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Monday, 11 November 2002
Page: 5986

Senator MOORE (9:49 PM) —I rise this evening to make some very brief comments on the Research Involving Embryos Bill 2002 and share my comments with everyone else who has made comments on this bill in the House. Certainly this particular legislation has created widespread comment and interest in the issue. That in itself is very positive. Over the last couple of weeks, people have become extremely expert on everything to do with this particular deeply scientific point. In discussions and debates we are hearing terms that some of us had not heard before and may not wish to hear again for a very long time. Certainly the discussion has led to a wide range of opinion and to a wide range of emotion and debate. Scientific terms have been thrown around and claims and counterclaims have been put about. In this mix, sometimes the key elements can be lost. However, in the midst of the debate—and many people came before the recent Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee with their opinions—the Senate committee concluded that:

We find it quite unremarkable that there were divergent and at times strongly held differences between scientists concerning the therapeutic potential of embryonic stem cells. Disputes over the facts and the meaning of the facts are common, typical even, in science, particularly in fields as complex and new as stem cell research.

This debate has created extremely strong feeling in which the basic principles could be lost. In the heat, reputations have been impugned and motivations, especially those surrounding scientific expectations and reputations and also possible money gains, have been thrown up. One of my personal favourites, quoted in the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee report as indeed so much was, was a comment by Dr Brian Pollard. He said:

It would be foolish ... not to recognise that other motivating factors are also undeniably present, though they may never be made public, such as scientific intellectual satisfaction, scientific kudos from respected colleagues locally and internationally, advancement in status or employment and the potential for vast monetary gain.

Indeed, that was one of the more polite comments made in this discussion. Sometimes it seems that, when people have strong views, politeness goes straight out the door.

When the Council of Australian Governments, COAG, met in April and stimulated the legislation that we have in front of us, they agreed that research involving the use of excess assisted reproductive technology— another new term, ART—embryos that would otherwise have been destroyed is a difficult area of public policy involving complex and sensitive ethical and scientific issues. Having noted the range of views across the community, including concerns that such research could lead to embryos being created specifically for research purposes, the council agreed that research be allowed only on existing excess ART embryos that would otherwise have been destroyed under a strict regulatory regime including requirements for the consent of donors and that the embryos were in existence at that date—5 April 2002. Donors would be able to specify restrictions if they wished on the research uses of such embryos.

That particular statement clarifies so much of the concern. In that area, it clearly points out that there was going to be a strong regulatory regime—a national regime in which all states and territories would be included. There would not need to be the competition between the states for kudos. There would not need to be the debate going on within areas of science that could lead to the unnecessary pain and anger that would overcome what this is all about—the development of true science.

In this particular discussion I want to comment mainly on two areas. One is the fact that there will be a review. That always gives me hope, because nothing ends. We need to have a mechanism in any system that allows there to be a review of all its elements. Making one long black line at this stage is not the intent of this legislation. It is to allow things to proceed, and then through that process there will be independent review. That seems to me to be a natural evolution.

One of the issues that has been brought up, and was brought up at regular intervals during the Senate committee inquiry, is the issue of consent. The bill includes specific consent provisions. This created a significant response to the committee. All kinds of consent provisions can be improved, but clearly defined in the legislation is that any research on any embryo must have the consent of the donor. There are specific details about that, and in fact national guidelines are being prepared now that will help in defining exactly what can be done and by whom. However, some of the arguments that have been put up that this is going to be open slather and all things go are just not true. That is part of the emotion that surrounded this whole process.

I will move to the issue of the IVF process—and I am not going to go on very long about this because it has been covered quite fulsomely both in the House and here. Anyone who has experienced or talked with people who have survived—and I use the term quite deliberately—the IVF process will know that it is not an easy process. It is painful, it is difficult and it is intrusive. However, people make a choice to be part of that. The same people who make a choice to be part of the IVF process will be the donors whose consent any future research would have to have. We had submissions at the Senate committee from a number of people who represented the parents who go through this process, both successfully and not successfully, and they talked about the extraordinary efforts they went to to have the joy and the honour to give birth.

During the process of developing the IVF process there was, and still is, considerable debate amongst the feminist community about the rights and wrongs of the IVF process—in fact, any kind of assisted reproductive technology. That is the second point I wish to touch on briefly. Many people within the feminist community and feminist scholars—and they have been quoted by Senator Harradine in his comments—are offended by what they perceive as the intrusive nature of reproductive technology. The terminology they use talks about the attacks on women's bodies. The language itself can be quite confronting, with terms such as `harvesting eggs' and talk of female bodies being used just to create eggs. Considerable discussion was had before the committee on this point, leading to quite a degree of discomfort from a number of people in the room. The point I wish to make this evening is that a lot of the emotion and the debate that was caused has moved on.

The issue of how the process would operate was the subject of significant discussion before the committee. I will not bore the Senate, but page 162 of the report goes through the process of exactly how the eggs would be formed in the woman's body through IVF and then how the embryos would be formed. It is specifically contrary to the current guidelines to have unlimited access to eggs through this process. The fear that was created and the quite negative approaches that were taken around this issue that made women fearful and feel as though this was an attack on their feminist principles have been acknowledged in the legislation through the committee process.

