While presenting evidence from both sides, the Chair's Report does contain some significant lapses in its attempt at balance and essentially defends both the substance and the drafting of the Government's Bill.

The Committee received 1851 public submissions, 100 from organisations and 1751 from individuals. Only 48 submissions (2.6%) were in favour of the Bill, with 1803 submissions (97.4%) opposing the provisions of the Bill which would license destructive research on human embryos. The Chair's Report gives little weight to this overwhelming public response in opposition to the Bill.

While little attention was paid to the Prohibition of Human Cloning Bill 2002 (note: the Bill was split in the House of Representatives but was considered as a whole by the Committee) the Report does note that organisations such as the Australian Academy of Science and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation do not support a permanent ban on cloning for research or therapies.

This Bill passed the House of Representatives unanimously and is expected to pass without dissent in the Senate. However, it is subject to a three year review and the issue may be pursued again in 2005.

The Report does note that proponents of the Bill were forced to concede under questioning that any possible cures from embryonic stem cell research were many years in the future and by no means certain. Paragraph 2.92 summarises the respective status of adult stem cell and embryonic stem cell research into therapies:

"Proponents of adult stem cell research referred to their successful use in therapies including using brain precursor cells to treat stroke, the patient's own stem cells to treat cancer and to treat bone defects, and bone marrow cells to treat muscle, gut and retina. Experiments with animal models have led to published accounts of adult stem cell success in the treatment of conditions such as Diabetes, Parkinson's and spinal injury.

"Proponents of embryonic stem cell research noted studies indicating their potential for treatment of a range of diseases including neurological, cardiac, cancer and other conditions." (Emphases added)

The Report draws a distinction between drug testing using embryonic stem cell lines and drug testing on live human embryos.

However, it notes that the Bill "does not prohibit the use of embryos ... for toxicology testing" although "any such proposed use would require a licence". This is one area where the Senate may be able to pass an amendment explicitly prohibiting the granting of a licence for toxicology testing using human embryos.


The Summary of Chapter 2 "An Overview of Scientific Aspects" of the Chair's Report is, in contrast to the substance of the Chapter, quite unbalanced and misleading. It says:

"2.138 Most scientists would agree that there is as yet insufficient experimental data to be certain either just how important research into stem cells is likely to be, or to be certain about the relative value of embryonic and adult stem cells for that research."

A number of scientists with impeccable and relevant credentials disputed this position.

"2.139 However, many agree that therapies derived from [embryonic] stem cell research have at least the potential to ameliorate currently incurable conditions, ranging from diabetes to spinal cord injuries to motor neurone, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases."

The "many" who agreed were largely a self-selected group of advocates of embryonic stem cell research, several with commercial interests in the passage of the Bill.

Chapter 3 of the Chair's Report deals with "Ethical Issues". It is a very curious piece of writing. It concedes (3.30) that "there is in fact little disagreement that the embryo is a human life and that its life commences at fertilisation". It records the various arguments for the 14 day marker but follows these with persuasive rebuttals of this position. These sections are well referenced to submissions.

However, in a section headed "Limited moral status" (3.59-3.70) a so-called 'third way' is put forward between treating the human embryo with the respect due to all other human beings and granting it no moral status.

This section is notably without footnotes either to submissions or to published ethical writings.

It is very idiosyncratic, engaging in circular arguments such as suggesting that the very existence of a Bill permitting destructive human embryo research, although with limitations, establishes the existence of a "third way" while the existence of the "third way" justifies supporting the Bill!


This Chapter also reports the utilitarian arguments adopted by some patient advocate groups. They have various illnesses which make life difficult; embryo research might help; therefore it should be allowed. Ms Knott from the Australasian Spinal Research Trust is quoted as saying, "I do not expect a cure tomorrow or even next year, and I do not intend to overstate the promise of research, but how can you overstate hope?" (3.82)

In stark contrast groups such as Diabetics for Ethical Treatment argued:

"We firmly believe that an attack on the dignity and well-being of any group of human beings is an attack on human dignity itself. It is a profound insult to people with disabilities and illnesses, including diabetics, to presume that we are willing to accept therapies developed at the cost of other human lives." (3.114)

The Report also quotes the approach taken by ACCESS: Australia's National Infertility Network supporting destructive research on human embryos created for the IVF program: "No one else values or respects these embryos more." (3.100)

This is a hollow claim from people prepared to allow their children to be brought into existence in IVF laboratories, to be subjected to "search and destroy" genetic screening and years in frozen storage then to look for some "good" out of their destruction when they are judged surplus to their parents' requirements by allowing them to be used for vivisection.

There were submissions from over 1800 individuals and organisations who clearly value these embryos more than ACCESS does.

There can be no clearer evidence that participation in IVF distorts moral sensibilities. What other group of parents would claim to care more about their children than anyone else while endorsing their use in live scientific experiments that will end in their destruction?

