Apr 04, 2002
CANBERRA, Australia (Reuters)
Australia on Thursday sought a middle path on the controversial issue of using human embryos for stem cell research, saying existing embryos could be used but no new ones created simply for medical science.
The decision puts Australia midway between the restrictive approach of the United States, which limits research to cells from embryos that have already been destroyed, and the liberal laws of Britain, which allow embryos to be created for research.
But while the move won cautious approval of industry, which had warned of a scientific exodus if the cutting-edge research was shackled, leaders of Australia's six states vowed to defy the federal line and allow the use of future surplus embryos.
Prime Minister John Howard said his conservative government would seek to ban human cloning and the creation of embryos for stem cell research, but would allow the current supply of embryos left over from fertility treatments to be used for research.
About 70,000 surplus embryos created for in vitro fertility treatments are currently stored in Australia. Some are destroyed after 5 years, adding to the urgency of Howard's announcement.
Our proposal "strikes the right balance between a careful regard for ethical considerations but also a belief that no stone should be unreasonably left unturned to provide an avenue for the relief of human suffering," Howard told a news conference in Canberra.
While researchers said they were optimistic, the decision could open the door for much needed research into new stem cell lines, right-to-life groups condemned it, saying it would allow the cannibalisation of humans for spare parts.
"There is a difference between allowing someone to die and exploiting their bodies for commercial purposes, which is what this research is about," said Mary Joseph, a spokeswoman for the Australian Federation of Right to Life Associations.
But state governments, which are responsible for healthcare, vowed to ignore the Prime Minister's efforts to restrict research to existing surplus embryos, saying embryos created in the future, and found to be surplus, should also be used.
Howard is set to discuss the issue with state leaders--all from the federal opposition Labor party--on Friday.
© 2002 Reuters Ltd
CANBERRA (Reuters) Apr 03 - Australia's conservative government appeared poised on Wednesday to give the green light to stem cell research, but could impose US-style limits on the use of discarded embryos to appease religious groups.
With the nation's six states in favour of using stem cells from embryos to research cures for diseases like Alzheimer's, analysts said Prime Minister John Howard's desire for a uniform national policy all but guarantees he will give in to consensus.
A staunch conservative, the prime minister is nevertheless expected to attach strict guidelines to the use of surplus embryos to bring Australia closer to the restrictive approach of the United States rather than the liberal laws of Britain.
On Friday Howard will meet state leaders--all from the federal opposition Labor party--to discuss how the issue, which falls within state responsibility, will be regulated.
A spokeswoman for Kevin Andrews, the minister who brought the stem cell debate to cabinet, said Howard would unveil his position before Friday's meeting.
Andrews opposes the use of some 70,000 embryos left over from Australian fertility treatments for use in stem cell research--swayed by religious and moral arguments that experimentation on embryos is tantamount to cannibalising humans for spare parts.
But in a sign that the political winds may be shifting, his spokeswoman said any decision to go ahead with the research would carry stringent US-type limits.
"If it is allowed, there will be strict regulation, as is the case in the United States...you'd see a similar type of regulatory regime if embryonic stem cell research was permitted," she said.
US President George W. Bush last year decided to limit publicly funded research to existing embryonic stem cell lines, while Britain took a far more liberal approach, approving the creation of embryos for the specific use of stem cell research.
Stem cells can transform themselves into other types of cells, potentially regenerating damaged organs or tissues. Many scientists believe stem cells offer hope for treating brain maladies like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases, as well as diabetes, cancer, heart attacks and spinal injuries.
CAUTIOUS OPTIMISM IN INDUSTRY
There are no national laws covering the use of stem cells in Australia, but some states have individual laws that require the destruction of leftover embryos from infertility treatment.
Researchers say any move by Australia to restrict research to stem cells taken from adults rather than embryos, or to limit research to existing stem cell lines as in the United States, would drive the best scientists out of Australia.
At least one state leader, New South Wales Premier Bob Carr, has said if Howard does not create a national environment where research could take place, he would bring legislation to ensure it could happen in his state--raising the spectre of a fractured state-based system already dismissed by Howard.
While Howard was still consulting on the issue, colleagues appeared to be softening the ground for a pro-research decision.
Attorney-General Daryl Williams said last week "the preponderate view (within cabinet and party) seems to be supporting the use of embryos in research."
Cautious optimism also reigned at Adelaide-based BresaGen Ltd, the industry leader on human embryonic stem cell research, where scientists were counting on the prime minister's legendary pragmatism to prevent him from opposing unanimous state leaders.
"He would be conservative about something like this but he's also highly pragmatic and from a scientific point of view and from a community point of view... I think he puts himself in a corner by opposing it," said Chris Juttner, vice-president of clinical development at BresaGen.
"Our guess is that it is probably going to get up."
© 2002 Reuters Ltd