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Monday, 11 November 2002
Page: 5857

Senator VANSTONE (Minister for Family and Community Services and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women) (1:17 PM) —I thank the Senate for the opportunity to contribute to this debate on the Research Involving Embryos Bill 2002. I would like to briefly refer first to a few remarks made by my colleague Senator Hutchins when he referred to hoaxes and other ruses that he alleged were devised by proponents of this bill to mislead the community. All I would say, Senator Hutchins, is that I can assure you, on behalf of the many people who support this bill, that there is an equal degree of unhappiness with some of the things that have been said by some opponents of the bill. I am not going to go down that track; I would simply ask Senator Hutchins to consider that what is important to the merit of a case is not the unsatisfactory arguments that some people on either side might ever have put but the substance of it, and we should go to that.

The second point I want to raise with Senator Hutchins is in relation to the point he made about Christopher Reeve. Senator Hutchins said that quadriplegia is a dreadful situation to be in and that it is not likely to be solved in the near future by embryonic stem cell research; it might take 10 to 15 years and be very expensive. To which I say yes, but is that the reason not to start now? I would have thought that the longer these things will take would be a reason to start as quickly as you can. In any event, let me come to my first proposition, which I allege is commonsense—it does not mean that much that I allege it; a lot of people allege things as being commonsense that in fact are not, so let me elaborate on the point. We have some stem cells in the freezer and in this bill we are talking about what we are going to do with them. Some will not be needed for their intended use—that is, some will be used and some parents will be very happy because the greatest desire of their lives will have been produced: they will have children, and they will not need the remaining stem cells. The question we are faced with is what to do with the surplus stem cells, the surplus fertilised eggs, that are there. We have a simple choice: either we can put them to good use or we can put them in the rubbish bin. You can dress up `putting in the rubbish bin' in any fancy terminology you like, but that is in fact what happens. We can put to good use these fertilised eggs that are not needed or wanted, or we can put them in the bin.

In both situations what comes out of the freezer is denied the chance of any further development. If it is used for embryonic stem cell research, it is obviously not going to proceed down another path; if it is thrown in the bin, it is not going to proceed down another path. So my proposition holds irrespective of your view, Senator Hutchins, as to the nature of what is in the freezer. Whatever is in the freezer, whatever is coming out of the freezer at about five days, faces either the microscope, for greater good, or the rubbish bin. They are the two simple choices you have, and I see a fundamental difference between the two: if it goes in the rubbish bin, it is the absolute end—a complete and utter waste; if on the other hand it is used for the betterment of mankind, however long it takes for the results of that research to come to fruition, then surely by any moral standard that is the better path to take.

I know that many in the community oppose the continuation of this research—that is, many by way of number but I do not think by way of percentage—and a mix of reasons has been given. As best I can see, the views of the opposition to this bill depend on the particular view of just what it is that comes out of the freezer. There has been some debate about that and I would like to share my views on this issue as well. I think a proper, fair and practical description of what comes out of the freezer is a five-day-old ball of about 150 cells, and of that the researchers will want to use about 30. What comes out of the freezer is undeniably human tissue but it is not human. That ball of cells has no hope whatsoever of becoming a human being without further intervention. We should not confuse the existence of a chance of becoming a human being with actually being human. The tissue, I think, can be likened to organs taken from a recently deceased person for transplant. Neither the organ nor the tissue is dead; it is human tissue but it is not human. One might say the same of sperm, for example. You could say, `Let's protect every sperm that is available because it might, under circumstances where other things have to happen, become a human.' That is pretty much the same concept. What has to happen there is that the sperm has to meet with an egg to fertilise that egg, which then has to be looked after. What has to happen with a five-day-old ball of cells in which the egg and sperm have already met is that it then has to be implanted in a woman and stay there for nine months. In both cases nothing is going to happen unless other things are brought into play. So my very strong view is that we are not talking about a human; we are talking about human tissue that will with the intervention of others, and only with the intervention of others, have the chance of becoming human.

