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Monday, 11 November 2002
Page: 5949

Senator MINCHIN (Minister for Finance and Administration) (5:26 PM) —I rise to speak on the Research Involving Embryos Bill 2002 to commend the Prime Minister for ensuring that we have a conscience vote on this bill but also to express my disappointment that the Prime Minister is supporting this bill. I must say that I never contemplated that there might be an occasion where, on a major piece of legislation such as this, I would take a position which was simultaneously contrary to the position of the member for Bennelong and consistent with the position of the member for Sturt. I think it is well known that the Prime Minister is a man for whom I have absolutely the highest regard and with whom I find myself in agreement on almost every major issue in politics—most recently, the question of a republic. In contrast, my disagreements with the member for Sturt on a number of policy issues are certainly well known in our home state of South Australia. But I have to say that, on the issue of embryo research, I can only applaud the position taken by the member for Sturt in his strong opposition to this bill and I must profoundly disagree with the position taken by the Prime Minister.

My opposition to this bill arises from my very fundamental concern about the destruction of human life for the purposes of scientific research. My views on the issue do not spring from any deep-seated religious conviction—I guess I could best be described as a disillusioned Anglican—but I do believe that on a logical analysis of the ethical issues involved it is wrong for this parliament to authorise the deliberate destruction of human embryos for whatever reason. The elementary starting point for consideration of this bill is the question of whether an embryo is human life, and I have absolutely no doubt that of course it is. Father Anthony Fisher, in an article in the Bulletin rejecting Archbishop Carnley's quite silly article about an idiotic 14-day rule, said:

Ever since microscopes, scientists have said that human beings are conceived when an egg is fertilised by a sperm. Every modern embryology textbook says that a new individual member of the human species is conceived at fertilisation.

The report of the chairman of the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee, at paragraph 3.30, states:

There is in fact little disagreement that the embryo is a human life and that its life commences at fertilisation.

If you accept that an embryo is human from the time of fertilisation, it then flows logically that destroying an embryo is ethically wrong and should not be permitted, even for the ostensibly beneficial purposes of medical research. A civilised society would never countenance medical research on a live human being that caused that person's death. Given that an embryo is human, then exactly the same moral principle applies to an embryo. The response of embryo research proponents is to argue that embryos surplus to IVF will die anyway, so they might as well be used for research. That is an argument with which I have a fundamental disagreement. I recently launched a discussion paper from the Southern Cross Bioethics Institute, based in South Australia. In that paper, Dr John Fleming and his colleagues effectively demolished that argument. I would like to quote briefly from that report. It states:

The profound ethical difference between killing and letting die has been, and still is, an essential component of our legal and moral understanding of the way we deal with each other. It is difficult to understand why people who can see this clearly for most human beings apparently fail to see it where embryonic human beings are concerned.

If a human being has a terminal illness we do not permit other people to kill that human being for research purposes, no matter how vital that research may be, or what utopian cures such research may promise. The legal (and ethical) distinction between allowing a person to die of their disease when we can no longer arrest its inexorable progress, and killing that person, is accounted for in the crime of homicide or murder. If you kill another human being, even if the motive is one of `scientific research' or for `the benefit of humanity', you will be arrested and charged with murder.

If we do permit some human beings to be killed in order to conduct scientific research, we are surely on a slippery slope to expanding the categories of humans `who are going to die anyway' on whom research could be conducted. My fundamental premise is that embryos are human and they are human from fertilisation. If an embryo is not needed for an IVF process, it is ethical for that embryo to be left to succumb—which is the moral equivalent of turning off a life support machine—but actively destroying the embryo, for whatever purpose, is ethically wrong. As this bill permits that destruction, I am opposed to it.

