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Monday, 11 November 2002
Page: 5965


Senator KNOWLES (7:47 PM) —May I start my contribution to this debate on the Research Involving Embryos Bill 2002 by first thanking Senator Denman for her kind words. With regard to the bill coming before the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee, which I chaired, the committee's report was tabled out of session, so I would like to make a few comments about the report and the inquiry, if I may. It was an unusual inquiry because it was held in an environment where senators were being given a free vote and with the major thrust of the inquiry being designed to give senators information. It was for that reason that the main report made no recommendations and drew no conclusions. It was my decision to uphold convention and produce such a report, even though my position was quite strongly in favour of the legislation. There was significant interest in the inquiry, both external and internal, and that is demonstrated by having 18 senators receiving all committee information and the committee's receipt of over 1,800 submissions. While many of those were duplicated submissions, they nonetheless showed that there was interest.

There has been criticism that the committee did not travel all round Australia. As this legislation was wanted before the end of the year by the states, it was considered important that we proceed and try to get the legislation through, this side of Christmas. Equally, from a logistical point of view, a legislation committee does not have a budget of a magnitude to carry senators all round Australia, plus Hansard staff and all of the incumbent costs that go with that. Be that as it may, it was my decision that we would have the hearings in Canberra, where Canberra is central to most and where honourable senators could attend the hearings. I believe the inquiry is a tribute to the Senate committee system and its capacity to organise and conduct hearings and to produce informative and valuable reports within tight time frames with extremely limited resources. For that reason, I would like to make special comment about the members of the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee secretariat: Elton Humphery, secretary; Leonie Peake and Ingrid Zappe, who processed the voluminous number of submissions; and Christine McDonald and Peter Short, who were ably assisted by Sarah Bachelard and Ian South. It was an amazing team who, in a very short space of time, grappled with the issues and helped to produce a report that I believe really did sum up the issues on both sides of the argument. So to them I say a huge thankyou, as I always do after every inquiry. They are a terrific team and I am very fortunate to have them as part of the legislation committee structure.

Moving to the bill proper: as I say, I am very strongly in favour of this legislation. I have found many of the arguments used against this legislation exceedingly emotive and, frankly, quite dishonest. I find that very sad because I think a debate such as this can be held with both sides of the argument being up front, and while people might have religious beliefs and so-called ethical beliefs on the one hand, there is an entitlement for people to hold another view without persecution. I also feel—

A government senator interjecting


Senator KNOWLES —It is interesting that I have a colleague here at the moment grunting and groaning because I choose to make those comments. If he made comments according to his beliefs then that is his entitlement, but I do believe that in a debate such as this one should be able to make any comments without vilification, because this is a personal decision of every individual in this place. I think that personal decision is a very important one because it does, as Senator Denman has said tonight, come from our life experiences and what we believe.

I am a Catholic, but that does not mean to say that I am going to be dictated to by the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church is entitled to its view, but that does not mean I have to subscribe to it in every way, shape or form. I might hold a slightly different view. However, I do make the distinction that the Catholic Church does not oppose in-vitro fertilisation. It does not oppose ART—artificial reproductive therapies—and yet there are many in the Catholic Church who have said, `We can't have those embryos that are left over being used for scientific purposes which might create a therapy further down the track.' But the very process of ART involves the expending of many embryos to get a result. I find it quite contradictory that people, on the one hand, can accept and use a process that wastes embryos but, on the other hand, find it heinous if you say that the owners of the leftover embryos can have the choice of whether those embryos will be used in further research or whether they will be allowed to disintegrate upon thawing. I find that very contradictory because the whole process that some people agree with and subscribe to actually wastes embryos. We need to focus on the fact that we are talking about excess embryos and about approval being given for the use of those embryos. If someone says, `You're not going to use my excess embryos,' then so be it. But, equally, if someone says, `I was a beneficiary of research conducted some time ago on embryos which got artificial reproductive technologies up and running; I believe that I should therefore contribute to see whether there will be further therapies down the track that might be beneficial,' that is their decision.

I would be interested to know whether those opposed to the research conducted on excess embryos would in future access any therapy that might ultimately be derived from such research or whether they would prevent a family member—a child of theirs—from accessing therapy that had been derived from excess embryos. That to me would be a real challenge. If those people who oppose such research would sign a declaration saying, `I personally will never access, and nor will I allow my family to access, any therapy derived from embryonic stem cell research,' then maybe the credibility would be there—but one wonders whether that would be the case. It may well be the case—and I am not trying to say that it would not be the case—but I have not yet heard anyone say, `I would thus prevent anyone in my family from having access to that type of therapy.'

It is also an unbelievable position for people to subscribe to the notion that they would support this legislation if it were proven that embryonic stem cell research was of benefit. Well, golly! That is what research is all about. I cannot believe there are people who would say that they would vote for something or support something if they knew what was going to happen down the track. I have had the good fortune to be able to sit in the chamber for much of today's debate. I have heard many people say that embryonic stem cell research is a nonsense because it might take 10 or 15 years to produce a result. Another speaker opposed to the legislation said that it might take 20 or 30 years. So I expect to hear by the end of this debate that it will probably take centuries. Be that as it may, I am of the opinion that it does not matter how long it takes because, if someone has a disability or if someone has an illness and I deny them hope of a cure in 10, 15, 20, 30 years or whatever it might be, then I am neglectful of their position. I think that view is unbelievable. I also think it was unbelievable that someone like Professor Silburn could come along to the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee and say that all of those people who are suffering from Parkinson's disease did not really want embryonic stem cell research. I know many people with Parkinson's disease who say the reverse. Professor Silburn is entitled to his view but he should not try to portray his view as the view of all of those people who are suffering from Parkinson's, because it is simply not accurate.

