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Monday, 11 November 2002
Page: 5974


Senator BARNETT (8:38 PM) —I take this opportunity to stand in opposition to the Research Involving Embryos Bill 2002. In the first instance, I would like to congratulate the Prime Minister on his courage and wisdom in allowing a conscience vote on this important matter. This is a matter in which members of the Senate and the House of Representatives have to dig deep, because it is very much a personal and, for many, a moral issue that needs to be carefully considered. I think, also, that it has been good for the parliament to have the opportunity to take a step back from the standard, normal activities of the day and consider these big picture issues. It is a watershed event in the history of this parliament and a very important one.

At this point I want to thank the many hundreds of Tasmanians and others around Australia who have made contact with me and my office over the last many months, including those Tasmanians who have petitioned the Senate and expressed their views accordingly. I am also proud to have been able to stand shoulder to shoulder with others in parliament—from across the political spectrum—on this issue. Again, that opportunity has been possible because it is a conscience issue, and it has been accepted with relish from many sides. I also flag that, in my view, there are at least 10 major flaws in the bill. I will address those towards the end of my address.

Is anything sacred any more? A human embryo is the smallest human being. It is a life following conception. To relegate it to the research bin for exploitation and destruction is to devalue and desecrate that life, no matter how old. Life is a journey within abrupt and finite lines from fertilisation to death. It is deserving of respect and dignity throughout that period. Like postnatal human life, it is deserving of the protection of the law—irrespective of the potential that its dismembered tissues can offer to others. In this case, the ends do not justify the means. This is all that is asked by those who oppose embryonic stem cell research and the Research Involving Embryos Bill 2002. There are two distinct groups of stem cells, as has been discussed previously in this place and during the inquiry of the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee, of which I was a part. One group is taken from living human beings without any loss of life, and these are known as adult stem cells. They include cells from bone marrow, skin, fat, brain and blood, including blood from the umbilical cord. The other cells, embryonic stem cells, are removed from human embryos. This removal necessarily kills the embryo. Every living person was once an embryo at this stage—which is now, in my view, the target and the victim of the corporate researcher. The human embryo, with its valuable parts, has no means of giving its consent, arguing a defence, or giving any right of reply.

Like everybody, I have a heart for people with disease. We have heard it in previous presentations in the Senate and the House of Representatives. I have type 1, or insulin dependent, diabetes. My late father had motor neurone disease. Both of these diseases, with others, have been used and put forward as reasons for supporting this bill but, in my view, it comes down to this fundamental point: research to save lives is worthless if in the process we are destroying life. This is why I strongly support research using adult stem cells. Only recently, the University of Minnesota provided clear evidence—published in the journal Nature—that adult stem cells can have the same qualities as an embryonic cell. They are capable of achieving, or working towards, a satisfactory treatment for many of our diseases and medical ailments.

Adult stem cells are proven performers: almost weekly now you will see that the medical and health benefits have been flowing not only to the Australian community but worldwide. The deliberate destruction of human embryos for research is abhorrent to me and is now demonstrated to be ethically—and, in my view, practically—unnecessary. In fact, adult stem cell applications, as I indicated, are already treating hundreds of thousands of people, and they offer real hope for people with disease and disability— including those with diabetes. All governments, and all of us, should be proactively supporting this type of research. It avoids the ethical dilemma and provides a way forward. On the other hand, human embryo stem cell research has so far not cured a single person. In all instances, no matter the potential medical research gain, the end does not justify the means. Good science necessarily requires good ethics. As the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, Dr Peter Jensen, said recently:

We must not become scientific wizards and ethical cowboys.

Where do you draw a line in the sand? This is the key question for all of us. Professor Alan Trounson, a leading proponent of embryo stem cell research, says he is relaxed and willing to do research on human embryos up to the point where a body shape can be seen. Can he actually say how many days or weeks from conception this is? What a tragic concept! Many of the scientists who support the bill say that the use of excess embryos from IVF programs does not meet the strict criteria required for research. In other words, the human embryos available are only the B team. These scientists want more, and they are willing to keep asking for it.

