Australasian Bioethics Information

Friday, 1 August 2003 · No. 86         ISSN 1446-2117
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BIOETHICS: Euthanasia bill dies in NZ Parliament

  • Euthanasia bill dies in NZ Parliament
  • Spain approves embryo research
  • Transplant scandal in Chicago hospitals
  • Why cloning fails
  • "God is not in charge, we are": IVF pioneer looks back
  • The unexpected consequences of anonymous sperm donation
  • IN BRIEF: nerve stem cells ~ nun's advice to AMA ~ haemophilia ~ growth hormone

    Euthanasia bill dies in NZ Parliament
    The New Zealand Parliament has narrowly rejected right-to-die legislation. The Death With Dignity Bill, which would have allowed doctors to kill terminally ill patients if they were to ask for help, was defeated on its first reading by a vote of 60 to 58 with one abstention. If the bill had survived, there would have been a referendum to seek public support.

    The architect of the bill, MP Peter Brown, said that Parliament's vote was "reprehensible". National Party leader Bill English, however, supported the decision. "This bill is a comfort for the living, not a ticket for those who want to die," he said. "Pain is part of life and watching it is part of our humanity, and many of us have become more human for having watched it, whether we liked it or not."

    Undeterred by their failure this time, euthanasia advocates vowed to step up their campaign. Support for euthanasia is clearly growing. The last time it came before the NZ Parliament, in 1995, the vote was 61 to 29. A leading figure in the debate, Lesley Martin, has agreed to head Exit New Zealand, which was established recently by Australian campaigner Dr Philip Nitschke. Ms Martin faces charges over the attempted murder of her terminally ill mother in 1999. She is planning "more creative" ideas for promoting euthanasia. ~ New Zealand Herald, July 30, 31, Aug 2;, Jul 30  

  • Euthanasia advocates in Queensland held a public rating of their cars on suitability for suicide this week. They attached hoses to the exhaust pipe so that the carbon monoxide and fumes would turn the cars into gas chambers. All but one passed the test, producing lethal doses within seconds. The Queensland coordinator of Exit, the euthanasia lobby group, John Edge, said that modern pollution control systems appear to make cars less effective for suicide. ~ AAP, Aug 1

  • The head of the Vermont Medical Society in the US has resigned after being reprimanded by the state medical board for euthanasing an 85-year-old woman without a request from her or her family. Although no criminal charges have been filed against Dr Lloyd Thompson, he felt that "negative publicity" over the incident was hampering the work of the Medical Society. ~ Reformer (Brattleboro VT) Aug 1  

    Spain approves embryo research
    The Spanish government has approved the use of surplus IVF embryos for research as long as the parents consent. Health Minister Ana Pastor described the measure as respectful because it takes the parents' wishes into account and as ethical because it does not allow the commercial use of embryos.

    Although the Spanish legislation is similar to other European countries, it has one novel feature. It allows only three embryos to be fertilised in IVF clinics at one time. The government says that this will reduce the huge number of frozen embryos, avoid the practice of "foetal reduction" and cut down on multiple births. ~ Reuters, Jul 25; statement of Spanish health minister  

    Transplant scandal in Chicago hospitals
    Three of Chicago's best hospitals described relatively healthy patients as being on the point of death in order to move them to the top of the list for liver transplants, government officials have alleged. The false statements allowed the hospitals to meet the minimum number of liver transplants needed to get government reimbursements. Two of the hospitals have settled the allegations out of court and all have emphatically denied any wrong-doing.

    The complicated case began in 1996 when transplant surgeon Dr Raymond Pollak accused all the transplant programs in Chicago of fraud. "Transplant programs are extraordinarily expensive to run but can be extraordinarily profitable if they're run efficiently," Dr Pollak told the Chicago Tribune. "So the more patients you transplant, the more referrals you get, the more revenue you get. Volume drives the business. Wal-Mart learned that a long time ago."

