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Monday, 11 November 2002
Page: 5945

Senator KIRK (4:58 PM) —I rise to speak on the Research Involving Embryos Bill 2002. The government originally introduced this bill and the Prohibition of Human Cloning Bill 2002 into parliament as a combined bill: the Research Involving Embryos and Prohibition of Human Cloning Bill 2002. On 29 August 2002, the House of Representatives voted to split this legislation into two bills: one to ban human cloning and the other to regulate research on human embryos. I state at the outset that I will be supporting both of these bills, particularly the bill that is before the chamber this afternoon.

In thinking about either of these bills, we are forced to draw ethical boundaries. The Labor Party's position against human cloning is one which I wholeheartedly support. I do not believe that there is any significant level of public support for human cloning, and little is to be gained from it. On the other hand, the ethical boundaries that the Research Involving Embryos Bill requires are more difficult to draw. Labor supported the agreement reached by the Commonwealth, state and territory governments on Friday, 5 April 2002, to allow stem cell research for therapeutic purposes using excess or surplus IVF embryos under strict national regulation.

Under the nationally agreed framework, the Commonwealth, state and territory governments agreed to introduce nationally consistent legislation to ban human cloning and the creation of embryos for the purpose of harvesting their cells for research and other unacceptable practices. The national framework would permit research involving existing excess human IVF embryos, but only under strict controls enforced by the National Health and Medical Research Council. Applications for such research would be considered on a case-by-case basis and approval would only be granted where the research is likely to lead to a significant advance in knowledge or improvement in technologies for treatment. The decision to support the national framework was reached only after lengthy consideration of diverse social views and the complex and sensitive moral and ethical issues raised by the research.

At a very early stage in the debate, Labor endorsed having a conscience vote for our parliamentary members on the issue of research involving human embryos, and this is the bill before us today. In all of our policies, Labor are committed to a just and tolerant society that protects the rights and freedoms of all Australians. In our own internal operations we also pay heed to this and, in particular, to the fundamental right of freedom of conscience. No-one should be forced to vote for a motion in opposition to his or her own carefully formed and articulated moral and ethical beliefs. I am pleased that the Prime Minister eventually followed the example of the Leader of the Opposition, Simon Crean, in allowing a conscience vote on this issue.

I defend absolutely the right of all groups to participate in this debate—churches, lobby groups, research organisations and private citizens. This is a debate that can only benefit from a broad array of opinions and a broad collection of views. Personally, as a South Australian senator, I have received letters from many South Australians urging me to consider their points of view before formulating my own decision. In addition, I defend the right of all of my colleagues to put forward their opinion on the issue, whether formed through their secular or religious beliefs. Our parliamentary system allows us to express our views with an aim to convince others and allows us, in the end, to make decisions by the vote of a simple majority.

With this bill, members are forced to draw some moral and ethical guidelines for our society's direction in relation to scientific research. This is not an easy task. I have spent much time thinking about and researching the Research Involving Embryos Bill 2002. It is legislation that forces one to weigh up the potential benefits and detriments of its introduction. It also requires each member to weigh up in their own mind their perspectives on human life, its value and quality. Essentially, the Research Involving Embryos Bill establishes a principal committee within the National Health and Medical Research Council and the NHMRC Embryo Research Licensing Committee for the purposes of performing functions and exercising powers under the bill. It also establishes a scheme for the assessment and licensing of certain activities, such as research and training, that involve the use of excess embryos created by assisted reproductive technology, known as excess ART embryos. The bill provides for a centralised, publicly available database of information about all licences issued by the NHMRC licensing committee. Should this bill be successfully passed, excess IVF embryos will be able to be used for certain research.

I believe that this bill offers us an opportunity—an opportunity not only to advance scientific research but also to alleviate the suffering of many of our fellow human beings. It is important to ensure our legislation does not impair the operation of our already excellent scientific and research facilities. The potential loss of intellectual capital if this bill does not proceed is great. However, I believe the greater value of this bill lies in its import for humanity. Embryonic stem cell research holds one of the greatest hopes of dramatically improving the quality of life of many everyday Australians—everyday Australians who suffer from debilitating diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, cystic fibrosis and juvenile diabetes. Stem cells may offer us a revolution in medicine as significant and beneficial to humanity as the development of vaccines taken for granted today but the cause of dramatic improvements in both our quality and quantity of life. Stem cell research has the very real possibility of offering hope to many of our fellow citizens who battle daily with such debilitating diseases. We know that the research resulting from the passage of this legislation will look into this proposition. Perhaps researchers will not find that stem cells offer the solution they appear to now, but perhaps they will. That chance is something we cannot afford to rule out.

