Stem Cell legislation referred to Senate Committee

Things have moved to the next stage with the stem cell issue, with the Senate agreeing today to set up a Committee Inquiry into the possibility of amending the laws governing research in this area.

The Inquiry is due to report back to the Senate on 27th October, and at this stage the Senate is likely to debate some legislation in the week sitting 6th November. This is a very tight time frame, with only about three weeks for public submissions and perhaps 3 or 4 public hearings. The government is very keen to have the issue resolved one way or the other before the end of the year so it doesn’t get in the way of the run up to the election next year.

The week of 6th November is a rare occasion where the Senate is sitting and the House of Reps isn’t, but it looks like the only debate all week may be on a stem cell Bill (apart from the usually meaningless sideshow vaudeville of Question Time), with the prospect of late night sittings and sitting on the Friday to ensure it is voted on that week.

If it passes the Senate, it will then go to the House of Representatives in late November.

Unlike the RU486 issue, where Senators worked together across all parties, this one is a bit messier, as Liberal Senator Kay Patterson decided to do her own legislation rather than join in with the work already being done by people from other parties. The purported reason is that a Bill sponsored by a government Senator is more likely to pass, than one that isn’t, but I can’t see why that couldn’t entail a government Senator sponsoring a Bill in conjunction with Senators from other parties, which obviously worked very successfully with RU486. However, I expect it will come together in a clearly outlined piece of legislation by the time the debate starts in the Senate.

Senator Paterson’s Bill isn’t ready yet, but the issue has been kept moving by the introduction of an exposure draft of legislation sponsored by Democrat Senator Stott Despoja and WA Labor Senator Ruth Webber. The Committee will examine this legislation in conjunction with the original Lockhart Review on which it is based. Senator Paterson’s Bill will be added to the mix whenever it appears.

The Stott Despoja Bill reportedly includes all the recommendations from the Lockhart Review so politicians and the public can have a look at how these recommendations appear in legislative form. It is not essential that every aspect of the Review be adopted, and it may be that the Parliament decides to only go with some of them.

A briefing was held in Parliament House yesterday with Australia’s Chief Scientist, Dr Jim Peacock, and the current Australian of the year Professor Ian Frazer. According to this report, Dr Peacock feels some MPs don’t have a very good grasp of the science involved, so it’s a good thing there is chance for some input on the legislation by the wider community.

“I think it was clear from the questions that there is very much still a need for better understanding of the basic biological things that are being talked about,” Dr Peacock said after the meeting. “And of course that relates to the ethical considerations, and especially to the regulatory considerations that need to surround these technologies.
“I don’t like to use the word ill-informed, (but) I think sometimes the questions indicated they did not have a basic understanding of the biology.” But Dr Peacock said the MPs’ lack of knowledge was not surprising, given the complexity of the subject.

While I’m not on the Committee, I’ll certainly be following the inquiry through submissions and transcripts of the public hearings, as well as the public debate in general. I’m supportive in principle, but still want to be convinced on the detail, and hear any reasonable arguments against going down this path at this time.

Submissions, details of the proposed legislation, public hearing dates and other material should be available soon on the website of the Senate’s Community Affairs Committee which is conducting the inquiry.

If you are in or near Brisbane, I will be hosting a public information evening on the stem cell issue on Monday September 25th from 6.30 pm to 9pm at the St Lucia campus of the University of Queensland. Professor Frazer will be one of the speakers along with 2 other highly qualified scientists. The aim is to enable people to ask questions and clarify and explore some of the issues, rather than just hear a lot of speeches.

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8 Comments

  1. Hi Andrew,

    What’s the “etiquette” on private members’ bills such as the two stem cell research bills? I understand there’s “no honour amongst thieves” (if you’ll pardon the expression) in parliament, but is it considered rude for Kay Patterson to lurch into the picture with her private members bill at the same time as Natasha’s long-term project?

    Poor Patterson, I read that she needs to do this so she has some sort of “legacy” when she retires at the next election … seems pretty weak if you ask me!

