A moral challenge for society

A moral challenge for society

Peter Westmore

The decision of the Prime Minister and State Premiers to permit human embryo experimentation, while banning human cloning, takes Australia a further step down the slippery slope, by permitting destructive experimentation on the most defenceless of human beings.

Their decision was made under very strong pressure from some of the medical scientists involved, who threatened to move overseas where such experimentation is permitted. The principal justification for the decision was that the embryos which are to be experimented upon are described as surplus to the IVF program, and would die anyway.

However, these human embryos were created for the purpose of helping childless couples have children. It was never envisaged that they would be the subject of destructive experiments, which breaches the first principle of medical practice: "Do no harm".

If it is wrong to create human embryos for experimentation, it is surely unethical to use any embryos - even those who would otherwise die naturally - for destructive experimentation, or as a source of embryonic stem cells.

The principle involved is exactly the same as in euthanasia, which involves deliberate killing, as opposed to letting a person die naturally.

Already, the medical scientists who support embryo experimentation want to go further, to permit human cloning. An Australian company, Stem Cell Sciences, recently announced that it intended to produce cloned human embryos specifically for experimental purposes. The company's Executive Director, Peter Mountford, was reported as saying, "Our objective is to therapeutically clone human embryos" (Associated Press report, 7 March 2002).

The planned research would use cells donated by people suffering genetic diseases to create cloned embryos with diseased cell lines. "It would allow us to screen millions of drugs against these diseased cells," he said.

There is no limit to what some scientists will do, if the law does not stop them. The government decision will inevitably open the door to such repugnant practices.

The issue will now be the subject of legislation at both State and Federal levels. It is extremely important that Australians follow the lead of the churches, and call on politicians to "do no harm", by protecting all human beings from destructive experimentation, while encouraging ethical alternatives, particularly adult stem cell research.

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