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Monday, 11 November 2002
Page: 5982


Senator BUCKLAND (9:17 PM) —I rise tonight to contribute to this second reading debate on the Research Involving Embryos Bill 2002. People with illnesses such as diabetes, Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease and cancer and people with spinal injuries, or any of the many other sicknesses and physical disabilities confronting our society today, have been exploited in recent debates by raising their hopes that a cure will be available to them if research in human embryonic stem cells is allowed.

The claims that make people believe a cure is near to hand lack any serious scientific foundation. In fact, it could be said that the proponents of the bill are acting in a manner totally devoid of sound scientific evidence. All the research that has been done on human embryonic stem cells to date has not yet cured a single sickness or an injured person; nor is there any evidence that such cures will be found in the short term. Earlier speakers today have said that we are looking at 15 or 30 years before such a thing could occur. To raise the hopes of these sick Australians in the interests of profit for biotech companies and IVF laboratories is contemptuous, heartless and utterly lacking in decency.

It is an indisputable scientific fact that the life of every human begins at the point of fertilisation. Scientists, through the passage of this bill, are claiming that it is research on human—and I emphasise the word `human'—embryonic stem cells that they are interested in. Yet, at the same time, they are not acknowledging the cells to be the genesis of a human being. Medical textbooks teach us that human life starts at the moment of conception. Being a scientist is a humble, indeed a noble, profession. A scientist must act within an ethical framework; good science is ethical science. Destroying any human life, be it embryonic or mature, in the name of research is unethical. It reminds one of the words of the great Albert Einstein, who said:

It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.

This bill is demonstration of exactly what he was talking about. Given that life begins at conception, it stands that using embryos to extract stem cells kills the embryos, thus killing an undeveloped human being. From conception our unique genetic endowment organises and guides the expression of our particular nature in its species and individual character. Fertilisation indicates the most complex chemical reaction in the known universe as a self-directed, purposeful integration of organism development. In both character and conduct the zygote and subsequent embryonic stages differ from any other cells or tissues of the body. They contain within themselves the organising principle of the full human organism.

The embryo is a human life, not a meaningless mass of human tissue. In no circumstances is the intentional destruction of the life of an innocent individual deemed morally acceptable. Early human life must not be treated as a commodity or as a means to an end, however worthy that end may appear. To treat a human embryo as a commodity— which, it appears, some seek to do—is no different from using older members of our society for medical research in the final hours of their lives. None of us would be prepared to allow a terminally ill family member to be used as a research vehicle simply because there was little or no hope of their life continuing for very long. We do not allow them to be used as guinea pigs— rather, we provide them with the greatest amount of care, love and comfort available to us. We treat them with dignity and compassion.

It is deplorable that, as a consequence of the IVF programs in Australia, many thousands of surplus human embryos have been produced. The surplus frozen embryos are above all else—despite the illusion of some—human life. Consequently, they should be treated with dignity and respect; they should not be killed, which is what occurs in the process of embryonic research. At the very least, they should be allowed to die with dignity. We sometimes have to let people on life support die when all hope has passed. We also have to let people die when their time has come. In both situations they die with dignity; we do not kill them. The same standards should apply to these unborn babies, which we refer to in this bill as `embryos'.

Every human being has a right to be treated with respect. No matter how we try to explain it, the embryo is human and, as I said earlier, the very genesis of human life. Such life must not be allowed to be used for the profit making of a commercial company. There are major ethical concerns and many practical reasons for not using embryonic stem cells. I have already pointed out, and it is very clear to most Australians, that the process to obtain and use the embryonic stem cell destroys a human embryo; it destroys a human being. Just because we cannot see this life with the human eye does not mean that we have a right, moral or otherwise, to destroy it. There is no ethical or, indeed, scientific need for an embryo to be treated as laboratory material. If we accept that, even in its earliest forms, human life can be destroyed to help others, there will be a question mark over the value we place on human life in all its forms. Embryonic stem cells are very versatile, but they also have a predisposition to becoming malignant. The cancer potential of the embryonic stem cell has been identified as a cause of great concern, and this fact has not been properly acknowledged in the debate. Another cogent reason for rejecting the bill and the use of embryonic stem cells is the body's rejection of foreign human tissue implanted in it. Science has identified that tissue rejection is a major problem with embryonic stem cells, while adult stem cells taken from the patient's own body do not face the problem of rejection.

