Stem cell comments draw ire

Health Minister Tony Abbott, a strong opponent of so-called therapeutic cloning, yesterday accused scientists of peddling false hope to sufferers of chronic diseases without offering convincing evidence.

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They were some of Mr Abbott’s strongest comments on the issue as MPs head towards a conscience vote on overturning the four-year-old ban on therapeutic cloning – the creation of embryos to produce stem cells.

West Australian Liberal MP Mal Washer, a former GP, said Mr Abbott had done himself a disservice.

“There’s a lot of inaccuracies, misinformation and the usual hysteria you get generated against something that’s pretty simple,” Dr Washer told ABC radio.

“I think if you don’t have a reasonable argument, you tend to run to the irrational and hysteria and the scare tactics.”

Mr Washer also described Mr Abbott’s warning of the creation of possible human-animal hybrids as “sensationalist”.

Meanwhile Professor Ian Frazer, who was named 2006 Australian of the Year for developing a vaccine for cervical cancer, said while he advocated an overturning of the ban, the health minister was entitled to his opinion.

Professor Frazer told Southern Cross Broadcasting: “I think that one of the problems with scientists is that you spend a lot of time basically peddling hope because once you know the thing works you don’t bother to go out there to try and promote it any more, you get out there and use it,” he said.

“While we’re still trying to find out what stem cells can be used for then clearly we have to go out there and talk about the potential of the research work, otherwise we won’t get any funding.”

Abbott entitled to view: Howard

Prime Minister John Howard has refused to condemn Mr Abbott’s comments, insisting he had the right to express his views, telling ABC radio: “It is right to have a free vote and Tony Abbott should not be restricted in what he says just because he’s the health minister”.

“What happens in these debates is that you do tend to look at them through the prism of your own prejudices and you do tend to see a strong expression of the opposite view as being ill-tempered and that moderate views are those that accord with your own,” he said.

“That’s the nature of these debates, but I’m quite sure the Liberal Party, in it’s normal, mature fashion, will have an open debate on this and there’ll be a range of views, they’ll be put passionately.”

Accusations of facts being distorted would happen on both sides of the argument, Mr Howard said.

Mr Howard said he had yet to make up his mind on the issue and acknowledged concerns about Mr Abbott’s views.

Cabinet rejected an expert committee’s recommendation to overturn the ban on therapeutic cloning in June, but Mr Howard bowed to backbench pressure and promised his MPs a conscience vote a week ago.

Two senators are preparing private members’ bills that aim to end the ban on therapeutic cloning – Democrat Natasha Stott Despoja and Liberal Kay Patterson, a former health minister.