Stem cells are unique in that they can multiply indefinitely and differentiate into specialised cell types as they multiply. Other cells cannot do this; they are dedicated to being one cell type only. The ability of stem cells to become specialised means that there is a possibility that these cells may be used to create any type of cell and possibly used as a treatment to replace diseased and damaged cells. Stem cells occur at all stages of human development, from embryo to adult, but their versatility and abundance gradually decrease with age. Embryonic stem cells are able to produce any of the different types of specialised cells, whereas adult stem cells are not able to differentiate into as many different cell types.

At the current time, the type of scientific advances we are hoping for will not be possible without the use of embryonic stem cells for research. Although research with embryonic stem cells is in its early stages, it is showing enormous potential. Research is advancing so fast that it is thought by the experts in this field that it could outmode the field of adult stem cell science. Researchers have now produced lung alveoli—the little sacs at the base of the lung which exchange gases. These are the materials that patients with cystic fibrosis so desperately need.

My family has a long history of cystic fibrosis. About 2½ thousand Australians have cystic fibrosis, which is a disease characterised by a build-up of thick mucus in the lungs and pancreas, leading to breathing and nutritional difficulties. The lungs of most victims become infected with a bacteria, pseudomonas aeruginosa—it is difficult to say—a persistent and chronic infection causing inflammation and damage to the lung tissue. On my mother's side, my family has lost five members to this disease, and one of my first cousins is a sufferer of cystic fibrosis. I have personally seen the suffering this disease causes, and I feel compelled to support research that offers hope to its victims.

Some scientists believe that it may eventually be possible to exploit adult stem cells for most of the anticipated therapeutic purposes they provide. This would mean that, in the future, research on embryonic stem cells might not be necessary. Current research may in fact be impeded by this bill's prohibition on the farming of human embryos. However, it is a prohibition I support and a small example of the kind of fine ethical boundaries this bill forces us all to negotiate. My hope is that under this new legislative regime scientists will be able to improve our understanding of stem cells generally and one day deliver the hoped-for medical advances that have the potential to so radically change the lives of so many Australians.

Continuing the prohibition on the use of embryonic stem cells comes at a high cost: spare IVF embryos will continue to be discarded, and those living with debilitating conditions will continue to suffer. The IVF program itself draws out similar ethical issues to those in the bill we are debating this afternoon. IVF, which was legislated 25 years ago, has improved the quality of life for so many couples who were finally able to have long-sought-after children through the program. One of my cousins was conceived in this way. I believe that few Australians would question this program's benefit. When this program was introduced, we made the decision—a precedent—that, in the process of allowing couples to have their own children, it was acceptable that excess embryos would sometimes also be created and those not implanted would be destroyed.

Embryonic research has in fact already been carried out for some time in order to improve the IVF program. In the past, excess embryos would have been discarded. The legislation before us today allows them to be used for the purposes of medical research. Not a single extra embryo will be created under this legislation. I believe that the IVF program is not flawed in its motivation to improve the quality of so many people's lives by giving them a further hope and the opportunity to have their own children. Embryonic stem cell research, perhaps even more importantly, has the potential to improve the human condition and reduce the suffering of our fellow citizens.

There are several specific aspects of this bill that I would like to draw to the attention of the Senate. In terms of public policy, I am always keen to ensure that the people involved have control over their own participation. In the IVF program, those couples who choose to participate are able to consider for themselves, in consultation with medical staff, how to limit the inevitable creation of surplus embryos and whether they consider them excess to their requirements. IVF participants have largely been ignored by the political debate in the discussion of the Research Involving Embryos Bill 2002. The responsibility for these embryos is and remains, under this legislation, the domain of the male and female parents, those who are essentially the participants in the medical research. IVF participants must retain their power to choose whether or not they consider the embryos as excess. This means that the woman for whom the embryo was created must determine in writing that the embryo is excess to her need or she must have provided authority in writing for the embryo to be used for a purpose other than achieving pregnancy—for example, for research or training purposes. I believe that this is an incredibly important safeguard. The rights of participants in IVF programs should not be overridden by the drive of science.

Determination of an embryo as excess, however, is also distinct in this bill from the issue of proper consent. Under the legislation, proper consent must also be obtained, and it must be in accordance with the NHMRC Ethical guidelines on assisted reproductive technology, which are currently being reviewed and will be reissued in early 2003. I look forward to seeing them and hope that they will give proper weight to the role played by the couples for whom and also by whom the embryo was created.

In addition, I also applaud the inclusion of the three-year sunset clause in this bill. The requirement that there be a review of the stem cell regulations by a qualified and unbiased body in three years time is essential. Three years allows us time to review the legislation and its outcomes and possible alterations that may need to be considered. I hope that in time we may be rewarded with tangible medical advances that promise an improvement in both the quantity and quality of life experienced by our fellow Australians.