Sept. 25, 2002
Research on stem cells taken from human embryos moved a step closer in Australia on Wednesday when national parliamentarians sided three to one in a rare conscience vote to support proposed laws to give the go-ahead.
Politicians in the lower House of Representatives were freed to vote according to their conscience in what has become one of the most emotive debates in Australia since the parliament vetoed a state's euthanasia laws in the mid-1990s.
The controversial laws, that still need approval from parliament's upper house Senate, would ban human cloning but allow an estimated 70,000 spare embryos created for in-vitro fertility treatment to be used for stem cell research.
After 35 hours of heated debate, the bill was passed by 99 votes to 33 in the 150-seat House of Representatives.
But a final vote in the Senate, which is expected to be much closer, is not expected for months with the debate continuing.
Advocates believe embryonic stem cell research could help find cures for treating illnesses such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, as well as diabetes, cancer, heart attacks and spinal injuries.
Stem cells can transform themselves into other types of human cell, offering the chance to regenerate damaged organs or tissue.
But opponents, including those from the religious right of the conservative coalition government, condemn the research because it involves the destruction of the embryo to extract the stem cells, which they believe violates the sanctity of life.
If the law was defeated in Australia, it could force some research units to close, although politicians in Australia's six states have promised to pass laws in their state assemblies to keep research going.
The Australian legislation is midway between the restrictive U.S. approach, which limits stem cell research to cell lines from embryos that have already been destroyed, and more liberal laws in Britain that allow embryos to be created for research.
Britain, home to the world's first test-tube baby and Dolly the cloned
sheep, has positioned itself as a leader in the field, with the world's
most relaxed laws on research.
© 2002, Reuters Ltd