February 26 2002
Louise Dodson, Darren Gray
Federal cabinet yesterday decided to ban the use of spare IVF human embryos for research, sparking predictions of an exodus of elite Australian scientists overseas.
The controversial decision overturns the recommendations of an all-parties parliamentary committee, which last year gave the green light for embryonic stem-cell research in Australia.
Stem-cell research is regarded as vital for finding cures for debilitating conditions such as Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease and diabetes.
Embryonic stem cells that have the ability to grow into any type of body tissue are currently derived from three to seven-day-old surplus IVF embryos. However, the process destroys the embryo.
Cabinet's decision follows strong opposition by the Australia Federation of Right to Life Associations and the controversial decision by United States President George Bush last year to ban federal funding to American scientists who wanted to develop new stem-cell lines.
The decision followed a submission to cabinet by the new Minister for Ageing, Kevin Andrews, a staunch Catholic and social policy conservative.
Mr Andrews successfully led the campaign to overturn legislation in the Northern Territory to allow euthanasia in some circumstances.
He made the submission even though he does not have ministerial responsibility for relevant portfolios such as health or science and is not in cabinet. However, Mr Andrews headed the federal parliamentary committee that examined stem-cell research.
The 10-member Andrews committee reported last year and voted six to four in favour of allowing Australian scientists to use spare IVF embryos to create new stem-cell lines. Mr Andrews was one of the four against.
The committee unanimously recommended a ban on reproductive cloning, saying that any attempt to clone a complete human being be considered a criminal offence. It also recommended a ban on the creation of human embryos just to extract stem cells.
Senior sources said yesterday that the position Mr Andrews' submitted to cabinet had strong support, with a majority of ministers declaring their opposition to using spare IVF human embryos for stem- cell research.
While it is unclear how the government could ban research on excess human embryos, the move is likely to send shockwaves through the Australian scientific community.
Melbourne is home to some of the leading scientists in the world in understanding stem-cell technology. The specialty is also viewed as a key element in Australia's burgeoning biotechnology industry.
Associate Professor Martin Pera, of the Monash Institute of Reproduction and Development, said the government's move could force Australian scientists to other nations such as Britain, where research on excess IVF embryos is permitted.
"It will inhibit our ability to compete in some ways. Because if we can't derive new stem cells, and people in other places like the UK can, it may turn out that derivation of new stem-cell lines is critical to developing new treatments," Professor Pera said.
"That would leave us in a position similar to researchers in the USA, only more restrictive. Presumably this would cover not just federally funded research but any research," he said.
A spokesman for the Australian Democrats said the party supported stem-cell research on excess IVF embryos.
Victoria, Western Australia and South Australia, are the only states that have laws regulating cloning and associated stem-cell research.
Under Victoria's Infertility Treatment Act, spare IVF embryos cannot be stored for longer than five years. However, couples can seek an extension to this rule.
In 1998, controversy erupted when hundreds of spare embryos were destroyed in Melbourne under the law. Many of the embryos had been stored years earlier by couples who had lost contact with the IVF clinics.
In June last year, a meeting of the
Council of Australian Governments agreed to work towards uniform national
regulations on stem- cell research and cloning by June, 2002.
Copyright © 2002 The Age Company