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Australia to Vote on Stem Cells After More Debate

Dec 02, 2002

Australia's parliament was expected to hold a rare conscience vote late on Monday on whether to approve medical research on human embryos following another marathon debate by the Senate on the controversial issue.

"Debate resumes at 12:30 (p.m./0130 GMT) today, scheduled through to about 11:20 (p.m./1220 GMT). The plan is there will be a vote at the end of the day," a spokesman for Ian Campbell, manager of government business in the Senate, told Reuters.

Embryonic stem cell research, which advocates argue could help find cures for illnesses such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease, has become one of the most emotive issues in Australia since parliament vetoed a state's euthanasia laws in the mid-1990s.

The proposed law is midway between the restrictive US approach, which limits stem cell research to cell lines from embryos that have already been destroyed, and more liberal British laws that allow embryos to be created for research.

Lawmakers are expected to allow the controversial research on human embryos, but only after another lengthy debate and attempts to force legislative amendments.

Scientists, biotechnology firms and researchers threaten to take their work and investment offshore if the bill fails.

The vote in the upper house Senate was delayed last month after hours of discussions when members said they needed more time to speak on the issue.

The lower house in September approved a bill to allow about 70,000 spare embryos created for in-vitro fertility treatment to be used for stem cell research after one of parliament's most heated, emotive debates of recent years.

But the Senate needs to pass the bill for it to become law.

Health Minister Kay Patterson has said she believes there will be majority support to allow the research, but the government has no official position and several conservative cabinet members have lobbied against the bill.

In Australia, BresaGen Ltd is leading research on stem cells.

© 2002 Reuters Ltd