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Thursday, 22 August 2002
Page: 5449

Mr ANTHONY (Minister for Children and Youth Affairs) (10:38 AM) —I am very happy to participate in this debate with a conscience vote and I support the Research Involving Embryos and Prohibition of Human Cloning Bill 2002 wholeheartedly. As previous speakers have said, this legislation is about hope. It is about providing, through science, research that will assist in helping overcome the suffering of many diseases that we have now that cannot be cured. The legislation—and we all agree, and I do not have a philosophical problem whether the bill is split or not—will ban human cloning and other unacceptable practices associated with reproductive technology and regulate research involving human embryos. It will put a legal framework around research which I think needed to be started yesterday. It has come about through a consensus decision with the Council of Australian Governments; all Australian governments have come on board.

As I give my speech in the House of Representatives today, I do not stand here to be a judge on this issue but I certainly am part of the jury, being a legislator engaging public opinion. I believe that the legislation being put in place with the strict regulatory framework placed around it is entirely appropriate. To me, this issue is as clear as night follows day. I hope over the next few minutes that I will counter some of the arguments used by opponents of this bill. It should be remembered that it is, I acknowledge, a very difficult moral and ethical decision for members in this House. I appreciate their views, although I have to say I disagree with some of them. The bill makes it an offence if you were to operate outside the boundaries, with a maximum term of 15 years. I think our Prime Minister has got it right. For a very conservative individual to come to the conclusion that he has makes me feel as though we are in good hands. Also, there is considerable difference of opinion even within the churches.

Ultimately, this scientific research on embryonic cells is to advance the cause of medicine, to alleviate pain and suffering of those suffering from debilitating diseases—whether it is Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, diabetes, multiple sclerosis or spinal injuries, just to mention a few. I have listened widely, particularly to people in my own electorate, but ultimately it is up to my conscience. I quote Edmund Burke, as Tony Abbott did when he spoke on this legislation: `I owe you my judgment, not my obedience'—not my obedience to some in my party and not my obedience to some of those within the religious circles who believe this is a most unpalatable piece of legislation. I have listened and I have made my own conscious decision.

The debate really begins with where life begins. The assumption here is that we are actually terminating or killing human life, which I reject. It is a complex issue. I notice, going back in history, that this debate has been around for quite some time. In recent years this has been argued in the House of Lords. Certainly within the Catholic faith they believe life begins at the time of conception. But if you go further back and look at Aristotle and the views attributed to him, you will see that he believed that first there was a vegetable soul, then there was an animal soul and finally an intellectual soul. It is only at the last point that there is, properly speaking, a human being. In the Aristotelian view, this animation—from the Latin word `anima', meaning soul—occurs 40 days after conception in the case of a male and up to 90 days after conception for a female. I grant you, that was a long time ago.

At that time, the church acknowledged a similar process. Later on, we see an interpretation from Exodus 21:22 where Septuagint refers to a fight between two men as a result of which a pregnant woman loses her child. If the child is in the early stages of embryonic development then the penalty is a financial one. If it is in the later stages of pregnancy then the penalty is death. The Greek word there literally means `not yet so formed as to be a copy or a portrayal of human life'. The Septuagint version was most commonly used by the early fathers as well as by the New Testament writers. On it goes with St Gregory of Nyssa where he stated:

So long as it is in this unformed state it is something other than a human being.

Similarly, St Augustine wrote:

If what is brought forth is unformed at this stage some sort of living, shapeless thing, then the law of homicide would not apply, for it could not be said that there was a living soul in that body, for it lacks all sense, if it be such as is not yet formed and therefore not yet endowed with its senses.

The argument I am advancing here is that, even within the church when we go back in history, there was considerable debate of when life actually began. I note there is even debate currently. I would like to quote the Primate of the Anglican Church. I am an Anglican and I agree that we should not be trying to cast moral judgments on either because neither of us are without sin. The Primate of the Anglican Church said:

The pressing question is when exactly is the embryo to be accorded the status of an individual human person or potential human person for whom basic rights of care, protection and indeed, life may be claimed ... but conception is not known to be nor a moment but a process that takes 14 days. Only at the end of that process, it is possible to say that a human individual has been conceived.

During this 14-day process of great cellular movement which ends with the implantation and segmentation, twinning may occur. Alternatively, divided cells may recombine. It is only at the end of the 14 day process, once the implantation has occurred, there is no further possibility of twinning, that we can logically say that a human individual has been conceived. In terms of simple logic, it is not possible to make that assertion until the process of conception is complete.

If we were to insist today that the embryo is endowed with a soul from the moment of fertilisation, we could then in the case of twinning be in the embarrassing position of having to say that one soul has become two souls. This should alert us to exercise extreme caution in soul talk.

