19 October 2005
by Alan Nichols
In eight weeks, the panel advising the Federal Government on embryo research and therapeutic cloning will submit its report. From the public airing of the issues, you would swear that there were only two sides – churches and right-to-life groups who totally oppose all embryo research, and scientists and “liberals” who support it, and would go further and endorse therapeutic cloning.
But there is a middle way – to support the status quo, which would allow further research on embryo stem cells to see what benefit it can bring, but continue the legislative ban on therapeutic cloning because the arguments to lift the ban are not conclusive. The effect of this would be to simply extend the two pieces of legislation, and insert another sunset clause three or five years hence.
It’s not just an esoteric debate among conservatives and progressives in society, like the old abortion debates. The essential problem about ethical debates in Australia is that ethics time always lags behind science time, as Margaret Somerville, an Australian professor who teaches ethics and philosophy in Canada, has observed.
In the public hearings last month in Sydney and Melbourne for church and community groups, it became clear that some churches have become more conservative in their views on these questions. At the Melbourne hearing, the Uniting Church representative strongly opposed embryo research, but the church used to support it, and it may be that Uniting Church views are mixed. The Anglican Church in Sydney opposed it as well, but used to support in vitro fertilisation and associated research.
The Lockhart panel knows that the views of religious people are more mixed than that. There are many who would support a middle way - continuing the approval for embryo research, but also continuing the ban on therapeutic cloning.
What are the arguments for the middle way? First, adult stem cell research has already proved effective. For decades skin damage from severe burns has been repaired by stem cell work. More recently, brain stem cells removed from patients with Parkinson’s disease have been genetically manipulated and reinserted. This has slowed the onset of Parkinson’s.
Then research on animals using stem cells from umbilical cord blood and foetal tissues has been very promising, but only the first results from international studies on humans are coming through. It’s early days.
This takes us to embryo stem cells. Since the legislation came into effect in 2002, only a handful of research projects have been approved - only three at the Australian Stem Cell Centre. But this remains promising, especially for inherited diseases such as Huntington’s disease and cystic fibrosis.
So why not give the scientists more time to prove the value of embryo research, at least to the point of promising results from animal research if it doesn’t get to the point of trials on human subjects. Therefore extend the legislative approval for a few more years.
But therapeutic cloning crosses a significant threshold. Like many other Australians, I don’t like the idea of deliberately creating embryos for destructive research. This is not because I regard every embryo as a whole human person who needs state protection. It’s still a pro-life position to regard syngamy as the important moment, when 14 days after egg and sperm come together the first features of spine, limbs and brain start to reveal themselves. In this period, the natural process aborts about 25 per cent of pregnancies. An embryo is simply not inviolate in the natural process.
To create a human embryo simply to destroy it in the research process reminds me of the Nazi experiments – it hints at eugenics, creating a flawless master race by genetic experiment. This is a threshold I cannot cross.
Could my mind be changed? Possibly, but it would take some persuasion. First, evidence would have to be offered that the present embryo research is actually producing results. Then the question would have to be answered: have the 70,000 surplus embryos in IVF clinics all been used? As well, an argument would have to be mounted that research with umbilical cord blood and foetal tissue would not accomplish the same research results.
As it happens, public opinion in Australia agrees with me. A May 2005 poll by Market Attitude Research Services for Biotechnology Australia showed that 65 per cent of Australians approve of human stem cells being derived from embryos, and opinion is mixed on therapeutic cloning – depending whether it’s for reducing a person’s chance of getting breast cancer (high approval), or increasing a child’s intelligence above normal (very low approval). The Australian public on most ethical issues is cautiously progressive, and they always want safeguards put in place. Ethics time lags behind science time.
I readily concede that other Christians, even other Anglicans, start with the same biblical pro-life position as me and come to different conclusions on such precise subjects as embryo research or therapeutic cloning.
The position I have outlined here is a kind of “middle way” – which is often where the Anglican church has positioned itself on complex public issues. We support medical research to achieve public good, but allow us time for our understanding and ethics to catch up.
And please don’t commodify embryos by saying that Victoria will lose out economically if we don’t approve of everything the scientists or entrepreneurs want to do. They said that about the slave trade.
Rev Alan Nichols is Director of the Centre for Applied Christian Ethics at Ridley College, University of Melbourne. The article first appeared in The Age on 17 October 2005. Copyright The Age Company Ltd, 2005. Used by permission.
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