The votes are in…

… and so is stem cell research. Those who know me (and/or read this blog) will know I’d be pleased.

Before the Patterson Bill was passed, I was going to post about how I wonder if the change in Labor leadership will mean anything for science. It may not mean much in terms of votes, but it does give Julia Gillard a bit more attention when she makes her statements as Labor’s health spokesperson:

They are saying surplus eggs from IVF processes and I think that is the best place to start. Obviously there may be future issues about donation but I don’t believe we are there yet and we should see if the supply of surplus eggs from IVF processes is sufficient.

I agree with this. Avoiding egg donation directly from women is definitely to be avoided: Woo-Suk Hwang has taught us that. All the ethics committees in the world can’t stop subtly coercion of junior, female staff. It’s a sad inevitability of humanity. And the risks of egg donation mean that they should only be given freely.

So yes, I’m pleased. In August, I posted about three areas where I think Australia is lagging behind the rest of the developed world. Two out of three of those areas have improved tremendously. Now all we need is a better strategy to slow climate change and we’ll be set. Well, not quite, but we’re on the right track.

Misplaced outrage

So, the latest thing politicians are outraged about is the improper choice of entertainment at the Canberra Climate Change forum: a troupe of burlesque dancers stripping (only to their underwear; no nudity). The federal Environment Department and the Bureau of Rural Sciences have withdrawn their funding to the event in a beautiful gesture of censorship.

Here’s the organisers’ apology: “In retrospect the choice of entertainment was inappropriate for the occasion. We understand if the sponsors wish to withdraw.” Yes to the first sentence. No to the second.

The choice of entertainment was not merely inappropriate; it was downright stupid. But put it in context: this was forum about climate change, something that we, the citizens of the world (per capita, Australia is particularly guilty) are causing. Climate change is destroying our planet and the Australian government won’t ratify Kyoto. That is an outrage, not a few students taking some clothes off to a point that’s perfectly acceptable at the beach.

This is not a new point. Milos Forman’s biopic, The People vs Larry Flynt, the same point is made about war. Conservative (not necessarily political) types are far more outraged by anything of a sexual nature than they are about injustice. The fuss made about prostitution and pornography, if it will be made, should be secondary to the fuss made about environment and human rights. (As long as it’s not prostitution or porn that’s violating human rights, such as child pornography. That goes without saying.)

Sex sells and it’s always going to be more interesting than “boring” conservation issues. But if conservation doesn’t come first, there might not be anyone selling anything one day.

Agricultural revolution

Nationals Senator Ron Boswell recently dissed CSIRO for cutting funding to rural industry research by 5%.

(On a petty note, I’m wondering what the difference between the “livestock and wool industry”. Aren’t sheep livestock? But that’s not really the point…)

I agree with him that there should be more research funding, not less, dedicated to renewable resources. But I feel it’s a little incongruous to call for more research into agriculture as it currently exists in Australia at the same time as preaching about renewable resources. There aren’t many crops in Australia that are actually suitable to our arid climate. Cattle and sheep die in the drought; farms require subsidies for water and nitrogen and phosphate fertilisers to be economically viable; and many crops grown in Australia (such as cotton and rice) are extremely water-thirsty.

As mentioned in a post last year, Professor Michael Archer (Dean of Science, UNSW) is a fan of harnessing native flora and fauna for economic gain, rather than continuing to pound our unique environment with European crops. He goes into great detail in his book Going Native (co-written with Bob Beale, ISBN 0733615228). From kangaroo meat (despite some unresolved issues) to native grains as crops (kurrajong and several wattle species are just a few examples), agriculture in Australia needs to change.

So maybe Boswell is right and agriculture does need more research funding. It just shouldn’t focus on maintaining the status quo — we need an agricultural revolution.

Still in the Stone Age down under

Debate is heating up in Australia about the use of mifepristone (RU-486) for medical (as opposed to surgical) abortions. Tony Abbott, who is clearly highly qualified to have an opinion about (a) medicine (he has an Economics/Law double degree) and (b) women (he quite obviously isn’t one), has decided that he should be more cautious than the Australian Medical Association, the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, and the World Health Organization and keep mifepristone off the shelves in Australia. Well, that’s his story, anyway. Unfortunately for Mr Abbott, people aren’t stupid and are quite able to see that his views on mifepristone are just thinly veiled anti-abortion views (which go hand in hand with his anti-stem cell research views).

All research and medical opinion points to mifepristone’s safety and efficacy in inducing termination, when combined with a prostaglandin analogue such as misoprostol (which is already available in Australia for other uses). From the reading I’ve done, I can’t see how medical abortion is any less safe than a spontaneous abortion. Both can lead to complications, such as incomplete abortion, which can be taken care of with medical help.

It’s insulting to doctors for Abbott to suggest that they would not be able to deal with the complications that can arise. If they can deal with a miscarriage, they can deal with a medical abortion too. And it’s insulting to suggest that they would prescribe mifepristone unwisely. Any doctor prescribing it would, of course, be there to deal with any adverse effects, same as they would be for any medication they prescribed. Rural doctors, in particular, should be offended at the implication that they can’t handle complications of pregnancy, when they can probably deal with them better than some over-specialised urban doctors. Should they be recommending that all female regional inhabitants relocate to cities for pregnancy care?

Abortion isn’t nice or pleasant but it’s a reality that some women find themselves facing for a variety of reasons. Whether the underlying cause is their own stupidity or the cruelty of rape, no woman should find herself facing the alternative of an unsafe abortion, or an unwanted pregnancy that will produce an unwanted child, who might never receive adequate care or love. And medical abortion makes it easier — some might say too easy, but I feel that the option needs to be there for women in remote areas, or from communities where abortion is not acceptable, and going to the doctor for a pill and pretending that you’ve had a miscarriage might be your only option.

It’s just mind-boggling that this decision is in the hands of one man who’s clearly biased, rather than where it belongs: in the hands of each individual woman.