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In Vitro Fight Looms Down Under

PALMERSTON NORTH, N.Z.—A battle is looming over proposed restrictions on research involving in vitro fertilization (IVF) in Australia, a world leader in such studies. The extent of concern among scientists was evident in papers delivered during the annual meeting of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science (ANZAAS), held here in late January. "In the coming months, the federal Australian parliament may well become an epicenter of biomedical shock," said Rus

By | February 23, 1987

PALMERSTON NORTH, N.Z.—A battle is looming over proposed restrictions on research involving in vitro fertilization (IVF) in Australia, a world leader in such studies.

The extent of concern among scientists was evident in papers delivered during the annual meeting of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science (ANZAAS), held here in late January.

"In the coming months, the federal Australian parliament may well become an epicenter of biomedical shock," said Russell Scott, an Australian barrister and member of the nation's Medical Research Ethics Committee. "We will see whether reproductive research will be placed under legislation and criminal penalties. If so, will effective regulation be achieved—regulation that restrains excesses, secures benefits and is publicly acceptable? Or is achievement by these means delusion?

"If regulatory steps are taken by the parliament," Scott added, "they will disclose whether in this field Australian politicians have caliber and stature comparable with the medical experts and scientists who have put their country into the front rank of knowledge and accomplishment."

In 1984 the Victoria provincial government passed legislation providing that all proposals for research involving human embryos be screened by a Standing Review and Advisory Committee on Infertility. The law permits some experimentation on "surplus" embryos left over as a result of a patient's participation in an IVF program, but bars the creation of embryos specifically for research. The government decided last August to seek further guidance from the public on key features of the law that have not yet been implemented, such as provisions regulating IVF treatment, eligibility, operations and record keeping.

Partial Ban Suggested

Legislation has been drafted at the national level as well. A bill that would prohibit experiments on human embryos was introduced in the Senate in April 1985, but consideration was suspended pending a report from a Select Committee on the issue. The committee released its report last fall, with a majority recommending a ban on non-therapeutic experiments in which the embryo is destroyed, while sanctioning "therapeutic" experiments designed to enhance the embryo's prospects for development.

In a paper delivered at the ANZAAS session, Ditta Bartels of the School of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of New South Wales argued that both Victoria's law and the Senate committee's proposed legislation would prohibit freezing of human eggs, genetic screening or sex determination of the embryo, or splitting the embryo into halves or quarters.

Alan Trounson of Monash University and the Queen Victoria Medical Center, Melbourne, was troubled by the effect restrictive legislation would have not only on IVF work but also on other sections of biomedicine.

"We are so very close to comprehending the origins of many tumors," he said, "and it is probable that many of the lost pieces of the mosaic required to understand cancer appear to exist in developmental embryology. God help those who are to die from cancer if the moralist view prevents those young scientists from finishing the mosaic because we would rather dispose of some human embryos than make them available for this research.

"I hope I have left my country and left medical research by the time the legislation has succumbed to the moralist view, that it is better to let children be born with disease we could have prevented or people suffer the pain of a disease or injury we might have treated, because cells of the preimplantation embryo have been give legal status equal to them."

Debate on Definition

Trounson, a pioneer in work on test-tube babies, said that the numerous committees studying the issue in Australia "persistently misunderstand the term 'embryo experimentation.' What we have been doing is to determine whether the methods developed in animal breeding can be applied to human infertility. If this involves fertilization of human eggs, fertilized eggs or early cleavage stage preimplantation embryos, the term 'embryo experimentation' is applied. In fact, the true embryo, or cells which actually constitute the embryo proper, does not arise until about the 14th day after fertilization."

Taking the other side of the issue, Hiram Caton of Griffith University in Brisbane stated that "the absence of ethics among IVF scientists may be understood as the void intervening between the repudiation of the old medical ethics and honest public espousal of the philosophy of the new medicine." That philosophy, Caton said, "is the apologetics of abortion, infanticide, euthanasia, population corptrol, surrogate motherhood, artificial insemination, IVF, cloning, genetic engineering and a comprehensive program of social change based upon the medical preemption of reproduction and the administration of death."

Scott, the barrister, said that legislation, although needed, should be part of a regulatory system "aimed to produce for the community the benefits offered by the New Biology while restraining excess and abuse." To do that successfully, he said, there was "no real choice but to repose a measure of confidence and trust in the scientific and medical communities."

He argued further that, because of the issue's significance, national initiatives in birth technologies must be overlaid with international action. He proposed that representatives from many nations meet and issue a joint declaration as a basis for national action. "My recent experience around the world gives me cause for optimism for a positive result," he said.

Dixon is European editor of The Scientist.

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