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Wednesday, 6 December 2006
Page: 19

Dr LAWRENCE (10:18 AM) —I rise to speak on the Prohibition of Human Cloning for Reproduction and the Regulation of Human Embryo Research Amendment Bill 2006. We are often confronted in this parliament with the challenge of having to make decisions about the ethical dilemmas that surround the beginning and end of human life. In many ways, we are no better prepared than the average citizen to make these judgements, and, in a sense, that is as it should be—we represent the community. But, in that case, the responsibility in some senses is all the more onerous. We shoulder here the responsibility of deliberating on how to deal with issues that inevitably produce disparate responses in the community, in part because of differing judgements, many influenced by religious teachings, about when life can be said to begin. That is the issue which is at the crux of this debate.

There is, as far as I can discern, no real disagreement amongst us that life is inherently valuable and deserving of our diligent protection—although sometimes our actions belie that stated position. For instance, some excuse the taking of lives in war and others justify capital punishment in certain circumstances, but, generally speaking, there is consensus that each of us is unique and entitled to live our life to the fullest extent compatible with respecting the lives of others.

The reach of this recognition may not, of course, in practice extend to everyone on the planet, as is evident in the apparent indifference of some—you see images on television every night—to the deaths in, for example, Iraq and Afghanistan, to the deaths from civil strife or to the deaths from the lethal impact of poverty related diseases. We often do little in these circumstances to protect lives. But generally it is fair to say we strive energetically to preserve and protect human beings—at least those nearest to us, those we can see, those to whom we believe we owe a debt—against illness, injury and death. Of course, we sentence those who breach the injunction against injuring or taking life to condemnation, to separation from society and to extended terms of imprisonment. Where we tend to part company with one another in these debates is when questions arise, as they inevitably do in the biomedical sciences today, about the point at which life begins—the point at which our energetic defence of human life should be engaged—and, indeed, whether it is possible to identify with any precision the point when we are really dealing with an individual human being, a person, rather than a collection of cells.

I think it is worth pointing out that in these discussions there are at least two meanings of the word ‘life’ at play. In a general sense, life is the characteristic state of organisms and individual cells. The word is meant to signify the animating principle of all plants and animals. In this sense, all our cells are alive—as are viruses and fungi—both before and after conception in the case of human beings. Used in a more individual sense, life encompasses the idea that there is a point at which the developing human organism—the result of the fertilisation of an egg by a sperm—becomes more than its component cells and can justifiably be judged a human being, with all the rights to protection that a human being can expect, including the prohibition against destruction.

Those who oppose therapeutic cloning, the key subject of the legislation—and I know there are quite a number in this parliament—tend to do so because they believe that a human embryo, from its earliest stage of development, and indeed for some even from the moment of fertilisation, is an entity that deserves full protection. It is in some sense fully human, entitled to the same consideration as those of us who are already treading this earth. Such people logically oppose the termination of pregnancy at any stage. They further propose that it is morally wrong to create such an entity for any purpose other than for assisted reproductive treatment—so-called ART—of a woman, although I have to say they are strangely silent on one of the known consequences of ART: the production of surplus embryos which must, eventually, be destroyed or simply decline. Apparently the creation of excess embryos for the treatment of infertility is unique among medical treatments and the otherwise implacable opposition to the destruction of an embryo is overwhelmed in their view. I have never understood that argument. Others argue that, until the developing organism is implanted in a woman’s uterus and/or is capable of at least a degree of independent existence, it should not invoke such protection—that is, the protection accorded to human beings. There are proponents for almost every point from conception to birth for the beginning of life—and to some extent I think we all need to recognise that these judgements are somewhat arbitrary.

The proponents of therapeutic cloning argue that, given the research and therapeutic potential of the creation or use of embryos, it would actually be immoral and unethical to deny these benefits to the many people who would benefit from such technologies, particularly when such research is conducted under strict scrutiny and where cells may not be permitted to propagate beyond 14 days or be implanted in a woman’s uterus lest severe penalties apply, as is the case with this legislation.

As the Lockhart review’s authors pointed out, Australian society is made up of diverse communities with different perspectives, interests and values—much as this parliament is—which include broad support for medical research aimed at understanding, preventing or treating disease and for research and clinical practice aimed at assisting people to have children. The community generally accepts that these things can be undertaken as long as there are strong ethical frameworks and guidelines. As the Lockhart review suggests, and I agree:

... the higher the potential benefits of an activity, the greater the need for ethical objections to be of a high level and widely accepted in order to prevent that activity.

Where it can be demonstrated that substantial benefits will accrue—because of either improvements in understanding or treatment of prevalent diseases—then the scales are weighed in favour of regulated and circumscribed use of excess embryos from ART or methods of fertilising an egg other than by a sperm, by so-called somatic cell nuclear transfer, which is also the subject of this legislation, especially when, as I have indicated, such processes are closely monitored and regulated as this bill proposes.

In my view, there are no absolutes here to excuse us from having to make a judgement. It does not do, in my view, to rely on divine guidance, since some of us in any case do not share those beliefs. There is no doubt that stem cell research, whether it is based on embryos or adult cells, offers considerable promise for science and the treatment of many diseases. The Australian Academy of Science, for example—the peak body representing Australia’s most eminent scientists—strongly supports the passage of this bill because they judge that embryonic stem cell research will ultimately improve the health of all Australians. They point out that adult stem cells from a patient have the great advantage of proven safety and the absence of immune rejection—important characteristics. They also stress:

Embryonic stem cells and their relatives made by somatic cell nuclear transfer—therapeutic cloning—have the great advantages of being able to make every kind of cell in the body and to multiply indefinitely.

Advances in stem cell research in both humans and animals are likely to continue to improve our understanding of how organisms develop from a single cell and how healthy cells replace adult cells in adult organisms. Such research, for example, will improve our understanding of how cell proliferation is regulated during normal embryonic development or during abnormal cell division that leads to cancer—important insights.

For example, recent research in the US, where such research is being undertaken, has discovered that colon cancer originates from rare colon cancer stem cells, a discovery that may provide the key for developing new targeted therapies which prevent the recurrence of this debilitating disease. Using mice rather than humans, researchers have discovered that vaccinating mice with embryonic stem cells can prevent lung cancer, while other scientists have successfully grown large numbers of stem cells taken from adult pigs’ healthy heart tissue and used them to repair tissue damage done by induced heart attacks. The applications to humans are obvious. Promising clinical investigations have developed a process that efficiently converts human embryonic stem cells into insulin-producing endocrine cells, a process that could provide the means of producing sufficient numbers of insulin-producing cells for transplantation into patients with type 1 diabetes—again, a significant breakthrough.

I think it is clear if you read the literature that stem cell research is already contributing to greater knowledge of how unspecialised stem cells actually give rise to specialised cells such as muscle, blood and nerve cells. What, for example, causes some cells to remain unspecialised until they are needed for repair of a specific tissue? The answers to these questions are significant, both for our understanding and for therapy. What signals, internal and external to the cell, trigger cell differentiation? Stem cell research is vital to answering these questions. And, of course, as we have heard from many speakers, it offers hope for those many people who have suffered degenerative diseases such as motor neurone disease and the like.

It is unreasonable, I think, to insist that just because some people think an activity is unethical—particularly from a belief standpoint—that activity should be rendered illegal, especially when the basis for that assertion is in a religious belief which not everybody shares. While I respect those people’s views, they are not universally compelling. Indeed, Research Australia recently surveyed public opinion—there are many such surveys, and they all pretty much find the same thing—using carefully worded questions about stem cell research, finding that 74 per cent supported the use of excess donated embryos from IVF treatment for stem cell research and 58 per cent supported therapeutic cloning for health and medical research. Only 18 per cent were opposed. As I say, I have studied the construction of such surveys, and these seem to me to be questions that were responsible in the way they were put forward. They did allow for a negative response.

Having indicated my broad support for this legislation and for the scientific benefits that should flow from it, I want to restate something I said in the debate on the earlier legislation—that is, I am not some dewy-eyed supporter of the idea of the ineluctability of scientific progress. There are enough examples of the misuse of scientific knowledge to give cause for scepticism. Generally speaking, I think we are not, as a community, sufficiently humble or sceptical about what we know. We have seen a lot of accidental outcomes from scientific process, unlooked-for consequences, so we do need to be wary. I think everyone understands the need for such regulation, and this legislation provides strong ethical guidelines and severe sanctions for anyone who breaches those standards. This is not a free-for-all that we are agreeing to here, and the research needs to be carefully monitored and regulated for the benefit of all living human beings.

I conclude by saying that I do not think there is a reason to accept that the possession of a sense of right and wrong and the capacity to make ethical judgements about these matters have any connection at all with the belief in the existence of a supernatural deity. I have always found Einstein’s views on this more compelling. He speaks in terms of ‘man’, which I think we can forgive him for, given the time at which he spoke. He said:

A man’s ethical behaviour should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hopes of reward after death.

Our sense of goodness, our ethical framework, would be the way it is with a God or without a God.