I completely support a parent's right to demand that any of these untouched fertilised eggs be left untouched for later use or not be used for research. However, I have confidence that very few, if any, parents who have had the advantage of the IVF program would refuse the opportunity for spare fertilised eggs to be used. They themselves turned to the wonders of science to give them what apparently nature was otherwise going to deny them, and I think those who through the wonders of science have had what must have been their greatest dream realised would certainly not deny the chance for science to produce better things for others. After all, how many fertilised eggs at varying stages of development were used in the IVF programs to get to the point where we could have a successful IVF program? I am confident that those people who participated in that program, who took the benefit of other people's fertilised eggs that were not going to be used and so were used for science, would not deny future generations the opportunity to continue to benefit from that science.

Some opponents of allowing the research to proceed have seized upon various publications. One publication in particular is from the University of Minnesota—which I noticed you, Mr Acting Deputy President Hutchins, raised. The recent material, however, offers little support to the claim that we can now or will soon be able to leave embryonic stem cells alone and use adult stem cells. In fact, it points to a very long time period for that to be useful. The principal researcher, when her opinion was sought on the matter, made it very clear that she did not see her work as being something that should be offered in substitution for using embryonic stem cells—quite the opposite: it should be used in parallel with it. The plain facts are that embryonic stem cells are much more plastic or flexible. We can produce a much greater number of cells from embryonic stem cells and move them into different types with greater ease. They are much more useful than adult stem cells. I am not opposed to adult stem cells research either. Science is presenting us with an opportunity, and we cannot say no to it until we know the outcome from that science having taken place.

Senator Hutchins outlined very clearly— although I might have a few points of difference—where we are now with respect to the science. Some supporters of this bill, including me, do not deny where we are now with the science. We simply want science to have the opportunity to take us to further and better places. You cannot say, `There is no practical application of this now, so let's not do the research.' That is the equivalent of saying to a child, `You are not allowed to swim in the pool until you have learned to swim.' How can we possibly refuse to do research on the basis that we do not have the researchers' outcomes? You will not get those outcomes until you proceed with the research. So, again, I am very much in favour of our proceeding with this research.

It might be worth raising a few examples of where politicians and the public generally have not been able to see in advance where pure or basic research would take us. I am told that an English mathematician named Hardy specialised in number theory— which, unless you are a mathematician, is not terribly interesting. He was apparently happy to boast about his fascination with number theory, its uselessness and what an expert he was on it. Of course, today, in the digital age, we all understand the need for encryption, and we all understand how much e-commerce would be limited if we did not have good encryption technology. Hardy is probably not with us today, but, if he were, perhaps he would be unhappy to find that what he thought was pure or basic research has been put to extremely practical use.

Even when basic research produces a result that allows practical application, humans are not always imaginative or entrepreneurial. I am told that IBM in its early stages was roundly abused and laughed at by a number of people when it took a huge gamble and bought the patent on the first mechanical computer. It had a number of very successful decades of being the one who laughed last. Another example is that of laser beams. It took industry years to see the potential of lasers. In my lifetime, people regarded laser beams as silly little red lights that scientists sent from one side of the room to the other, and now we see them in day-to-day, practical application across the whole sphere of industry in Australia and elsewhere. I would ask opponents of this bill to think in their mind: `Which was the fourth country in the world to launch satellites?' It was Australia. I am embarrassed to admit that we came after the Soviet Union, the United States and France. We stopped the satellite research because we thought they were just boxes that geeky scientists sent up in the air to send beep-beeps back. That is why our space industry is not as advanced as it should be.

The plain facts are that the politicians of the time and the community at the time could not see where that research would take us. Time and time again mankind learns that you have to do the research and find out what the answers are before you can possibly postulate where it will take you. In an industrial sense, I would say that we in Australia need to play to our strengths. We are well regarded internationally in a number of research areas, including astronomy, agriculture and medicine. Now is certainly not the time to put limits on emerging biotechnology, an area where we are well regarded internationally.

