Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

A Retrospective of the Stem Cell Debate

By Michael Cook

Ten years ago embryonic stem cells were set to transform medicine. Ethics took a back seat to science, but the cures never came.

Michael Cook is editor of the bioethics newsletter BioEdge.

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.

Let’s wind the clock back to 2003. In January, wheelchair-bound quadriplegic actor Christopher Reeve visited Australia to promote the legalisation of “therapeutic cloning”. This was absolutely necessary, he said, or patients would die needlessly. Scepticism about the potential of embryonic stem cells was utterly unwarranted. “That’s a myth. That’s not true. Don’t let anyone tell you it is a pipedream.”

In July the New England Journal of Medicine, the world’s leading medical journal, published a review article about the “promise of universal healing” in embryonic stem cells. “The Promethean prospect of eternal regeneration awaits us, while time’s vulture looks on,” the hyperventilating author wrote.

In short, people were excited. So excited, in fact, that in 2005 Australia passed legislation enabling “therapeutic cloning” for research purposes.

It’s hard to recapture the intensity of the debate at the time, both here and elsewhere. On the one hand stem cell scientists insisted that therapeutic cloning would lead to cures for Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and diabetes. On the other hand, dissenters contended that embryos were human beings and that it was moral madness to treat human life as a research tool. The stakes were immense; the dissenters lost. Ethics took a back seat to science. The loss of a few embryos was a small price to pay for cures, the...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.