Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - A marathon national debate in Australia over embryonic stem cell research comes down to the wire this week, as the country's Senate prepares to vote on controversial legislation that has generated months of often heated debate.
The 76-member federal Senate is considering a bill that would allow researchers to experiment on 70,000 human embryos created during in-vitro fertilization (IVF) treatment but are now frozen and unwanted by their parents.
The lower House of Representatives last September passed the Research Involving Embryos Bill by 99-33, in a rare free vote.
A free vote is one in which lawmakers voted according to their individual consciences, rather than following a party line. Many found themselves voting against their party colleagues, and even the cabinet was split.
The bill then moved to the Senate, where pro-lifers and other opponents of embryonic stem cell research had been more hopeful the legislation would fail.
Not only did there appear to be more opposition in the upper chamber, but it also held a separate inquiry into the issues. That inquiry included five public sessions and the review of almost 2,000 submissions - mostly by objectors.
Indications in recent days, however, are that supporters of the bill in the Senate have the required numbers to pass it.
In an eleventh-hour bid to swing opinion against it, opponents have reiterated their argument that lawmakers are being swayed by bio-tech researchers intent on getting rich by using human embryos for drug testing and other commercial purposes - and not driven by the altruistic desire to find treatments for diseases as they claim.
Opponents of the legislation point out that those most in favor of its passage have themselves acknowledged the drug-testing potential.
In his testimony to the Senate inquiry last September, Prof. Alan Trounson, a leading bio-scientists and one of the bill's strongest supporters, said that embryonic stem cells would under certain circumstances be "highly useful for screening drugs for both toxicology and effectiveness."
Senator Ron Boswell, a member of the junior coalition partner National Party with strong pro-life views, said Sunday that under the draft legislation, human embryos from Australia could end up being exported abroad, where they would be used for drug testing or cloning.
Another leading critic, Senator Brian Harradine, said scientists' claims of "impending cures" were exaggerated.
The bill, he warned, would allow embryos to be used in " drug and toxicology testing, in training IVF clinicians in lasering, cutting and dissecting and for 'quality assurance' in genetic testing."
Harradine argued that embryos are members of the human family.
"If we label immature human beings as not yet human because they can't do certain things, we make the status of everyone dependent on their capacities."
The basic arguments on each side of the debate have largely echoed those raised in several other countries.
Supporters say stem cells to be harvested from the embryos have the potential to help treat a range of diseases, and that should outweigh any ethical concerns about the destruction of entities that are unwanted and will probably be destroyed anyway.
Opponents argue that destroying an embryo even at that early stage is wrong. They point out that there have been no significant successes reported to date in research using embryos, while "adult" stem cells from sources like bone marrow and placenta are already being used in human trials, delivering promising results.
Facing the strong possibility of a defeat in the Senate this week, an ethics group called Do No Harm called Monday for any future drugs whose development has involved research on human embryos to be clearly identified.
If this was done, "doctors and patients who conscientiously object from such research will know which medications to avoid," said the group's medical spokesman, Dr. David van Gend.
Do No Harm has written to major pharmaceutical companies to call for labeling that would identify drugs that have and have not been "tested on human embryos."
"As doctors, we would face the troubling predicament of having at our disposal an increasing number of drugs derived, in our view, unethically, and therefore needing to find ethically innocent alternative drugs to prescribe," the letter says.
Van Gend also expressed the hope that the Senate would see that scientists' claims about embryonic cells provided cures for diseases was "a convenient and calculated fantasy."
The commercial reality, he said, was "the feeding of embryonic humans to drug companies."
A Senate decision is expected by week's end.
See earlier story:
Australian Stem Cell Debate Thrown Into Disarray Over 'Misleading' Evidence (Aug. 28, 2002)
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