Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Current HansardDownload Current Hansard    View Or Save XMLView/Save XML

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Monday, 11 November 2002
Page: 5994

Senator ELLISON (Minister for Justice and Customs) (10:28 PM) —Albert Schweitzer once said that the mark of any civilised society is respect for life in all its forms. That is the very issue that confronts us in this debate on the Research Involving Embryos Bill 2002. On the one hand, we have people who argue that research on embryonic stem cells is needed in order to preserve quality of life or indeed to save it. On the other hand, the argument is that alternative research is available without the need to destroy life in the form of an embryo. It is these two competing arguments, which I have put briefly, that we are faced with today.

This legislation transcends many other issues that we deal with in this parliament. This is an issue which deals with an essential aspect of our society and, of course, it is one where we exercise a conscience vote. Although we have been dealing with two bills today—the Prohibition of Human Cloning Bill 2002 and the Research Involving Embryos Bill 2002—I will address my remarks to the latter bill. I have already recorded in this chamber today my strong opposition to human cloning.

Initially, these two bills were introduced into the parliament in one bill, the Research Involving Embryos and Prohibition of Human Cloning Bill 2002. Quite appropriately, these bills were separated in order to allow debate on human cloning on the one hand and the merits or otherwise of stem cell research on the other. This afforded those people who had a strong view in relation to stem cell research the opportunity to vote separately on that bill and not have it tied up with the human cloning bill. The parliament has been unanimous in its opposition to human cloning. However, the situation is quite different for stem cell research.

The Research Involving Embryos Bill 2002 seeks to regulate research involving human embryos. This would allow the extraction of stem cells from those embryos left over from various IVF procedures. While this research is presented to us as having the potential to cure disease and save lives, it also involves the destruction of human embryos. It is perhaps of assistance to look briefly at the history of this matter. The introduction of these bills follows agreement by the Council of Australian Governments in April this year that the Commonwealth, states and territories would introduce nationally consistent legislation to ban human cloning and other unacceptable practices. The council also agreed that `research be allowed only on existing excess ART embryos that would otherwise have been destroyed'.

The COAG agreement specified that the research had to take place under a strict regulatory regime which was to include requirements for the consent of donors, and that the embryos were to have been in existence as at 5 April 2002. While the COAG agreement is not legally binding on the Commonwealth—nor on the states and territories, for that matter—it is based on a clear indication of political goodwill by all jurisdictions across Australia. As I have said, importantly, senators and members have and will be casting a conscience vote on these bills.

Before I comment on some of the science in this matter, I want to place on record the fact that the report by the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee was of great assistance. I acknowledge the efforts of the various members of that committee and those who participated in it. The arguments for and against were well laid out. The Research Involving Embryos Bill 2002 is specifically designed to allow research using embryonic stem cells. In this context, I want to make special note of the summary of the scientific overview section of the committee's report. I refer to paragraphs 2.138 and 2.139, which state:

Most scientists would agree that there is as yet insufficient experimental data to be certain either just how important research into stem cells is likely to be, or to be certain about the relative value of embryonic and adult stem cells for that research.

This, I believe, sums up the difference of opinion in relation to scientific research. The committee stated that, notwithstanding that, many scientists:

... agree that therapies derived from stem cell research have at least the potential to ameliorate currently incurable conditions, ranging from diabetes to spinal cord injuries to motor neurone, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases.

Clearly, the great potential to cure tragic diseases or consequences of tragic accidents is presented as the justification of the destruction of human embryos in the process. However, a closer examination is justified. I understand that embryonic stem cells are found in the inner cell mass of the blastocyst, which is basically the embryo by day five or six after fertilisation. Embryonic stem cells can become many or all of the specialised cells or tissues which make up the body. The ethical problem associated with research involving the removal of embryonic stem cells from the blastocyst is that it leads to the destruction of the embryo.

In contrast, I understand that an adult stem cell is an undifferentiated or unspecialised cell that occurs in differentiated tissue. Adult stem cells are responsible for normal repair and replacement of that tissue. Adult stem cells have been found in sources including bone marrow, blood, the brain, skeletal muscle, the pancreas, foetal tissue and tissue from the umbilical cord. Adult stem cells, therefore, do not pose the same ethical dilemma as embryonic stem cell research. What is more, adult stem cells are able to make identical copies of themselves or to self-renew for the lifetime of the organisms. We are advised that adult stem cells are not easy to grow or maintain in an undifferentiated state in culture because they naturally incline to become one or other more specialised cell type such as muscle, nerve or skin. It is this lack of flexibility that critics maintain is the problem with using adult stem cells.

As we have seen in evidence given before the committee, in the past three years there has been a major expansion in research on adult stem cells. There appears to be a new understanding of their flexibility. In particular, we are told, some evidence appears to suggest that given the right environment some adult stem cells are capable of being genetically reprogrammed to generate specialised cells that are characteristic of different tissues. This is the sort of flexibility that is needed in the research that we are looking to. At paragraph 2.33 of the committee's report, it stated:

Recent research on adult stem cells indicates that they have the capacity to generate not only the tissue in which they are found, but to generate the specialised cell type of another tissue. It is thought, however, that adult stem cells can differentiate into a more restricted range of tissues or organs than embryonic stem cells. They are thus described as `multipotent' rather than `pluripotent'.

