The birth of Louise Brown the world’s first “test-tube” baby, in England in 1978, made headlines around the world, and Drs. Patrick Steptoe and Robert Edwards gained instant fame.  However, they were not the only scientists who were experimenting in the filed of in-vitro fertilization (IVF).   Australian scientists from the Queen Victoria Medical Centre and the Royal Women’s Hospital (associated with Monash University and the University of Melbourne respectively), were co-operating in similar research.  The first Australian IVF baby, Candice Reed, was born in Melbourne in 1980.

Australian scientists, especially Professor Carl Wood and Dr. Alan Trounson – a former sheep embryologist – now claim that they lead the world in IVF technology.  They say that more babies have been born in Australia, as a result of their advanced technology, than in the rest of the world put together.  The Sun Herald (June 1, 1986), said that the state of Victoria is “where the champion test-tube baby producers are based.”

So sure are the Australians of their superiority over the rest of the world that they have established a company called IVG Australia (IVFA), to facilitate the export of Australian techniques.  The same Sun Herald article stated: “Australian business men are poised to make millions of dollars exporting our world-beating test tube baby technology to the United States.”

Most people will sympathize with the desire of a woman to have a baby. However, as more and more information filters out concerning the use of human embryos for research purposes, and the types of experiments being carried out, the public reaction has become increasingly angry.

Australians are not happy to learn that hundreds of frozen human embryos are being stored in tanks of liquid nitrogen; they find it repulsive to place a human embryo in the uterus of a sheep; they reject outright the cross-fertilization of human beings and animals; they will not buy the scientists’ argument that it is both cheaper and more effective to create tiny human embryos to test drugs, rather than to use animals; and they are outraged to learn that their tax money is being used to subsidize the types of experiments that sicken them.  The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), gave $100,000 for experiments involving the slicing up of embryos.

Speaking of the general public rejection of this type of experimentation, Michael Barnard in the Melbourne Age, (October 21, 1986), commented: “It does say something.  Despite its capitulation to the horror of mass abortion, perhaps mankind still cannot shake that spiritual truth, acknowledged even by Britain’s Warnock Committee, that once the process (of human life) has begun, there is no particular point of the development process that is more important than another.”

Australians were especially disturbed because their medical-ethics watchdogs had allowed or authorized types of experimentation unacceptable to the man or woman in the street.  “Where,” they asked, “were the hospital ethics committees?  Where was the NHMRC?  Where was the Medical Research Ethics Committee (MREC), which was established in 1982 as part of NHMRC?  The answers were even more disturbing.  All too often the ethics groups had either closed their eyes to what was taking place, or more seriously been a partner in the research, as in the cases where the NHMRC funded the work.

The repulsion that most people feel towards experiments on tiny human beings moved the authorities to some action.  In 1984, the state governments of New South Wales, Victoria, Western Australia, Queensland, South Australia and Tasmania all established committees to enquire into, and report on the various types of experimental embryo research.  At the national level, the Family Law Council of Australia issued a report called “Creating Children” and sent it to the Federal Attorney General.  This report (the Asche Committee Report) was delivered in July 1985.

The Waller Report

The most widely quoted state report is that of Victoria where the committee was chaired by Professor Louis Waller.  The report which was issued in September 1984, was quickly followed by the Infertility (Medical Procedures) Act 1984.  (In point of fact, however, this act was not proclaimed for another two years).  This law of Victoria was a landmark in human history, the first one ever to protect human embryos.  Professor Waller said the law was “the first step in one of the greatest journeys of our century, the regulation of the process whereby, for the first time in the recorded history of mankind, human life may be formed in a dish.”

The Act, though a step in the right direction, pleased neither those who wanted full protection for all human beings – however tiny and however fragile – nor the scientists who wanted full freedom to use embryos as research material.  The Act prohibited cloning, inter-species (human-animal) fertilization; and procedures involving freezing an embryo.  It followed the reasoning of the Waller Report and outlawed the “manufacture” of human embryos specifically for research.

