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Monday, 11 November 2002
Page: 5959


Senator FERRIS (6:17 PM) —In making my contribution to the debate on the Research Involving Embryos Bill 2002 today I would like to ask the Senate to recall the year 1967, when an eminent medical researcher and very talented surgeon developed a technique to prolong life using a then controversial and untested measure. It was the heart transplant. Suddenly a surgeon in South Africa was offering hope. His revolutionary technique raised some important ethical issues. The most difficult of the issues posed by transplantation was the need to redefine death, to shift from the traditional definition—which then focused on circulation and respiratory function—to that of `brain death'. Opposition came from within and outside the scientific community. People began to doubt doctors' ability to diagnose death. Some were saying that the doctors were wrong and that perhaps the donor was not dead. Some argued that it was not moral, that it was not ethical, to remove any of the body's organs. Professor Christiaan Barnard countered by saying: `To me, it is not a question of whether it is moral or ethical to remove those organs for saving another patient's life or treating him. To me the real question is: is it moral to bury those organs, when they can be used further?'

One of the questions that we now have to answer is: is it moral to let embryos expire— `succumb', as has been said—when potentially they may in the future be used to develop a treatment for some of our most crippling diseases? Issues of life and death are so important to all human beings that they almost always provoke very deeply felt and emotional responses. Many of those responses are rejected by others as illogical and emotive. But this is a time for quiet logic, cool heads and understanding and tolerance of other people's opinions. But let us not forget that this courageous man, Professor Christiaan Barnard, was not deterred by the criticism, and the surgical techniques that he pioneered have helped to prolong the life of more than 30,000 people around the world.

Christiaan Barnard was of course not the only courageous medical trailblazer of the 20th century. There was a similar debate when Patrick Steptoe and his team developed in-vitro fertilisation. Criticism and moral outrage followed, some claiming that Steptoe and his partner Edwards were `playing God'. Religious and political figures strongly objected to `science fiddling with nature'. But let us not forget to look at the consequences. There are now one million healthy people alive as a result of IVF. They are the children of forever grateful parents who were beneficiaries of Steptoe's courage to press the boundaries, to push the envelope of scientific research. One million people are beneficiaries of his courage, and 30,000 people are beneficiaries of Dr Christiaan Barnard's courage.

Scientists and others will always argue that because something can be done it may be done or should be done—or even must be done. We are trying to find a balance here, to decide whether to match `can' with `should'. I believe that balance is found within the Research Involving Embryos Bill. It seems to me that three fundamental questions are at the centre of this debate. First, why can't we just use adult stem cells? Second, when does life begin, and what is the status of the early embryo? Importantly, third, as politicians, do we have the right to decide that this new medical technique cannot be made available to Australians in Australia by Australian researchers?

Why can't we just use adult stem cells? Are adult stem cells a viable alternative to embryonic stem cells for the development of stem cell based therapies? Do developments on adult stem cells make research on embryonic stem cells quite unnecessary? The short answer is that there appears to me to be responsible medical and scientific evidence that adult stem cells and embryonic stem cells should not be seen as alternatives but as complementary pathways to therapy. The scientific community acknowledges that there are more issues to clarify about either adult stem cells or embryonic stem cells and that still more research is necessary before the most appropriate routes for therapy are discovered. Furthermore, it is widely accepted that the full potential of adult stem cell research and its therapeutic application are questionable without research being carried out on embryonic stem cells.

We have seen internationally renowned adult stem cell experts, such as Professor Helen Blau and Dr Jonas Frisen, strongly arguing that there is a need for research on both adult stem cells and ESC. These eminent people claim that there is no scientific data to support any other conclusion. In exercising their responsibilities in this area, the legislatures of both the United States and the United Kingdom have closely examined this issue and they have concluded that it is still impossible to predict which stem cell research will best meet the needs of research and clinical applications. Current medical and scientific evidence indicates that at this time, in my view, we cannot afford to prematurely close the door to one area of research. To obtain the maximum medical benefit, it is necessary to keep both routes to therapy open, since neither alone appears to meet all therapeutic needs. If adult stem cell research could provide all the answers, we would not today be required to answer the big questions of when life begins and the protection that we should afford to questions of embryonic and foetal life.

Another fundamental question that concerns us all, not just scientists and regulators, is: when does life begin? This of course is not a new question, although the context in which it is now being asked is certainly challenging. This question must be addressed, but can it be easily answered? We have already heard the broad arguments in our community, and we all have our own personal views on the issue. Each side of the dialogue needs to respect the view of the other so that we can have informed debate. But it is for each of us, using our obligation and our privilege as representatives of the states in this place, to weigh up the ethical and scientific arguments and decide which is the best way forward.

In IVF techniques, it is about a week after fertilisation that the blastocyst is implanted in the womb. This is then a cluster of approximately 100 cells, which is smaller than a pinhead. It is a fact that if the blastocyst is not implanted in a womb the blastocyst does not develop further. It is also a fact that if the blastocyst is not implanted in a womb it cannot go through the stages of embryonic development and will not become a foetus. Specific biochemical signals from the mother are required for further development. It is also a fact that at this stage there is relatively no trace of human structure.

About 14 days after fertilisation, following implantation, the early embryo consists of about 2,000 cells. It is only at this stage that the cells begin to become differentiated into more-specialised cell types, and there is the appearance of the `primitive streak', as they say, from which the central nervous system eventually develops. The 14-day limit in the legislation therefore represents the stage at which the primitive streak appears. In fact, embryonic stem cells must be extracted for research much earlier than 14 days. Embryonic stem cells are extracted at the blastocyst stage. However, after about seven weeks development, individual organs become recognisable and the embryo can properly be described as a foetus.

So when does life begin? Well-meaning people may disagree quite radically about this. At one extreme, some will argue that from the moment of fertilisation the embryo is a human being in the fullest sense and should be accorded the same respect and rights as a foetus or a baby, and we have heard that position being put here this afternoon. However, at the other extreme, some argue that the early embryo is simply a collection of undifferentiated cells that deserve little more attention than any other isolated human cell or tissue. Of course there are many points of view in between, and I respect those who hold them. There is ultimately no absolute way of determining who is right in this debate. In this context it may represent a proper discharge of our obligations if we agree to interfere as little as possible with the `life' of the early embryo while maximising the benefit to human kind in general. This, I believe, is accomplished by the terms of the bill. I certainly do not pretend to have all the answers or even to know all the questions. But it is because these issues are so important and in some instances so emotional that it falls to parliament—or, more specifically, to those people elected to parliament by the people of Australia—to make those determinations after careful thought.

We cannot stop progress. We can manage it, responsibly recognising that the law always lags behind science. This does not mean that the law must be ineffective in regulating scientific developments, however. I say: let the research proceed. Let the world see whether responsibly carried out research can alleviate the suffering of millions of people around the world. This may be a time when science can find a treatment measure for many of the world's most devastating diseases.

As legislators, it is now our duty and responsibility to constantly review the laws that we make. Future developments might eventually make further research on embryonic stem cells unnecessary. We do not know that; we certainly do not know it today. In the meantime, in my view, there is a strong scientific and medical case for continued research on human embryonic stem cells. We are now presented with the opportunity to regulate the research and keep Australia at the forefront of the global scientific community. Let us not waste that opportunity. Let the research proceed. I support the bill.

Sitting suspended from 6.29 p.m. to 7.30 p.m.