  2. dodgy – it is sufficiently rare for private member’s Bills to pass that each occasion has it’s own dynamic.

    I don’t really know why Senator Patterson decided to do a separate Bill – having a government Senator’s name attached to a Bill may help its chances of passing, but that can easily be achieved by co-sponsoring an existing Bill, as was done with the RU486 legislation. Two separate Bills does risk causing confusion and increase the propsects of opponents to new laws being able to use that confusion to sow some extra seeds of doubt, although I expect we will muddle through it OK and end up with a clear single piece of legislation to debate and vote on at the end of it all.

    However, it doesn’t really add anything to get into any speculation about why various people are doing various things. The main thing is to focus on the issues covered by the legislation, and not get distracted by side issues or personalities.

  3. The proposed changes to the Stem Cell legislation does not require the breaking apart of an entity that might or might not be an embryo. Andrew, my question is, whether the early embryonic cell is itself totipotent—capable of further developing in the same way that you and I developed from a single cell? Are we to assume that this is not the case, given the possibility of possible unknown danger for the developing embryo (no treatment option currently provides an overriding ethical justification for exposing an embryo to such unknown risk) can this method be justified at this time?

  4. I’ve never been in favour of abortion except on medical grounds.

    Flushing unused embryos down the sink isn’t quite as bad, because we don’t really know if the embryos would ever have implanted or grown.

    If they could be put to some other use that might help the sick or disabled, it would be preferable to flushing them.

    I’ve been on an IVF program. Luckily, I’ve never had to make a decision as to whether or not embryos would be discarded, donated to another couple or put to medical use.

    Perhaps IVF couples could be left to make the decision as to the fate of their unused embryos.

    If scientists intend creating embryos specifically for alternative medical uses,
    it is starting to get a bit more “macabre”.

    Years ago, I worked for several groups of medical researchers. Sometimes by the time something “new” had become legal, a lot had been going on behind the scenes that the general public didn’t know about.

    In one instance, a certain practice had been carried out for 20 years before it became legal.

  5. Paul, in response to your comment/questions (#3):

    “The proposed changes to the Stem Cell legislation does not require the breaking apart of an entity that might or might not be an embryo”.

    As I understand it, I think at this stage all embryonic stem cell research does require the destruction of an embryo (whether under the proposed new law or the existing law). The issue with the new legislation is in part to do with how the embryo can be created. But under existing and proposed laws, it will remain illegal for such embroyos to be implanted or to attempt to develop it further.

    “my question is, whether the early embryonic cell is itself totipotent — capable of further developing in the same way that you and I developed from a single cell?”

    The totipotent capabilities is one of the reasons why some people believe embryonic stem cells have medical potential that adult stem cells (which are not totipotent) do not. This does not mean that any embryonic stem cell can develop into a human. Some may have the ‘potential’ to develop into a human in the same way that a sperm has the ‘potential’, but it will be neither legal or viable for them to be used in this way. Nor does this mean that adult stem cells do not have valuable medical uses.

    “Are we to assume that this is not the case, given the possibility of possible unknown danger for the developing embryo (no treatment option currently provides an overriding ethical justification for exposing an embryo to such unknown risk) can this method be justified at this time?”

    I’m sorry, I’m not sure I understand what you’re asking here. You may be asking whether there is some concern that embryonic stem cells have more potential to develop in mutated ways(?) – I have heard that this is a concern, but that is also used as a reason why more research is needed to figure out why this occurs and how to prevent it.

    Coral – this isn’t about abortion.

  6. I didn’t say that it was about abortion. I was making a comparison regarding acceptability.

    I hasten to add that the researchers I worked with weren’t abortionists.

    Gee, I think you guys need to brush up on your biology before debating this further.

    I thought the aim was to create embryos solely for therapeutic use – which needed to be evaluated on moral, ethical as well as therapeutic grounds.

  7. “I thought the aim was to create embryos solely for therapeutic use – which needed to be evaluated on moral, ethical as well as therapeutic grounds.”

    That is part of what the new legislation is about, although it also deals with other matters.

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