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Monday, 11 November 2002
Page: 5970


Senator PAYNE (8:18 PM) —I rise to participate in the debate on the Research Involving Embryos Bill 2002 as a strong advocate of allowing, with responsible regulation, certain activities involving the use of human embryos. Like most if not all parliamentarians who have spoken on this bill in the Senate and the other place, I have contemplated the issues surrounding this legislation very carefully. Like most of my colleagues, I have considered many hundreds of items of correspondence from constituents. I have followed the debate closely in my own party room and in the media, and I have personally made the effort to seek expert scientific opinion so that I do feel confident in my decision to support research using embryonic stem cells.

As parliamentarians, we have had ample opportunity to gain information. The scientific briefings in the parliament and the Vital Issues Seminar series seminar on the scientific and ethical debate on stem cell research in August of this year, which I was invited to chair, are just some of the many briefings that occurred further to the extensive committee work that has been referred to in the chamber tonight, most ably chaired by my colleague Senator Knowles. I am confident that the parliament will make the right decision, given the focus and attention that the issue has received.

I think it is important to both acknowledge and thank the Prime Minister for the decision to allow this legislation to be dealt with as a matter of conscience here because, while the Prime Minister and I are of the same view on this matter, debate to this point has brought some interesting opposition. I think it is a constructive process for the parliament. Mind you, I say that before we get to the committee stage. If it reflects the House of Representatives committee stage, some may end up disagreeing with that. It is an emotive issue and for many people it involves both moral and religious concerns. It has also struck a very personal chord with many members of the parliament who see this legislation as providing an opportunity to seek solutions to diseases and personal health situations from which many of our constituents, and in a number of cases our own family members, have suffered.

Following the debate, both in the other place and in other public fora, I have been very intrigued to see the vastly different and very personal decision-making processes at work in the parliament. For example, after the phenomenal achievements of the Australian IVF program, which faced stringent opposition from some quarters when it was first introduced, similar arguments have been employed to oppose a process which in fact saves surplus cells from destruction and employs them ultimately in saving lives.

There are a number of areas this evening on which I wish to focus my remarks. I begin with some of the arguments against embryonic stem cell research. Opponents of this bill generally state the following: an embryo is just as much a human life as an adult and that life should be accorded the same respect; there is a moral difference drawn between what is termed `killing' and allowing the demise of the embryo, as currently happens; there is often an argument that the potential benefits of embryonic stem cell research have been oversold, that support for embryonic stem cell research will put Australia on what some have called a slippery slope towards a utilitarian society which no longer sufficiently values human life and, finally, that the scientific arguments for the research are tainted by commercial interest.

On these points, I think the following needs to be said. Essentially, we are discussing a mass of cells that, with assistance, have the full potential to become a normal, functioning human being. I am confused, though, by people who believe that it is better to allow excess frozen embryos to expire than to allow a potential life to assist in saving an existing one. It is a view that I respect, because I respect my colleagues, but I find it difficult to understand. I am pleased to have had the opportunity to see some modern Christian views on stem cell research that acknowledge, in many cases, that God's work is being done through doctors helping to alleviate the suffering of the sick and curing those who would ultimately die without medical advances brought by their research. It is a view that has been put forward by Associate Professor John Yeo, co-chairman of the scientific committee of the Australasian Spinal Research Trust and board member of the Royal North Shore Hospital. For example, a woman is in fact born with a far greater supply of eggs than in the normal processes of life she could ever use. Morally, if that is the argument, why should that material not be given, if it is the wish of the donor, to help research designed to relieve human suffering? In my view, there is indeed a moral difference between allowing an embryo to expire through exposure to room temperature and its being employed to sustain a life. I believe that not allowing embryonic stem cell research is morally abhorrent.

I want to restate a point I have made in the chamber before on other issues—organ donation and blood transfusions—that religious differences in this place and in the community should of course be respected and that no-one should pressure the egg and sperm donors to consent to donating this human tissue for the new purpose of embryonic stem cell research. But there is a very long road to walk between respecting the individual views of our colleagues and members of the community and bringing that to this debate in the way it has been by some. In relation to the argument that the benefits of embryonic stem cell research have been oversold, I think in fact they have been undersold—and I will return to that later when discussing a range of areas in which potential benefits have been identified and real progress has already been made.

The bill itself is specifically designed to take a very responsible approach to licensing and monitoring this area of endeavour, and I think that is extremely important. While it is true, because it is a statement of fact, that financial interests are involved in the business of embryonic stem cells, the same can be said of private hospitals and drug companies, which are similarly involved in health care and healing. It is not an argument against the bill that is before the Senate at the moment.

I support embryonic stem cell research for a number of reasons. Those couples who are willing to donate their surplus embryos should be given the opportunity to do so in the interests of helping others. This is a bill which is cautious by its very nature and provides appropriate safeguards, such as an expert regulatory authority. In fact, given the Prime Minister's natural caution on a range of issues, I would not expect anything less. The potential for live-giving medical advancement through this research is very strong, and many thousands of Australians who are now suffering from debilitating illnesses and injuries stand to ultimately benefit from this type of research. It is a field in which Australia's most eminent scientists can lead the world. The bill itself, the way it is structured and the method by which agreement was reached mean that consistency and consensus amongst Australia's parliaments can be delivered through this legislative approach.

There are arguments about whether adult stem cells alone are adequate for the purposes of the research that we are discussing. I think there is sufficient scientific research to indicate that they are in fact inadequate. In some cases, the opponents of embryonic stem cell research portray each new advance in traditional medicine as proof that research involving embryos is unnecessary. But one of the field's leading scientists, the University of Wisconsin's James Thomson, said:

There is no compelling evidence that a pluripotent cell, equivalent to an embryonic stem cell, exists in the adult body. Period.

In fact, the three unique aspects of human embryonic stem cells that make further research in this area crucial are central to this debate. Firstly, there is the aspect of human embryonic stem cells that appears to give them a limitless population-doubling capacity, which means they can be expanded a great deal while still remaining normal with no chromosomal defects. Research on human adult stem cells has shown that these cells will only divide a certain number of times— around 50 to 75 population-doubling times— which does place some limits on their therapeutic utility. Secondly, embryonic stem cell research is providing the first window of opportunity for studying early human embryogenic events; for example, for the investigation of infertility, miscarriages and birth defects. No matter what the development potential of using adult cells turns out to be, studying these early events will be far more appropriate with embryonic stem cells. Currently, such investigation is carried out on mice. But, in the earliest stages of development, mice differ quite markedly from humans, and therefore embryonic stem cell research has opened up an entirely new and potentially beneficial field of medical and biological inquiry.

Human embryonic stem cells also offer a potentially limitless source of cells for, amongst other things, drug testing. There are certain cell types for which it is very difficult to develop new drugs. I understand heart tissue is one such cell type because it does not divide. While heart disease is a major killer in the developed world, most heart drugs are still developed in the laboratory using the heart tissue of mice, which is a very imperfect substitute for human heart tissue. The pace of medical progress would increase significantly if human tissue, developed from embryonic stem cells, could be used in this type of research.

The study of how embryonic stem cells can develop into many different cell types may also provide new knowledge of how fertilised eggs develop into organisms. Learning how that process works is a key to producing healthy humans. There is a view that there has been an overemphasis on embryonic stem cells' potential for cure and a missing of the point about their potential for biology. As a basic tool for understanding the body, these cells are unparalleled and their contribution will outlast the criticism if they do not produce cures quickly. In this context, transplanting of cells for cells affected by Parkinson's disease is a more crude activity than using the cells to understand at a basic level how that disease occurs in the first place and prevent it or slow it down.

The notion that one cell type is better than another, or that scientists are competing on this point, is an argument which is essentially a political one. It has gained some currency in the media debate but it is not really a scientific argument. It is ill-conceived to say that, because there is potential with adult stem cells, we should do away with research on embryonic stem cells. It is like approaching the scientific field with one arm tied behind your back for no particular reason.

Australia has a multi-ethnic population and we have widespread access to IVF. This places our country in a very good position for providing the necessary embryonic stem cell lines for the majority of the world's communities. As different racial groups have differing histocompatibility loci, or HLA, wide racial and ethnic diversity will be important for producing embryonic stem cell banks in the future. Because of the enormous cost of IVF at many levels in the United States, access is limited and they simply do not have that diversity. The Australian lines and the Australian experience are far more reflective of a broader and more diverse population. Our contribution in that regard is very important.

There has been argument by opponents of ongoing embryonic stem cell harvesting, who point to the potential danger to women in being coerced—perhaps through financial incentives—into providing embryos for research. Producing eggs engenders increased risks for women, according particularly to Cynthia Cohen of the Kennedy Institute of Ethics in Washington DC. She cites research that found that hyperstimulation can lead to liver damage, kidney failure or stroke. Additionally, ovulation-stimulating drugs have been associated with ovarian cancer, according to some studies. Supporters of the bill would agree that such coercion should not be allowed to happen and that this is another reason for supporting this legislation— to ensure that ethical processes are adhered to.

