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Monday, 11 November 2002
Page: 5854


Senator HUTCHINS (12:57 PM) —I wish to speak today in opposition to the Research Involving Embryos Bill 2002. I was one of the members of the committee that had the opportunity over many hours to hear expert opinion put before us in support of and against the development of embryonic stem cell research. I take issue with what I heard earlier from Senator Stott Despoja, Senator McLucas and Senator Knowles that they believe that the proponents of this stem cell research were treated poorly or wrongly at the committee stage. As far as I saw it, these proponents—who were overwhelmingly men and overwhelmingly businessmen—came before our committee to argue a case, in most cases on behalf of the companies or the organisations they represented.

The people who opposed the embryonic stem cell research were, by and large, men and women who were from the academic, medical and scientific field as well as the moral and religious field who had no commercial interests at all in the development of either embryonic or adult stem cell research. One of the opponents of stem cell research, Dr Peter McCullagh, when asked by one of the senators why we did not hear a lot more about adult stem cell research, said of those men and women who are undoubtedly involved in it that they suffer from the gene of humility. You certainly could not allege this with respect to the public relations campaign in support of this legislation that people in this country have been subjected to.

The decision we need to make in relation to a value judgment on this bill is this: do the potential scientific and therapeutic benefits of embryonic stem cell research outweigh the ethical concerns surrounding the killing of living or potentially human embryos? We have had a lot of evidence and we have had an opportunity to hear many specialists argue their case. I hope I will have an opportunity to reply to some of the things that Senator Carr said. But I had the opportunity to hear those specialists and I came down with my ethical concerns about where this bill is going. The fact that the bill banning human cloning will almost certainly be passed unanimously by the Senate demonstrates that there are considerable concerns regarding the development of medical technology. The embryonic stem cell research goes too far by allowing the use of potential human beings in developing technology. Hundreds of my constituents have expressed a similar view and they have outnumbered those in favour of the legislation by about 10 to one.

Apart from my ethical concerns, there are a number of practical issues which make the bill unacceptable in its current form. There are two ethical issues involved in this bill. The first is when life begins and the second is the difference between allowing life to succumb and wilfully ending that life. The bill before us does not allow the use of embryos which are older than 14 days. The use of the 14-day rule was proposed by the Warnock committee in England, which noted:

There is no one single indefinable stage in the development of the embryo beyond which the in vitro embryo should not be kept alive.

This would suggest that the basis for the proposed Australian 14-day rule has little foundation in either logic or science. There appears to be little or no scientific evidence to suggest that this point represents the beginning of life. A witness before the Senate committee, Dr Best, provided evidence that physical human characteristics can be seen from fertilisation. I cannot recall how many scientific and medical degrees Dr Best had and the letters after her name. She spoke on behalf of the Anglican Church, Sydney Diocese, and she said there was evidence that life exists as of fertilisation. Dr Tonti-Filippini gave evidence that suggested there is a significant ethical difference between allowing an embryo to succumb and wilfully harvesting stem cells from an embryo with its death as a direct result.

Madam Acting Deputy President Collins, I have listened to the debate and I have heard a lot of expressions, as you did as a member of the committee, that I am unfamiliar with. My background is not scientific or medical and I was not sure when I listened to all those men and women giving expert evidence. But I am sure that the motives were always questioned, not just by Senator Harradine or Senator Boswell, but by honourable men and women in the medical and scientific field. There was a very good submission put to us by Dr van Gend towards the end of our hearings. He represented a group called Do No Harm, which is the English translation of the Hippocratic oath in Latin. He posed this question to us: why is there no scientific consensus about the need for human embryonic experimentation? The advocates of this bill may get up and answer that.

Why is there no scientific consensus on this bill? It is because many other eminent scientists and medical people say that there is enough development in the adult stem cell area not to warrant the amount of money and the amount of research that, if this bill is passed, will be directed from adult stem cell research to embryonic stem cell research. I do question the motives, as did all those honourable men and women who opposed embryonic stem cell research. They said that these people—as I said, they were overwhelmingly men—had admitted to commercial interests involved in the development at this stage and they said it willingly. I am sure Senator Boswell will deal with the situation regarding Professor Trounson.

If we are to have an informed debate on this issue so that we can at least advise the Australian community how and why we voted the way we did in the Senate, I would invite people to look at a number of the submissions and evidence that we received in Hansard. All the medical people that came before our committee, many of whom were in public service, argued quite forcefully that there were many question marks about embryonic stem cell research. A number of the terms that came up in relation to it included `deep reservations', `false scientific premises', `hoaxes of omissions', `proof of concept wasn't there', `talk of treatments premature' and `basic research yet to be done'. They also argued that there has been no proof of concept done in animals yet. That has not occurred—no successful process has been done in animals.

In fact, Professor Michael Good said that, where they have been implanting these embryonic stem cells into animals, either one in five of these animals develops cancer or 100 per cent of them develop cancer—I cannot remember which. Another doctor, Dr Silburn, said similar things and so did Professor Peter Rowe. So this is not the great magic wand that the Australian people have been led to believe it is by the massive publicity campaign that they have been subjected to. Indeed, I do not know whether people thought—perhaps like yourself, Madam Acting Deputy President—that we had already made up our minds about this. I did not have the opportunity, which it seems Senator Carr and maybe other proponents of this bill did, to have scientists come and sit down and tell me why they thought embryonic stem cell research should proceed. I was not given that; they never came and saw me and so I do not know.

