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Thursday, 22 August 2002
Page: 5455

Ms JULIE BISHOP (11:15 AM) —I support the Research Involving Embryos and Prohibition of Human Cloning Bill 2002. Put simply, I support a prohibition on human cloning and other such unacceptable practices as outlined in the bill and I support the regulated use for research of excess human embryos created by assisted reproductive technology. I have arrived at this position after a great deal of consideration over a number of years.

I speak today on this issue of considerable complexity not as a scientist nor as an ethicist but as an elected representative—a legislator. As such, I bring to this debate on the regulation of stem cell research what I know from my own life experience and what I have learned about this issue in my capacity as a member of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs during its extensive 18-month inquiry, which resulted in a detailed report entitled Human cloning: the scientific, ethical and regulatory aspects of human cloning and stem cell research. That report was tabled in this parliament some 12 months ago. I also bring to this debate what I have gleaned from the subsequent inquiries I have undertaken.

This bill has presented us all with a challenge. It forces us to confront fundamental questions about the beginnings of life. Is a cluster of cells a human being? It forces us to analyse the ends of science. Is there a line that should not be crossed, even for scientific or other gain, and if so, where is it? There is no doubt in my mind that we stand today at the precipice of a new era where science holds the promise of curing the most devastating of diseases. The explosion of medical and scientific innovations are producing new treatments and providing hope for people suffering from a wide range of debilitating disease.

There is nothing easy about the issue of human embryonic stem cell research. It is a complex issue with great ethical and moral implications. It is an issue that speaks not only to our greatest hopes as a society but also to who we are as a society. The ever increasing pace of scientific progress brings new challenges posed by a wide variety of ethical dilemmas that have at times outpaced the ability of public policy to respond. This is not the first time that the discoveries of modern science have laid before us vast ethical minefields and it will not be the last. But today we face a particularly potent interplay of potentially powerful scientific research and the moral considerations of life, of health, of healing. This interplay demands comprehensive public understanding and we as legislators have an obligation to respond.

There are those who say that politics should not impinge on the scientific process. I do not agree. The progress and ethics of science should not be left only to be determined by the researchers and bioethicists. Science must not be practised in a vacuum. Legislators have a role—an obligation to play a role—in deciding not only which research is scientifically promising but also that which is societally acceptable. Politics and policy play a crucial role in guiding and ensuring the ethical pursuit of science, as well as restraining the inclination of science, if left unchecked, to move beyond ethically acceptable boundaries.

This is an emotional debate. It is a debate that spawns a good deal of speculation and feeds many misunderstandings. The most controversial aspect of the bill is not the issue of human cloning. There seems to be unanimity for the proposed prohibition on research that would yield a human clone. The core of this debate is about stem cells; more particularly, the source of particular stem cells. Scientists have known for a long time that a stem cell is a special kind of cell. It has a unique capacity to renew itself and to give rise to specialised cell types. Whereas most cells of the body such as heart or skin cells are committed to conduct a particular function, a stem cell is uncommitted and remains uncommitted until it receives a signal to develop into a specialised cell. With their proliferative capacity and their ability to become specialised, stem cells are unique.

Researchers have for years looked for ways to use stem cells to replace cells and tissues that are damaged or diseased. Science has progressed. Researchers interested in human development have been studying animal development for many years and this research yielded our first glimpses at a class of cells that can develop into any cell type in the body. This class of stem cells are pluripotent, meaning they have the potential to develop almost all of the more than 200 or 300 different known cell types.

But the controversial aspect of this discovery is that stem cells with this unique property come from embryos and foetal tissue. Researchers are able to isolate this class of pluripotent stem cells from embryos. These cells are capable of becoming almost all the specialised cells in the body and thus may have the potential to generate replacement cells for a broad array of tissues and organs—the heart, the pancreas, the nervous system. It is this class of human stem cells that holds the promise of being able to repair or replace cells and tissues that are damaged or destroyed by many of our most devastating diseases and disabilities. Scientists have also developed pluripotent stem cell lines which are capable of renewing themselves for long periods and giving rise to many types of human cells and tissues.

There have also been great advances in our understanding of a class of stem cells that have actually been in clinical use for many years: so-called adult stem cells. It is an undifferentiated cell found in a differentiated or specialised tissue—such as in blood—in the adult. It can yield the specialised cell types of tissue from which it originated. In the body, it too can renew itself. Scientists discovered adult stem cells in tissues not previously thought to contain them, such as the brain. More recently, they reported that adult stem cells from one tissue appear to be capable of developing into cell types that are characteristic of other tissues. So we have stem cells derived from three sources: embryos in early stage of development, some foetal tissue and some adult organs.

Are adult and embryonic stem cells equivalent in their potential for generating replacement cells and tissues? The answer is that, although both cell types hold enormous promise, adult and embryonic stem cells differ in important ways. What does not seem to be known is the extent to which these different cell types will be useful for the development of cell based therapies to treat disease. By definition, they have in common the ability to self-replicate and to give rise to specialised cells and tissues that have specific functions, and they have other characteristics in common. But perhaps, self-evidently, the most distinguishing feature of embryonic stem cells and adult stem cells is the source. Scientists agree that adult stem cells exist in many tissues of the human body. In contrast, it is less certain that embryonic stem cells exist as such in the embryo. Instead, embryonic stem cells develop in tissue culture after they are derived from the inner cell mass of the early embryo. Depending upon the culture conditions, embryonic stem cells may form clumps of cells that can differentiate spontaneously to generate many cell types—and I understand that this property is not observed in cultures of adult stem cells. Without going into more detail on the differences, it seems agreed that embryonic stem cells and adult stem cells are different. As the research goes forward, undoubtedly more similarities and differences will emerge and it will be important to compare adult and embryonic stem cells in terms of their ability to proliferate, differentiate, survive and function after transplant and avoid immune rejection.

There are many practical questions that cannot yet be answered. How long will it take to develop therapies for diabetes or Parkinson's disease? Can the full range of new therapeutic approaches be developed using only adult stem cells? How many different sources of stem cells will be needed to generate the best treatments in the shortest period of time? Presently, it cannot be predicted which stem cells—those derived from the embryo, the foetus or the adult—or which methods for manipulating the cells will best meet the needs of basic research and clinical applications. That means more research must be conducted on all sources of stem cells. One cannot exclude from research one source of stem cells for, at this very early stage of stem cell biology, research on human embryonic stem cells is so important in order to understand the genetic and molecular basis by which these cells make copies of themselves over long periods.

Specifically, embryonic stem cells will be the key research tool for understanding fundamental events in embryonic development—what causes birth defects. Although stem cell research is on the cutting edge of biological science, it is still in its infancy and an enormous amount of basic research remains to be done before it can result in medical treatments. This bill sets us on the wise and deliberate course of enabling research on embryonic stem cells to continue. It does balance our nation's deepest respect for life with our highest hopes for alleviating human suffering.

The main concern over embryonic stem cell research involves the use and destruction of embryos in the process of extracting the stem cells. So, although the embryo is at a very early stage of development, the argument is that it has the equivalent legal moral status of a human being. The response is that these cells are microscopic; they may form a baby, but they may likewise form the supporting tissues, such as the placenta. More importantly, for me at least, is the fact that the cells to be extracted for research will come from embryos that have been created for assisted reproductive technology or IVF purposes and are surplus to that purpose. In other words, these embryos will be discarded, destroyed, in any event. The donors of the embryos have consented in any event to the destruction of surplus embryos. If those donors are asked, `Instead of consenting to the destruction of these surplus embryos, will you consent to their use in stem cell research?' should we deny them that choice? I cannot, as much as I have considered this issue, find justification to allow excess embryos to be thrown away rather than be used for research in the pursuit of the higher purpose of alleviating suffering. If the research is not conducted, these embryos will still be discarded. How many will be saved if the research does not take place? None.

I have heard the calls from those who have urged me to treat a test tube of cells with the dignity and respect of a human being. This is a collection of cells that will be discarded—unused embryos stored frozen in test tubes and eventually thrown away. I take these calls seriously, but how do I compare the importance of a group of cells smaller than the end of this pencil with the poor quality of life and decreased life expectancy of young children with insulin-dependent diabetes or adults with devastating spinal cord injuries?

I ask myself this question and I ask it of those who have called upon me to treat these cells so. Suppose I was passing a house that was on fire and there was a child inside fighting to get out. Would I risk my life to save that child? My answer is yes, I would—I certainly hope I would—and I would expect others would as well. If I were passing an IVF clinic that was on fire and I was told, `There is a test tube in there; there are cells in it, but they are going to be discarded anyway,' would I risk my life to save this test tube? My answer is no; nor would I expect anyone else to so risk their life.

As a member of the House of Representatives committee I heard the views of so many people. I was convinced at that time by the arguments against cloning for reproductive purposes that there ought to be a prohibition against human cloning. That was the unanimous view of the committee. Most of the evidence before the committee concentrated on the issues raised by this concept of research involving the use of stem cells and cloning techniques involving embryos and the possible application of such techniques to treat illness and disease. I was convinced that the use of adult stem cells in research ought to be endorsed, encouraged and pursued. That was the unanimous view of the committee. After much detailed consideration, I was convinced by the arguments in favour of non-reproductive cloning research involving embryonic stem cells. I was convinced that the use of existing embryonic stem cell lines to conduct research or to develop banks of cell lines for future therapeutic use should be permitted. That was not the unanimous view of the committee, but it was a majority view. I was also convinced by the arguments that it ought to be permissible to derive additional embryonic stem cell lines from embryos that are surplus to assisted reproductive technology requirements, but only within clear and stringent guidelines. Again this was not a unanimous view, but it was a majority view.

Consistent with my position in respect of the evidence before that committee, I support this bill. I have learned a great deal from discussions with a wide range of people—from those with some considerable expertise in this scientific field to those who have contacted me to let me know their views. I thank everyone who has taken the time to write to me or call me. Their views are as diverse as the views that were proffered to the House of Representatives committee and those we have heard expressed during this debate. I am faced with what we call a `conscience vote'. I would like to think that every vote I take in this place accords with my conscience. So far I am able to live with my conscience on all votes that I have cast. So too I expect that I, and I hope all my colleagues, will be able to live with our consciences as we cast our votes in this debate.