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Showdown on Research Cloning in Australia

Genetic Crossroads
October 20th, 2006

Like Missouri, Australia is also debating the legality of cloning for stem cell research. But in contrast to the debates in the United States, the dialogue in Australia is remarkably open, and contains much less of the exaggerated rhetoric seen here.

A pair of widely debated 2002 laws prohibited both research and reproductive cloning, affirmed the legality of stem cell lines derived from leftover IVF embryos, and required researchers using human embryos to apply for a license from federal administrators. After a rare conscience vote—in which members of Parliament are freed from voting their party's line—these policies passed unanimously with the agreement that they would be reviewed in three years.

Subsequently, the Minister of Ageing appointed a six-member committee to review the laws, and it issued its final report in December 2005—coinciding with the peak of the cloning scandal centered in South Korea. The committee recommended loosening the laws, including permitting research cloning under a licensing system. This proposal has been highly controversial.

Prime Minister John Howard rejected the recommendations. But after pressure from backbenchers and dissent within his own cabinet, in August he announced that Parliament would hold a vote of conscience on the matter.

Political alignments on the issue have been more fluid than in the U.S. Although members of the conservative parties in the governing coalition tend to oppose lifting the research cloning ban, and opposition Labor party members tend to support the change, significant numbers have expressed opinions that cross these party lines. Scientists who support embryonic stem cell research also differ among themselves on the topic of research cloning; some have broken ranks and publicly opposed lifting the research cloning prohibition (1,2).

Furthermore, much of the debate is focusing on the source of eggs for widespread cloning-based stem cell research. Some feminists are concerned about the health effects for women providing eggs, as well as possible coercion—even though the committee recommended maintaining a ban on all payments for biological materials.

The process is not without its flaws. For example, although the legislative review committee was mandated to be unbiased, at least three of its six members had previously expressed support for research cloning.

Some research cloning advocates say they will disregard the outcome of the vote if it goes against them. The premier of Victoria, the center of Australia's biotechnology industry, has announced that he would "go it alone" and allow the practice in his state if the federal government maintains the ban.

What is perhaps most notable is the dramatic shift of some former research cloning opponents into the ranks of supporters. Just four years ago, many of these now-supporters made strong statements against the practice of research cloning. Much of their current argument seems to be grounded in the perceived need to remain economically competitive.

A vote is expected later this year.


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