There are many successful uses of adult stem cells in treating patients. I wish to give a few examples of those because, on the one hand, there is factual evidence that the process works and, on the other hand, there is a clear statement that embryonic stem cell research and the consequential death of an undeveloped but living human is of no value to our society. I note that in July 2001 German doctors used stem cells taken from a patient's own bone marrow to regenerate heart tissue damaged by a heart attack, successfully improving that patient's coronary function. American doctors re-implanted stem cells taken from the brain of a patient with Parkinson's disease, resulting in an 83 per cent improvement in the patient's condition. In Canada, a paraplegic had movement in her toes and legs restored after adult stem cells from her immune system were implanted in her severed spinal cord. They are factual cases— cases of real substance.

The argument that embryonic stem cells promise greater results than adult stem cells is based on four clear-cut claims: embryonic stem cells are easier to identify and isolate; there are more of them; they grow more quickly and easily in the laboratory; and they are more `plastic', becoming any cell in the body. That, in my view, is disputable. These arguments have been shown to be false. At the very best, the first three claims have been shown to be highly questionable. Scientists have been identifying and extracting some types of human adult stem cells for almost a decade—for example, in bone marrow transplants. Human embryo stem cells were not successfully identified until 1998. Adult stem cells have been discovered in virtually every major organ, including the brain, and researchers last year identified conditions that would allow the manipulation of adult stem cells in culture by a billion-fold in a few weeks.

The key argument for using embryonic stem cells is that they are more plastic—that is, they are easier to change into other types of cells. But with new discoveries in adult stem cell research being reported on a weekly basis it is increasingly clear that adult stem cells are far more plastic than first thought, without having the same propensity to form tumours that the plasticity of embryonic stem cells creates.

Having said that, I would like to touch on two, perhaps three, other matters before closing tonight. Usually, when I say that I am on the final point I have got three or four points to go. Most of us have been touched by stories—factual or fanciful—that come very close to the heart and to the home. I have a very dear friend in my home city of Whyalla who worked for a colleague of mine and who had a tragic accident with a car falling on her, rendering her paraplegic—a beautiful young woman, a musician, a wonderful sports opponent for anyone and one of those young women who you would have to say was full of real and genuine decency and life.

Like others here, I received many emails—in excess of 300—and a great deal of letters, all of which we responded to making it very clear to those who supported the bill or opposed the bill that my opposition to the bill would be expressed in the Senate. But this young woman's parents wrote to me and were disappointed that I was taking the stand I was taking, because they saw in embryonic stem cells a way of bringing life back to their daughter. Even in a wheelchair today, she is a charming young woman whose company is wonderful. But I cannot for the life of me see how I can stand in this place or anywhere else and support the killing of a human, be it embryonic or otherwise, to help another human simply because they are mature and what we consider to be living—that is, they are beyond the womb. It is hard to say to those people that I cannot change my position. I know the heartfelt feelings that have been passed on to me on that young person's behalf and I grieve for them and consider the loss. It is not reasonable for any who support the bill to suggest that people like me who are opposing it do not give consideration to those in need.

The other thing that I have to say is that in the debate today and tonight there have been references to the church and the role that the church has in this bill. Let me say on the record that I am a Christian. I am quite proud of that fact and will never walk away from the commitments I have to the church. But this debate made me divorce myself from the teachings of the church to ensure that what I was speaking on tonight was based on scientific fact. I spoke to medical researchers, I spoke to ethicists, I spoke to those in the church and I spoke to the people who I represent in South Australia, and I weighed up all of the arguments—the pros and the cons. I also weighed up in my mind the debate in the other chamber and indeed here. This is not a debate of church versus the rest, religion versus the rest; it is a matter of people's consciences and their beliefs in the value of human rights and human life that we are debating.

To your credit, Madam Acting Deputy President Knowles, you made it very clear tonight where you stand on that issue, and I praise you for that because you are not attempting to hide it. And others have made that clear. So it is not the church—it is not Catholic, it is not Anglican, it is not Baptist, it is not Buddhist or any other religion— fighting against a bill; it is the real feelings of people who are there considering what is life, what is the value of life. Because you cannot see the embryo with the naked eye, you cannot take it for a walk, you cannot nurse it, you cannot feed it, it is not reasonable to say therefore it has no rights, that it is not of value. Every creation of the human species is of itself a miracle. You do not have to consider it to be a miracle of God or of Christ or of anything else; it is of itself a miracle, because we have created a likeness of ourselves.

In the debate we should all dismiss the idea that there is church influence in any of this. If the church could have influenced anyone in this debate more than anyone else it would have been me. I spoke to the Archbishop of Adelaide and the Bishop of the Diocese of Port Pirie at length on the issue and had their support, in my view, that you had to divorce the argument from the church. This is a very scientific argument that is based on scientific facts, and the scientific facts do not support, in any form, the passing of this legislation.