As well, those likely to obtain substantial financial gain are key proponents of the research. This was demonstrated throughout the committee hearings that we have had over the last few months. We had a number of scientists presenting throughout the hearing, and those with vested interests and for whom financial gain is likely—including Professor Alan Trounson—have been strong proponents of the bill. But I say that those with vested interests should come clean and tell the public of the likely benefits to them. We should consider the views of independent, objective scientists and others. Certainly, from the submissions and the evidence put forward, a case has clearly not been made in favour of embryo stem cell research. The old adage is, in my view, true: he who pays the piper calls the tune.

The research allowed under the legislation opens the door to pharmaceutical and other companies testing drugs and cosmetics. That seems to be reasonably clear cut. We had a range of evidence put to us during the committee hearings on the definition of research. This was a question that I asked time and again of the scientists that presented before our committee: `Please advise us of your definition of research.' Time and again the answer came back that the research, for them, was very broad-ranging and included not just the basic research to deliver cures for disease and so forth but also drug testing and toxicology. So I put it to the Senate: please consider this carefully when you consider the bill and your position as to whether we do need a tightening up of this definition of research. At the moment, under the bill—and you can obtain your own advice on this—it does include drug testing. Do we want this? Do we want it to be possible to use it for the testing of face creams and cosmetics?

My view is that the ramifications of the proposed legislation are still not at this stage fully understood by a majority of the Australian people. But I have been heartened by the views of Australia's largest union, the Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Association—and they have put this forward into the public area. They support the protection of life of each human being, irrespective of their circumstances, from the moment of conception to natural death. Another group that appeared before our committee, the Children's Medical Research Institute—as some of you and others would know, they are the proponents of Jeans for Genes Day—say that embryo stem cell research is unnecessary, and they have put that on the public record. I make the point because copious witnesses came before our committee to express their views. We had 1,851 submissions in total. Of those, over 1,800 were opposed to the legislation. Indeed, many of those were individuals writing in and putting their views, and many were organisations and community groups putting their views forward as well. I thank and congratulate them because the time available for them to make submissions was very short. It put everybody under great pressure and strain, including the committee members who had to deliberate on these matters in a short period.

I am but a small voice in this debate, in my view endeavouring to bring balance to a debate already overburdened with the rhetoric of possibilities and false hopes in medical science and the underselling of the value of human life. These points were made to us during the committee hearings and I would like to refer the Senate to the committee report, because I think it is very important. It is a watershed event in this whole debate. In particular, I am thankful for the work that has been put in to the qualifying comments on page 113, of which there is an executive summary on page 115. I want to draw on a quote from that report and again thank my colleagues for working with me and others to draw this report together. In my view, the evidence put forward by the scientists and others made it clear that there were fundamental flaws in the arguments of the proponents of the bill. The flaws raise these concerns:

· That there has been a failure to justify the need for the legislation with respect to destructive embryo research, and in particular, a failure to show that the existing regulation and permissible research is inadequate, which amounts to a failure to make the case for the ethically-questionable destruction of human embryos. There is almost unanimous support for the much less contentious part of the Bill which bans human cloning ...

We had an opportunity to speak on that earlier, and I was very pleased to be able to put my views on the record. I congratulated other members of the Senate on putting on the public record their views on the definition of cloning and the reason they opposed it. I made the point quite clearly that there is a view put forward by some that reproductive cloning is different from therapeutic cloning. The point is also made that the process is substantially the same and that cloning is cloning is cloning. Another paragraph on page 117 of this report raises concerns:

· About possible dubious motivations of those supporting the Bill—

and that has been raised before: he who pays the piper calls the tune—

· About the consequences of passage of the Bill and the drafting of its provisions;

· About whether the Bill is broader than the COAG agreement.

I have argued, together with others, that we need to make it clear that the arguments from the other side are flawed. The reasons are set out in this report, but I will mention them again because I think they are important. Firstly:

· Embryonic stem cell research will continue in Australia whether or not this Bill passes the Parliament.

