- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 6, 2006

11:34 a.m.

CANBERRA, Australia — Australia’s Parliament today lifted a four-year ban on cloning human embryos for stem cell research despite opposition from the prime minister and other party leaders.

The legislation passed 82-62 in the House, where Conservative Prime Minister John Howard and other major party leaders voted against it. The bill was passed by the Senate last month.

“In the end you have to take a stand for some absolutes in our society,” Mr. Howard told Parliament. “And I think what we’re talking about here is a moral absolute, and that is why I can’t support the legislation.”

Parliament passed Australia’s first laws on stem cell research in 2002, allowing scientists to extract stem cells from spare embryos intended for in vitro fertilization but preventing cell cloning.

The law passed today allows therapeutic cloning, the splicing of skin cells with eggs to produce stem cells, also known as master cells, which are capable of forming all the tissues of the human body.

Scientists hope stem cell research will eventually lead to treatments for conditions including Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, as well as spinal cord injuries, diabetes and arthritis.

Opponents said the bill promoted unproven science that did not respect the human rights of the unborn.

Defense Minister Brendan Nelson spoke out in favor of the bill, saying his generation had benefited enormously from those who pioneered difficult research and legislation.

“We owe it to the next generation no less to show the same wisdom and, indeed, the same courage,” he said.

All parties encouraged their lawmakers to vote according to their consciences rather than following party lines. A conscience vote is rare in Australian politics.

Opposition Labor Party Leader Kevin Rudd later said he wrestled with his conscience over the legislation and decided he could not support it.

“I find it very difficult to support a legal regime that results in the creation of a form of human life for the single and explicit purpose of conducting experimentation on that form of human life,” Mr. Rudd said.

The government senator who drafted the bill, former Health Minister Kay Patterson, said the law would come into effect in six months, after health and science authorities draft guidelines for egg donation and research licensing.

“It will enable Australia to stay at the forefront of medical research,” Miss Patterson told reporters after the vote. “I didn’t see how we could accept any treatment derived from this in the future if we didn’t allow the research here in Australia.”

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