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The chimera and the discounted women

By Susan Hawthorne - posted Friday, 24 November 2006

Next week the House of Representatives will consider Senator Kay Patterson's Private Member's Bill on cloning, which passed in the Senate by one vote.

I hope that those representing us will feel more obliged than their colleagues in the Senate did, to consider the impact of this Bill on women who are asked to provide parts of their bodies for the use of others. For if one more senator had been brave enough to vote against the Patterson Cloning Bill, young women in Australia from families afflicted with Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s or other incurable diseases could now sleep easier. Instead, if the Bill passes these women will be seen as a legitimate "natural" resource for producing disease specific stem cells.

The prohibition of the chimera, a cross-species hybrid, got the Bill over the line for the biotech industry. In contrast, the potential exploitation of women as egg producers didn't warrant any protective amendment, not even the mandate to closely monitor their health.


Our legislators have invented ways of side-stepping the central issue around embryonic stem cells and cloning which is: without women's eggs there are no embryos. And without embryos there are no embryonic stem cells.

In the senate debate, the pro-cloning side erected some marvellous justifications. The economic rationalists said embryonic stem cell research will be good for the economy; that it would bring expert scientists and money into Australia. What is it about the economics of science that makes it more important than the integrity and health of women's bodies?

The proponents of biotechnology on the basis of choice claimed embryonic stem cell research would lead to cures for incurable diseases. These claims are at best wishful thinking and at worst, misleading. Despite all the hype that Australia risks being left behind, no one in the world has so far been able to create stem cells from a cloned embryo. But the emotional momentum is such that women will be encouraged to step forward to donate parts of their bodies willingly to science under the auspices of compassion and altruism.

Andrew Bartlett's amendment prohibiting cloned animal hybrids means that it will be illegal to put the nucleus of a human cell into an animal egg and create an embryo. Thus only human females (women) are permitted to be egg donors. The irony is that the prohibition is incomplete: The sub-clause (f) of the same excised Subsection 20(1) that refers to "creation of embryos by the fertilisation of an animal egg by a human sperm" was left in. So hybrids can still be made. The chimera survives and neither Senator Bartlett nor anyone else seems to have noticed.

The arguments are put forward as if there are only two positions. Those for cloning are rational, scientific and have the welfare of sick people at heart. But no one mentions the profit that inspires these proponents. No one mentions the biotech corporations who stand to make a healthy return on their investment from desperate people who would try anything in the hope to alleviate the suffering of relatives and friends.

Those against cloning are said to be nostalgic for clear-cut beliefs about the sanctity of life. They are dismissed as out of touch with the modern world.


But what of bodily integrity? What of the critical stance many of us take on interfering with plants to create GM foods? There is room here for a more ethical approach, one that takes account of the suffering and potential long-term health risks to women whose ovaries are hyperstimulated in the name of science. If we care about plants, water and environmental degradation, why would we ignore the use of women as commodities for science?

The promise of developing cures is inextricably linked to the abuse of women as a resource for biotechnology, as raw material for just another big business opportunity, big science, big men and apparently big-hearted women who co-operate.

It can only be hoped that social justice and ethics prevail in Federal Parliament next week and that the chimera, this wild fancy of a cure-all, remains unconceived.

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About the Author

Dr Susan Hawthorne is a Research Associate at Victoria University, Melbourne, author of Wild Politics (Spinifex Press 2002) co-editor of September 11, 2001: Feminist Perspectives (2002) and numerous articles on globalisation, AUSFTA, GATS, war and patriotism.

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