If the bill is so wrong, and so clearly wrong, it is fair to ask how on earth this bill has got to where it is—how it has achieved the support of the Prime Minister, premiers and the House of Representatives. I think it is because the proponents of embryo research have been able to perpetuate a number of myths about it, and I want to deal with those myths. The first myth is that destructive research on embryos will lead to cures for a number of serious diseases. The proponents argue that embryonic stem cell research will lead to cures for Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, motor neurone disease, diabetes, quadriplegia et cetera. I find it quite repugnant that sufferers of many of these conditions are being misled by the proponents of embryonic stem cell research, who say that a cure is around the corner. I think the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee report on this bill does an excellent job of exposing this myth. Expert after expert, professor after professor, is quoted in the report admitting that the benefits of ES cell research have been oversold. Professor Peter Rowe, Director of the Children's Medical Research Institute in Sydney, said:

I think the public ... has been grossly misinformed as to the potential ... I feel that there is a lot of work that could be done on human embryonic stem cells, but to what end? Because I do not think we are ever going to use them in any form of treatment, not in the next foreseeable 20 or 30 years, if even then.

In June, Professor Rowe told the Australian:

... some stringent rules have to be applied to restrict the activities of individuals, often with doubtful scientific credentials, who will be seeking to gain commercial benefit from their work while claiming to pursue altruistic goals.

The committee's very good report deals with the practical difficulties associated with embryonic stem cell research. The cells are at risk of immunological rejection by a recipient's immune system, and Professor Michael Good makes a very strong case on that ground. Embryonic stem cells can cause cancer—they do have a predisposition to become malignant. On this matter, Dr David Prentice, the American expert who visited Australia earlier this year, said:

Embryonic stem cells have not yet produced a single clinical treatment; there are few and limited successes in animal models; and problems of immune rejection, tumour formation and genomic instability continue to be unresolved.

The most that the proponents of this form of research can say is that one day in a few decades time it may be that embryonic stem cell research will yield deliverable benefits. Given that we are proposing the destruction of human embryos, that is just not good enough, in my view, for this parliament. It is very interesting that, as reported in the Senate committee report, a number of groups of people affected by the very diseases that the proponents say will be cured by this research have given evidence to the committee opposing such research. A number of colleagues have referred to the much greater potential benefit from adult stem cell research, to which I want to lend my weight. We are not opposed to stem cell research; we just believe that it should be restricted to adult stem cells, about which there is no moral or ethical dilemma, as there is with embryonic stem cell research.

The second myth I would like to touch on is that the bill is only about embryonic stem cell research. As shown in the paper from the Southern Cross Bioethics Institute which I referred to earlier, this bill does not actually directly cover embryonic stem cell research; it sets out the circumstances in which embryos can be experimented on and, in many cases, destroyed. It will actually permit the destruction of embryos for far more reasons than just ES cell research, much of it under the vague heading of `diagnostic testing'. Permissible experimentation will include vitrifying, freezing and thawing, a process in which many embryos are killed. It permits micromanipulation—lasering, cutting and dissecting embryos—which will often kill them. Embryos can be analysed for different characteristics, such as through electron microscopy, and that is often fatal to the embryo. Embryos could be exposed to various chemicals to test the effect on their survival, growth and development. The Southern Cross Bioethics Institute warns that there is nothing in the legislation that `would directly restrict the broader use of human embryos to direct application in pharmaceutical testing or in toxicological testing'. Professor John Hearn from the ANU, for whom I have a high regard, has counselled against embryos being used for this sort of testing, which this bill will allow. Proponents point to the claimed benefits of embryonic stem cell research, but you do not hear them talking about all of the other things that under this bill will be allowed to be done to embryos.

