Australia has legalised highly risky genetic intervention on humans in a life-and-death conscience vote in Federal Parliament that went largely under the radar last week.
Key parts of the country’s cloning act were swept aside on 30 March to allow for experimental techniques aimed at preventing women from passing mitochondrial disease to their children.
The IVF-assisted technology raised objections on ethical and scientific grounds as it enables the creation of human embryos specifically for the harvesting of healthy genetic material, and for the implantation of genetic material from more than two people to a human embryo. Such lines have never been crossed in this country or across most of the world before.
A conscience vote was allowed on the bill, which passed the lower house in December after three days of passionate debate on the bill in February. Both Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Health Minister Greg Hunt were the chief proponents of the bill and Opposition Leader
Anthony Albanese voted in favour.
“We appreciate the deep desire for parents who are carriers to avoid passing mitochondrial disease on to their children but the creation of three-parent embryos is the wrong way to go about it. – Bishop Umbers
It passed the Senate 37-17 after a number of amendments by Labor Senator Deborah O’Neill and Nationals Senator Matthew Canavan were voted down, and an amendment to remove one of the two techniques involved, which requires creating an embryo for later destruction.
Labor Senator Kristina Keneally was one who spoke passionately against the bill saying that creating embryos for the purpose of harvesting and destroying them “is a moral Rubicon I cannot cross”.
“Even the cross-partisan Senate report acknowledged that the creation and deliberate destruction of viable human embryos for reproductive purposes is a new moral question that deserves significant community consultation and consideration,” she said.
“I do not see evidence that this consultation has happened.”
Australia’s Catholic Bishops Conference had urged parliamentarians in an inquiry submission to scrap the bill or at least pause it, citing safety and ethical concerns and a lack of evidence that the proposed technique is effective.
Bishop Richard Umbers, the Bishops’ delegate for life, said the bill presented an understandable emotional appeal but with grave consequences.
“The passage of the bill is very disappointing particularly as no amendments were passed,” he said. “We appreciate the deep desire for parents who are carriers to avoid passing mitochondrial disease on to their children but the creation of three-parent embryos is the wrong way to go about it.
“The Australian Department of Health has stated that neither the risks for a child born nor the long-term effects on future generations are understood.
“The parliament should focus on research that respects life from conception rather than risky treatments that presuppose an entire industry of IVF.”
Ethicist Margaret Somerville said the debate had raised serious questions that needed to be answered, even if lawmakers approached this with the best of medically therapeutic intentions.
“Is it inherently wrong to alter the genome of human embryo? Is it designing a human person? And is making an alteration that will be inherited by all of that embryo’s future, children when they have children, is that inherently wrong?” she said.
“If you can say that any of those things are inherently wrong, that’s the end of the discussion, it means it is unethical to do this.”