    Bioethicist Arthur Caplan commented that the system of allocating organs for transplants is faulty not just for livers, but also for hearts and kidneys. "There's a lot of money on the line here," he said. "It's a system vulnerable to bending the rules." ~ Chicago Tribune, Jul 29  

    Why cloning fails Dolly the cloned sheep
    Animal cloning is inefficient and error-prone and results in the failure of most clones during development, says an article in the New England Journal of Medicine. Konrad Hochedlinger, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Rudolf Jaenisch of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research estimate that only between 1 and 10% of cloned embryos from adult donor cells develop completely, depending on the species. They reached four conclusions about cloning research:

    • Most clones die early while developing in the uterus.
    • Clones which survive often have common abnormalities, no matter what donor cells are used.
    • The abnormalities seem to be linked to faulty gene expression.
    • Donor cells which are more differentiated have a small chance of success.

    Animals cloned from immature cells are far healthier and more likely to survive. Animals cloned from embryonic stem cells, instead of adult cells, seem to fare batter. ~, Jul 29  

    "God is not in charge, we are": IVF pioneer looks back Prof. Bob Edwards and Louise Brown
    One of the scientists responsible for the first IVF baby says that the one million babies born with the techniques he helped to invent have vindicated his efforts. Embryologist Robert Edwards, who perfected human IVF with gynaecologist Patrick Steptoe, told the London Times that "It was a fantastic achievement, but it was about more than infertility. It was also about issues like stem cells and the ethics of human conception. I wanted to find out exactly who was in charge, whether it was God himself or whether it was scientists in the laboratory." And what he discovered, he told the Times, was that "It was us."

    Despite his 77 years, Edwards's views are anything but conservative. Edwards does not support a ban on human reproductive cloning and thinks that he will live to see the first human clone. However, he stresses that the safety of the mother and baby are paramount. The journal he edits, Reproductive BioMedicine online, has provided a platform for the controversial cloner Severino Antinori. ~ Times, Jul 24  

    The unexpected consequences of anonymous sperm donation
    The US television show 60 Minutes has raised questions about anonymous sperm donation. About 30,000 Americans are born each year with donated sperm, nearly all of them anonymous.

    60 Minutes featured the reunion of 18-year-old Kate Whittaker with Bobby Gerardot, her biological father, who had donated sperm more than 200 times during his college years to make extra cash. The contact was positive, but emotionally exhausting and Bobby and his wife have decided not to allow any more offspring to contact him.

    Another person interviewed was film maker Barry Stevens, born from donor sperm 50 years ago, who has been searching for his biological father for years. He has managed to discover a half-brother, but not his father. "This should tell people that donating sperm can't be regarded just like a handshake," he says. "It can't be regarded just like you're selling a little bit of tissue... You're creating life from your own body. It's a tremendously powerful act. You're creating another human being."

    Commenting on the program in the Chicago Sun-Times, columnist Mary Laney called for limits on the number of sperm deposits. IVF clinics could produce any number of "half brothers and sisters who have no idea that they're half brothers and sisters," she writes. "What happens if they get married and have children? Are we going to have village idiots running around?" ~ 60 Minutes, Jul 4; Chicago Sun- Times, Jul 30  

    IN BRIEF: nerve stem cells ~ nun's advice to AMA ~ haemophilia ~ growth hormone

  • Korean scientists have used nerve stem cells from human foetuses to reduce the side effects of cerebral haemorrhaging. Their results will appear in the journal Stroke. ~ Korea Herald, Jul 30

  • A chance conversation with a former Catholic nun may have changed the policy of the Australian Medical Association on the morning after pill. The AMA has opposed over-the-counter supply of the morning-after pill at chemists' shops, but its new president, Bill Glasson, said that he had a change of heart after speaking with a patient who had been a nun and derided this approach as unrealistic. Her advice confirmed the views of many of his members, he indicated. ~ Mercury, Jul 31

  • Female carriers of the gene for haemophilia appear to have a far lower risk of death from heart disease and have a lower overall death rate, according to a study in The Lancet. ~ HealthDay, Jul 31

  • Healthy US children who are abnormally short will be able to have injections of a growth hormone which might add between one and 3 inches to their height. The manufacturer, Eli Lilly, has pledged to restrict its use to very short children. Prescribing the drug, Humatrope, for children who have no other medical problems, is a controversial issue. Critics of moves to broaden the criteria for its use say that it medicalises normal problems and stigmatises people who are not "average". They fear that prescriptions will soon be handed out far too freely to anxious parents. ~ New York Times, Jul 27  

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    Australasian Bioethics Information
    ISSN 1446-2117
    Director: Dr Amin Abboud
    Editor: Michael Cook
    New Zealand Associate: Carolyn Moynihan