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Thursday, 22 August 2002
Page: 5521

Mr RIPOLL (5:09 PM) —It is a great pleasure to speak on this Research Involving Embryos and Prohibition of Human Cloning Bill 2002 and it is also a unique opportunity. It is not too often in this place that we get a free vote on an issue, but particularly to get a free vote—a conscience vote—on such an important matter I consider to be extremely special. I was quite pleased that so many people have actually spoken in this debate and have spoken here in this chamber and not in the Main Committee. It is fairly unusual—almost unique—that this parliament devotes so much time to a matter involving a conscience vote and, as I said, it is because this is an extremely important issue. For most people it is about life and death.

This debate is not much different in a sense to every other debate we have in this place in that, at the end of the day, we still have to make a decision and vote on which way we feel it should go. It is not easy for a lot of people and it is not easy for individuals, because normally the party unit does the work. It does the backgrounding; it does the core work that helps you to make a decision. But when you are left on your own, you have to go and find things out for yourself and you have to do that work on your own. I know that people have done that. They have got extensive files and they have looked at this quite seriously; they have not come into this place to make a decision at the last moment.

Mr Slipper —It is a healthy process.

Mr RIPOLL —It is a very healthy process. I am sure we all have extensive files for and against which have formed the basis of the decision that we are going to make in this place sometime shortly. At the same time, I feel that the decision is no more difficult than any other. Difficult moral issues should be in every decision we make in this House and it should be a matter for us to be able to decide those, not based on whether we are experts or not. There would be few times when we would be expert on any particular matter, let alone expert on every matter. So I think there is a great distinction there in terms of people saying, `I'm not an expert in this field.' I could say we are not an expert in most fields. If in this place people were limited to speaking on fields in which they had some expertise, we would have very limited debate, with maybe only one or two people speaking on each area. I assume a lot of people would be able to discuss the law!

I have been very impressed with the majority of speeches that have been delivered in this House on this issue; although, as always on these matters, rather than sticking to good debate, some people will resort to emotion and try to convince people by other means. That I find completely unnecessary and I will try and avoid it as much as I can. It is sometimes difficult, but I have been conscious at least of that process when I have put my thoughts on paper.

One thing that is important for me, and I know it is important for many members on both sides of this chamber, is the view that, while it is important to have this bill as a whole, it could very possibly be split into two. It has two distinct main components, although they are very closely related. One is the prohibition on human cloning and the other is the use of embryos for research purposes. If a motion were to be put in this place that we split the bill, I would support it. I have not conferred with any of my colleagues about this, but I feel that there would be no loss in this debate if we were to split the bill and vote quite clearly and openly on what we believe are the core issues on each of the separate parts.

Most people in this place would have a distinct view on the prohibition of human cloning. I do not think it is very controversial; in fact, probably 100 per cent of people in this place would support a bill that prohibits human cloning. On the other hand, there are quite a number of people who may be opposed to the use of human embryos for the purposes of research. Therefore, it is important that we do split the bill, because it would not give people the opportunity to hide behind a decision that has been based on supporting one part but not the other part. I do not want people to be able to say, `Because the bill contains something I did support and something I did not support, I felt that what I did support had more weight. Therefore, I felt I had to vote for it.' Alternatively, someone might say, `I did support the prohibition on human cloning, but I felt so strongly about the use of embryos for research purposes that I could not vote for the entire bill.' So I think there is merit in the argument that we could split the bill and give people a clearer choice and allow them to make a weighted decision. I think the community would find this acceptable and move that way.

I know many other countries have already debated this. The United Kingdom has much more radical legislation than we are proposing here. Singapore, Japan, Israel and Germany and other countries all have—or are in the process of debating—similar legislation. In many of those countries, they have separated their bills to allow for voting on any one particular matter.

Mr Slipper —Have you got a conscience vote on the split?

Mr RIPOLL —A conscience vote on the split is a good point. I believe that the split is a matter of process, but I would appreciate having a conscience vote on the process as well as the bill. I would be supportive of that. Just to further clarify my position: my view would be that we have a conscience vote on the process as well as on the bills.

