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Human Cloning and Stem Cell Research

Human Cloning and Stem Cell Research

Advice on legislation or legal policy issues contained in this paper is provided for use in parliamentary debate and for related parliamentary purposes. This paper is not professional legal opinion.
Briefing Paper No. 09/2002 by Stewart Smith

The issues of human cloning and related research such as stem cell technologies have generated considerable media and public attention over the last six months. Advances in biotechnology have created difficult ethical and moral questions that cannot be avoided.

There are many definitions of cloning in use for both the plant and animal world, which often leads to confusion about what is being referred to. Cloning in the animal and plant kingdom is a natural process, and in humans the formation of identical twins is a result of natural cloning. It is important to acknowledge that cloning does not necessarily mean the replication of an entire individual. A working definition of cloning is:
  • Cloning is the production of a cell or organism with the same nuclear genome as another cell or organism;
  • Reproductive cloning is the production of a human fetus from a single cell by nuclear replacement; and
  • Therapeutic cloning is to produce human stem cells, tissues and organs, ie, the application of cloning technology which does not result in the production of genetically identical fetuses or babies.

There have been two major scientific breakthroughs that have shaped the recent development of cloning technologies. The first is somatic cell nuclear transfer, and the second is the isolation of human embryonic stem cells. Stems cells have the ability to divide for indefinite periods of time in culture and to give rise to specialised cells (pages 3 - 5). Stem cells may be isolated from both embryos and adults. Embryonic stem cell research is thought to offer several advantages over adult stem cells. However, the isolation of embryonic stem cells results in the destruction of the embryo, and this is the main criticism of this work. Stem cell research aims to find cures for many degenerative diseases, and has the potential to revolutionise medicine (page 6). The ethics of cloning and stem cell research are discussed (pages 7 - 11).

There continue to be great differences in the way countries around the world regulate human cloning and related technologies. For instance, it appears to be well accepted that a distinction must be made between the application of cloning techniques to the replication of a person, and the application of cloning techniques to the creation of tissues and cell lines with the aim of developing therapies for use in the treatment of disease. The use of cloning techniques for reproductive purposes has brought international condemnation and there appears to be a consensus against reproductive cloning (pages 11 - 13) .

In Australia, at the April 2002 Council of Australian Governments meeting, it was agreed to introduce nationally consistent legislation to ban human cloning. The Council also agreed to permit research involving the destruction of pre-existing surplus assisted reproductive technology embryos, with the aim to ensure that Australia remains at the forefront of research which may lead to medical breakthroughs in the treatment of disease (page 18).