The Waller Committee report said:  “From a moral perspective, it may be said that, regardless of the particular level of respect which different sections of the community would accord an embryo, this individual and genetically unique human entity may not be formed solely and from the outset to be used as a means for any other human purpose, however laudable.  Where the formation occurs in the course of an IVF procedure for the treatment of infertility, the reasons which lead to the embryo’s existence are not ‘means to an end’ones.”

On the debit side, however, the act does allow experiments on some “spare” embryos, provided the experimental procedures are approved by the Victorian Standing Review and Advisory Committee on Infertility, and provided they are within 14 days of fertilization.

It is interesting to note that Professor Waller had little faith in the “honour system” regulating research.  In 1984, he said “an honour system can only work where people are honourable.  Is honour enough?  My feeling is that it is not! (Melbourne Age, June 28, 1984)

Perhaps it was to supplement the “honour” and make it “enough” that the Victoria government put teeth in the law by imposing penalties in heavy fines and/or up to four years in jail.

It is perhaps understandable that the scientists are bitterly angry; after all they have been allowed to go on their merry way, and now they are faced with controls.  Nicholas Tonti-Filippini, the director of St. Vincent’s bioethics centre, outlined the predicament of the IVF scientists: “Dr. Trounson is in the invidious position of having carried out research in the past which under terms of the Victorian Infertility Act are [sic] now prohibited with penalties attached.  How is it that Dr. Trounson could have been so misled by the ethics committees of the institutions in which he worked and by the NHMRC into believing that the work was acceptable to the community?

“Dr. Trounson’s anger is understandable, but it should be directed at the medical-research ethics committee of the NHMRC and his institutional ethics committees, and they should be seriously embarrassed and appropriately apologetic…It is significant that the existing ethical guidelines of the NHMRC for IVF gave ethical approval to embryo experimentation which is now illegal in Victoria and which the Family Law Council and the Senate committee both consider should be prohibited.” (Melbourne Age, October 21, 1986).

Dr. Trounson and about a dozen other scientists have threatened to take themselves and their expertise to any country (preferably the United States) where they can experiment freely.  Senator Harradine, who is one of the world’s leading politicians in the fight to save human embryos, was less charitable than Tonti-Filippini in his remarks about Dr. Trounson:  “By threatening to leave the country unless he can pursue…experimentation on human embryos, Dr. Trounson has failed to understand that the debate in Australia on the issue of experimentation has been raised above the level of immature, unscientific, bully-boy tactics.

Senator Harradine Bill

Because the Victorian Infertility Act applied only to one Australian State, and because it did not protect all human embryos, Senator Brian Harradine introduced a bill in the Australian Senate.  It is usually called the “Human Embryo Experimentation Bill 1985,” but its longer title is more explanatory: “A Bill for an Act to prohibit experiments involving the use of human embryos created by in-vitro fertilization.”  The second reading speech by Senator Harradine was given on April 23, 1985.

Senator Harradine made it clear that he was not asking Senators to vote whether or not IVF should be prohibited: the bill dealt solely with embryos experimentation He dealt with the scientific fact that a new human life begins at fertilization, the types of experiments being carried out and the findings of committees in individual states and in Britain.

He pulled no punches when he spoke of his lack of confidence in various medical-ethics committees and the NHMRC.  The latter organization had not only approved but actually funded research now declared to be illegal in Victoria and punishable by jail sentences.  He said: “In the absence of an advocate who can speak on behalf of the interests of unborn human life within these ethics committees, where it appears who can shout loudest wins, a clear statement in law prohibiting experimentation will help to redress the balance.”  He added that scientific groups, and even Parliament, showed concern over animal vivisection but non over human vivisection.