I will turn to the prohibition of human cloning. I believe that this section of the bill is not controversial and, as a result, has attracted very little debate in the House. It will be no different with respect to my time today. I am totally and completely against the idea of human cloning for reproductive purposes, and I fully support that section of the bill. There is no place in our society for research or cloning for the purpose of producing a whole human being. I think this is repugnant, and it is not supported by the community or society.

I want to turn to arguments put both in favour and against the use of embryonic stem cells for the purpose of research. Before I begin, I have not found that anyone in this debate is either wrong or right. This debate is not about wrong and right; it is about how we feel, based on the weight of evidence and advice given to us and our own belief structures, and our moral and ethical values. All of those things should be weighed up against the core of the debate on this bill. Our decision must be based on those values. I believe very strongly that our decision must not be made on a purely religious basis, although that certainly would have an influence on our ethical and moral standing.

Those who are against embryonic stem cell research state reasons such as that embryos become human beings at the point of conception and not at any later point—that, at the point of conception, they have a unique identity and therefore should have the same rights to fully develop into a whole human being. Those against this type of research say that those spare embryos—there are about 70,000 of them, which have been kept in a frozen state and are destroyed as allowed by the states according to law after a certain period of time—die or succumb by being thawed out on a bench and later disposed of. They believe that this is more respectful of human life than it would be to use those embryos as cells for research purposes.

The slippery slope argument is: what is next, and is this the thin edge of the wedge that will lead on to further expansion? I think it is a great fear of many—and it is a fear I have—that, potentially, human cloning will be on the agenda one day, and I believe it should not be. The slippery slope argument is a powerful argument, a strong argument, and it is certainly one that has been put forward.

Another argument is that the use of embryonic stem cells in research provides absolutely no hope, and that it gives false hope to people who are quite desperate for miraculous cures for very distressing illnesses. Also, that this research is destructive of human life, that adult stem cells are better as a research medium, that embryonic stem cells have produced no cures and no results that warrant the allowance of more or continued research, that embryonic stem cells are potentially dangerous for human patients because of an immune rejection problem and that they cause a variety of cancers and that they have these problems built within them.

There are many other reasons. All members would have got a book that lists a range of reasons why they believe it is wrong, the reasons being that it is unethical, that embryonic cells themselves cause cancer, that it is unnecessary because adult stem cells could be used, that any benefits of embryonic stem cells are a long way off and therefore it is not worth doing the research, that tissue rejection would be a problem and that it is in the interest of big business rather than in the interests of the individuals. Another reason is that allowing stem cells to be taken from cloned embryos will open the door—a Pandora's box, in essence—to reproductive cloning.

Fairly strong arguments have been put forward against embryonic stem cell research. Those in favour of the use of embryonic stem cells for research have also made some good points, including that, as a result of further research, it may be deduced that these cells could become brain cells; that embryonic stem cells are unique, unlike adult stem cells, and they can literally become other cells because they are not yet differentiated; and that they could become specific muscle cells—the gut, the liver and so forth—and this cannot specifically be done with adult stem cells. There is also the prospect of developing new industries and biomedical innovations, which are important not only to our economy but to our way of life and to our quality of life, which includes searching for a cure for people who have diseases such as Alzheimer's and helping to alleviate their pain.

There is also the prospect that this research could provide very specific cures tailored to an individual. Those in favour of embryonic stem cell research say we could tailor something so specific that it would be for one unique person. The great potential is for this research to cure Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, diabetes or the many other afflictions we all face.

Embryos are human beings, but not at the point of conception. There are different views in the scientific community about when human life—that unique individual; that first spark of what we might determine to be real life—begins. Some say it is immediately at the point of conception. Others say that, after 14 days, something called the `primitive streak' can be identified and that collection of cells becomes something a little bit more: the beginning of what we know as unique human life. I understand from my reading that, prior to those 14 days, the embryo can split into two or re-form; therefore, it is not unique because it has yet to determine exactly what it is.

