The Australian Treasurer, Peter Costello, has stated that politicians voting on how to reform laws on cloning and stem cell research in the country should be allowed to vote according to their conscience. In doing so, he stated that he planned to attempt to block the proposed relaxation of the current laws.
Last December, a six-member Legislative Review Committee, chaired by John Lockhart, a former Federal Court judge, looked at the law and considered the submissions to a public consultation that ended last September. It recommended that the existing laws on cloning and stem cell research should be relaxed.
In Australia, the Research Involving Human Embryos Act and the Prohibition of Human Cloning Act, both passed in 2002 after much debate, together ban reproductive cloning, prevent scientists from cloning embryos to obtain stem cells and restrict them to research on surplus IVF 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.
The Lockhart Review 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 Lockhart Committee recommended that while human reproductive cloning should be banned, cloning technology should be allowed to be used to produce embryos for stem cell research. The Government, headed by Prime Minister John Howard and known to be divided on the issue, considered the recommendations over the Christmas legislative break, with a view to Parliamentary debates starting in May.
Last month, Health Minister Tony Abbott also voiced his support for maintaining the existing legislative provisions - however, the Australian media has said that the Industry Minister, Ian McFarlane, will be leading the campaign to change the laws, and Democrat Senator Natasha Scott Desposa said that if the government fails to change the law, she will file a private member's bill and ask for a free vote on the issue. Other members of Parliament, on both sides of the debate, seemed also to be leaning towards a conscience vote on the issue.
Mr Costello said that he was against relaxing the legislation on embryo research because he believes embryos should not be created solely for the purpose of research. 'I don't think we should go around creating embryos for the purposes of testing and I do believe in this area there does have to be some moral restrictions', he said. He went on to say that embryos had been 'created in times past that, for one reason or another, were not used by the parents', continuing 'in circumstances where they are going to be destroyed, I thought it was reasonable to allow them to be available for scientific tests'.