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Monday, 11 November 2002
Page: 5992

Senator STEPHENS (10:18 PM) —I join the debate this evening on the provisions of the Research Involving Embryos Bill 2002 and would like to make a short contribution, acknowledging the extraordinary amount of discussion, debate and consideration that has been given so far. This is a matter of profound importance for the people of Australia, and the will of the people ought to be reflected in the decision that we make in this matter. We know that accepting this legislation would set an important legislative precedent, so it is important that the issues raised and debated here are placed on the public record, as you yourself, Mr Deputy President, said earlier in the day, because we will come back to consider these issues again in the future.

As with many of my colleagues and everyone here who intends to speak in this debate, I have tried to consider the issues as carefully as I can. I have certainly researched the issues around this legislation. I have read the submissions, I have read all the speeches made in the House of Representatives and I have actually prayed about the issue, because I think it is such a complex and far-reaching ethical issue we need to be considering that we need guidance from wherever we can find it. I am supportive of medical research but believe that we should all accept the boundaries of research based on ethical considerations. It is these considerations that are most appropriately addressed by those involved in the debate in the national parliament, and it is important because the way we debate these issues and the decisions we take will have a profound effect on society in the future. It is very important to have a broad debate about the issues which are both complex and, for many, very emotional.

I congratulate the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee for the conduct of its hearings and its consideration of the more than a thousand submissions, which I know has been a difficult and complicated process for that committee. I congratulate them on their efforts. It is always most difficult to consider ethical issues rather than straightforward legislative issues. So this is something that I acknowledge has been quite an exhaustive process for many people.

I say, though, in the first instance that I am not supporting this proposition. My reasons for this are three. Quite simply, I find in my mind that the legislation is unethical, unnecessary and dangerous. I do fully support research using adult stem cells. Adult stem cells are drawn from the human body and the placenta, and even from foetuses, but exclude the stem cells drawn from embryos. Adult stem cells are already delivering many benefits, and these were adequately outlined to the committee through numerous submissions and have been outlined today in the chamber. The committee heard a range of views from scientists and researchers. Many provided evidence that future benefits will come from adult stem cell research. Many suggested that the focus of research should be on adult stem cells because of the fact that there is already progress in this area and future progress would build on achievements to date. I am aware that there are other scientists who do not agree with this proposition and who would argue strongly for embryonic stem cell research. They argue for the development of new therapies which may provide the basis for treating a range of illnesses, yet I have found no evidence in the submissions to the committee or from individuals that these therapies are available or proven.

I also believe there are many difficult ethical issues that need to be overcome before we could ever begin to consider starting down this path. As I said, this is a complex debate and one which, if we get it wrong, will have far-reaching and profound effects on the way in which society makes decisions about those who have no capacity to represent their own interests. I say this in the truest sense—and I agree with Senator McGauran at this stage—because this legislation is about the extent to which embryos are recognised as human beings and it goes to the heart of the matter: at what point do we recognise human life?

The scientific evidence provided to the inquiry clearly suggests that human embryos will need to be destroyed to extract the stem cells. That these cells are alive is without doubt. That the embryo, with its own genetic code and unique make-up, is alive and human is something contested by those who advocate embryonic stem cell research. The issue is about defining embryos in terms of the continuum of human life and the extent to which we accord them the respect of human life. My position, quite clearly, is that embryos are a form of human life and should be accorded that respect. Therefore, I cannot support any proposal that will allow the destruction of these cells for the purposes of harvesting stem cells for research.

Beyond any ethical considerations, there are many practical reasons for supporting adult stem cell research in preference to embryonic stem cell research. Firstly, we have heard quite significant submissions to the committee, and from various speakers today, that the issue of rejection is one not faced in the use of adult stem cells, yet this applies to embryonic stem cells. Rejection issues lead to the need for harvesting massive numbers of cells, usually through the use of hormone treatment and the subsequent exploitation of women involved in in-vitro fertilisation programs. Secondly, adult stem cell research has proven successes in a range of therapeutic applications. Again, we have had many examples cited here and in the submissions to the committee about those kinds of successes and advances in therapeutic developments. Adult stem cells have been used on patients with breast cancer, Parkinson's disease, juvenile diabetes, heart disease, spinal paralysis and spinal cord regeneration—just to mention a few.

I argue that the practice of harvesting embryonic stem cells requires the death of the embryo from which they are sourced. Stem cells are harvested from the blastocyst at about five days old, at which time the cells have differentiated to form the placenta and others to form the developing foetus. The practice of harvesting embryonic stem cells suggests that sacrificing one life with the intention of saving another is warranted. How can we make that choice? We cannot say that an embryo has less worth than a child or an adult, for all are human and all have potential.

As I have already suggested, embryonic stem cells have not yet proved to be a viable source of stem cells. Research indicates that the large replicating ability of these cells, which makes them an attractive option as a source of stem cells, can also make them conducive to developing tumours in tissues. We know that what makes this an attractive proposition is the commercialisation of the processes and the results of scientific research. We have heard the thrust of this argument today from several speakers, including Senator Boswell.

Embryonic stem cell research also has very dangerous implications. It could create a market for embryos. At this point in time, it is suggested that the unused IVF embryos will be used for research. There is a genuine concern about what will happen once these supplies are exhausted. How will the supply be maintained? Will the production and harvesting of embryos become an end in itself rather than a means to an end, as we are currently considering? This would lead to the production of embryos specifically to be destroyed for research purposes. Surely we cannot sanction such a direction. Embryos cannot be considered to be a commodity or without a value in terms of human life.

There is a further concern raised by many of the submissions and raised in submissions directly to me—I have received almost 1,600 letters and submissions—that is, that the legislation does not specify that harvested embryos be used for stem cell research; rather, they can be used if a licence is approved by the NHMRC, which could of course become an ethical minefield. Any application would have free and open access to embryos, such as with pharmaceutical companies wanting to manufacture or test drugs for therapeutic purposes.

I appreciate the broadening of this debate and the contributions from both sides of the debate in the interests of the public good and the will of the Australian people. We are confronted with ethical and moral dilemmas in this legalisation, and I urge my colleagues to be guided by their conscience. My conscience will not allow me to support the legislation, and I appreciate that this right is being respected.