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Monday, 11 November 2002
Page: 5968


Senator LUNDY (8:07 PM) —Whilst the second reading debate on the Prohibition of Human Cloning Bill 2002 has now passed, I take this opportunity during the second reading debate on the Research Involving Embryos Bill 2002 to indicate that I will be supporting both bills. Many people have contacted me during the last few months and expressed their views—many in favour and many against. I undertook to take their views into account and I have done so in reaching my position of support for these bills.

In summary, the bills provide for a national framework under which the National Health and Medical Research Council will establish a licensing committee to assess applications for research involving the use of human embryos. Strong consent provisions exist within the Research Involving Embryos Bill to ensure that donors of embryos understand and approve of the research being carried out. Research that will damage or destroy the embryo can only be carried out on embryos created before 5 April this year. The bill prevents the creation of embryos specifically for research purposes. The Prohibition of Human Cloning Bill makes it an offence to intentionally create an embryo that is a genetic copy of another human—in other words, a human embryo clone.

These bills were drafted by the government and originally introduced into the House of Representatives as a single bill, following an 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 this framework, the Commonwealth, state and territory governments have agreed to introduce nationally consistent legislation to ban human cloning, the creation of embryos for the purpose of harvesting their stem cells for research, and other unacceptable practices. Research involving existing excess human IVF embryos is to be permitted, but only under strict controls enforced by the NHMRC. Applications for such research will be considered only on a case-by-case basis, and approval will be granted only where the research is likely to lead to a significant advance in knowledge or improvement in technologies for treatment.

The federal Labor caucus supported this initiative but, because of the involvement of IVF embryos, the national executive of the ALP decided to allow a conscience vote on the issue of whether or not stem cell research for therapeutic purposes ought to be allowed on excess embryos procured for the purposes of IVF. This issue of conscience is at the core of the controversial aspects of this debate. It is the same issue that is at the core of the right of women to make choices about their reproductive health and at the core of the right to have access to assisted reproductive technologies. I believe that most of the opposition to these bills relates back to opposition to these rights.

My position is clear and consistent. I support these rights and my support for these rights translates to encouraging further research into the use of stem cells derived from excess human embryos. This bill is not actually about these rights; it is about research. Nonetheless, it seems to me that the debate is about the status of the embryo. For some, an embryo is already a human life. For others, like me, it is not yet; as my colleague Senator Denman quoted, it is `a cluster of cells with potential'. So decisions affecting embryos in different circumstances can be managed with ethical care and, in the context of this bill, strict regulatory guidance in clearly defined circumstances.

How individuals decide for themselves the status of the embryo is a very personal thing. For some, it is guided by their religious beliefs. I respect those beliefs, but I do not share them. I find it offensive that some people who hold such passionate beliefs and hence oppose these bills have engaged in moralistic ranting and condemnation of all who do not share their views. This has meant that the same tolerance and respect of a different view has not been shown. This is not universal amongst those who oppose these bills, but I feel compelled to express my disappointment.

In supporting these bills, I will argue for the need for continuing research to resolve the ills confronting many, many people. This is both a moral and an ethical pursuit. We have heard many stories, both here and in the lower house, referring to serious, heart-wrenching circumstances in which families know that the best chances of survival—perhaps not for their own loved ones but for loved ones in the future—are directly linked to stem cell research. For me, the outcomes of this research have the potential to pave a compassionate path for so many sufferers. For others, research offers tangible hope for loved ones and for people who are yet to suffer. Labor has recognised the potential for significant benefits in the treatment of diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and juvenile diabetes that could result from stem cell research derived from embryos.

I would like to focus on the cruel disease of multiple sclerosis, or MS, for which there is no cure as yet. According to the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Australia web site, there are 12,000 to 15,000 Australians with this disease. When I was reading up on the role of stem cell research in the continuing search for a cure for multiple sclerosis, I found this reference on the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada web site, in the context of recent legislation passed in Canada similar to the bills we are considering. The site says:

Stem cell research has great potential for people with multiple sclerosis, because of the real possibility for breakthroughs that may lead to a cure for multiple sclerosis through research on adult and embryonic stem cells. The government's—

the Canadian government's—

action is also welcome because stem cell research is underway in other jurisdictions, and Canada must move quickly to keep pace. While the issue of embryonic stem cell research is controversial for some Canadians, research is already under way in Canada, using adult stem cells to stimulate myelin repair. This work is being funded by the MS Scientific Research Foundation, which is related to the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada. Embryonic stem cells may provide even more potential for progress.

I refer to two extracts from an article published by the Research Defence Society, or RDS, which is the UK organisation representing medical researchers in the public debate about the use of animals in medical research and testing. The article begins:

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is caused by the destruction of the fatty myelin sheath surrounding nerves, by the cells of the immune system ... Antibodies which target these immune system cells have stopped the development of disease in mice with experimental allergic encephalitis (EAE), an animal model of MS. However, because these antibodies are of mouse origin, they would themselves provoke an immune response in a human patient. This problem could be overcome by using humanised antibodies or vaccines that induce the formation of antibodies. Such approaches have been shown to work in mice with EAE. The understanding of the role of the immune system in MS has led to the development of antigen-specific immunotherapy, which has been tested successfully in marmoset monkeys. This therapy is based on a discovery that T cells in the immune system exposed to small amounts of myelin protein are stimulated to attack the myelin sheaths. But T cells exposed to large amounts of the same protein will undergo self destruction.

These opening paragraphs of the article provide the context for the following concluding paragraph:

A completely new type of therapy may be possible using stem cells, possibly produced by cloning techniques. Stem cells are embryonic cells that have the potential to develop into all cell types found in the body. Transplanted into the brains of mice lacking myelin producing proteins, these cells developed normally and secreted myelin, which began to cover nearby nerve fibres. The characteristic tremor disappeared in over half the treated animals. Similarly, frozen human cells taken from nerve tissue have restored nerve function in rats with EAE.

It just provides an interesting insight into the complex research that is happening in different jurisdictions around the world. I urge people interested in following up these examples to refer to the full text. I want to draw your attention to the fact that I have used just extracts to provide an insight into how stem cell research is being explored to find a cure for MS. This research is ongoing and has far to go in reaching its potential. It is clearly providing optimism and has the potential to make a positive difference to people's lives. I would argue that not to pursue such research would constitute heartlessness and, indeed, would in itself represent moral decline. If there is knowledge and understanding, how can you choose not to find out more and not to help?

These bills demonstrate that scientific endeavour knows its bounds. It is a reflection on the ability of government to engage in a conversation with the scientific community and the community at large and reach an outcome. For example, in the case of the prohibition of human cloning, the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee inquiry demonstrated that there is almost universal acknowledgment that these bills are the appropriate response and the appropriate course of action.

I would like to take this opportunity to reflect on the fine work of my colleagues Senators McLucas and Webber, who, along with Senator Stott Despoja, as members of the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee made several important observations and conclusions in their supplementary report on the bills in favour of the legislation. I concur with their findings. I would also like to acknowledge the work of other senators on the committee, particularly the chair of the committee, Senator Knowles, who has just addressed the chamber on these issues. I urge those interested in understanding more about the specifics of stem cell research, the different lines of research, the findings to date and the hopes and predictions for the future to take the time to read this committee report. It can be found on the Senate committee web page and can be provided not only through my office but also through the offices of every elected member of this place.

In conclusion, I believe that these bills are very responsible and sensibly conservative in the context of the public debate. I urge the Senate to support them and I will look with interest at the range of amendments to be moved, although I have to say I am confident that these bills before us are adequate.