The third myth is that the destruction of more embryos is required in order to allow embryonic stem cell research to proceed. Senators may be aware that when the government was first considering its response to the Andrews report Professor Trounson was consulted by the government on whether existing stem cell lines were adequate for ongoing research and his response then was yes. In their evidence to the Senate committee, other experts—such as Dr Juttner from BresaGen, Dr Silburn, Professor Rowe, Professor Good and Professor Bartlett—confirmed that this remains the case. And, of course, President Bush's decision last year on stem cells was predicated on the existing stem cell lines being adequate. But, apparently under pressure from his industry colleagues, Professor Trounson did a backflip on his original position and now advises that existing stem cell lines are not adequate and more embryos have to be destroyed. Professor Trounson certainly does not convince me, particularly given other controversy about his evidence. I prefer the evidence of the other experts and submit that, if there are benefits from ongoing embryonic stem cell research, they can be achieved using existing stem cell lines.

The last significant myth I want to touch on is that this legislation represents a national approach that all states have signed up to. That is simply not the case. This Commonwealth legislative proposal will unilaterally override state legislation, irrespective of the views of state parliaments. That, at least, is what it purports to do. There are two reasons why I think that is wrong. First of all, this country is a federation—one of the world's great federations—not a unitary state. This Senate is the states house: it exists only because we are a federation. The regulation of scientific research is not a responsibility given to the Commonwealth by the states under our great Constitution. Therefore, in a case like this, the Commonwealth should legislate only with the consent of every state. By that I mean not the say-so of the premier but the consent of each state speaking through its own sovereign parliament.

There should be no confidence that the state parliaments will necessarily agree to the deal their premiers, their Labor premiers, and others signed up to. Indeed, when the parliaments of Western Australia, South Australia and Victoria last considered these issues, they decided to ban destructive research on embryos in their states. I applaud them for so doing and I am totally opposed to any attempt by this federal parliament to override those bans without the consent of those state parliaments. I am glad, as I said, that we are deciding this as a matter of conscience but, as it is a conscience issue, our colleagues in the state parliaments should also have the opportunity to express their conscience on this matter and not have it overridden by federal law as this bill purports to do. It is not made conditional on the agreement of the state parliaments.

I have referred to the questionable constitutional validity of this bill. There is no specific head of power that gives the Commonwealth the right, the responsibility or the authority to legislate on scientific research, and I think there is doubt about the constitutional validity of this bill. The NHMRC told the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee:

The advice we have received from the Australian Government Solicitor has been that using a range of constitutional powers, as we do in clause 4, provides considerable coverage in relation to the legislation, but not complete coverage. Hence, there is a need for corresponding state and territory laws to confer powers on the NHMRC licensing committee to enable full constitutional coverage of all activities and persons in Australia.

So there is acknowledgment that this bill has a fundamental flaw. It does not provide the appropriate constitutional coverage and it cannot do so—and it is wrong for it to purport to do so—but it is not made conditional on the state parliaments passing corresponding legislation. Without that complementary state legislation—the passage of which must be considered to be in doubt—this bill would be subject to challenge if it were to pass through this parliament, and there must therefore be doubt about relying on the regulatory regime it establishes. I certainly believe the legislation should at the very least be amended so that it does not seek to override those states whose parliaments wish to maintain bans on destructive research on embryos.

In conclusion, I understand that there will be amendments put and I look forward to adding my weight to those which seek to restrict the very tragic impacts of this legislation. Those amendments are not going to change the fundamental flaws in the bill. Regrettably, this bill would allow human embryos to be destroyed in the course of scientific research, despite the fact that there is general acceptance that they are human life. The bill fundamentally fails to make the distinction between allowing an embryo to succumb and deliberately destroying that life—a distinction which this parliament, to its credit, saw in relation to euthanasia. Of course the case for the bill, as I said, has been built on a number of quite false premises: that embryonic stem cell research offers great hope of curing a range of diseases, which is wrong; that embryonic stem cell research will halt without this bill, which is wrong; and that this bill is only about embryonic stem cell research, which is wrong. So I urge my fellow senators, in exercising their consciences on this matter, to look through the false premises of this bill—to look again into their hearts and souls at the ethics of destroying embryos in the way that this bill would allow and to look at the vital distinction between killing a human embryo and allowing it to succumb. It is those very serious ethical considerations that have led me to strongly oppose this legislation.