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Backing for Xenotransplantation is Premature

15 December 2005

BioEthics Council Backing for Xenotransplantation is Premature

Any decision to allow xenotransplantation at this stage of scientific knowledge risks ignoring the fact that it is highly experimental, and should be the subject of much broader public debate than has taken place so far.

The BioEthics Council is premature in backing the use of animal-to-human transplantation when its relatively small-scale dialogue with the community shows a range of major concerns remain. Many people may feel the Council has failed to properly reflect their concerns in giving its backing for the process, potentially undermining the Council's credibilty with the wider community.

There are also doubts about the format of the Biothics Council's consulation process which included information- sessions during weekdays when most people would be unable to attend, and which required people to attend a second follow-up session. The process resulted in only a few hundred submissions.

"There is concern that the way the BioEthics Council report is being covered in the media may mislead people into believing such techniques are proven safe and effective, when this is not true," says Jon Carapiet from GE Free NZ in food and environment.

As well as the tortuous ethical issues around how humans may end up using and abusing animals in pursuit of medical treatments, there is also a Pandora's box of safety issues. This includes the fact that human and animal viruses are able to remain dormant for many years before symptoms manifest themselves.

New Zealand and the world's scientific community are a long way from being able to meet the fundamental conditions under which the Council believes xenotransplantation on a case-by-case will be acceptable.

Looking at the current level of understanding of the range of ethical, medical, public-health and animal welfare issues, it would be wrong for New Zealand to rush into legislation allowing such experiments.

It is likely to take many years before the necessary research, monitoring and other administrative mechanisms can give decision-makers confidence that they will not be allowing something that in time proves to be harmful to patients, to the public and to the pursuit of ethical practice in high-technology medicine.


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