It is perhaps worth noting Senator Mark Bishop's observation, after extensive questioning of the ACCESS representative about their funding sources, that he knew of no other consumer group which derived so much of its funding from industry bodies.

The Chair's Report, in a virtual admission that the Bill is "evil", notes (3.139) "that the passage of national legislation permitting research involving human embryos under specified circumstances might be the lesser of two evils. This is because, in the absence of a comprehensive national framework, the States would be free to enact their own legislation that could be less restrictive than the legislation before the Commonwealth Parliament".

However, the Chair's Report misstates the facts (2.133). "The Committee notes that the uses of embryos in ART practice and research which are allowed by the Bill are not new uses.

The Bill brings under a national regulatory system uses and practices which are currently regulated under State legislation, in the case of Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia, and by MRC/AHEC guidelines and the requirements of the Reproductive Technology Accreditation Committee." (Emphases added)

But the destructive use of human embryos is not regulated in these three States it is prohibited. Thus the Federal Bill, which overturns the bans in these three States, will permit new uses of human embryos in these three States. The Chair's Report here is misleading if not mischievous.

Slippery slope

Concerns expressed about the "slippery slope" are validated by several throw-away comments in the Chair's Report. The toleration of abortion in Australian society is cited (3.103) as justification for destructive embryo research, without any acknowledgment of the point made by several submissions that such use of human embryos is an even more blatant attack on human life than abortion, as it lacks the alleged justification of a threat to the mother's well-being so often cited to justify abortion.

In discussing the "sunset clause" which will allow the limitation on human embryos available for research to those in existence on April 5, 2002 to be lifted by a written statement by the Council of Australian Governments, the Chair's Report refers to this "ensuring the adequacy of the supply of excess ART embryos for research".

This language of supply and demand, lifted from the world of economics, demonstrates the corrupting influence of the Bill which already leads to the discussion of living human beings as commodities in "short supply".

Furthermore, the Chair's Report records without adverse comment the submission from BresaGen - one of the key commercial beneficiaries of the Bill - that

"While those embryos developed and frozen before 5 April will be satisfactory for basic research, they will not necessarily meet adequate current Good Manufacturing Practice (cGMP) safety requirements for therapeutic product development.

"These cGMP requirements are different from the standards required in IVF programs and are more stringent. The legislation should therefore allow derivation of more ES cell lines under cGMP conditions. These conditions can only be fully applied prospectively, and thus to ART embryos that come into existence after April 5, 2002, embryos currently prohibited from use by the new legislation."

This proposal is suggesting that the downstream use in destructive research of excess human embryos created for the IVF program should influence the in-house procedures of the IVF clinics in anticipation of such research.

Every human embryo created in an IVF clinic will be viewed from the start as potentially destined for destructive research.

The April 5, 2002 cut-off may in fact be lifted even before it comes into effect. The relevant section of the Bill does not come into effect until six months after the Bill is proclaimed (which can't be before June 2003) but COAG may abolish the cut-off as early as April 2003.

Chapter 5 of the Chair's Report notes that all research on human embryos is presently prohibited in Germany, France, Switzerland, Norway, Ireland, Austria, Poland and Brazil. Clearly an alternative response to the problem of the "two evils" posed by the Chair's Report would be for the Senate to amend the Bill to prohibit all destructive embryo research.

While there are Constitutional limitations to this approach it would allow the existing bans in Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia to remain in place. It can't make things any worse in New South Wales and Queensland where there are no legal restraints on embryo research.

One of the other two reports within the Committee report is signed by Senators Stott-Despoja, Jan McLucas and Ruth Webber. (Only two of these are full members of the Committee).

It advocates support for the Bill and includes some gratuitous and false criticisms of Dr David Prentice (asserting he hid his status as "science advisor" to Senator Brownback from Senators when this was included in an article sent to Senator Stott-Despoja's office which led to her science advisor agreeing to meet with Dr Prentice) and others.

The more substantial report opposing the Bill is signed by three full members of the Committee - Senators Guy Barnett (Liberal); Bill Heffernan (Liberal) and Stephen Hutchins (ALP) - joined by five other Senators - Mark Bishop, Jacinta Collins and John Hogg (ALP); Ron Boswell (National) and Brian Harradine (Ind).

This report establishes that the case for destructive embryo research has not been made by the proponents of the bill.

It points to the startling gap between the exaggerated promises of benefits and cures from human embryonic stem cell research and the actual scientific and medical facts.

It highlights that there are no established cures from embryonic stem cells and that there are possibly insuperable barriers to such cures due to problems of tumor formation and immune rejection.

It demonstrates that there are sufficient embryonic stem cell lines in existence for research to continue without any further destruction of human embryos and that there are more promising, ethically uncontentious alternatives, notably adult stem cell therapies, which are already in clinical trials or actual therapeutic use.

Debate on the Bill will commence in the Senate on November 11, with a second reading vote expected the week of December 2. The Government is scheduling extra sitting time for the Senate in a bid to get the Bill passed by Christmas.

  • Richard Egan

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