Let me turn to some of the objections which have their basis in a religious view held by their proponents. My own position is this: if you lead a good life, any god worth knowing will accept you into his or her heaven. I do not think—since I went to an Anglican school I will use St Peter as an example—that there will be any St Peter at some set of pearly gates dispatching infidels to another place, smirking behind his hand that this sucker made the mistake of going to a Roman Catholic, an Anglican or a Baptist church or of being a Jew, a Hindu or a Muslim. If in fact the basis for getting into heaven is that you pick the right church now, then frankly I am not terribly interested in getting there; it could be a very boring place.

I think that living by a decent set of values is far more important than defending the dogma of one church over another. I am confident that if you lead a good life and if there is a kingdom of heaven you will be welcome. Your religion is your business and no-one else's. My personal view is that, when you make your religion an issue, you drag it into the political domain and you tarnish it. It follows that I attach very little importance or interest to arguments over religious dogma. Equally, I do not turn to the state to legislate for one religious view over another. Surely, we can clearly see the risks of adopting a view that your religion is the right one and the rest of the world must be converted.

I can recommend a great little book—unfortunately, someone who does not want to live by a good set of values has borrowed mine and not returned it—entitled The Godless Constitution which sets out very clearly the determined and successful efforts of a number of very committed and very conservative Christians to keep any hint of religion out of the United States constitution. In fact, I think the only aspect of it you will find referring to religion is where it names the date and refers to `the year of our Lord'. My view has always been that God, such as he or she may be, is after converts, not conscripts. I refer briefly to the United States Supreme Court case of Wallace v. Jaffree, which highlights this point. It said:

... the individual's freedom to choose his own creed is the counterpart of his right to refrain from accepting the creed established by the majority ... religious beliefs worthy of respect are the product of free and voluntary choice by the faithful ...

Even better perhaps for this audience are the following words of the famous Clarence Darrow in the State v. Scopes, often referred to as the `Monkey Trial':

The realm of religion ... is where knowledge leaves off, and where faith begins, and it never has needed the arm of the State for support, and wherever it has received it, it has harmed both the public and the religion it would pretend to serve.

I raise these issues in relation to religion because there is a diversity of views amongst the churches, and within some of the churches, as to when life begins. So who are we to say we are going to adopt one point or another? We only have to look at the diversity of views within Australia and within the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches to see the hazards of trying to legislate to any one position. Within and between different churches there are different views, for example, on when what is described as `ensoulment'—when a human becomes a human as opposed to just another animal—takes place. For example, the Muslim religion believes that at 120 days `then the angel is sent and he breathes the soul into it'. Others believe this takes place at a stage much earlier than 120 days—some at 14 days.

My point is quite simple: each to his own religion. If you say to me that doing something is against God's will, then I will respond by assuring you that, if God is annoyed, God will punish whomever has done that thing. The state should never be used as God's enforcer. Over the years, as I have been approaching 50, I can assure you that I have every confidence in God's ability to settle accounts. It has not been my experience that he or she is usually waits until you are dead. Many people who have done the wrong thing have met their maker in a practical sense while they were still alive.

In summary, I put these propositions again. We are talking about fertilised eggs that are in the freezer. They have not the slightest chance of becoming human unless they are accepted by the mother to be carried for nine months. We are talking about fertilised eggs where that is not the case. The consequence is that they are either going in the bin or going to be used for the betterment of mankind. My other proposition is that we cannot now say whether the science is good or bad. We do not know where the science is going to take us. Science of itself is not intrinsically good or bad; it is what we do with it that will make that case. I understand that the benefits of this research may take years to come. That only makes me say: start more quickly. I simply ask those who, because of their religious beliefs, have a very genuine concern about this bill to accept that they are entitled to follow their religious beliefs; they are not entitled to demand by legislation that everybody else does the same.