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Ethical Rights

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Cloning and Embryonic Stem Cells

6. Related matters

1. The discussion in Sections 4 and 5 has focussed on the arguments against and for human cloning. This section will consider the policy inconsistency that currently exists with respect to the destruction of human embryos, the limitations that exist as a result of some practices being prohibited, and scenarios that reveal the policy inconsistency and hypocrisy that would result if a clone were born or if research involving human embryos resulted in beneficial medical outcomes.

6.1 Policy inconsistency

2. Many couples wish to have children, and if they are fortunate and the woman becomes pregnant, they would cherish the fetus that grows inside the woman. However, not all pregnancies are wanted. Abortions are permitted and fetuses are destroyed throughout Australia. As noted earlier, it is inconsistent to permit abortions (involving the killing of fetuses up to say 20 weeks, but sometimes older) and yet prohibit the destruction of embryos less than 14 days old.

3. If would be interesting to conjecture on the outcome of an abortion inquiry in Australia. The same arguments would continue to be made against abortion by the same groups who regularly speak out against human embryo research. However, while the anti-abortion arguments are dismissed, the arguments against human embryo research and cloning have manifested themselves as clauses in the PHC and RIHE Acts, revealing a policy inconsistency.

4. IUDs are contraceptive devices that seem to work mainly through preventing sperm interacting with the egg, but may also work like the morning after pill, which thickens the uterine lining to prevent embryo implantation. Excess IVF embryos are routinely destroyed. Given that so many embryos and fetuses are routinely destroyed, it is an anomaly why any restriction should be placed on the destruction of embryos for research, so long as conditions, such as obtaining parental consent, are met.

5. When IVF was first introduced in Australia, many of the arguments against that technology then were the same as those proffered against reproductive cloning now. While the community takes some time to be educated on the technologies, we should consider how we will be viewed in the future, say in 50 years. Will we be pilloried for genetic discrimination, just as we criticise those who advocated the White Australia policy or opposed women’s suffrage?

6.2 Prohibited practices

6. The PHC Act refers to a number of prohibited practices. Principle 3 applies here. Embryos are collections of cells, they are not persons, and should be able to be used for research. One could even make a case for establishing chimeric or hybrid embryos, for example, to study how stem cells behave and react in different biochemical environments. When embryos are not being grown beyond the 14 day limit (although that timeframe is somewhat arbitrary) there should be no restriction on what researchers can do in vitro except that they must make a case to the responsible research ethics committee, and be subject to stringent monitoring. This might include for example that their research is noble in intent, unforseen consequences are managed, safety is paramount, knowledge is being advanced, the expected outcomes are beneficial in nature, and so on.

7. There are many inherited diseases that could be eradicated through cloning technology and gene therapy. Huntington’s disease results from a single gene mutation. By using somatic cell nuclear transfer to clone the parent who does not have the Huntington’s gene (and perhaps if technically possible, using the sex chromosome from the other parent if a child of a different sex is desired), or using gene therapy to correct the defective gene, this terrible disease could be eradicated. Non-reproductive cloning could be used create stem cell lines with defective genes to assist in drug development. Australia’s regulatory regime should be sufficiently flexible to permit research that eliminates disease, as this is ethically the most desirable outcome.

8. There are no valid reasons why genetic material from more than two people should not be used either to develop cells for research, or even to produce a person, if that produces beneficial outcomes, such as new treatments, or children who do not suffer from disease or illness. It would be unethical to ban research on human embryos where there are identifiable benefits to persons. The alternative is that people suffer unnecessarily, which doesn’t benefit anyone.

6.3 Future scenarios

9. The destruction of somatic cells (such as white blood cells) has never been a contentious ethical issue. However, in the near future, it may be possible to dedifferentiate somatic cells until they become totipotent. These totipotent cells could then produce a viable human being if placed in the right biochemical environment. Those who oppose the destruction of human embryos would be left with the dilemma that all somatic cells could eventually become people (if placed in the right biochemical environment).

10. The implications of the cloning ban in the PHC Act have not been well considered. What would occur if a couple were to immigrate to Australia and bear a child who was a clone of one of them, assuming the cloned embryo was implanted in the woman’s uterus before she arrived in Australia? How should this child then be treated? Logically, and sensibly, he or she should be loved and given as good an upbringing as possible, regardless of how he or she was conceived.

11. The PHC Act outlaws the practice that produced this child, for all the reasons given in the Andrews Report. The PHC Act suggests this child would realise that he or she is unethical; he or she was produced by a process contrary to human dignity; should be confounded by who his or her parents are and cannot comprehend his or her familial relationships; realises that he or she is not a descendent of his or her parents in the normal sense and is a means to an end; should worry about his or her alter ego; and consequently would have less worth as a human being.

12. I do not want to tell any child that it is so disadvantaged and the focus of such obvious community and government contempt, because I do not believe it is true. Yet the arguments against cloning propose that that is the situation. If this child is the equal of any other, then that buries many of the arguments against human cloning.

13. The Review’s Issues Paper noted that other countries, including the UK, can undertake non-reproductive (therapeutic) cloning. The USA has no specific regulation against cloning, which allows the private sector to invest in embryo and cloning research. Why should Australia fail to reap the health and economic benefits from human embryo research and non-reproductive cloning?

14. Australians will surely wish to benefit from any technological advances resulting from cloning technology. If research involving human embryos undertaken overseas were to result in treatments for quadriplegia, diabetes, heart disease and cancer, Australians may wish to use these treatments. Would Australians really be prepared to forgo these treatments because some deem that the technology that created the treatments was unethical? If Australians do use treatments developed overseas, it would be hypocritical to claim that the research was unethical. This scenario should be considered now.

15. The RIHE and PHC Acts must be amended to allow beneficial research to proceed that could have real benefits for Australians.

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