Friday, July 8, 2011

No fizz left in the cloning bottle: Legislative Review finally released

As predicted, Minister Mark Butler delayed tabling the cloning review until today, about 6 weeks after the due date for tabling in Parliament (27th May, which was in fact the date the report was put on his desk). That means potential Senate critics like Barnett, Fielding and McGauran are gone, and a safely 'progressive' Greens party holds the balance of power in the Senate.

Getting to the substance of the report, and for this post limiting it to the central question of cloning: a reading of the relevant section (5.3) shows the lame attempt by the majority of the committee to keep this sickly science on its futile life-support. This section was largely an apologia for the residual shrivelled case for cloning, with only ardent supporters of cloning (Muncie, Williamson, Elefanty) being quoted in the section and no critics quoted at all. As expected, this one-sided chorus culminates in the stale old trope of the morally menopausal: "let's just research everything".

Nevertheless, I detect throughout this report the bracing presence of Rev Kevin McGovern, Director of the Caroline Chisholm Centre for Health Ethics. His dissenting comment appended to Recommendation 3 is a masterpiece of clear thinking and demolishes the ramshackle apologia of the dominant committee members.

Read Rec 3, below, and note the 'however' from the Committee about how there is no avoiding the lack of progress / lack of living up to the hype (yes, they even used the word 'hype' describing the promise of cloning, earlier in the report) and therefore even less likelihood that further experimentation would be approved in Australia.

Recommendation 3: (by majority) The provisions in the current legislation regarding SCNT should not be amended.

However, in reaching this recommendation, the Review Committee notes the lack of progress in SCNT research in animals and humans. The Review Committee believes that this must impact on the Licensing Committee’s interpretation of its statutory obligation, when it is considering any future application for a licence to undertake research involving SCNT, to take into account ‘the likelihood of significant advance in knowledge or improvement in technologies for treatment as a result of the use of excess ART embryos or human eggs, or the creation or use of other embryos, proposed in the application, which could not reasonably be achieved by other means’ when it is considering any future application for a licence to undertake research involving SCNT.

One wonders why they lack the ethical rigour to admit that cloning has failed the test of 'compelling promise and necessity', but McGovern makes that point with great strength straight after the Committee's majority comment. Read and admire this from McGovern: 

The foregoing represents a majority view of the Review Committee. Reverend Kevin McGovern, however, notes:
The approach recommended by the Lockhart Review, which stated that ‘the greater the potential benefits of an activity, the greater the need for ethical objections to be of a high level and widely accepted in order to prevent that activity. Conversely, where benefits are not yet established, or where there is widespread and deeply held community objection, then total prohibition through the legal system may be justified.’ Reverend McGovern believes that in 2011 the latter standard has been reached for SCNT. In 2006, SCNT seemed the only way to seek the benefits of regenerative medicine. With the advent of induced pluripotent stem cells, this is no longer the case. It is hard to see what SCNT now contributes to the progress of regenerative medicine. What would be lost if Australia’s regulatory regime permitted the harvesting of embryonic stem cells from excess embryos along with research with adult stem cells and induced pluripotent stem cells, but did not permit SCNT? 

Some scientists have proposed some possible benefits of SCNT, but their arguments are not entirely convincing. Dr Megan Munsie argues that SCNT-ES cells might more closely resemble ES cells than iPS cells. However, the evidence from animal work is that SCNT generally produces damaged or abnormal embryos. This strongly suggests that even if SCNT-ES cells more closely resemble ES cells, these SCNT-ES cells will still be genetically abnormal and inferior to ES cells. Professor Bob Williamson advocates SCNT to generate stem cell lines as disease models to study late-onset conditions. It is not clear, however, why SCNT-derived lines would be more useful than iPSC- lines. Beyond that, there is only the possibility of what ‘might’ be learnt if research into SCNT continues. The proposed benefits of SCNT research therefore seem not entirely convincing, sometimes rather small, and largely theoretical. On the other hand, SCNT involves the most profound of ethical concerns. It is the creation of human life which will be used in research and then destroyed. When people understand this, many people within the community are troubled by SCNT.

For all this, however, this most serious of ethical concerns has been judged less significant than the mostly theoretical benefits which might come if research into SCNT is allowed to continue. With this outcome, Reverend McGovern wonders whether the ethical concerns about SCNT research are ultimately being given anything more than lip-service.

Perfectly stated. If the Minister had done what was required of him by statute and tabled the Report on the 27th May when it was put on his desk, I know Senator Guy Barnett for one would have brought this passage of penetrating argument by McGovern to the attention of fellow Senators. The case for cloning now is so diminished that it could never carry a conscience vote like it did in the hysterically hyped days of 2006.

That, I suspect, is why the dominant players in this Review Committee have opted for the small target strategy, not moving any controversial amendments (other than on IVD gametes - more planned for a later post) and therefore not provoking the Senate to pay any real attention to the existing legislation. Likewise, the Minister's failure to table the Review in May - despite questions from at least one outgoing Senator, as I recall - is part of a small-target strategy of his own.

Perhaps that means the vile project of creating human embryos solely with their exploitation and destruction in mind will linger as a stain on the statues until a change of Government. So be it. For now, cloning is in terminal decline since the advent of iPS, and its futile life-support will indeed be switched off by a more morally serious Government in due course...