Aug 19, 2002
By Michael Perry
In wheelchairs and on crutches, a small band of people with incurable diseases travelled to Australia's parliament on Monday to pressure politicians to pass a new law allowing research to continue on embryo stem cells.
Legislation banning human cloning but allowing surplus IVF embryo stem cells to be used in research will be presented to the parliament on Wednesday.
The Australian legislation is midway between the restrictive US approach, which limits stem cell research to cell lines from embryos that had already been destroyed, and more liberal laws in Britain, which allow embryos to be created for research.
Conservative Prime Minister John Howard will allow a rare conscience vote on the controversial embryonic stem cell issue, removing from lawmakers an obligation to vote along party lines.
There is bipartisan support for the new law but some conservative politicians like Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson oppose it on moral grounds.
The influential Catholic church is also strongly opposed and has been lobbying hard in Canberra to turn parliamentarians against the legislation.
Weeks of debate are expected before the legislation if finally voted on.
If the law is defeated it could force some Australian stem cell research units to close, although politicians in Australia's six states have promised to pass laws in their state assemblies to keep research going.
Australian researchers are at the forefront of the world's embryonic and adult stem cell research.
"Which of you (politicians) will come to our house and look Luke in the face and tell him you are going to take away one of his best hopes for a normal life," asked Steve Alderton at a news conference in parliament house on Monday.
As Alderton spoke, an image of his two-year-old son Luke, a quadraplegic after developing the spinal cord disease transverse myelitis, smiled down on the news conference from a slide projection. Luke was too ill to travel to Canberra from his home hundreds of kilometres away.
DOWN THE SINK
"We believe surplus IVF stem cells that are unceremoniously thrown down the sink should not be wasted. They should be used for the betterment of mankind. It would be morally wrong to not do so," said his mother Alison.
An estimated 70,000 surplus embryos created for IVF are currently stored in Australia.
A statement signed by 46 Australian medical and research groups called on politicians to allow continued embryonic stem cell research and not limit research to adult stem cells.
"We believe that passage of the bill has the potential to alleviate much human suffering," said the statement.
"We believe it would be wrong to deny hope to sufferers from these diseases, their families and friends by insisting that only one form of stem cell research may be pursued."
At the news conference Paul Brock, paralysed in a wheelchair with motor neurone disease (MND), warned that without the research and the chance of a cure he faced a horrific death.
"Many thousands of us with MND face the terrifying future of total paralysis.
Only our brain is free," Brock said, adding many MND patients contemplated
suicide as an alternative to such a horrifying death.
© 2002 Reuters Ltd.