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Tuesday, 12 November 2002
Page: 6114

Senator FORSHAW (5:06 PM) —I indicate at the outset of my contribution to this debate on the Research Involving Embryos Bill 2002 that I have listened intently to Senator Coonan's speech, as I have tried to do with the speeches of many other senators. I find myself very much in agreement with the arguments that Senator Coonan has just advanced. I will indeed touch upon some of those again. As we all appreciate, this has been a most difficult and complex issue for many of us. For some, it may have been a lot easier to come to a final position when exercising a conscience vote, whether it be based upon religious commitments and beliefs or based upon some absolute or strong acceptance of the promises of medical science as advocated by the proponents of embryonic stem cell research.

I have endeavoured, throughout my wide reading and consideration of this issue, to consider all of those issues including my own personal religious beliefs but also the very complex issues that have been raised in respect of this debate. I want to pay tribute to all the members of the committee in bringing down the report of the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee. Despite what has been said by a number of speakers regarding the way in which the committee may have conducted its inquiry and some of the limitations that were placed upon it, I certainly found it a most useful report. I have taken the opportunity to read earlier reports of the parliament including the report of the House of Representatives committee on human cloning and also to go back and have a look at reports of earlier committees including the Senate select committee in 1985.

What struck me about the report of the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee was that it clearly recognised that on both sides of this debate—if for the moment I can say that there are two sides, and I think that it is unfortunate that in some ways the debate has been reduced to that—there are eminent experts in ethics, in law, in science, in medicine that hold contrary views and who have argued their case very professionally. I found it very helpful to read the report and note that there are highly regarded eminent medical experts, for instance, who oppose further embryonic stem cell research and more particularly the destruction of excess embryos for such stem cell research just as there are scientists who are strong proponents. I also found it interesting that there were submissions to the committee and representations made to me—and, I know, to many other members of the parliament— from people as well as witnesses before the committee who were suffering from disabilities and diseases and who had contrary views. This is no easy matter to decide for many of us.

It is not a simple issue. It is not, as I would suggest has been put by some other speakers, simply a choice between the fact that these excess embryos are going to be destroyed in any event—or thrown in the bin, as I think one speaker said—and therefore they should be made available for research purposes. The COAG communique recognised the complexity of the issue. The communique on page 6 and 7 of the report states:

The Council agreed that research involving the use of excess assisted reproductive technology (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 5 April 2002. Donors will be able to specify restrictions, if they wish, on the research uses of such embryos.

The communique itself not only recognised the difficulties and the complexity of the ethical issues and the other issues involved but also acknowledged that there had to be limitations placed upon the use of excess embryos for research, even if that was to be supported as acceptable.

I wish to comment on the Prohibition of Human Cloning Bill 2002, which has already been passed through the second reading stage of the Senate. There is unanimous opposition within this parliament to human cloning and that, of course, has been reflected in the vote of the parliament. The report acknowledged that there was near unanimous opposition within the scientific community—and I think they were the words used—because we know that there are some elements of the scientific research community that actually would like to see human cloning techniques available, if not now then in the future.

It is an interesting conundrum in that it is recognised that human cloning—the cloning of a whole human being—could well lead to significant medical advances. Indeed, some of the proponents of that technology support that view. Positive benefits, such as the ability to remove genetic traits which may cause disease in future generations, could flow from human cloning. However, there is an almost unanimous acceptance—and there is a unanimous acceptance in this parliament— that it should be outlawed despite the potential advantages. That is because we all have an ethical or moral—whatever word you want to use—objection to it. The interesting conundrum is that, with respect to embryonic stem cell research, the argument advanced is that we should allow the destruction of human embryos in the interest of future medical cures.

