The Hansard transcript of last Tuesday's debate in the Australian Senate makes fascinating reading. The Senate ended up passing a bill to liberalise Australian law on therapeutic cloning, making research involving therapeutic cloning legally possible within strict limits. To be enacted as law, the legislation must now be passed by the House of Representatives, but most observers expect this to be easier.
What concerns me most is that the Senate passed amendments that were unnecessary (except for the practical political purpose of sweetening the package and getting votes). The amendment that I blogged about on the following morning does, indeed, as I guessed, prohibit research that involves the insertion of human nuclear DNA into animal eggs. Senator Bartlett, who moved this amendment, himself noted that it was not necessary in order to prevent part-cow/part-human, or part-rabbit/part-human creatures bouncing around the neighbourhood streets. The argument was that the amendment clarifies this and should alleviate fears, but in fact it only seems to muddy the waters. Since that outcome was not possible anyway, why amend the legislation in a manner that suggests it might have been?
To be honest, I might have voted to support this amendment if I had actually been a Senator, since people in such positions must sometimes make pragmatic judgments about what is politically realistic. Accordingly, my point is not so much to condemn the individuals involved as to bemoan the situation where public policy is being driven by irrational fears.
There is no prospect that the legislation in its unamended form would have allowed the gestation and birth of centaurs, minotaurs, or man-rabbits; no scientist in Australia is interested in creating such beings; no such research would attract funding even if it were legal; the scientific problems involved are insuperable, at least for the foreseeable future (think of the polygenic nature of most interesting phenotypical traits and the pleiotropic effects of individual genes ... then multiply this far beyond anything involving only human DNA); and even the strongest proponents of scientific freedom do not believe that the creation of such beings should be pursued in current circumstances or in any realistically foreseeable circumstances. Well, some of my transhumanist friends might actually disagree with the last point, but even they would have to concede the immense difficulties that would confront curvaceous Cow-Girl or the mighty-thewed Man-Rabbit if they came into existence here and now, with no accompanying drastic changes in social attitudes.
In all, the amendment was unnecessary except from the most pragmatic viewpoint of getting the legislation through parliament. Furthermore, it might do some actual harm in cutting off useful areas for scientific investigation.
The other development that is surely a matter for at least some concern is that the penalties under the Prohibition of Human Cloning Act have been made even more draconian - they are now all penalties of up to 15 years' imprisonment.
In a sense, this makes the legislation more logical: it was never clear why such a massive prison sentence should apply to human cloning while lesser sentences, such as "only" 10 years behind bars, applied to other acts involving genetic engineering that would arguably have a greater potential downside for society. However, the idea has been reinforced that all these dubious kinds of offences should be treated as on a par with very serious crimes that cause actual harm to real victims. It also tends to reinforce the mad scientist mytheme, the idea that scientists in their laboratories are Dr Frankensteins whom society should be viewing with fear and suspicion.
No principled argument was put by any Senator for this action of upping penalties. Clearly, the idea was simply to create an impression that the liberalising of Australia's legislation in one area (therapeutic cloning) would be balanced by getting even tougher on those actions still considered to be beyond the pale of political acceptance.
Once again, I don't especially blame individual Senators for acting as they did on the basis of sheer political realism; it is easy for me to be critical when the responsibility is on their shoulders, not mine. But I do regret the situation where such actions appear to be the necessary price for obtaining critical reforms to Australia's regulation of medical research.