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Monday, 11 November 2002
Page: 5962

Senator DENMAN (7:30 PM) —I rise to endorse the Research Involving Embryos Bill 2002 and the Prohibition of Human Cloning Bill 2002. The debate surrounding research involving embryos has highlighted the diversity of and conviction in the beliefs and opinions of Australians. Scientists, academics, office holders from all religious denominations and industry representatives have all endeavoured to persuade us with their arguments. Equally importantly, my office has received—as have the offices of most other senators and members of parliament—a flood of letters and emails from the Australian public. All of these views deserve to be represented, regardless of whether we agree or disagree. This is an issue of incredible public interest, an issue that has involved great promise, emotion and exaggeration from both sides of the debate.

Against this backdrop, one of the challenges is remaining realistic about the modern society in which we live and our opportunities and values. The task is made more difficult because we do not know what the future holds. Comments have surfaced on the difficulties of drafting legislation on this issue. One comment is that there are significant disadvantages to formulating legislation that proposes bans in a rapidly developing scientific area. The legislation can unintentionally include or miss things. It is true: we cannot be certain of where embryonic research may lead us, if anywhere at all, in the next five, 10 or even 20 years. However, that perhaps makes the arguments for the legislation in this area even more convincing. We do need a nationally consistent, clear and responsible framework.

Research is already occurring in the processes of artificial reproduction technologies in some of the states. A national framework will ensure that the same level of freedom and restriction applies to embryonic research in all states and territories. It will also allow the quest for the benefits of this research to continue, while imposing boundaries that prevent research from moving into areas that are dangerous or ethically unsound. I am satisfied with the safeguards in this legislation, such as the requirement that permission be gained from the people for whom the embryo was originally created; a number of offences and prohibited activities are outlined in the bill and a licensing committee of the National Health and Medical Research Council will assess all applications from the organisations proposing research on embryos. As noted in the supplementary report signed by Senator Natasha Stott Despoja and my colleagues Senator Jan McLucas and Senator Ruth Webber to the Senate committee report on this bill, I share the views that this legislation is relatively conservative. Just as an aside, the accompanying bill, the Prohibition of Human Cloning Bill 2002, clearly outlaws therapeutic cloning. It gained unanimous support in the House of Representatives and is also expected to do so in the Senate. I fully support that bill.

In recognition of the personal nature of this legislation, all political parties are allowing a conscience vote, giving each politician the opportunity to approach this legislation from their own unique life experiences. I would like to share some experiences from my personal circumstances that have undoubtedly influenced my perspective. I was born with disabilities which all my life have caused problems in various ways. However, the most traumatic aspect of my disabilities is that my daughter was born with those same disabilities. As a parent, it is very difficult to accept that your child has inherited your disabilities. Fortunately, these disabilities were diagnosed when she was a few weeks old and corrected by the time she was 12 months old. I wanted to share this experience not as a direct example of the merits of stem cell research but to point out that progress in medical detection and treatment is able to make life less traumatic and demoralising. I feel very strongly that children born with disabilities have the right to have a life that is pain free and without discrimination. I think we move closer towards achieving this when we offer our medical researchers and scientists the opportunity to explore treatment, whether these are stem cell therapies or other medical therapies.

I have a close friend who is a diabetes specialist. He is someone I have known all my life. He has credibility within his profession and within the community. He is also an active member of his church. I decided to talk to him about stem cell research. His response was: if you had a patient who was blind at age three because of type 1 diabetes, you would not hesitate to support this legislation. His response surprised me as I had assumed he might see this issue differently. I am aware that I am more fortunate than many others less able to participate in an active life because of their disability or disease, yet, even so, faced with my own knowledge and life's experience, I am enthusiastic about this legislation. That is not to say all people with disabilities or diseases share my enthusiasm. The Senate committee inquiring into this bill, of which I was a participating member, received evidence from people with disabilities and diseases and others who clearly objected to being exploited to enhance support for embryonic stem cell research by scientists whose real interest may in fact lie elsewhere.

Medical advances and cures are a long way off; scientists are unable to predict when they will be available, and it is cruel to speculate. There is great danger in giving false hope rather than remaining focused on what this research can realistically deliver. However, that is not to say that there is not an element of hope with which I, like many others, approach this legislation. Evidence given to the Senate committee by the Coalition for Advancement of Medical Research Australia suggested:

... embryonic stem cell research holds one of the greatest hopes for finding a cure for hundreds and thousands of Australians with diseases and disabilities. We believe that these people should have the opportunity for a better quality of life and to not literally be protected to death by legislation.

As one would expect, there are others who dispute such claims. Yet other countries, such as Japan, Spain and Italy, are allowing research on excess IVF embryos. If Australia does not foster an environment that allows for research—research that just might one day lead to a treatment for a disability or Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's or heart disease, insulin dependent diabetes, multiple sclerosis or one of the many other diseases from which thousands of Australians suffer—we simply risk losing our leading scientists overseas.

