Australian Prime Minister John Howard has ruled out the possibility of a 'conscience vote' on whether embryo cloning for medical research purposes (therapeutic cloning) should be permitted in the country. But following a backbench revolt, Mr Howard has said he will allow coalition members to debate the issue further. Howard's refusal to lift the current prohibition on cloning for embryonic stem cell (ES cell) research, as recommended by the 2005 Lockhart report, has attracted strong criticism from scientists and patient groups. And Steve Bracks, state premier of Victoria and Peter Beattie, Premier of Queensland, have vowed to 'go it alone' in ES cell research if such work continues to face a federal ban.
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. 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. A recent poll, carried out by Roy Morgan, showed that 80 per cent of the Australian public support therapeutic cloning research.
The Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research Australia (CAMRA) said last week that seriously ill Australians would be denied potential cures if planned stem cell restrictions were not reviewed. 'We believe a diverse range of personal opinions as demonstrated in the Lockhart enquiry can only be translated into representative policy through an open discussion in parliament, said Joanna Knott of CAMRA.
According to Liberal backbencher Mal Washer, anything less than a conscience vote on therapeutic cloning - which could only be held if legislation or a private member's bill were introduced to parliament - would be 'quite arrogant'. For a cabinet holding some extreme minority to impose that position on the rest of the population is totally unjustified', he added. However, according to health Minister Tony Abbott, cloning research is 'an ethical barrier Australia should not cross'.
Professor John Burn, medical director of the Institute of Human Genetics in Newcastle, UK, said today that Howard's decision is 'a cost to the international research effort because Australia's a very important component of it and it's a shame that position's been adopted'. Professor Burn was the opening speaker at the 11th International Congress of Human Genetics, being held in Brisbane this week. He said that the Australian government was making an ill-informed and 'too cautious decision' not to adopt the recommendations of the Lockhart Review. 'I think the vast majority of Australians would say if it's OK in Britain we can't see why it's not OK in Australia'.