Australia's Senate has narrowly voted - by 34 to 32 - to approve new legislation that will overturn the current ban on the cloning of human embryos for stem cell research. The bill still needs to be passed by the House of Representatives, who will vote on the issue in late November, in order for it to become law. If the proposed legislation is passed, it will allow Australian stem cell scientists to clone human embryos for research providing that they are destroyed by 14 days after creation and are not implanted into a woman. Supporters were forced to introduce last-minute amendments, prohibiting the creation of chimeras and increasing the prison sentence for breaching limitations on embryonic cloning from 10 to 15 years, in order to get the bill through the Senate.
The debate ran late into Tuesday night and provoked intense argument from both sides. The session featured nightmarish fears over the creation of human-animal hybrids - which were supported by the Lockhart Committee. Senator Julian McGauran spoke of a 'horror story' with 'Dr Strageloves chanting for such weird experiments as the creation of hybrid embryos, mixing humans with animals'. The Australian newspaper criticised such 'outlandish statements' as 'irresponsible'. In its editorial, the newspaper argued that 'Australians are better off erring on the side of science than dwelling in the realms of fantasy'.
Concerns were also raised over the potential abuse of embryo cloning. Senator Grant Chapman likened embryo cloning with human experiments conducted in Germany during the Nazi regime. He said: 'experiments which subject the zygote, or embryo, to any significant risk are the ethical equivalent of the infamous medical experiments that were inflicted on the unwilling and uninformed victims in Nazi death camps'. However, proponents of the bill argued that change is needed to prevent Australian stem cell scientists taking their research abroad to countries with more relaxed regulatory frameworks. 'A vote against this Bill tells young eager scientific minds that Australia doesn't trust them', said Senator Kay Patterson, who introduced the bill, adding 'a vote against sends the message that our regulatory system can't be relied on'. Some Senators drew upon their personal lives when considering how to vote. Senator Alan Ferguson, whose daughter suffers from multiple sclerosis, said that 'I would never forgive myself if I voted against this bill'. Scientists hope that stem cell research will provide cures for diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, as well as a range of other degenerative conditions.
The so-called 'conscience vote' on the proposed legislation required Senators to weigh their beliefs about the moral status of the embryo against the potential treatments and cures that stem cell research harbours. Senator Patterson said that such debates bring up differences within party lines that are 'sometimes fairly painful'. When the bill comes up for debate in the House of Representatives it is clear that it will be closely scrutinised to ensure that safeguards are adequate, but it will also require similar emotional and weighty ethical decision making as did in the Senate. Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, who previously blocked proposals to authorise embryonic stem (ES) cell research, indicated that he will find the vote later this month a difficult one to make. He told reporters after the Senate vote that 'If somebody looks me in the face and says 'how can you vote against the possibility that I, as a crippled person, may have available to me a wonderful medical invention, medical science that would cure my affliction', I can't say no to that as a human being. On the other hand, if someone says to me 'you are going a step too far and interfering in fundamental concepts of the beginning of life', that's quite a challenging thing as well.'
The aftermath of the debate saw a mixed response from the voters. Senator Bill Heffernan, labelled the passing of the bill as 'dishonest', adding, 'there's been a lot of emotional and political blackmail in the process and I think it's disgraceful'. At the other end of the spectrum, Senator Natasha Stott Despoja was jubilant with the result. 'This is one of my happiest days in the Parliament, I think this is a wonderful result and it offers extraordinary hope for many Australians', she said. 'We did a good thing today', she added. Senator Kay Patterson labelled the debate 'democracy at its best'. She said that she had to overcome her own religious convictions to vote on the issue but that at the end of the day 'science had prevailed'.