There are some similarities between the ethical debate regarding IVF and that regarding embryonic stem cell research. For example, in 1986 the ACT Right to Life Association argued, in its submission to the Senate Select Committee on the Human Embryo Experimentation Bill 1985:

... a human being remains a human being regardless of the circumstances of his/her conception. The elements of reproduction and the status of the embryo remain the same whether the embryo is conceived in utero, in vitro, or wherever. The law should extend its protection to human beings regardless of the circumstances of their conception. That some embryos are conceived as a consequence of deliberately structured procedures in the medico-scientific units does not change their essential humanity nor the task of legislators in their deliberations about appropriate protection of such humans.

On that basis, Right to Life groups also reject the argument that embryonic stem cell research is appropriate for embryos otherwise destined for destruction. However, in Australia 70,000-odd embryos remain as surplus from IVF programs. Community attitudes— as much as it is possible to glean them from polling—suggest that approval of IVF procedures has been widespread since the beginning. The same sort of polling is not really available on this issue. We have evidence in our offices, I am sure you would agree, Madam Acting Deputy President, of both sides of the debate—those who support and those who oppose the legislation. But, if you take as your starting point the sort of popular support that the IVF program has, then for many people this is an appropriate and natural progression.

I will speak briefly on the question of embryonic stem cell research and its benefits for the treatment of disease. It holds out enormous promise to address and cure a whole range of diseases which are suffered by, and which kill, thousands of Australians year after year. In no area of medicine is the potential of stem cell research greater than in diseases of the nervous system—the most obvious reason being that so many diseases result from the loss of nerve cells, and mature nerve cells cannot divide to replace those that are lost. Afflictions in which nerve cells die include Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases, stroke, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, brain trauma and spinal cord injuries. There are encouraging preliminary results from foetal tissue transplantation trials for Parkinson's disease which argue that new cells can become well enough integrated to restore function to a structure as intricate as the brain.

With respect to cancer, pluripotent stem cells may be more effective than bone marrow stem cells in treating the tissue toxicity brought on by cancer therapy. Other tissues damaged by cancer therapy also may benefit by replenishing their stem cell pools. For example, the injection of pluripotent stem cells into the heart may permanently reverse cardiomyopathy caused by certain chemotherapeutic agents. Injection of pluripotent stem cells that have been differentiated into neural cells may restore brain function after cancer treatment. As cancer cells are similar to embryonic stem cells in that they can renew themselves, an in-depth study of embryonic stem cells' molecular and cellular biology may help scientists understand why cancer cells survive despite very aggressive treatments.

The broadest potential application of stem cell research is the generation of cells and tissues that could be used as therapies for correcting heart and lung defects and promoting tissue repair following injuries. Studies on mice have already shown the feasibility of stem cell transplantations of healthy heart tissue into a diseased heart. The potential goes on in relation to diabetes, digestion and kidneys, allergy and infectious diseases. A combination of gene therapy and stem cell research could result in the immune reconstitution of AIDS patients with cells that are resistant to HIV. On 16 July this year I visited the Monash Institute of Reproduction and Development to speak with the officials and experts there on some of these opportunities. I found myself most compelled by the evidence that they presented to me.

In terms of promise fulfilled and progress in the application of embryonic stem cell research, probably the most important example is type 1, or juvenile, diabetes. One of the most promising avenues for curing type 1 diabetes is to biologically restore the function of islets—a cluster of cells located in the pancreas which contain the body's natural insulin-producing beta cells. At the present time, this can occur either through islet transplantation or through the engineering of cells to restore the insulin-secreting function. In both instances, the availability of stem cells would significantly expedite research progress. Stem cells could be guided into becoming islets. These could then be transplanted into someone with diabetes to cure the disease. Insulin-producing cells have already been created in embryonic stem cells from mice, as well as in preliminary studies using embryonic cell lines from humans. This is an extraordinary advance and one which I find it impossible to turn my back on.

To conclude, those who oppose embryonic stem cell research must put forward a convincing argument as to why it is better not to use cells which will be discarded one way or another to save lives. Those cells, while they are indeed human tissue, are limited by being unrecognisable by any sensible definition of what it is to be human, in my view. The adequacy of adult stem cells for research is limited. This research has had clear success in treating diabetes and Parkinson's disease and holds great promise in treating a range of other ailments, including cancer, heart disease and diabetes. In this context, the potential benefits of embryonic stem cell research cannot be ignored. This research—which sets in place in this bill an ethical framework—should not be seen as putting Australia on any sort of slippery slope. Quite the contrary: it is because I value human life that I support this research.