This indicates the potential for adult stem cells, as opposed to embryonic stem cells, to be used for therapeutic measures. Of course there are no ethical questions posed with the use of adult stem cells, as I have mentioned.

One aspect worthy of mention is that, during the course of this public debate, controversy arose when a leading scientific advocate for stem cell research, Professor Trounson, presented what he said was evidence of a mouse cured of motor neurone disease following the use of human embryonic stem cells. It later became clear, in the words of clinical neurologist Professor Peter Silburn, that the cells that were used were not human embryonic stem cells, that it was not motor neurone disease and that the animal was not cured.

Senator Jacinta Collins made the point during the committee meetings that she had repeatedly asked relevant questions of Professor Trounson. This included verifying what sort of cells had been used. I understand he repeatedly identified the type of cells that had been used as `embryonic stem cells'. Professor Trounson has subsequently said that the term used was interchangeable with `germ cells'. During this debate I have respected everyone's right to his or her personal values and convictions. However, it was unfortunate that this was not more fully described by Professor Trounson to members of parliament when he explained his experiment to them. It is in debates such as these that you need the accuracy and scientific integrity of description in order for the matter to be squarely canvassed and dealt with. I believe that, during the course of this debate, that controversy was unfortunate and did not advance matters in relation to people understanding more fully the arguments for and against.

A number of issues have been raised in relation to this bill and I will deal with each in turn. Firstly, many have said that this proposal is like many other past medical advances, such as organ transplant and IVF, which did not have a smooth passage in their early days but are now well established. The difference, however, is that none of those required the destruction of life for the procedure that was involved—not as this does. What is required here for embryonic stem cell research is the destruction of an embryo and therefore life—human life—in a form that would come within the description in Schweitzer's statement that a civilised society should respect life in all its forms.

Secondly, another argument is that the excess embryos are going to be tossed out and destroyed, so why not put them to good use? On the face of it, this does not seem to be unreasonable. However, it fails to understand the real situation. While no-one in this debate has opposed IVF or procedures which allow IVF to be used for procreation, there seems to be some misunderstanding as to how those excess embryos are dealt with. The Queensland Bioethics Centre clarified the difference between destruction of an embryo and allowing it to die:

... in the case of the frozen embryo the decision is made to cease the extraordinary life-support and allow nature to take its course ... to discontinue the life-support and allow the embryo to return to as natural a state as possible—a warm, moist environment. Development will be restored for a short time, but then nature takes its course. The embryo, because of its immaturity and inability to sustain itself, dies.

This is a much different scenario to that where, in a deliberate procedure, stem cells are extracted and thereby embryos are destroyed. I have touched on the competing aspects of scientific research on embryonic stem cells and scientific research on adult stem cells. Another aspect is the fact that, with the advances in relation to the latter, I am not convinced that in any event a compelling argument has been made out that embryonic stem cells will result in superior research.

Another aspect of the bill is the regulatory issue. With an issue as important as this, one would expect the regulation to be contained within the bill. Many times in this chamber we have heard senators say, `Why do we put it in the form of a regulation or guideline? Why not put it in the bill itself?' I, as a minister for the government, have defended that on occasion. But this issue is so fundamental and so important to society that we should not just simply delegate it to a licensing regime. We should have any regulation contained within the bill itself. This is a flaw within the bill that we are presented with today. I think it is another aspect which demonstrates a weakness in this proposal.

Whilst this debate must be conducted in a rational manner, it must also be conducted without emotion. It is indeed difficult to deal with personal situations, which each one of us has encountered, whereby someone with an illness or spinal injury sincerely believes that their future lies in embryonic stem cell research. Of course, the question is asked: how can we as politicians sit in judgment on issues such as this? This debate involves hard decisions, but we were elected to this place to make hard decisions. It falls to us as legislators to determine this issue and draw the line so that there is no slippery slope which could result in human life being used as a commodity.

It is our responsibility to define those parameters. It is our responsibility to ensure that there is research available to the community. However, in making that available to the community, we must also put in place safeguards and limits. Once this legislation, if passed, is formalised, no doubt the Australian research industry will not stop at what we have allowed. Clearly, there will be lobbying for further legislative change, and I believe that if this bill is passed that will commence as soon as the legislation is in place. We have seen that advance from various lobbyists for this research and for this bill, and it is therefore timely for us as legislators to stop in this chamber and ask, `Do we allow this to go forward or do we now draw the parameters—the line in the sand?' I believe that we can do this and still accommodate research for those worthy causes that have been canvassed throughout this inquiry. At the end of the day it is a matter of conscience, and it is a decision I come to based on my conscience and the matters that I have raised. It is because of that that I will be voting against this bill.