Pro-Lifers Say Embryonic Stem Cell Researchers Not Motivated By Possible Cures

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:12 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - A week before Australian lawmakers are set to debate the most contentious ethical issue in years, a pro-life doctors' group has accused the bio-tech industry of hiding their true motivation for wanting the go-ahead to use human embryos for research.

While arguing to be allowed to use human embryos in the hope of developing therapies for degenerative and other diseases, the scientists' real agenda included the desire to have human tissue on which to test drugs, study the effects of toxins, and undergo genetic research, according to the group Do No Harm.

Spokesman David van Gend said Sunday this was evident from explanatory notes accompanying a Bill to be debated in forthcoming days which will legalize the use of embryos for research.

The draft legislation does not limit use of human embryos to stem cell harvesting.

"This Bill is about the unlimited ransacking of embryonic humans for whatever purpose scientists see fit," said van Gend, whose group is described as a coalition of Australians supporting ethical medical research.

Do No Harm called for a "more skeptical debate" on the subject.

The comments take further an earlier, published article in which Van Gend said it was reasonable to suspect that "mundane drug company interests" would be served by accessibility to embryos and their stem cells.

Researchers could use them to test new chemicals and cosmetics for the lucrative drug and cosmetic industries, he argued in the Canberra Times in late June.

"If we abandon these embryos to the researchers, a fair bet is they are not being sacrificed to cure diabetes or Parkinson's - adult stem cells are looking after that side of things nicely - but to enhance the R&D capacity of multinational drug and cosmetics companies."

Australia's scientific community has for decades been at the forefront of reproductive technology developments and are strongly lobbying for the federal parliament to allow experimentation on embryos.

After hearing arguments on both sides, Prime Minister John Howard has given his backing to the legislation, which will also outlaw human cloning.

'Use fetal tissue'

The public debate has become more heated of late.

A leading scientist, Prof. Alan Trounson called his critics "hypocrites" for objecting to the destruction of embryos created during in-vitro fertilization (IVF) treatment but not needed by their parents - but not complaining when those same unwanted embryos are simply allowed to die

The comment drew adverse reaction from church leaders and others, with even Howard weighing in, and Trounson was forced to apologize.

But he has evidently found it difficult to avoid controversy. His recent admission that aborted human "fetal tissue" may be needed to provide a base layer on which to grow embryos for stem cell research caused a storm.

Currently human embryos are grown on a "feeder layer" or "growing culture" derived from mice, but there are fears using such embryos for stem cell research could raise the risk of mice-to-human viral infection.

Trounson said that the relative abundance of fetal material made its use attractive to scientists. Around 90,000 abortions occur in Australia every year.

For many pro-lifers the idea that human embryos would not only be created for destruction but would also be grown on tissue from aborted babies was to add insult to injury.

The statements prompted a strongly pro-life Senator, Guy Barnett, to say this could be seen as an attempt to give "some bizarre moral foundation to abortions."

Stem cells are the building blocks of human skin, muscle, blood and tissue. They are thought to hold the promise of cures to a range of diseases.

To date, however, only "adult" stem cells derived from sources like bone marrow and placentas have succeeded in therapeutic studies. Yet proponents argue that stem cells harvested from embryos will be more versatile and more effective.

Australia's deputy prime minister, John Anderson, has meanwhile emerged as a key opponent of the legislation.

His spokesman, Bill McKinley, confirmed Monday that Anderson had "extremely strong views" on the matter and was making them known.

Addressing a rally in Sydney on Sunday, John Anderson called into question the claims of embryonic stem cells research proponents about the possible therapeutic benefits of the controversial work.

He criticized public figures who "present us with sick children and ... build excessive expectation this research will miraculously cure them."

Anderson also argued that legalizing the research will inevitably lead to the cloning of embryos for their stem cells. Some scientists say cloned embryos will provide cells less likely to be rejected when used to treat the person whose DNA was used to create the clone.

Britain has already human cloning for this purpose (called "therapeutic cloning" by its supporters), while banning any attempt to implant a cloned embryo into a womb and allowing it to develop and be born ("reproductive cloning").

Anderson said there was no difference between the two - "it's just they kill you off a bit earlier."
Australia's major political parties have given their members in parliament a free vote on the legislation, and Anderson's opposition stands in contrast to the cautious support given by Prime Minister Howard.

Anderson is leader of the National Party, the junior member of Howard's ruling coalition.

Catholic Archbishop of Sydney George Pell, also participating in Sunday's rally, said those prompting embryonic work wanted "to destroy life, offering the possible trade-off of prolonging life for the sick.

"All medical science should take up the challenge of creating life, preserving life without wanton destruction," said Pell, who has been lobbying hard against the Bill.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow