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Monday, 11 November 2002
Page: 5851


Senator CARR (12:39 PM) —I rise to support the Research Involving Embryos Bill 2002. As I am the shadow minister for science, you would not expect it any other way. I am a bit disappointed that the Minister for Science was not able to support the bill. I support the bill because I think stem cell research is potentially life-giving research rather than the contrary view that is put, which is that it is life taking. In doing so, I support the position advocated by a number of senior Australian scientists back in August of this year. The scientists were effectively in a unique position to make the statements that they did. None of them were directly involved in embryonic stem cell research. However, a number of them are in a position to know what the potential of this research is—namely, it has the potential to cure and successfully treat many serious life-threatening diseases. These are diseases that seriously affect or take the lives of our children: muscular dystrophy, cystic fibrosis, type 1 diabetes, spina bifida and leukaemia. These are the diseases that also end the lives of adults: heart failure, spinal injury and quite a range of cancers.

It is said that a lot of the claims made in support of this research have been overblown, and I accept that point. Nonetheless, the potential for lifesaving techniques to evolve from this research is all too obvious and it ought to be given a chance to proceed. The advice from these scientists was effectively controlled and it was considered. Their position was that we should not be advocating a laissez-faire regime for scientific research in this country. They went on to say that there is a realistic view of the possibility of benefits arising from stem cell research. These scientists believe it to be both the right and the responsibility of scientists in Australia. Their public statement said:

We wish to express our support for stem cell research and for the concept that adult and embryonic stem cell research should proceed in Australia under appropriate regulation.

This bill does that. In support of the case, they advanced three propositions that they believe are supported by the majority of the scientific community in this country. The first was that stem cell research holds great potential for the treating of a range of human diseases. The second was that it is not clear whether stem cells from embryos or adults would be more valuable for therapy and that some diseases may respond to one type of cells whereas other diseases may respond to another. However, it is important that research into both continues side by side. Finally, while respecting the considered views of those opposed to the use of embryos in research, they reject this position. They note that the embryonic stem cells proposed for use in Australia would otherwise be destroyed and that, with parental consent, the social and therapeutic value of their use is greater than their destruction.

The scientific and moral issues surrounding this are extremely complex. As legislators it is our responsibility to make the effort to understand these matters as best we are able. While respecting the views of those who have different opinions to my own, I would caution against any temptation to paint as of a matter of black-and-white reasoning the plethora of complex issues that confront us. That, of course, does not mean the issue of justice itself. It is worth going into some of the complexities of this bill. For example, we need to understand that embryonic stem cells were only discovered in 1998. This means that the potential, in scientific terms, is far from being understood in 2002. We simply do not know what can be done to save lives or improve the health of many sick people.

Many people have moral scruples about this sort of research. I share those values and the belief that human life must be respected, but I also know that moral judgments are, more often than not, matters that require sophisticated, honest, thinking responses. We should weigh up the various claims and considerations in this respect. In this instance, I am told by scientists involved in research into human disease that, in the future, it is highly likely that embryonic stem cells will not be used for a wide range of purposes, but for now embryonic stem cells are crucial because of their potential to multiply and to turn themselves into every type of tissue. As one scientist put it to me, `We need embryonic stem cells to learn how to use adult stem cells in the future.' Perhaps in another world we would not have to use the unwanted embryos in research. On the other hand, for many people, including those who have generated excess embryos during IVF procedures, there is a belief that it is far better for their additional unwanted embryos to be used in a socially useful way in research rather than flushed away as valueless. I happen to agree with that view.

Over the past decade, the issues of stem cell research and other sorts of research have been matters of considerable debate in the Senate. I think, however, that we have to acknowledge that when it comes specifically to stem cells we face a dynamic situation in which research is evolving rapidly. One of the weaknesses of this bill is that it seeks to address a dynamic situation with a static regulatory regime. Unfortunately, that is a fact and I do not think there is much that can be done about it. However, we do acknowledge that new opportunities will arise and it is certain that in both scientific and medical knowledge the values of the community at large will change and develop—and may in fact develop very rapidly. It is not just a simple matter of the pros and cons of embryonic stem cell research at this point. The debate— if we look at the historical context—goes to much broader issues about the relationship between society and science. Throughout the last 600 years a range of views has been expressed about the values of science. We have a continuing responsibility to appreciate this debate. There are scientists who have acknowledged the responsibilities that they have to civic society. That ongoing dialogue is one that this parliament should be participating in.

Definitions of the role and importance of both science and religion have changed over time. There are many individuals who take a religious view on this issue of stem cell research. It is important to bear in mind that similar debates have marked the evolving delineation in the complex relationship between science and religion throughout the last 600 years. I am drawn to the example of Galileo, who was forced to recant because he believed that the earth revolved around the sun—a position that was at odds with the prevailing orthodoxy at the time. This particular science, as we now understand it, was in its infancy, and it needs to be appreciated that there are opportunities for scientists to advance human knowledge and understanding, which has in the past been inhibited by the attempt to impose a state based religious concept which has undermined the pursuit of knowledge and, in my judgment, the advancement of humanity.

As a pioneer of scientific method, Galileo's experience marks a defining point in the delineation of the responsibilities and obligations of scientists in societies that have moved from being virtual theocracies to having a secular, and ultimately democratic, condition. Galileo's experience formed the basis of a play by Bertolt Brecht, which many of us will be familiar with. At the climax of the play Galileo debates his predicament with his former student, Andrea. He says:

Truth is born of the times, not of authority. Our ignorance is limitless: let us lop one cubic millimeter off it.