The moral or ethical argument has been distorted. It has been portrayed as one that is high and mighty, and anyone who does not subscribe to that moral/ethical argument is therefore either immoral or amoral and should somehow stand condemned. I believe people form a view based on a number of issues that they have gone through in their life. It is interesting to note that a number of senators have said, `We all started off as an embryo.' Well, let us state the obvious! But what is different now? We all started off as an embryo but the difference is that some have been implanted in the womb and others have not. We are talking about the others that have not. One is not saying that all excess embryos will be used for research. We are talking about a cut-off time and we are also talking about permission—and let us not lose sight of that.

I also strongly object to the notion that I and others who support the legislation are influenced only by people who have been paraded before us in wheelchairs. One of the witnesses who came before the committee made that repeated accusation until I could bite my tongue no longer and I had to say that that was not the reason for my support of the legislation, because no-one had been paraded before me in a wheelchair to try and win my support for the legislation. But it is interesting to note that James Shepherd, a 13-year-old youth ambassador for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, came before the committee and spoke of the personal cost of living with juvenile diabetes. For a 13-year-old, Mr Shepherd was absolutely fantastic. He said:

I have lived with juvenile diabetes since I was five ... It has been quite traumatic for myself and my family ... In the course of my life I have had approaching 7,000 needles and approximately 16,000 finger pricks, but that is just an external factor because it is more than anything mentally difficult to cope with diabetes. For example, there is always the looming prospect on the horizon of complications which can derive from diabetes, such as blindness, kidney problems and the increased chance of death due to heart disease, to name a few.

He went on to say:

There are approximately 100,000 juvenile diabetics in Australia, and there are more being diagnosed each year. I think all of us deserve a chance for a cure.

`A chance'—that is where I end my quote from James, and that is what people hope for. I just do not believe that it is incumbent upon any of us to snatch away anyone's hope. James is a 13-year-old, active, intelligent young man. He is not naive enough to believe that he is going to go around to the corner store in a couple of days time and get a cure for his juvenile diabetes. But he does believe that he—and those that follow him— should be entitled to hope.

I have recently become associated with a most beautiful family in Perth. Kim, the mother, has four boys: Raymond, 10; Nathan, six; Aaron, four; and Liam, three. Raymond, Nathan and Liam are autistic. Three out of the four boys are autistic, the eldest being 10 and the youngest being three. Kim herself is not well, but she is studying full time. One could only imagine what that would be like—to have three out of your four boys being autistic. She and I were talking about stem cell research a few weeks back and, not knowing my position, she said, `I sure hope you're going to vote for it'—and I said that I most certainly was—`because that would give hope to other people, who may not have to have a situation like mine.' Kim is not the type of person to grizzle and complain; she does anything but that. She just gets on with life with these four beautiful boys. That is a tribute to that woman and mother who loves those boys but would love to see them have greater opportunities.

I do not know whether embryonic stem cells are going to lead to a cure for autism— nor does anybody else. It is for that very reason that adult stem cell research and embryonic stem cell research should be run parallel. Let us not have a situation where in a number of years time we find out that adult stem cell research has not provided the results that one thought it might and where we say, `Gee, I wish we had been doing embryonic stem cell research in parallel.' That is not going to be of assistance to those in real need.

But nothing is certain—nothing is certain about either form of research. Putting all of our eggs in one basket would be silly and naive. We want to give hope to people. I believe that I, as a legislator, came into this place to make decisions—tough decisions— as to what ultimately is going to be in the best interests of the constituents I serve. I believe that giving people hope of a cure in the future, whenever that future might be, is part of my responsibility. I deeply believe that. I do not want to deny anyone that. Equally, I do not belittle anyone who holds a different view.

We have had constant progress in medical science and technology, much of it coming out of Australia. As Senator Denman said, we do not want to see the excellent researchers that we have in this country go offshore purely and simply because we have taken a myopic view on something that should happen in this country, and happen sooner rather than later. I think it is very sad that some people want to focus on the comments of a few in trying to belittle the entire argument when the comments of some have in fact been backed by many others but we do not get the backing and the balance of that argument.

As I say, I would not want to face the next generation—or even the current generation—who have illnesses or disabilities that may have a hope of being cured or aided in some way in the future having voted against this legislation. I think this legislation is sound. It is far from radical—it is highly conservative. The states are in agreement. The states have looked at the issue very carefully. They need this legislation to make sure that there is uniform legislation. The opponents of this legislation need only look to see that if this bill is defeated then this will be out of their control. What the states may or may not do could be far more radical than this very conservative legislation. So I do support this legislation very strongly. I do hope that in the future we in the Senate will live to see the day where there are therapies and technologies that can be derived from the use of adult and embryonic stem cells.