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Thursday, 30 November 2006
Page: 16

Mr BROADBENT (10:07 AM) —My contribution is made as a legislator, not as a scientist, and I bring an open mind and an honest heart to this debate. I have not the arrogance to believe that on all matters I hold the one true view, that my opinion is necessarily the correct and only one. In this debate there will be disagreements and arguments over ethics and principles. Embryonic stem cell research and somatic cell nuclear transfer are difficult matters for us as members of parliament to consider.

Ethical divisions and uncertainties are inherent in the Prohibition of Human Cloning for Reproduction and the Regulation of Human Embryo Research Amendment Bill 2006. We are dealing with matters at the very boundaries of scientific understanding. Australia does play, and should be able to continue to play, a leading role in the world of scientific endeavour. That is why I stand here today in support of and alongside former Australians of the Year Sir Gustav Nossal and Dr Alan Marshall and current Australian of the Year, Professor Ian Frazer.

My background is in retailing—selling suits, shirts and ties. I do not pretend to understand the science behind modern medical progress. However, I do understand the impact medical advances of the last half century have had on our health and wellbeing. Initially there was disquiet, even outright opposition as there is in this place today, and then a gradual acceptance that fears of discovery, fears that the fruits of scientific research will destroy the moral fibre of society, were groundless fears. Professor Ian Frazer, in a letter to me earlier this year, tellingly made that very point. He said:

In the 1970s there was considerable public debate about the morality and safety of genetic engineering and a worldwide moratorium on research in the area was considered.

He continued:

If the moratorium had been implemented, then the cervical cancer vaccine would not have been developed in the 1980s and a means to prevent half a million deaths worldwide each year would not have been developed.

When Joseph Lister began using carbolic acid solution to wash his hands before surgery, many of his contemporaries laughed at him. But Lister was said to have never bothered to reply and only heaved an occasional sigh at the world’s stupidity. If those in this place are derided and draw the wrath and condemnation of those who came to a stance of disagreement with this bill, so be it.

Consider, too, the apprehension in society—which I am old enough to remember—when the South African surgeon, Professor Christian Barnard, pioneered kidney transplant surgery in the late 1950s, then performed the first open-heart operation and then, in the following decade, performed a heart transplant. There was debate back then on the ethics involved in applying the findings of scientific exploration to saving and prolonging human life. The doomsayers predicted dire consequences from man interfering with the natural order. Today, kidney transplants, liver transplants and even heart and lung transplants are commonplace. The one tragic thought, though, behind all of these surgical marvels is the fact that someone—often a young person—has to die in order that someone else has another chance at life.

In the five decades since these transplants were pioneered, we have come to terms with the ethics involved with having someone else’s organs implanted. Five decades in terms of human history is a relatively short time, and the advances that have been made have been remarkable. In addition to transplant surgery, in-vitro fertilisation and surrogacy have meant much to couples who in an earlier era would have gone through married life without the joy that children bring and which the wider population takes for granted.

All of these advances were part of the evolution of medical science that this bill seeks to further advance. All their development met with degrees of ethical debate around well-founded, genuine concerns. However, these hurdles were overcome and society today accepts these procedures as a part of ethical medical practice. After all, who would deny a childless couple the natural experience of parenthood? Who would deny a young child the opportunity of the experience of life? Who would deny sufferers of kidney disease the opportunity of a normal life that did not involve regular sessions of dialysis?

When Christian Barnard performed his first heart transplant at the Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town, it was a major triumph for medical discovery; now it is simply a major operation. Stem cell research is still in its infancy. We know not for certain what those enquiring minds will produce, but there is the promise of a fundamental change in the course of history by providing cell replacement therapies for many debilitating and life-threatening diseases.

Today we must again spur on our physicians to keep pace with the further development of science and technology, or let tremendous opportunity fall away. Times change and so can attitudes. Of course there are hazards, among them the risk that none of these endeavours will bring to fruition what we most desire. But, if the dangers involved in landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth, adapting penicillin to administer safely or taking X-rays of patients without giving them cancer were too great a risk to ever venture, where would we stand today?