That might be lost on some people, but it is a very important point. It continues:

The purpose of the Bill has been fundamentally misrepresented—it does not regulate the use of stem cells, rather, it permits the destruction of so-called `excess' IVF embryos.

Secondly:

· Research on embryonic stem cells is at a very basic stage, and there is no evidence that embryonic stem cell research offers any hope of a cure to sufferers of various diseases. Many witnesses agreed that existing stem cell lines are adequate for present research purposes.

We heard this argument from the proponents of the bill. They would say, `Look, what we have now is actually adequate,' or they would say, `All we need is 10, 20, 50 or a couple of hundred human embryos to do the job. We don't actually need the 70,000.' If you do not need it, why should we be providing it? This is a very important point. Thirdly:

· Even if embryonic stem cells did hold promise of treatments for human patients, the number of human embryos to which this Bill grants possible access would be completely insufficient for the creation of therapies for human patients.

On the one hand we had scientists saying that we actually require up to 10 million human embryos for research in providing the cures that were being looked for, according to the proponents of the bill, yet there are only 70,000 so-called excess human embryos available. So there is a real conflict and a real confusion between the scientists in this regard. I say that, where there is that controversy and that conflict, let us avoid it and move forward. Fourthly and finally:

· Present science suggests that embryonic stem cell research offers inferior outcomes to alternative areas of research, which do not pose the same ethical dilemmas, and do not require the destruction of human embryos.

So they are some very important points that have been made. I would now like to address some of the flaws in the bill, and one of them relates to the proposed federal legislation which overrides the existing state bans on human embryo research and destruction in Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia. These state laws which preserve human life should not be overridden. Each state parliament should stand accountable. I make the point that the Australian Government Solicitor says that the bill is not comprehensive in its coverage. This means that, to make these laws watertight, the states and territories need to pass their own laws. The constitutionality of the bill is in question because it is relying on the Corporations Law as well as the trade and commerce power and the external affairs power under the Constitution. They have accepted that they do not have any international treaties to draw upon, that there are only those two heads of power. It is incomplete, and that is accepted by the Australian Government Solicitor. So there will need to be state and territory legislation, and I think that is pretty much accepted by all sides.

In the haste to have the reforms introduced by 30 June, the process has been rushed. The consent forms for the parents are unnecessarily broad and generic. A one-line signed consent form would be adequate under this bill. What a tragedy. That is a great sadness to me and, I hope, to many others in this place. I hope that this is an area, the second key flaw, that can be tightened up and improved. The bill should require full disclosure of the consequences of giving consent. Counselling should be made available, and options should be given to specify the type of research. In many instances, the consent of the father will be impossible to obtain because sperm donations are sometimes done anonymously. The surplus embryos will be fair game for the biotech corporations in three years—or sooner, if COAG agrees. After this date, the moratorium will cease and any surplus embryos will be subject to research and destruction.

The penalty provisions are too weak. There should be an automatic loss of licence to research and practice as well as existing jail terms. That is the third flaw. The criteria for issuing licences to research on human embryos are also unnecessarily broad and ambiguous—in other words, easy to obtain. These should be subject to disapproval by the parliament. What can and cannot be done should be clearly set out in the bill. It should be up front, and any regulation should be subject to disallowance by the parliament. There should be a limit on the number of human embryos for research, and there should be regular reports to the parliament about the implementation of the licensing system.

I have made the point about the overriding of the states and the limiting number of the human embryos. There is an anomaly with the commencement date; it needs to be fixed. The diagnostic investigations definition is broad; it needs to avoid destructive research. So that needs fixing. The definition of `research' itself needs fixing. As I said earlier, there needs to be a ban on drug testing and the use of these embryos for pharmaceutical or toxicology purposes.

In conclusion, a human embryo is not a commodity to be sold or a resource for experimentation, exploitation or research. As the community, we should draw a line in the sand and say that the protection of human life at whatever age in whatever form is an absolute—no ifs or buts. (Time expired)