Of course, some argue—with some justification, I think—that the time may well come when the pressure will be on to move the line further to allow human cloning in the interests of medical science, in the interests of future cures for genetic diseases and in the interests of improving human life in the future. As we know, that is called the slippery slope argument. It is often dismissed as scaremongering. Members of parliament who were here in 1985 will recall that people back then were warning against some of the practices that are accepted now. At that time, it was considered that they were not acceptable practices on ethical grounds. As we all know, IVF technology was developed to assist childless couples to have children. It was not considered at the time—and it was no doubt considered not a possibility in the foreseeable future—that embryos would be created for the purpose of scientific or medical research. However, that has happened.

We are now at the stage where the debate is about whether the excess embryos created through the IVF program should be allowed to be used for embryonic stem cell research. I believe it is important to try to look further ahead and acknowledge that the time will come when we will probably be back here arguing whether or not the line should be moved further to allow the deliberate creation of embryos for medical research, for stem cell research and for the therapeutic application of stem cell research. That is where this is heading, and Senator Coonan's comments in that regard were most important.

During the committee's deliberations, and in all my reading and the discussions I have had with many people, a couple of things have been highlighted. The first point I want to refer to is the significant concern about the commercialisation aspects of this research. It is acknowledged universally that the prospects for cures deriving from embryonic stem cell research are a long way off. Indeed, if those cures are to be discovered and developed, huge numbers of embryos will need to be further developed or created to allow for therapeutic applications. At this point in time, when this research is in its infancy, as the proponents acknowledge, it is reasonable and important for us to consider whether or not other influences are involved. As Professor Trounson stated at page 124 of the committee's report:

... these cells will be highly useful for screening drugs for both toxicology and effectiveness.

That is a real factor. Whilst all the public pronouncements by supporters of this technology have focused on the great advances that may be made in terms of cures for diabetes, Alzheimer's or other complaints, it is a fact that there are substantial commercial interests involved here. In the near future, this technology and these embryos could well be utilised for toxicology, for testing pharmaceuticals and so on. That is something we do not want to see. Indeed, this bill seeks to prevent it. We should remember that this bill seeks to place restrictions upon this research. The irony is that, whilst the bill acknowledges that it should go ahead, it nevertheless seeks to restrain and restrict it. Some people might say that that is a good thing and that that is being cautious. I take the view that it is an acknowledgment of the very real problems and dilemmas that exist and which we have to deliberate on in this debate.

The second and most important point I want to come to at the conclusion of my remarks—and which is ultimately the issue that has helped me come to the decision to oppose this bill—is the fact that there are already sufficient existing stem cell lines for this research to continue. This is an issue that was debated during the committee's deliberations, and it has been debated widely. It is not disputed that there are sufficient existing embryonic stem cell lines available in the world, including in Australia, for the research to continue. It is legitimate for people to ask, `How were those stem cell lines created in the first place?' It is true that they have been created, they exist and they are available for continuing research. However, that is no longer research which involves the destruction of further embryos. It is research on existing stem cell lines. The position that has been adopted by the US government is that it is appropriate for that research to continue. It is my view that those existing lines are sufficient, at this point in time, to enable the research to continue and to see whether it has any real prospects of leading to the cures that we all hope it might and, indeed, that some continue to espouse as inevitable.

Ultimately, I come to the view that opposing this bill will not prevent the research from continuing on the existing stem cell lines. Nobody in here or out there in the scientific community is arguing that there is a pressing need to have access to more and more excess embryos for this research. What they are saying is that they want the opportunity to do that, but they nevertheless acknowledge that there are sufficient existing stem cell lines for the research to continue. As I said, the bill imposes a range of limitations: the research can only take place on embryos that were stored prior to 5 April 2002, consent is required, there are restrictions on the type of research that can occur and the act will be reviewed. All of those limitations are an acknowledgment that this issue is very difficult to determine in the absolute at this point in time. Because I accept the argument put by many eminent scientists and others that the research can continue on the existing 64 stem cell lines that have been identified and developed, it is my view that it is not necessary to enable further access by destroying further excess embryos. On that basis, I will be opposing the bill.