Once we come to terms with the psychological facts and are in a position to distinguish between fertilisation of an ovum and the conception of a human individual, a number of troublesome difficulties fall away.

For me, those troublesome difficulties do fall away. I do not believe at this stage, particularly using IVF, that human life has begun. In many ways, I believe we have already passed the critical threshold test in this piece of legislation that we are debating today of whether to use embryos for further research—that is, the IVF debate. This debate has, through science, given parents the opportunity of having children—God's most precious gift—an opportunity that would never have come about if we had not pursued science. When I look back at the last half century, I see that there have been many medical breakthroughs, whether they were blood transfusion, antibiotics, and of course other groundbreaking medical advances which have helped millions of people.

It was through the pursuit of science in a rational way—and I acknowledge that there are those who may use it in unintended ways—that IVF was able to be created. It is due to that IVF breakthrough that we are having this argument: surplus embryos. These embryos, I would suggest, are taken through a very unpleasant procedure where more eggs need to be extracted. These young embryos, as many speakers have articulated, will succumb, once they are taken out of the freezer, and will have a natural death. I have tried to demonstrate that I do not believe that at this stage life has begun. We are talking about a five-day-old ball of about 150 cells and, from my understanding, researchers want to use about 30 of those cells. Senator Amanda Vanstone said:

It is human tissue but it is not human. Without further intervention, this ball of cells has no hope whatsoever of becoming a human being. We should not confuse the existence of a chance of becoming human with being human. The tissue can be likened to an organ taken from a recently deceased person. Neither the organ nor the tissue are dead; it is a human tissue but not a human being.

To my mind, if we can use the cells from these embryos to advance the cause of saving people's lives, isn't that a worthy cause? I reiterate, in my conscience, I do not believe that life has begun. I think many are splitting hairs. This view—again in the House of Lords—which says that one is moral and the other is immoral is really an argument about angels dancing on the head of a pin with these 150 cells. The consequences of using this science to advance the causes, as I mentioned before, of incurable diseases are enormous.

There have been arguments in this parliament that we are about to begin down the slippery slope, that if we were to pursue this in a very strict regulatory framework, all of a sudden it would open Pandora's box and, potentially, would further the case of human cloning. This legislation outlaws human cloning and all Australians would agree with this—I hope. This argument is trotted out frequently. You could use this argument in many different contexts. Anyone who is opposed, let us say, to any type of relaxation of criminal law, could be said to be on the slippery slope. There is an argument as well that, even if we legislate for this or if we ban it, it is going to happen anyway. Again, I say that if people are going to use this research for unintended consequences, in many ways no matter what we do now, villainy will always be in society. But by passing this legislation, it will put a framework around it, a framework which we can all feel comfortable with and which will be reviewed, of course, in three years time.

There are arguments that we should concentrate all our efforts on adult stem cell research, and they have merit. But again, after looking at the evidence, I do not believe that 100 per cent focus on adult stem cell research has the capacity to produce the advances in science for which it is necessary to use undifferentiated cells in the embryonic stage, which are very different to adult stem cells. Looking at some of the recent papers, particularly from Minnesota, I agree that the jury is still out on whether some of those very small adult stem cells that have characteristics of the undifferentiated cells, coming from bone marrow, actually have that potential. I note that even the leading research scientist on that team perhaps also has some scepticism on whether adult stem cell technology would produce the benefits that embryonic cells would.

I remember something that Kay Patterson said when this debate first started. She said:

The test I had to ask myself was if there was a therapeutic outcome from this for me or other members of my family and I opposed this legislation, would I reject the therapeutic treatment. I would find that very difficult.

I indeed find that very difficult. This issue to me is extremely clear: this is about hope. It is about giving a chance to those people who have incurable diseases, even if those time lines are some way in the distance. Again I say that the breakthroughs of science have allowed blood transfusions, antibiotics, anaesthetics and organ transplants—which never would have been envisaged 20 or 30 years ago. Of course, all that is about alleviating suffering and advancing the cause of humanity for those people who have illnesses.

I conclude with the Prime Minister's comments. I know my leader, the member for Gwydir, has very strong views, and I respect those views. I certainly do not stand here as an advocate for the scientific community and I certainly do not stand here as an advocate for those with very strong religious views that life has begun, but I think it is important to put it into context and not use too much unnecessary alarming language, when ultimately this is all about saving people's lives through an embryo that is going to die anyway. The Prime Minister said:

This bill ... successfully balances respect for human dignity, ensures that community standards and ethical values are upheld and enables the enormous potential of embryonic stem cell research to be explored ... within legislated parameters and subject to close scrutiny.

I am a minister of the Crown, not a minister of the faith. I believe that the bill that is being proposed should be passed wholeheartedly, and the sooner we get on with this, the better.