He goes on:

One of the main reasons why the sciences are so poor is that they imagine they are so rich. It isn't their job to throw open the door to infinite wisdom but to put a limit to infinite error.

What I take from Bertolt Brecht's play is, firstly, that morality is not solely the preserve of religion and, secondly, that science should not be uncritically endorsed but should be pursued vigorously within the constraints of a civic consensus. That requires us as defenders of science to engage in that public debate. This is not a sectarian observation— all religious persuasions have a valid point of view and a right to put it, but I argue that the reverse is also the case. People who have a secular view about the development of society have an obligation to pursue their case. It is at once unnecessary and regressive to seek to vilify protagonists for stem cell research.

In passing, I would add that religion has no mortgage on morality, nor does a single religious consensus on this issue exist. Among the ranks of ministers and others engaged in organised religion there are to be found both supporters and opponents of stem cell research. I make this point because it has been suggested in some quarters that the great liberal values of humanism and rationalism have run their course and are bereft of new ideas or initiatives. This is clearly a position I reject. Bertolt Brecht, in his play Galileo, evinces a clear sense of the limits, the uses and the values of science. We should not denigrate the pursuit of knowledge through science, nor should we turn science itself into a religion.

In supporting stem cell research, I have my eye fixed firmly on the potential practical outcomes of this type of research. I do not regard either scientists or religious figures as infallible. No human being is infallible. Embryonic stem cell research should be constrained within a framework of rational debate and democratically created structures. It should be constrained by the national priorities for research that we ourselves as a nation determine. Those priorities depend on the potentially demonstrable practical outcomes of that research—and nothing can have a higher priority than the prevention and cure of life-threatening disease and disabilities.

Support for embryonic stem cell research because of its potential to reduce human suffering and alleviate the misery of many is both a rational and a moral act. It is not, as some more rabid opponents have suggested, the result of a suspension of credulity or a capitulation to snake oil merchants and scientific charlatans. That is a view I do not support. Secondly—and here I return to the basic sentiment of the leading Australian scientists that I mentioned earlier—society needs to debate the nature and extent of the constraints that we impose on research in this country. Research of any sort cannot be conducted in a vacuum or in the absence of a moral framework. That is acknowledged by supporters of stem cell legislation, and the need for such a mechanism is beyond dispute. Such a mechanism is provided for in this bill, and it will need to be kept under close review to ensure its continuing effectiveness.

The President of the British Royal Society, Sir Robert May, gave an extremely thought-provoking speech at the centenary dinner of the Royal Academy in Britain in July of this year. Among his remarks were several that I believe are relevant to today's debate and which went to the issue of science and research in Australia. Sir Robert warned how easily the circumstances for intellectual creativity and discovery can be wrecked by dogma. For example, the question of the science of genetics in Russia was wiped out by the fundamentalist dogma of Lysenko right up until the 1950s, until the death of Stalin. Of course, we saw the Nazis snuff out Germany's scientific base for chemistry and physics in just a few short years of the fascist regime. Sir Robert also commented on the ever present distrust of the so-called `new', and stated:

... whether it was the disturbing notion that our planet is not at the centre of the universe ... or the fear that fast trains in tunnels might asphyxiate travellers.

Sir Robert May called for `a clear understanding of the scientific facts and uncertainties which frame the debate'. Of course, I fully endorse that proposition. He said that we need to be aware of those protagonists in the discussion:

... who may in reality be bringing different agendas to the debate, like actors appearing on stage in disguise. This can turn what should be a discussion about openly acknowledged value-driven decisions ... into something more like the adversarial games of the courtroom, with the science deliberately coloured, selectively presented, or even misrepresented in pursuit of some larger (but unacknowledged) ideological crusade.

Sir Robert continued:

At the heart of all this is the need to understand how to conduct such debates, how to make the choices in an open way, and how to organise the formation of democratic consensus ...

He said that this is where the arts, humanities and social sciences are crucial to our understanding and to finding a way forward.

Research and innovation in Australia suffers from a low profile in Australia. Matters of public importance and debate—such as the one that is currently before the Senate— seldom receive the attention that they deserve. When they do, they are often seen as being of the gee-whiz variety or as being of the most sensationalist forms. As a consequence, the public do not have access to the range of views and the depth of knowledge that they ought to have. The media, frankly, is not interested in pursuing these sorts of policy debates in anything other than the most sensationalist forms.

If researchers—be they scientists, road trauma analysts or Asian linguists—are to achieve a greater profile, then they must be able to engage the public directly in that debate. They must also be more successful in arguing their position with both supporters and opponents and developing, I would argue, a means by which the public is genuinely engaged in this discussion.

I support this legislation. I think it is an advance on the present circumstances that this country finds itself in. It offers the prospect of hope for those who now despair. I think that this research ought to be defended and supported because it offers a real chance to assist people who are suffering. It offers the potential to address some of the most horrendous aspects of acute disease and, of course, the afflictions that go with that. Taken together, adult stem cell and embryonic stem cell research represent a complementary and critical research base from which we can address and attack those social problems. I also support the proposition that there has to be greater public debate on matters of science and research and on the place of science within our society.

As a nation, we are entering a period in which knowledge, information and innovation will be the currencies of prosperity, but they will not materialise from thin air. They will only develop if there is a genuine public debate about the importance of these matters and if there is genuine support from the Commonwealth. That will enable scientists to provide opportunities for the community at large within a proper democratic consensus which regulates the research. I would argue that not only do we as a nation urgently require an effective national research strategy but also we need a vibrant public debate on both the social priorities of research and the ethical framework within which research is conducted.