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Monday, 11 November 2002
Page: 5984

Senator McGAURAN (9:37 PM) —I rise to join the long list of speakers on the Research Involving Embryos Bill 2002. This bill ranks as one of the most crucial pieces of legislation to be considered by this government and this parliament. Its importance is evidenced by the fact the parliament has declared a conscience vote for parliamentarians. As my colleagues would be aware, releasing parliamentarians from their party disciplines and allowing a conscience vote is extremely rare. It is worth noting that the last conscience vote in this place occurred in 1997 and related to the issue of euthanasia—more specifically, to overturning the legalisation of euthanasia in the Northern Territory. Prior to that there was a conscience vote in the House of Representatives only in 1989 on the issue of abortion— specifically, whether federal Medicare funding should be used to fund abortions. Therefore, the gravity of life and death related issues will always prompt a conscience vote in the parliament.This bill is no different.

The Research Involving Embryos Bill 2002 revolves around the question of when life begins. If you believe life begins at conception, you have no choice but to protect life from the first. I believe that life begins at this point and therefore I have no choice but to vote no to this legislation. The principles are unavoidable. It is degrading to the life you believe exists to succumb to any other argument, like the argument that Australia has an opportunity to lead the world in science and cures or has an opportunity to make billions of dollars from Australia-first research. If you hold the view that life does not begin at conception, I think it is legitimate to support the bill before the Senate. However, it is foolish and false to believe that life begins at conception, yet still support this bill on the basis that `they are going to die anyway'. It is those in this realm of thought that I find the most bewildering.

It is true to say that the early visual forms may not appear to be life, but every scientific analysis points to stupendous growth from the moment of conception to those early days—more than at any other time up to birth and beyond. There is more sense and clarity in believing that life begins at conception than at any other arbitrary point. It is worth remembering what was once said in evidence to the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee: `While these embryos do not look like us, we once looked like them.' The argument that `these embryos are going to die anyway' is therefore no substitute for, or let-out from, the steely reality that they will be coldly experimented upon. This is the difference between allowing the embryo to slip away into death and allowing it to die by the knife.It would be a dull conscience—or a conscience denied—that accepted otherwise while believing that it is a life.

Without doubt, what has given this legislation the momentum and credibility to be passed by the House of Representatives, and seemingly now by the Senate, has been the scientific community espousing excitedly the possibility of cures for many human disabilities and, indeed, human suffering. There is no-one who would not embrace such a hope. But it is not real; it is a false hope. It is not even a glimmer of hope. There is probably no better than a one per cent chance that a cultivated embryonic stem cell will take if transplanted into another person. The genetic make-up of the embryonic stem cell and the receiver are incompatible. The problem of immune rejection is highlighted in the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee report by two leading sources. That report says:

The leader of the scientific team that first isolated embryonic stem cells at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has been reported as saying that therapeutic cloning would be `astronomically expensive'. Likewise, Dr Christopher Juttner, Medical and Executive Director, BresaGen Ltd, told the Committee that his company:

`felt from the beginning that therapeutic cloning using human eggs as the recipients of an adult nucleus was never going to be possible because the success rates are so low that you would have to hyperovulate 10 women to get enough cells— say 100 eggs—to have a chance of getting one matching cell line. So that was practically impossible.'

It was put at about one per cent. The report goes on:

Professor Michael Good, by contrast, estimated that `millions' of stem cell lines would be required for such matching. According to Professor Good:

`This is because we all possess near-unique tissue types and it is extremely rare to find stem cells with the identical tissue type to ourselves. In humans, the tissue typing molecules are encoded by “HLA” genes and there are 5 main types ... Each gene has multiple “alleles” or variants ... There are literally millions of ways to mix and match the different genes. Collectively, these different “HLA” genes determine our “tissue type”.'

Further, in a submission to the House of Lords Select Committee on Stem Cell Research, the Linacre Centre for healthcare ethics quoted the types of mutations that occur from incompatibility. In this case the quote is about foetuses, but it goes on to say that this danger is ever-present in embryonic stem cells, and I would say it is higher. It says:

Where stem cells from foetuses have been transplanted into patients along with other tissue the results have not been altogether positive ... In one case, a man with Parkinson's died after a transplant of foetal cells; it was later found that these cells had given rise to bone, skin and hair in the patient's brain.

Yet those who have followed this debate and the scientists know that there is an alternative to embryonic stem cell research, and that is adult stem cell research. Adult stem cell research does not offer a false hope. In fact, already it has shining examples of success in just about every medical field, from juvenile diabetes, spinal cord injuries, brain tumours and cardiac repair to bone repair and multiple other medical areas. Breakthroughs in adult stem cell research are equal to any scientific advances in medical history. The research is pure, compatible and ethical because the receiver is using his own cells and his own DNA. We are only on the threshold of discovery. This research would lose valuable research dollars because embryonic stem cell research has now become the glamour research.

There have recently been three exciting examples of adult stem cell research breakthroughs. Firstly, one of the world's great research centres in Melbourne, the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, has successfully harvested adult nerves from stem cells. Its work has boosted the chance that human adult stem cells could one day be used instead of embryonic stem cells to treat diseases such as Parkinson's. Secondly, in a world-first at the wonderful Peter MacCallum clinic, doctors in Melbourne are growing human stem cells and successfully transplanting them back to the patients. Five Victorian women suffering an aggressive form of breast cancer have been on a clinical trial of a unique treatment for the past year, with startling results. Thirdly, in another world-first trial, researchers at John Hunter Hospital in New South Wales took stem cells from bone marrow in a man's hip and injected them into his heart in the hope that they would grow into new blood vessels. The procedure has the potential to treat almost a third of patients with end-stage coronary artery disease. Equally, many children have benefited from adult stem cell transplants. So this is a successful cure for all ages with a greater horizon than the disastrous consequences of embryonic cell transplants. The scientific complexities of this issue have often clouded the simplicity of this debate. We need to strip away those complexities and bring it to its raw element, which is the ethical and moral issue of when life begins. For the reasons I have outlined, in conscience I do not support the bill and I urge the Senate to vote against the bill.