Draft legislation that is designed to expand the provision of embryonic stem cell (ES cell) research in Australia has been put before the federal Parliament. Democrat Senator Natasha Stott Despoja drafted the Private Member's Bill, which is modelled on the proposals put forward by the Lockhart Committee Review last year.
Current law governing ES cell research in Australia is contained in the Research Involving Human Embryos Act and the Prohibition of Human Cloning Act, both of which were passed in 2002 after much debate. The two acts together ban reproductive cloning, prevent scientists from cloning embryos to obtain stem cells and restrict them to research on surplusIVF embryos created before the acts were passed, and donated by IVF patients who no longer require them. All research must operate under a licensing scheme administered by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC). However, the laws had a built-in three-year 'sunset clause', which means the debates needed to be revisited.
Last December, a six-member Legislative Review Committee, chaired by the now deceased John Lockhart, a former Federal Court judge, recommended that the existing laws on cloning and stem cell research should be relaxed. It showed that there was 'clearly overwhelming support from the general public and the medical and scientific communities for maintaining a strong regulatory framework' in the area but also clear support for 'augmentation of the current system to allow research, within a rigorous ethical framework, into emerging scientific practices that will assist in the understanding of disease and disability'. On this basis, the Committee recommended that while human reproductive cloning should be banned, cloning technology should be allowed to be used to produce embryos for ES cell research.
In June, the Australian cabinet narrowly voted in favour of ignoring the Lockhart Committee proposals. But, after a period of indecision, Prime Minister John Howard - who is against ES cell research - has recently been persuaded that the time is right to allow more debate on so-called therapeutic cloning and that he should allow a conscience vote on the issue later in the year.
The new bill, which is co-sponsored by Ruth Webber, will now be considered by the Senate Community Affairs Committee, in the hope of it proceeding to a vote by November. Public hearings will be held in the last week of October, with the committee due to report by 27 October. Senator Stott Despoja says that she has included all the scientific recommendations of the Lockhart Committee report in the draft bill, in order for a full and open debate to take place in Parliament. It would continue the ban on human reproductive cloning and would prevent any research taking place on embryos after 14 days of development. 'I didn't want to cherry pick those recommendations because I wanted the Parliament to decide what to adopt, what to reject, what to amend, what to debate, even what to clone', she said. Liberal Senator Kay Patterson, a former health minister, is also preparing her own Private Member's Bill to expand ES cell research.
Sources and References
Stott Despoja unveils stem cells Bill
'MPs press on with stem cell recommendations
Senate committee to mull therapeutic cloning