Thursday, June 28, 2007

Stem cell bill compassionate: minister

Legislation overturning a ban on therapeutic cloning in NSW has been described as "compassionate" by the state's science minister.

In a conscience vote in the Legislative Council late on Tuesday night, MPs voted 27-13 in favour of the bill to allow stem cell research, also known as Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer.

Science Minister Verity Firth said politicians had learnt about the issues involved and had voted with their conscience to approve the legislation.

She said the legislation was about providing hope to the hundreds of thousands of Australians living with debilitating diseases for which there was no cure.

"This isn't a simple debate. It's always been a debate that's been tied up in the ethics and morality of what you should and should not do in scientific research," she told ABC Radio.

"I believe they exercised their conscience in a way that's allowed a compassionate and forward thinking bill to pass through the upper house.

"I'm very, very pleased."

Ms Firth said the one abstainer from the vote, Attorney-General John Hatzistergos, showed how complicated the stem cell issue was.

"Sometimes people simply cannot make up their mind because of the pros and cons of both," she said.

"But I really genuinely believe that this legislation has provided that careful balance has allowed some important scientific research which is going to change and transform people's lives.

"But it does provide those safeguards, it does prohibit human cloning absolutely and it actually provides increased penalties if you do undertake any prohibited conduct.

"Most importantly, it brings us in line now with the federal legislation."

The NSW debate attracted extra attention after the head of the Catholic Church in Australia, Cardinal George Pell, warned of "consequences" for Catholic MPs members who voted for the legislation.

"I don't have a problem with church leaders or community leaders inserting themselves into this debate," Ms Firth said.

"I think it's perfectly reasonable, it's a really important debate.

"But at the same time I don't believe that there's a monopoly on morality when it comes to issues like this.

"What I've said to Cardinal Pell is that that's fine, you can have your view, but also I want you to sit down and talk to the advocate groups of people with motor neurone disease or spinal cord injuries and Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, because they are just as entitled to their view about what is moral in legislation."

Cardinal Pell's comments will be investigated by the upper house Parliamentary Privileges Committee, which will examine whether his remarks were in contempt of parliament.

The NSW bill mirrors legislation passed by the Commonwealth last December and the Victorian government in May.

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