Predictably the Bill was attacked b the researchers, but Harradine hit back.  In a press release, May 9, 1985, he said it was significant that the alarm was sounded by Dr. Ian Johnston “who is the pioneer of experiments in Australia involving the ‘slicing’ of human embryos.” He continued: “It is also interesting to note that in the press conference Professor Jones expressed concern that the Bill to prohibit experimentation on embryos would halt experiments which he is undertaking to develop a contraceptive.

“It is a strange world indeed where human embryos are brought into being, and are used in experiments to develop drugs to ensure that they are not brought into being.”

The Senate Select Committee

Following some initial debate on the second reading of Senator Harradine’s Bill, April 25, 1985, but before any vote was taken, the Senator took a somewhat unusual course.  They established a Senate Select Committee on October 17, 1985, with its primary task “to recommend whether Australian society should permit experimentation, and particularly non-therapeutic experimentation, to be carried out on that entity which results from the fusion of egg and sperm in the petri dish.

The Senate in Australia resembles that of the United States more than the Canadian Senate.  Its members are elected by universal suffrage and on party lines.  The Senate Select Committee represented three parties in the Senate, and the members were chosen by the party leaders.  A total of seven senators formed the committee.

The Senate moved quickly on this issue: the members of the Committee were named on November 28, and by mid-December advertisements had been placed in the national press, and notices sent to government, medical, legal, social and other interested individuals and groups.

The Committee received a total of 270 submissions, and 90 of these were classified as major.  Public hearings were held from February to June and amongst the 64 witnesses who gave evidence were Dr. Jerome Lejeune, the world-famous geneticist from Paris, and Professor Margaret Somerville, Faculties of Law and Medicine, McGill University, Montreal.

Findings and Recommendations

The final report of the Select Senate Committee was signed by five Senators: Michael Tate (the chairman), Sir John Carrick, Shirley Walters, Michael Macklin and Brian Harradine.  Senators Rosemary Crowley and Olive Zakharov wrote a dissenting opinion.  The thrust of the report is more pro-life than the Walter Report, on the Warnock Report in Britain.  The reason for this became clear in Senator Shirley Walters report in the Senate, October 8, 1986.

“The inquiry just completed by the Select Committee on the Human Embryo Experimentation Bill 1985 has been one of the most complex, controversial, emotive and technical that a committee could undertake.  For this reason the Committee attempted to abide by the scientific evidence and expertise in coming to its conclusion.

“There is no doubt that the human embryo is genetically a new life.  The Committee took evidence from eminent scientists and medical and individual experts.  We took evidence from government and social organizations throughout Australia.  None attempted to argue that the human embryo was other than a developing human being.  Many opinions were expressed about the value, respect and protection that should be afforded that embryo at various stages of its development into a human subject, but there was little dissent regarding its future development into a human subject.  From such evidence the Committee formed the opinion that the human embryo deserved respect and protection according to its status as human.”

The Committee took the position that the embryo deserves protection from the time of fertilization.  It rejected experimentation up to 14 days or any other stage.  “The Committee is of the view that no one event succeeding fertilization is such that the embryo prior to that event should not be accorded respect by way of protecting its development to a succeeding stage…Non-therapeutic experimentation on an embryo is, at least at the present, destructive of that embryo.  It is that which is beyond the pale.”

The Committee did not believe that the medical-ethics committees and the NHMRC were adequate.  Therefore, they recommended the adoption of an accreditation and licensing scheme which would regulate and control experimentation.  “To carry out such experimentation without a license or to depart from the attached conditions would be to expose the person or institution concerned to criminal penalties (fine/imprisonment) and/or suspension or termination of the research license and/or withdrawal of accreditation, as the case may warrant.

In some final comments on the Report, and the whole issue of embryo research, Senator Harradine quotes from a letter of one of the world’s leading experts in International Law and Jurisprudence, the late Professor Julius Stone.  He said “this area of research is par excellence one likely to produce problems for mankind as a whole.”

The Australian Senate has brought some common sense and respect for human life to bear on the issue.  Where are our politicians, churches and pro-lifers in Canada?