Professor Jansen, who received a great deal of negative comment in the committee process, made an entirely consistent statement in 1985—I think a lot of us could have been quoted in 1985 and our positions would have changed since then—and his words were used to create some of the fear about the way this process could operate. Science has changed, and people have changed since 1985. It was the view of some members of the Senate committee that his statements now are consistent with the position that `the number of eggs and embryos available to women is fixed by the physiological processes out of any physician's control'. The fear concept, almost the scientific `star wars' fear that women would be able to be used as some kind of machine for their eggs to be harvested for the venal causes of future scientific or commercial processes, is not a true concept. However, it has been used with great effect to create fear amongst people in our community and also quite divisively to attack women who are looking at the whole range of the IVF process and future scientific technologies.

A great deal of debate before the committee, in the House and today in the Senate has been about some kind of contest that seems to have been created between the different scientific forms of embryonic stem cell research and adult stem cell research. We have so many scientists in our midst who have great knowledge and can debate this point at any time. There are a number of letters that all of us have received which talk with great authority about why one form of research is superior to another and why there is somehow some collusion in some areas of scientific theory to force money into one stream as opposed to another. Those debates can be created very easily. However, it would seem to me that the issue, as brought out before the Senate committee, is that those two streams of research are not in competition. Those two streams of research can work together within an effective scientific program to ensure that the best possible results are received. In terms of the process, some members of the committee say in the report:

In view of the potential of embryonic stem cell research, we believe it is premature to unnecessarily constrain or prohibit research.

Again some members of the committee say in the report:

We conclude that it is a false dichotomy to consider the issue in terms of embryonic stem cells versus adult stem cells. We believe a very strong case has been made to encourage research on both with a view to understanding their relative merits and disadvantages. Moreover, there is a very good case to be made for encouraging productive cross-fertilisation of ideas and methodologies.

It is important then that, in the discussion of this process, we are not diverted from the issue of effective, progressive and evolutionary scientific research into some form of negative and quite simplistic debate in the interests of impugning reputations and attributing motivations which could only be seen to value one group over another. In the face of that kind of diversionary tactic, the real issue must be to consider where we as a community go and how we can work effectively together through a process agreed upon at the national level with a strict and careful regulatory framework, with the involvement of people at every level who are participants in this process, with acknowledgment and knowledge. This is the kind of process that a true scientific expose can reveal, rather than the kind of debate and emotional discussion that we have had.

I attended some of the sessions of the committee and I read most of the submissions. For me, the most painful process was the debate involving those people who were there representing the hope of some result. The word `hope' was used consistently throughout a number of the submissions. In the hearings that I attended and in the many letters that I received, I did not read or hear from anyone claiming that there was absolute certainty of any result. In the heat of discussion and in the joy of being able to score points, some wild claims were made about the areas of research that could be addressed by this form of scientific process. However, at no time did I hear or read anyone make a promise that embryonic stem cell research would result in a cure. There was hope that it might. At no time was there any expectation that those kinds of results would be immediate. In fact, it was very clear through the process that, no matter what form of research and what form of investment occurred, there would be no easy or immediate answer.

There were submissions from a number of people who were current sufferers of diseases or who were working with people who had various conditions. However, what disappointed me most was the fact that people who had a point of view that supported the legislation were impugned by people who had a point of view that did not support the legislation. People that put forward any kind of suggestion that there could be any value in the legislation before us were accused of falsely claiming results, of exaggerating claims, of having unscientific bases for their arguments. In that environment, the real issues of effective communication and research were lost, because we degenerated into a debate that got increasingly personal and led to people's qualifications, expectations and the credibility of their medical conditions being questioned quite openly.

I will be supporting this legislation. However, I do not expect that there will be any immediate cures. I do not expect that people will be united around any form of result. No matter what happens with the vote in the Senate, there has been a wide-ranging community debate on the issue. What concerns me, though, is that, because of the significantly strong views of people within the debate, there seemed to be a lack of any common ground throughout the process. I am quite fearful that, despite the fact that over 1,800 submissions were received by the committee, despite the fact that every major newspaper in the country and most major current affairs programs now have reporters who have an amazing newly acquired knowledge of the issues around embryonic research and on a daily basis there is coverage of this issue in most parts of the country, and despite the fact that this house will spend considerable hours on this debate, there is still not genuine understanding amongst the community about what exactly is involved in embryonic research.

If I could be convinced that, as a result of this process, regardless of the debate that has taken place, people now have gained knowledge, I would feel that perhaps some of the emotion that we have been sharing through recent weeks would have been of value. I trust that, as a result of this debate in the Senate and in the House of Representatives, some people will have taken the time to read the committee reports and to question some of the submissions that were received from over 1,000 scientists and people who work in the field. If, as a result, people now know what is concerning people about embryonic research, we will have received a result, regardless of whether this legislation is passed. I trust that that will be the result. I am not convinced that that kind of common ground has been reached in the debate up to this point.