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How Not to Think Bioethically

Feb 28, 2003

The Victorian Government has recently issued a draft code on reproductive technology, stem cells and embryo research. It has been written by the Stem Cell Code of Practice Working Group. The document is entitled, “Draft Code of Ethical Practice for the Propagation and Use of Approved Human Stem Cell Lines”. This document is 49 pages long, and submissions can be made concerning it.

The Victorian draft code is not a legislative instrument, but merely a voluntary code of practice. There are several fundamental problems with the document, in addition to the specific recommendations.

First, the authors have pretty much given us a document with a pre-determined end. That is, it simply hand-balls the contentious moral issues to others. While it admits that there is “diversity of opinion in the Victorian community regarding the moral status of the embryo” and that many other nations are “attempting to come to terms with the ethical issues associated with research involving embryos,” it simply says that matters have been dealt with elsewhere (in the various bits of Commonwealth and State and Territory legislation already passed).

Thus we are just to accept a fait accompli: that human embryos (albeit restricted to surplus from IVF programs) will be experimented upon. We need to challenge this, and not allow it to go unchecked. We need to reaffirm the importance of the human embryo. This is especially true since the draft code makes this statement: “We affirm that research, including stem cell research, should respect the human rights, fundamental freedoms and human dignity of all individuals”” Except unborn individuals, it seems. It is hard to protect freedoms, rights and dignity when the smallest members of the human race are being killed in the interests of scientific research.

We need to continue to champion the cause of the unborn, no matter how small, even if it looks like all the legislation has passed us by. Yes, we can make specific comments on the draft code, but we dare not concede ground on the core issue: the right of every human being to life and liberty.

Second, the document admits that the Code is subject to change, based on changing Victorian legislation. The original Victorian Infertility Treatment Act of 1985 (revised in 1995), was good in many respects, including no research on human embryos, and restrictions on who could get access to IVF treatments. The High Court decision of over two years ago, which said lesbians and single women should not be denied access to IVF, and the December 2003 passage of the Commonwealth legislation on the subject, has thrown the Victorian legislation into limbo.

Indeed, in September the Labor Party introduced a new bill on the issue, but with the passage of the Federal legislation it has been temporarily withdrawn. So any code of practice must be premised on existing Victorian legislation, but that is now in flux. The document in fact acknowledges that the Code will have to conform to any current or future Victorian legislation.

Thus you might put in your submission the obvious point: why bother to comment at all on a Code that may well change, depending on if and when new legislation comes into play? Isn’t this a case of putting the cart before the horse?

A third and related concern is the fact that the document states that the science and technology is constantly changing, and as a result, the codes and legislation will continually need updating as well. They are in effect saying that the science will keep changing, so the legislation will keep changing, so too will the codes of practice. It sounds like things will just be made up as we go along, and that ultimately it is the scientists and the biotech industry which will in fact set the agenda. Science and Big Biotech will blaze new trails, and governments will try to keep up with legislation and regulatory standards. Of course it should be the other way around.

All in all, it seems that this code of practice puts ethics last, and the interests of research scientists and the biotechnology industry first. While we all need to put in a submission, these three broad concerns need to be addressed. Specifics in the code can be discussed. But the presumptions and assumptions behind the detail need to be challenged. Ethical components must be brought to the fore, and scientists should not be given free rein to set the agenda.

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