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Monday, 11 November 2002
Page: 5941


Senator ABETZ (Special Minister of State) (4:34 PM) —by leave— Before question time, I dealt with the issue of the false hopes that were being raised by the likes of Professor Trounson and Premier Carr. I now want to look at the very hopeful research in the area of adult stem cells, which Senator Kemp has just touched on. When you read that American doctors reimplanted 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, you realise that there is very real hope there, based not on speculation but on results that have already been obtained. Similarly, the Washington Medical Center treated 26 patients with rapidly deteriorating multiple sclerosis with their own stem cells, stabilising the condition in 20 patients and improving the condition in the other six. Israeli doctors implanted stem cells taken from a paraplegic woman's blood into her spinal cord, allowing her to regain bladder control and the ability to move her toes and legs. Surgeons in Taiwan have used stem cells taken from a patient's eyes to restore vision. There is a list of successes. In a situation where we have limited money for research, the question should be asked: why would we seek to go down the route of highly speculative activities—ethically wrong activities— when the door to these benefits is already opening to us through adult stem cell research, and activities and operations that have succeeded?

Others have sought in this debate to enhance their faltering arguments by demeaning the embryo because of its size and shape. We in this place are all different in shape and size. Just as our essential humanity is not based on the number of cells we have, nor our size, nor our shape, neither should the inherent value of an embryo be judged on those—quite frankly, silly—criteria. To describe an embryo as a blob or a five-day ball of cells, or through other demeaning language, does not enhance this place nor this debate. It might receive a headline from sympathetic media, but I simply ask, `Does it add to the rigour of the debate?' Of course it does not. Surely we as legislators can do better than to descend to such unnecessary labelling. Indeed, Madam Acting Deputy President, if you wanted to you could describe me as a 44-year-old ball of cells. Does that mean that destructive research ought to be allowed on me? These sorts of terms— and the age and the size—are irrelevant to this argument. What we need to do is ask, `When does life begin?'

I note that those who have sought to belittle the argument that life begins at the fertilisation of the ovum have been unable to provide any logical basis for saying, `It does not start there but it definitely starts somewhere else.' We just have not been presented with that, and the reason is that there is no other logical basis on which you can rationally argue that human life begins at some other point. As the Senate report on this bill told us, very few argue that the human embryo has no moral status at all, and that was in paragraph 3.16. At paragraph 3.30 we are told:

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

No other defining moment can be identified as the start of human life. The simple fact is that the fertilised ovum has life, and it is genetically human. The genetic individuality or identity of the adult is practically the same as that of the embryo who possesses the actual potential to develop and to grow into an adult. Let me dismiss as quite inappropriate the sorts of contributions we have heard in this debate that somehow a sperm should be treated in the same way as the embryo. The sperm of itself does not have all the genetic material of a human being, but the fertilised egg does. That is the big and fundamental difference, and I am sure it is not lost on the majority of honourable senators.

The evidence is overwhelming. But to justify the destruction of this human life we have the introduction of this horrid concept of questioning in what sense the embryo is to be considered a human life. Once we countenance those questions, we open the door to the concept of lesser humans who, by virtue of their status as lesser humans, are allowed to be destroyed for our—presumably the greater humans'—good. As the Warnock report found, once the process of development has begun—and that is at the time of the fertilisation of the ovum—there is no particular part of the process which is more important than any other. So, in the face of the overwhelming evidence, we are simply told to put an arbitrary cut-off point to allay public anxiety. Such an approach is both cynical and immoral, and has no intellectual basis.

We thus move to the selfish bill, which presupposes that the interests of adult human beings in the potential benefits of the research take precedence over any interests possessed by the embryos. One can read about that in paragraph 3.68 of the Senate report. Even if all the exaggerated claims of cures were to come true, the method of such cures is premised on the deliberate destruction of fellow human beings. Let us not forget: we all started out on life's journey as a fertilised ovum—an embryo. If we were not human then, when did we become human? Until honourable senators can answer that question, I will be opposing this bill. What was the additive which made us change from the so-called blob to a human being worthy of support, nurture and protection? No-one to date has been able to point to such an event, apart from the fertilisation of the ovum. And if that is the point where life begins it is abhorrent to think that we are prepared to destroy human life for our selfish gain. To do so devalues humanity itself.

Let me turn to the fundamental difference between destroying a life and allowing it to succumb or die naturally. There is an accepted and quite easily understood difference between allowing a person to succumb and deliberately killing them. We can talk about throwing them into the rubbish bin and can use those sorts of emotive terms; well, we can talk about people who are about to be put six foot under or be thrown into an incinerator shortly. So why not allow them to be experimented upon before they die? Those arguments, when you analyse them, hold no substance. They are emotive and they do not add to the debate. There is a difference between, for example, poisoning a patient and turning off his life support. We have no right to deliberately kill other than in self-defence, and so it should remain.

This differentiation becomes relevant when some advocates insist that excess IVF embryos will be destroyed anyway. That simply is not true. They will not be destroyed; they will be allowed to succumb, like somebody dying from cancer. They are going to die anyway and end up in the incinerator or six foot under. Does that mean we should therefore have the right to conduct destructive experimental surgery on them, knowing that that will kill the human being? Of course not. Similarly, just because an IVF embryo may succumb and die does not give us the right to deliberately seek to destroy it.

I also add that, in this case, with research on IVF embryos—the so-called leftover ones—as I understand the situation, the embryo that is deep-frozen and then thawed for IVF purposes does not have the useable stem cells as yet. Therefore, the embryo is deliberately grown and further developed prior to its destruction in order to access the stem cells. Such behaviour with a human life should not be tolerated, let alone condoned as this legislation does. What does this bill say about our society—that the end justifies the means, that life is just a commodity, that it is acceptable that the unborn be sacrificed for the possible convenience of those already born? Research that deliberately destroys human life from embryo onwards is ethically wrong. The scientific research may well be interesting, but the simple fact is that it is ethically wrong. This bill should be rejected. In so doing, senators could make a statement that human life, born or unborn, is sacred, should be protected and nurtured and, above all, should not be deliberately destroyed. I oppose the bill.