But I do know that all these honourable fellows who came before us, proven and tested medical technologists, said that adult stem cell research is the way to go. They said it is the way to go and that if we divert our research funds from that to embryonic stem cell research we will be doing a great disservice. Not only is it not offering the great hope that Senator Carr said it is—it is not doing that at all, and I will come to that in a moment—but it would be wasteful of the funds it would require, because, as I said earlier, the people involved in the development of embryonic stem cell research are in fact people who are more interested in the commercialisation of public health and the public health system.

There have been quite a number of significant developments in the area of adult stem cell research. You may hear later in this debate statements about Professor Catherine Verfaillie from the University of Minnesota. She has demonstrated the presence of adult pluripotent stem cells in adult human bone marrow. That research was referred to by Dr Simmons. So the argument is out there that this is the way to go. Professor Michael Good, Professor Peter Rowe, Dr Peter Silburn and Dr Megan Best all say that to divert our money from the current level of investment in adult stem cell research into embryonic stem cell research would be the wrong thing to do in terms of public policy. It would be a waste of money and would not ensure the success that they say it will. Even Professor John Hearn, who is one of the proponents of it, says:

... we do not know what products will come to market. Embryonic stem cell applications would be hugely expensive and may never come to market.

So the situation with the adult stem cell research—and I am sure my colleagues will go into a bit more depth later—is that it appears to be the proper way to go. As I said, not only is there a question mark about what they call the hoaxes involved in this situation but people are also saying that there is not the proven scientific evidence required to go down this path. I have read out to you a number of quotes that I pulled out of the Hansard in relation to queries by these people who say that it is not a tested, scientific method with which to proceed. I have attempted to show you that that is the case. As I said earlier, the development of tumours in mice and rats with the use of embryonic stem cells has been one of the effects that they have seen. As Dr van Gend has said, there are a lot more human successes with adult stem cells—there is no tumour rejection and no rejection problems in humans.

I have had a long think about how this should proceed, Madam Acting Deputy President Collins. I, like you, have had a number of people with chronic illnesses contact me and say that they believe that this is, in effect, one of their only hopes to cure those illnesses. A number of those illnesses have been caused by genetics or by accident. Like you, I have been moved by the distress that those people and their families are in. But, equally, I feel it is quite distressing—as has been said by any number of the people I have quoted—to offer a false hope in relation to what embryonic stem cell research may do.

I heard people before us, from neurologists to people in the institute of research to the Children's Medical Research Institute at Westmead, say that it is wrong to offer people this sort of hope because, even if embryonic stem cell research proceeded, it would be anywhere between 10 and 15 years before anything came out of it. I quoted Professor Hearn as saying that he believed that it would be very expensive and might not be open to everybody and that it might not even come onto the market. It is terrible that people who have had problems—because of genetics or by accident—have been misled about what the advantages of embryonic stem cell research might be. Dr Peter Silburn, who is from Parkinson's Australia and who is a clinical neurologist, took a swipe at BresaGen.

Given the opportunity today, I would also like to look at some of the other claims in the submissions, particularly—not singling people out— BresaGen. I note that it says:

ES cell therapy, likely order of uses: simple single-cell therapies.

As I have just said, you cannot consider treating Parkinson's with a single cell. It does not happen like that. There are nine other neurotransmitters or chemicals in the brain that are lost. It says:

Matching not needed.

That is nonsense as well, because the brain is a site that when you place things in it things are still rejected.

Professor Rowe, from the Children's Medical Research Institute at Westmead said:

I would like to readdress one more question, again with regard to diseases. Diabetes is not going to be cured by putting in a cell which makes insulin or a pancreatic cell. Diabetes is a multigenic disease, particularly juvenile onset diabetes. All of you know children who have got juvenile onset diabetes. I have got two grandchildren with it. They get all sorts of complications, some worse than others. Some are virtually dead by the time they are 25. They are blind with kidney disease, peripheral neuropathy and God knows what else.

I asked him further questions and he said that he had a friend who had been diagnosed with diabetes, and he continued:

But the real point is that it is a multigenic disorder. There are whole patterns of genes within this that control the various complications that kill you from diabetes. It is not the sugar that kills you; it is the complications that kill you. I made the point earlier with regard to Parkinson's disease. A close colleague of mine works on Parkinson's disease, which is a long, slow progressive onset disorder. The process is continuous. If you start putting cells in there, what is going to happen to them? They will be destroyed by exactly the same process that was there before. So, let's not be simplistic about it. The Christopher Reeve stories are a farce. I can understand his desire to give hope to others. It is the most appalling condition, quadriplegia. But it is not likely to be solved by the use of these sorts of technologies in the near future. If you are going to do it, for God's sake go the adult route which gives you at least some hope of being able to look after your own tissues in the way they are supposed to be looked after—not foreign ones.

I am sure there will be a lot more debate on this, but I am very comfortable with the decision I have made to oppose this legislation. I think we have been sold a bit of a pup by some snake oil salesmen who believe that they have done a good PR job on the Australian community. The adult stem cell research is the way to go; we have been assured of this by some of the most eminent men and women in this country. As I say, I am comfortable that this is the proper course, for which I will vote.