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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

A small victory for reason

Last night the Australian Senate passed a bill that will allow therapeutic cloning under strictly regulated conditions, and it is likely that the same bill will now pass through the House of Representatives and be enacted as law. The vote was very close, 34-32, and it required a last-minute compromise to amend the proposed legislation, but it does now look as if Australia will be joining the UK as a nation that allows the use of the somatic cell nuclear transfer technique to create stem cells for scientific research.

I am still trying to understand exactly what the effect of the last-minute amendment is. According to The Australian this morning, it seems to involve the mixing of "human cells" with animal eggs. This seems rather oddly worded, but perhaps the point is to prevent the insertion of human nuclear DNA into enucleated animal eggs. However the amendment is actually worded, media reports suggest that it was aimed at preventing the creation of human-animal hybrids, such as furry rabbit men or human beings with horns. A specific ban on this is quite unnecessary, since the legislation is not about allowing scientists to arrange for the gestation and birth of cloned humans - this whole reprise of the cloning debate in Australia has never been about reproductive cloning. We are talking, rather, about the creation of embyros that can be used for the separation of stem cells within the first 14 days - prior to gastrulation. Those cells can then be used for research that may one day lead to better medical therapies involving the use of stem cells to provide tissues or organs for the sick. There is no scope for the creation of rabbit-like monsters out of this - and anyway, no one is seriously looking to bring into the world miniature Donnie Darkos or infants with budding horns (shades of Rosemary's Baby).

Actually, it's difficult to see what would be so wrong with creating human beings with some non-human features and abilities, if it were ever possible to do so safely, and if they were born into a more tolerant society in which they would be welcomed and treated well. As I see it, the major problems are threefold. (1) We are at an impasse with any research that could possibly lead to such attempts, since it is difficult to see how any experiments could be done safely. (2) Because genes are typically pleiotropic, there is no guarantee that we could ever create such beings without scrambling important human capacities as a by-product. Even if the creatures we created were not deformed or diseased in some obvious way, as a result of the disruption of gene expression, they might be poorly equipped to bond into human society. (3) And even if neither of these were the case, we could not guarantee that such strange-seeming beings would be welcomed - in which event, creating them would be a terrible error. But all that is beside the point of the current debate.

If, in the real world, there are gains in scientific knowledge to be made from experiments that, in some sense, mix human cells and animal eggs - or whatever exactly it is that the Senate has tried to rule out - then let the research take place. We have nothing to fear. We really must stop getting so far ahead of ourselves; it is not good public policy to ban research simply on the basis that, speculatively, it may one day lead to some practice that we currently find uncomfortable and bizarre (and would be wise to abjure in contemporary circumstances). Speculation about the hypothetical motives of any Dr Frankensteins or Dr Moreaus out there is always a poor form of contribution to serious political debate.

Be all that as it may, the situation in Australia now looks far more hopeful. Despite the closeness of the margin, the Senate has rebuffed those irrationalists who have been lobbying rabidly for the past few weeks. We are still confronted with a whole smorgasbord of bio-Luddites to choose from - coming in all political and religious colours - who value insentient "human life" above the goal of finding therapies for actual human children and adults who are burdened with disease. Irrational though it is, these people want to protect tiny blobs of biological material that are incapable of hopes, ambitions, fear, grief or any kind of suffering. Just for once, though, the rest of us have a chance to celebrate a political outcome.

There's been a small victory for reason!

Now we must await the deliberations of the House of Representatives to see whether Australia will take the next vital step to a reasonably enlightened set of laws on embyro research.

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