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Monday, 11 November 2002
Page: 5997


Senator FAULKNER (Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) (10:43 PM) —The Research Involving Embryos Bill 2002 has stirred up considerable controversy in the parliament and in the community. It raises questions that concern all of us: the nature of human life, our desire to cure disease and alleviate suffering, and the boundaries of scientific inquiry. In deference to the strength of the conflicting views on this legislation, parliamentarians from all parties have the opportunity to vote according to their personal opinions. I would like to take this opportunity to thank all those people who have contacted me. I hope I have been able to respond to them all individually—I have certainly tried to. I know from the correspondence that I have received that many of the opponents of this legislation hold very strong opinions indeed. I, too, have strong opinions on this matter; mine favour this bill.

Whenever scientific research reaches a new threshold, a time comes when the community and the community's elected representatives must consider the ethical implications of new discoveries and new technologies; that is what we are about here today, and it is absolutely right and proper that we do so. I do not agree with those who suggest that this kind of debate is an inappropriate interference in scientific research. We should periodically examine the assumptions that underpin our attitudes to scientific discovery as the frontiers of knowledge are expanded. The regulatory principle embodied in this legislation that the government can and must play some role in determining the ethical limits of medical research is in itself uncontroversial. The debate is very much between those who believe that embryonic stem cell research needs to be regulated in some manner and those who believe it ought to be prevented.

A key argument put forward by those against this legislation is that the embryos in question—embryos at or prior to 14 days development, created as part of the IVF program but not used for that purpose and scheduled to be destroyed—are human life or potential human life and thus ought to be protected. Some argue that they ought not be destroyed at all, some suggest that they ought never have been created and some say that if they are to be destroyed they should be simply disposed of rather than used for medical research. I believe that the use of IVF, which has brought great joy to thousands of Australians, ought not be hamstrung by any insistence that the number of embryos created for each participant be reduced.

The current procedures are founded on the best medical judgment of the doctors involved. I believe that keeping these embryos frozen indefinitely, with some vague idea that at some stage in the future another woman might agree to bear them, would be foolish. I believe that, given the choice between discarding thawed embryos and using them to advance our medical and scientific understanding and perhaps alleviating or curing painful, debilitating or fatal conditions and illnesses, there is simply no choice. I think it would be irresponsible to turn our backs on this avenue of research.

Personally, I do not believe that a blastocyst, an embryonic collection of cells that is not yet attached to a woman's body, is a human life. In my view, such an undifferentiated mass of cells without heart, brain, nerves or bones is not a human life, whether it is implanted or not. It has the potential to become a human life, yes, but it is no more than potential. It takes more than cellular division to create human life. The moment when a newborn baby is placed in its mother's arms is the result of a myriad of the complex processes of gestation. For a baby to be born, there must be a mother's body to protect and nourish it for up to nine months, and, modern science tells us, to guide development. It is all these processes in their totality that make up the potential for human life.

Some opponents of this bill argue that embryonic stem cell research ought not to go ahead because it is unproven science. I find an argument that research ought only be carried out when a subject is proven is a strange argument indeed. It seems rather to defeat the purpose of research, which is to advance our scientific knowledge and understanding. Some opponents of embryonic stem cell research who suggest we ought to ban such research also argue that there are other more promising avenues of research. This is certainly a discussion that scientists and funding bodies should have when setting their priorities. It is not, however, a reason to ban a particular kind of research.

I was quite surprised by some of the language used when this bill was debated in the House of Representatives. Equating scientists using embryonic stem cells for medical research with Nazis in the Second World War I think is unwarranted and unhelpful and, frankly, a gross slander of those dedicated researchers who are motivated by a desire to alleviate suffering and cure disease. Parallels to slavery, racism and the reprehensible treatment of indigenous populations by European colonial powers are, likewise, emotive nonsense which only display how little those who wish to apply them comprehend the tragedies of our history. But that has been the exception, not the rule. That has been the exception in the way this debate has been conducted.