During this debate attempts have been made to discredit science and scientists. When speaking with an immunologist in the field whom I will name only as Ray, he said with the sincerity that only a father could have:

We are not monsters or ogres we are fathers and mothers just as the rest of the community—not closeted away from reality nor set apart in some scientific ethics free zone.

He continued:

This bill could do me out of a job. Wouldn’t that be great?

This is the real world. We are talking about real people with real problems looking to science for breakthroughs that can change their lives for the better. Where is the will of a nation to go beyond—to push past the boundaries set by the unchangeable—to that place of excellence in ethics and science that would propel our most incredible minds to seek beyond current thinking for new therapies in a yet unimagined quest for breakthroughs in medical science?

Australia, the US and Israel are the three countries in the world leading the way in stem cell research. Australian Dr Barry Marshall, who earned the 2005 Nobel Prize for his work on the causes of stomach ulcers, said:

We can be 100 per cent certain that if the current legislation stays in place in Australia there will be no more advances in this area and everybody who’s interested in it will go overseas.

In my home state of Victoria, Professor Alan Trounson, Director of Monash Immunology and Stem Cell Laboratories, says the ‘brain drain’ of scientists has already begun. It is already difficult to attract good researchers and we do not need to place additional hurdles in their way. We need to give our own researchers the opportunity to work with global colleagues here in Australia.

Do we as a nation of hope for generations turn away from stem cell research that may have potential to prevent suffering? The ethics of depriving the community of potential cures should also be considered. To this end, we as legislators set numerous regulations and ethical standards to be adhered to by the scientific community. The continued prohibition of the sort of research this bill would allow will be a disaster for medical research in Australia, in my opinion. As a nation we will not be simply standing still; we will not even lose ground. The effect will be that we will crash backwards in terms of medical research. It will rob us of the opportunity of punching above our weight in this policy area, as we do in so many other areas. Researchers will go offshore to continue their work or some will be tempted to seek ways of circumventing the law and carrying out their research without regulatory supervision.

Australia needs a policy framework that will enable groundbreaking medical research to continue here with proper checks and balances in place. This bill is our chance to set those ground rules so as to allay the fears of those who have well-founded objections to some aspects of the unknown. Those opposed to research using embryonic and somatic cell nuclear transfer have urged that research be restricted to adult stem cells. The Howard government has in fact had a long record of funding adult stem cell research. Through the Backing Australia’s Ability programs the government has committed $34 million, and through the NHMRC $32 million was provided specifically for adult stem cell research. In this year’s budget this commitment was further strengthened with an additional $22 million. This demonstrates a major investment in adult stem cell research as a potential to prevent and treat disease and improve the lives of Australians.

I am asking now that somatic cell nuclear transfer and embryonic stem cell research be given the same opportunity as adult stem cell research. No human being should be condemned to a life of suffering when the opportunity to seek out a cure awaits our assent. We, a people of innovative explorers, should never be self-censored by our collective fear of the unknown, the untried and the untested. The gravest misdoing in this debate would be for us to do nothing when we have the power to do something. It could be likened to the indifference of condemning a sufferer of pneumonia when there is penicillin on hand, or sentencing a diabetic when there is insulin, or abandoning a quadriplegic and telling them they are not worth hope.

People are not looking for a Liberal solution or a Labor solution or, indeed, a particular brand of solution—they are just looking for a right solution. I speak today for those many Australians who cannot speak for themselves and for their families, their carers, their friends and those given the responsibility for their continuing quality of life. I speak today in hope for the hopeless, that we might rise to challenge the nation for those whose every breath and whose every move is a challenge to be conquered. I speak today for the potential beneficiaries of cell replacement therapies.

Being a singer of songs and a lover of lyrics, I am taken by Shane Howard’s heartfelt words in his song Flesh and Blood:

You’re flesh and blood … Don’t refuse me your love.

Those words rang in my ears as I considered my position on this debate today. To oppose this bill would be to ‘refuse my love’ to those who could benefit from the passing of this legislation. I ask members of the House to believe with me and put our collective faith in the integrity and ethics of our medical scientists, enabling them to rise to this, one of the great challenges of our time. I support the bill and commend it to the House.