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Tuesday, 12 November 2002
Page: 6105

Senator SANDY MACDONALD (4:19 PM) —I rise to join the debate on the Research Involving Embryos Bill 2002. Whilst this is potentially a very emotional debate, it is also a very refreshing debate. This is a debate not simply about what you might subjectively think is right or wrong or what you might subjectively feel may improve people's prospects. Those debates are essentially political and, as politicians who are contributing to a political party, we can argue the merits of a case and we do. Good and principled people can have different political views, and they do. However, this debate is different because it is a conscience vote—a rare occurrence in public life, not because we shy away from a conscience vote; it is just that there are very few decisions that go to the core of our being. This debate is refreshing for that reason. It has certainly reminded the great majority of politicians that they still have a soul—that also is refreshing—and, having made up their mind, it is almost impossible for them to be persuaded by argument, despite the passion expressed in this place and in the other place over the last couple of months.

In drawing an analogy to the euthanasia debate, I found that in that debate it was impossible to believe that the state should be able to legislate for a method for a citizen to commit suicide. If I could accept that proposition, I found it impossible to understand how they should do it with legitimacy. The same applies in this debate. I do not know how the state can legislate for the destruction of human life. Even if I did, I do not know how it would legislate for it to be done appropriately. In this debate, many promises have been made about embryonic stem cells being a panacea for disease and injury. Great expectations have been raised that these non-tissue specific embryo cells—about which we know very little and which, once colonised, apparently live forever—could treat many of the diseases that presently plague mankind. Well they might, but there is little or no evidence so far. The science for persuading me has not been forthcoming.

I have found some of the claims for cure or potential cure fanciful. I feel reminded of the medical treatments meted out in previous times, where the most horrendous treatments were believed to be assisting patients diagnosed with a real or imaginary illness of the day. In past times we have seen bleeding, purging, arsenic and mercury administered for a number of afflictions, strychnine used as a tonic for almost any ailment, and electronic shock and sleep therapies. These are not happy medical treatments, but they were done by the professional medical people of the day because they thought they worked. I am sure that at the time relevant medical researchers made all sorts of claims about the potential benefits of those treatments.

I do not wish to sound emotive about these treatments, but I remind the Senate that we are in such early days in stem cell research. This has been a great debate about potential. It is about promises and hope and it is about large amounts of research funding, but very little of it is about published research. Medical research is an extremely slow business. Cancer research moves forward inch by inch. Medical research is increasingly slow as we move closer to finding a cure for many of the diseases that plague mankind. I suspect that stem cell research will be slow for the same reason.

I was speaking to a very eminent cancer surgeon during the build-up to this debate who told me that early in his career, when Professor Crick unravelled the DNA cell structure, he believed that cancer would be completely understood within a couple of decades. That surgeon is now 70 and retired, and cancer research goes on. Progress has been made, yes, but, as to a cure, we are still getting there—we are moving in the right direction.

Embryo stem cells apparently have two great advantages: they grow rapidly and easily in a test tube and they allegedly can form into any tissue in the body. But they have two great and insurmountable disadvantages. They provoke immune rejection because they are foreign to the recipient—and when you acknowledge the work that has already been carried out over the years in an attempt to beat rejection in organ transplants this is an enormous and overwhelming problem. Also, we have no capacity at this time to direct the embryo stem cells as to which tissue they might become. It might come later, but we have no idea now.

The research may well come from adult stem cells. I am supportive of research into adult stem cells. These can be obtained from many tissues, especially in infants and children, from placenta and, I understand, even from foetuses. They have one main advantage: they do not cause immune rejection. They, too, have disadvantages. They prefer to generate cells for the tissue from which they are obtained, they are harder to grow and you have to take them from the patient, which is fine if you want blood cells for cancer treatment but harder if you are looking for brain or heart cells. But adult stem cells are already delivering benefits. In current clinical tests we have seen them used for cancers, including lymphoma, auto-immune diseases, bone and cartilage deformities, corneal scarring, repairing cardiac tissue after a heart attack, preliminary treatment of Parkinson's and in skin grafts—there is a whole range of things where adult stem cells have been used.

I cannot support embryo stem cell research for the additional reason that it interferes with a potential human life. I think we have to take a very hard look at ourselves if we arbitrarily determine when we can destroy potential human life, especially when there is no objective proof of tangible benefit. Medical research should be conducted in a highly ethical framework. This is not a criticism of the many pioneers who have worked in our wonderful IVF programs; it is just that human life is characterised by growth, development and change. It seems to me that any definition of the beginning of human life at any time other than at conception is arbitrary. This is not a right-to-life argument to me; it is just that I oppose the destruction of potential human life for this purpose. Whether we are talking about one or thousands of embryos, the principle to me is the same. Whether or not the embryos are surplus to IVF is also irrelevant. That is the decision of my conscience.

In addition, to pursue embryo stem cell research, embryos would have to be farmed extensively in order to provide the multitude of cell lines necessary to attempt to mask the problem of rejection. Stem cells can be derived from adult tissues and this research does not involve the destruction of human life. It is an alternative morally acceptable to all sectors of the community. Even then there are significant scientific obstacles, but there are already runs on the board, as I have explained. Stem cell derived tissues have to integrate into the correct human organ or tissue. Currently, we know very little of how this occurs.

I come to a couple of final points. Firstly, I believe the community has been poorly served by this debate. Ask anybody about embryo stem cell research and a majority of people would have to dig deep to formulate a point of view. The community has been bombarded by hype, and we are certainly not at the endgame in embryo stem cell research; we are barely at the beginning. If you talk about the amount of knowledge that is needed, currently it is probably a speck of knowledge on the floor and the whole Senate has to be filled. The community has not been informed of the real scientific difficulties involved in developing embryo stem cell derived tissues. In other fields of medical research, I understand proof of principle research is conducted firstly on animals. I am not aware of any animal research showing that diseases such as diabetes can be cured by embryo stem cell derived tissue, even though there are good animal models for these diseases. For these reasons I will be opposing the bill. I am not opposing stem cell research. That can continue apace without the use of human embryos.