Embryonic stem cell research may or may not provide cures for diseases and conditions that currently cause a great deal of suffering in Australia and around the world. Passing this bill to regulate embryonic stem cell research will not automatically lead to rapid cures for spinal injuries, diabetes, and other debilitating and chronic conditions. Supporting scientific research does not absolve us, as a society, from providing care for those who need it. Fortunately, this is not an either/or question. We can commit ourselves to support and help Australians with disabilities and chronic conditions. We can do that right now, as well as support scientific research that may in the future alleviate their suffering and improve their quality of life. The promise of embryonic stem cell research is not certain. The outcomes of scientific research never are. What is certain is that, if we close our eyes to science and ban an avenue of medical research, we will never know.

The debate between science and religion over the search for new knowledge is of course a long one. For many centuries, scientists had to contend with persecution by the church for discovering things that did not fit a contemporary religious model. School children learn the story of Galileo, who saved his life from the Inquisition only by swearing to what he knew was false—that the earth did not move but was the centre of the universe. Galileo spent the rest of his life under house arrest. Experimentation with blood transfusion was once banned by European governments and by the Pope because the Bible taught that blood was the seat of the soul. There are still those who refuse blood transfusions for themselves and their children on the grounds of religious belief, but we are long past the time where any government or religious organisation or church considers it appropriate to outlaw blood transfusions for all people on the grounds of religious objections to the practice from a few.

Further scientific research has shown that a human being's individual identity resides not in the blood, as the Bible taught—nor in the liver, heart or stomach, as many thought—but in the brain. Of course, these later discoveries that reduced opposition to blood transfusion would never have been made if religious objections to autopsies and the dissection of dead bodies had prevailed. Earlier in our history, medical understanding of the human body was limited and constrained to knowledge that could be gathered from the dissection of dogs. Today, dissection and autopsies are a regular occurrence: medical students can learn anatomy before being confronted with a live patient, and many important public health and public safety discoveries have been made through the process of investigating unexplained deaths. Protests concerning the practice have faded away, and the laws that forbade it have been repealed.

The discovery of ether and chloroform opened up new fields for medicine, for effective pain relief meant that surgery no longer had to be performed with the patient fully conscious and forcibly restrained. There was, however, one group for whom some religious thinkers felt that pain relief ought to be withheld—women in childbirth. Labour pains, these men believed, were women's just punishment for their responsibility in bringing about the expulsion from Eden. It is unthinkable today that a woman enduring a protracted and painful labour should be refused pain relief on the grounds of original sin!

Vaccination was opposed because it was thought to interfere with God's will, with God's punishment of sinners through the scourge of disease. Elementary protection against disease is no longer seen as a sacrilegious attempt to thwart the will of the Almighty. As a result, parents no longer live with the knowledge that their children have a two-in-five chance of dying before the age of 15 of diseases like measles, mumps, whooping cough, diphtheria and scarlet fever. As a result, smallpox has been eradicated. Medical advances and scientific discoveries have routinely met with protests decade after decade, century after century. We have heard them all: some things are the will of God and ought not to be disturbed; if humans were meant to fly, they would be born with wings; interference with natural process is ipso facto morally wrong; Holy Writ forbids such a course of action.

Research, by its nature, opens up new areas of human knowledge, and thus quite frequently affronts accepted wisdom. Our responsibility here in parliament is to scrutinise both new knowledge and old truths. One old truth is that the highest goal of scientific development is to improve the human condition. Those are quite dry and passionless words. What they mean in a practical sense is that a compound fracture does not now lead to a lifetime of disability and pain. They mean that a diagnosis of diabetes is no longer a death sentence. They mean that injuries fatal 100 years ago are now easily repaired in the operating theatre. In my case, diagnosed with the eye disease glaucoma 25 years ago, without medication I would have been completely blind many, many years ago. But much more importantly than all that, they mean fewer parents sitting by the bedside of a dying child. We have here the possibility of new knowledge to carry on that old purpose. I believe it would be thoroughly irresponsible to close the door on that chance. I strongly support the bill.