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Coalition Members prepare for forum on therapeutic cloning.

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Monday 4 September 2006

Coalition Members prepare for forum on therapeutic cloning


TONY EASTLEY: Some of Australia's high-profile scientists will be in Canberra over the next fortnight as federal politicians try to come to grips with the vexed question of whether to lift the ban on therapeutic cloning, or Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer. 


First cab off the rank is the group of Coalition MPs opposed to any watering down of existing laws. They're hosting a forum this afternoon, featuring Professor Alan Mackay-Sim, who's been given a multi-million-dollar government grant to research adult stem cells.  


And those agitating for change are organising a counter-session next week. 


From Canberra, Alexandra Kirk reports. 


ALEXANDRA KIRK: Both sides of the debate are mobilising scientific opinion in a bid to bolster the merits of their respective cases. 


This afternoon's forum for Government MPs only is convened by strong opponents of change - Ministers Nick Minchin and Chris Ellison, and former Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson. 


JOHN ANDERSON: I think we really do need to hear about the results that are coming from adult stem cell research. It doesn't seem to have had anything like the attention or, for that matter in this country, the funding that embryonic stem cell research has had. 


ALEXANDRA KIRK: A key guest speaker is Professor Alan Mackay-Sim, who heads a Brisbane research centre for adult stem cells, which recently received $22 million of Federal Government funding. The professor declined to be interviewed for AM .  


Therapeutic cloning advocate, Liberal MP Dr Mal Washer, says he wouldn't miss today's session for quids. While his mind is pretty well made up, he says he's keen to hear the professor's latest thoughts.  


MAL WASHER: Well, look, when I spoke to Alan there was Senator Ron Boswell going and talking about the fact that he had science that negated the need for embryonic stem cell research.  


So I went up to see him, pretty excited by that, because if he had that science it was going to save me a lot of time and grief. I mean, that would be terrific. But at the end of the day even Alan admitted then that embryonic stem cell research was necessary as well. 


So I'm really fascinated to see if Alan's done anything different from over an eight-month period, to see why he would change his mind from what he told me then. 


ALEXANDRA KIRK: Mal Washer's organised a counter-session for MPs next week, featuring Australia's chief scientist, Dr Jim Peacock, who supports therapeutic cloning. 


Meanwhile, John Anderson says he's also concerned about the implications of therapeutic cloning for women. 


JOHN ANDERSON: As cloning embryos for their stem cells depends on a sufficient supply of ova, who's going to supply the eggs? You know, that's a fairly invasive procedure. I venture to say it won't be ordinary comfortably off middle-class Australian women who'll be doing it. 


ALEXANDRA KIRK: Well, what are you suggesting, that others will be paid for it? 


JOHN ANDERSON: Well, I think there's a very high likelihood of that happening, and that's something that ought to be explored. 


ALEXANDRA KIRK: But scientists maintain the danger of coercion and paying for eggs could easily be averted by using the current restrictions that apply to donating eggs to the IVF (in vitro fertilisation) program and surplus IVF embryos to stem cell research.  


And while opponents of change continue to argue there've been no earth shattering scientific breakthroughs to justify revisiting the 2002 law, Professor Peter Rathjen, Dean of Science at the University of Melbourne and a member of the Australian Stem Cell Centre, says the claim is incorrect, with some spectacular progress being made.  


PETER RATHJEN: You need to understand how science progresses. It doesn't progress with a single step that means that you suddenly have cures. It moves incrementally towards a goal, and you gradually put in place bits of the jigsaw and solve various technical problems that are required. 


ALEXANDRA KIRK: Former Health Minister Kay Patterson and Democrats Senator Natasha Stott-Despoja are still pressing ahead with their separate therapeutic cloning bills.  


AM 's been told it's likely both will be sent off to a Senate inquiry, possibly before being introduced into parliament, thus avoiding the prospect of debating one ahead of the other, because Government advocates of change maintain a bill put up by one of their own has more chance of success.  


TONY EASTLEY: Alexandra Kirk reporting.