I want to read a quote from Professor Margaret A. Farley, a Catholic theologian from the Yale University Divinity School. She says:

Embryological studies now show that fertilization (“conception”) is itself a process (not a “moment”), and such studies provide support for the opinion that in its earliest stages (including the blastocyst stage, when stem cells would be extracted for purposes of research) the embryo is not sufficiently individualized to bear the moral weight of personhood. Moreover, some of the concerns regarding the use of aborted fetuses as a source for stem cells can be alleviated if safeguards (such as ruling out “direct” donation for this purpose) are put in place

She goes on to explain a number of other things. I think the parts about conception being a process and not an actual moment, and the need for good guidelines and legislation, are particularly important. But, at the end of the day, all these arguments for and against are just that: arguments. In a sense, I find that disturbing—and I think that might be an appropriate word here. I seek out the information; I will speak to an eminent scientist on one side and then an eminent scientist on the other. To me, both are equally important and both are equally right. I cannot say to a scientist, `You're wrong.' I am not a scientist. But, even if I were, the fact is that they believe in their science and they are working down that path. All I can do is decide on the evidence provided to me. It is the same with jurors. They are not experts; they are ordinary people who come in from the community and—without prejudice, based on the weight of evidence provided to them—make decisions of life and death. That process is the only mechanism we have to make the right decisions. So I am extremely comfortable with the process I have gone through and the debate we are having.

As I said, for all the arguments—from the scientific community, from the lay community, from the ethicists—the issue has not changed. It remains with us. To me, this shows how important it is that we have a very strong system of regulation, a very strong system of guidance and a legal framework, and the proper place for those to be created is in this House. It is for us, the elected representatives of the people, to do that. So, as I have said, I have carefully listened and I have followed the arguments; I am not an expert and I do not believe I need to be. In fact, just a few hours ago I had the opportunity, in one of the Senate committee rooms, to listen to four eminent people speak on this very issue. Three were in favour of embryonic stem cell research and one was against it. Do not let the odds worry you: they only had 10 minutes each, and it is pretty hard to make a really compelling argument on such an important issue in a short 10 minutes. But I did not feel that there was any new evidence, from either side, that would sway my view or my vote.

It is important that this debate take place in this chamber. Labor were absolutely convinced of that. The Labor Party do have a position, and we have stated it. The Leader of the Opposition, Simon Crean, made it clear in his speech that the party support the use of embryonic stem cells and embryos for research. But he has also made it extremely clear—and I can assure everyone listening and everyone here that I felt no pressure from any of my colleagues or anyone in my party; this has been a very healthy process—that we would be given an absolutely free vote. I am extremely comfortable with that.

I do not want to spend any time refuting the arguments. While I have looked at refuting the arguments, I do not think that is as important as saying that I believe I have gone through the process to make the right decision. I have one question—which, I think, is extremely important and central to this debate—for those who have argued against this. I have listened intently to them and I respect their view; this is not about changing their view. That question is simply: if they knew that embryonic stem cell research was the only way and that it was 100 per cent guaranteed to deliver a cure, would they still vote against it? I think that defined where I stood but not so much where others stood. It was a matter of how I came to my decision; it was not just that I looked, listened and learned, and then made a decision on that basis.

Another important fact is that we are not talking about new embryos; these are spare embryos. There is also a sunset clause in this bill. There is a limit as to number because the embryos cannot be collected after a certain date, which has already passed. If we do not use them for the betterment of mankind they will be thawed and destroyed. I think it would be much more worthwhile to humanity if we used them. Finally, there is a warning to those companies that would use this technology and to those scientists in favour of this: there is a sunset clause. Do good research, get good results, publish those results and have them agreed to in the proper way that scientists have their research agreed to, published and acknowledged. Get those results on the board, because we will not always support you if you do not have results on the board. This is not so much about ethics as about delivering results. (Time expired)