The House of Representatives is debating a controversial bill to allow the cloning of human embryos for research purposes. 

The bill, proposed by Senator Kay Patterson, seeks to implement the recommendations of the Lockhart Review. This sought to maintain the ban on ‘reproductive cloning’ but allow so-called ‘therapeutic’ cloning so that scientists could research into the potential cures hoped for through embryonic stem cell research. These cloned embryos would be allowed to develop for up to 14 days, when they would be destroyed as their stem cells were harvested. It would remain illegal to implant a cloned embryo into a woman’s uterus.

PICTURE: Andrei Tchernov & Maria Koretskaya (iStockPhoto.com)

 

"The debate is often presented as an either/or choice between finding cures through cloning or blocking cloning and therefore blocking hope."

Cloning raises complex scientific and moral issues. Is cloning morally right? Many politicians have struggled with this. For some, it can never be right because it involves the creation and deliberate destruction of a human embryo. Others believe that the potential to cure debilitating diseases provides a moral imperative that overrides any rights of the cloned embryo. 

Can embryonic cloning deliver the promised cures? So, far there have been 72 treatments identified through ethical research using adult stem cells but none from embryonic cloning. Yet the debate is often presented as an either/or choice between finding cures through cloning or blocking cloning and therefore blocking hope. 

The Senate debated this bill in early November. Senators were given a conscience vote on the issue. Many commented on how complex it was and how they had struggled to come to a conclusion. In the end, the bill passed by 34 votes to 32. If just one more Senator had voted against the bill it would have been blocked by a tied vote. The bill has now moved to the House of Representatives. Debate began yesterday and a vote is expected next week. 

A cloned human embryo begins its life in a different manner to a normal embryo but, in essence, it is the same - a small human life with potential. Instead of being fertilised by sperm followed by cell division, the egg has its nucleus (genetic material) removed and replaced by the somatic cells of a donor (a somatic cell is any body cell not destined to become an egg or sperm). 

Cell division is stimulated artificially. All the genetic material in this embryo has come from one person (the donor of the somatic cells) instead of from two people (the mother and the father). From this point, the embryo develops in the same way as a normal embryo would. If it were implanted into a woman’s womb and carried through pregnancy it could become a live human child. Dolly the cloned sheep was created in this way. 

There are many difficulties with cloning, not least of which is the problem of obtaining enough eggs. Each cloning attempt requires a large number of eggs. Overseas experience shows that not enough women are prepared to donate their eggs, and all agree that it is immoral to allow a commercial trade in eggs. 

The Lockhart Report (and the bill) therefore recommended two other options. The first was to use animal eggs, resulting in animal-human hybrid embryos. Thankfully, the Senate passed an amendment to ban this practice. The second option is to use aborted female foetuses as a source of eggs, meaning that a cloned embryo’s mother could be an aborted baby girl. This is quite disturbing and ACL is lobbying for an amendment in the House of Representatives to prevent this. 

Beth Micklethwaite is research officer at the Australian Christian Lobby. 

www.cloning.org.au
~ Senators’ speeches are summarised at www.acl.org.au/pdfs/load_pdf_public.pdf?pdf_id=744