Embryonic stem cell research around the world has suffered some political setbacks in recent weeks. First, Australian Prime Minister John Howard rejected the recommendations of the Lockhart Review that the current law should be amended to permit research into therapeutic cloning; a few weeks later, President Bush overruled the votes of the US Congress to veto a similar legislative proposal to allow federal funding for new embryonic stem cell research.
From an Australian perspective, the Lockhart Review of national embryo research legislation was mandated by the law itself: both the Research Involving Human Embryos Act 2002 and the Prohibition Against Human Cloning Act 2002 specified that the operation of the acts would be reviewed. When these laws were written, the review clauses were intended to recognise the need for legislative flexibility in a rapidly changing field, as well as the temporary 'stop-gap' nature of the legislation that was introduced out of necessity, into an arena of ongoing debate. The Prime Minister's refusal to heed the findings of the review mocks the work of the Lockhart committee and its members, as well as the intentions of the original law.
One of the perceived strengths of the Australian legislation was its role in providing a unifying national framework to regulate embryonic stem cells research - something which supporters and opponents alike agreed was essential. With Howard's contrary decision and the rightful opposition by state heads of government (Victoria and Queensland among them), national unity now threatens to be lost.
The views of Howard and his allies on embryo research, particularly therapeutic cloning, have been well documented during previous debates on stem cell research. Despite strong advice from the Lockhart review, they appear not to have changed, with Peter Costello describing embryonic stem cell research as 'ethically repugnant'. But what is more repugnant: to allow research that might save lives and alleviate disease, or to let the delicate moral sensibilities of a few individuals in power deprive us of freedom of research and condemn thousands to continued suffering? In Australia and in the US, this is exactly what seems likely to occur.
It might be argued that Bush and Howard, as elected representatives of their countries, have the right to make such decisions. However in this circumstance, both are clearly acting against the expressed wishes of their respective constituencies: Bush in overturning the vote of both Houses of Congress as well as failing to heed the governments of states such as California, who have pressed for ES cell research to be allowed; Howard in ignoring the advice of his own expert committee and, again, the Australian state governments.
The Howard Government's position is particularly ethically untenable given the current state of Australian law and the debates that took place some five years ago when the original national legislation was proposed. Unlike US federal law, Australian law already allows some use of embryos in stem cell research, acknowledging that it is acceptable under some circumstances to utilise embryos for research, with sufficient justification. Indeed, this was a keystone of the Parliamentary debates that led to the legislation in its present form. If the importance of 'respecting' human embryos can give way to the importance of respecting (and saving) existing lives, there should be no obstacle to therapeutic cloning, no distinction between creating research IVF embryos and using those left over from IVF: the justification is the same, and equally significant.
The Australian state governments (and the US states and members of Congress) are to be commended for taking a stand on this crucial issue in medical research. It remains to be seen, however, what the impact of these developments will be on the global scientific playing field. Both Australia and the US have previously been international leaders in embryonic stem cell research, more so before the political entanglements of recent years. Evidence now indicates that research in these countries has been hampered by the difficult, dogmatic attitudes of their governments: the diversification of Australian biotechnological assets to overseas stakeholders better able to carry out the research and the testimony of leading stem cell researchers working privately in the US demonstrate the degree to which scientific progress has been impeded. It may be other countries' gain as researchers (and research investors) seek more fruitful ground to pursue their goals, but the Australian and US public, at least, must hope that it does not prove to be their loss.