While it is true at this point in time that it is without certainty that we can say that embryonic stem cell research will absolutely deliver medical benefits to those suffering from these diseases or indeed any benefits at all, when we reflect on the many medical advances that have been made over the years we are reminded of just how wide the realm of possibilities is. At some point in time, the invention of penicillin and the possibility of organ transplants seemed far away. Had it not been for research and hope, who knows if these advances would have been made? I believe we should do all we can to increase the possibility of advancement for humankind, not limit it.

One of the opposing arguments to embryonic stem cell research is that it is unnecessary, as adult stem cell research holds the same medical promise. I am not convinced this is true. With stem cell research in its early stages, we cannot be confident of the results of either. As the UK Royal Society stated:

... adult stem cell research and embryonic stem cell research are not alternatives and both must be pursued. In all likelihood each will yield distinctive therapeutic benefits but (i) we cannot predict which will be first or better and (ii) work on one system may help work on the other.

At this stage, it seems pertinent to explore the potential of embryonic stem cell research before we can confidently discount it. Whether it does hold medical promise is something we will only learn with time and experience. There may currently be scant evidence that embryonic research can lead to a medical treatment or therapy, but this is no reason to prevent the opportunity for evidence to be gained in the future.

During this debate, a great deal of attention has focused on the embryo and the point at which life begins. I do not want to argue this point, as I believe it is a personal and contentious issue. It is also peripheral to the fundamental issues of this legislation. This legislation is not about denying or creating embryos. The question of whether it is right to create and then destroy embryos for the purpose of stem cell research is another debate. I suspect, like many others have, that we will face that debate in coming years. However, almost without exception, in the process of in-vitro fertilisation more embryos are produced than can reasonably be used.

This legislation will only allow for research to be conducted on excess embryos— those that were going to be destroyed anyway. I am swayed by the argument that, once we have established that there are excess embryos, they are of much greater use to mankind if they are being used for research and the advancement of medicine rather than being disposed of or left to succumb, as would otherwise happen. I also do not believe that to hold this view means that I respect human life any less, which has been one of the arguments of the opponents of this legislation.

As a participating member in the Senate committee inquiry into this bill, I participated in public hearings where evidence was given by accomplished individuals from all walks of life. One of the witnesses clearly described for me how one's value for human life is not diminished by support for this legislation. I would like to read a short excerpt from the Hansard transcript of the evidence of Ms Sandra Dill, the Executive Director of ACCESS, Australia's National Infertility Network:

We do not believe that to use surplus embryos for research would be disrespectful—quite the contrary. For many couples, allowing them to expire on a laboratory bench without ever having had any added value would be less respectful. An IVF embryo is not a human person who would suffer in the process; it is a cluster of cells with extraordinary potential, even though more than 90 per cent will not result in a live birth, given the chance. Infertile people reject the suggestion that anyone else values or respects our embryos more. We value life and we value children, which is why we have been prepared to undergo extensive investigation and treatment in order to create a family.

Clearly, the decision to donate an embryo for research is not a decision that is made easily or lightly. I think it is important to remember that the people making these decisions are grappling with many of the dilemmas we face today. The House of Representatives committee examining human cloning and stem cell research voted 6-4 in favour of research on surplus embryos within defined parameters—a majority vote. Interestingly, a Roy Morgan poll on this issue revealed that 72 per cent of Australians are in favour of allowing research to be conducted on surplus embryos where donors have given their permission. The recent Senate committee inquiry on this issue produced a report which included four additional reports containing qualifying, supplementary or additional comments, demonstrating the diverse yet deeply held values of committee members. On that note, I would like to thank the chair of the committee, Senator Sue Knowles, who under these circumstances was generous in her patience and good humour throughout the inquiry and in leading the committee to produce a useful report.

The question we face today is: do we sensibly formulate a legislative framework which will allow research on embryos that may or may not one day provide benefit towards extending life, saving life or improving life? I believe that the legislation we have in front of us today achieves a balance between the potential of stem cell research and the protection of the human embryo. It also improves our current situation where regulations vary between the states and the entire approach seems to be rather ad hoc and confusing.

I am not convinced by any of the arguments for opposing this legislation, whether those arguments are based on the suitability of the legislation, ethical grounds or the adequacy of adult stem cell research. Yet the medical promises for embryonic stem cell research are great, and there is a chance that the realities may never compare. Perhaps for me it is the experience of watching my daughter, born with a disability, benefit enormously from medical advancement, not as a result of stem cell research but as a result of medical advancement made possible because society allowed the medical advances and avenues to be explored; this is the experience that fuels my strong support for this legislation. I am confident that the timing and framework of this legislation offer real opportunities to discover whether there are medical and scientific benefits to be gained from embryonic research.