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Tuesday, 12 November 2002
Page: 6121


Senator CHAPMAN (5:56 PM) —The dilemma for parliamentarians considering an issue which polarises the community was put succinctly in evidence on the Research Involving Embryos Bill 2002 to the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee by Dr Nicholas Tonti-Filippini when he said:

There will be no consensus on questions such as this, so you the government have the responsibility to decide on behalf of our society where we will draw the line—what will constitute the characteristics required for a member of the species homo sapiens to be given the protection of the state.

He also said:

... either it is permissible to destroy human embryos in the name of science or it is not. Whether they are frozen embryos or embryos which have been created specifically for research does not change the basic ethical issue ... if we come to regard the early stages of human life as raw material for use in exploitation ... the moral status of an embryo is not a fact but a value.

Since I am neither an ethicist nor a geneticist nor a microbiologist, in reaching my conclusions on this legislation I have had to rely on the evidence, research and descriptions of those qualified to discuss the science and ethics and I thank all of those who have presented information and arguments to me as this legislation has come towards debate in this chamber.

The majority of the representations made to me have been opposed to the legislation on moral, ethical, religious and scientific grounds and have urged me to cast my vote against it. That was reinforced in the Senate inquiry's findings where, of 1,851 submissions received, some 1,803 opposed destructive research on human embryos.

A couple of months ago, I met with the American professor William B. Hurlbut MD, a member of the US Presidential bioethics council, physician and Consulting Professor in the Program in Human Biology at Stanford University. I have read his detailed papers on this issue and have had discussions with him. A comment made in one of his research papers struck a chord with me. He said:

... without clear and distinct moral principles, grounded in scientific evidence and reasoned moral argument, no policy can be effectively formulated or enforced ...

Reasoned argument and, again to quote Dr Hurlbut, `thoughtful consideration of the moral status of the human embryo' are unarguably warranted and there can be no doubt that the debate on this legislation has certainly been extensive—in the parliament, the media, academic circles, the science fraternity and also amongst the public at large. Given the amazing medical and scientific research into and treatment of disease afflicting humans over the past century, from the discovery of penicillin to the latest surgical organ transplant techniques, it is not surprising that for people currently affected by incurable diseases, nerve injuries or disabilities the prospect of finding a medical advance or cure for their condition provides compelling emotional and, I concede in some instances, medical and scientific argument. However, according to the Coalition of Americans for Research Ethics, the claims of the potential for embryonic stem cells are unsubstantiated.

This legislation proposes that Australia's stock of 71,000 so-called `surplus' embryos, the result of what might be termed `overproduction' during the IVF process for the treatment of infertile couples, be used for stem cell research. I believe that the moral argument against the legislation is compelling. I have reservations about proceeding further down the path of embryonic stem cell research beyond what is already under way in IVF laboratories to treat infertility. Undeniably, IVF treatments have produced extraordinary results—for example, the birth of a twin some 7½ years after the birth of the first twin—and, according to Dr McBain and Dr Baker, in Australia approximately two per cent of children are born through IVF. However, despite IVF having been in existence for some 25 years, estimates indicate that 80 per cent of fertilised IVF eggs die in the early stages of development, with implanted IVF embryos also having a high failure rate. Success or failure aside, medical, ethical, social and legal issues related to IVF are as yet still unresolved and some of those same issues apply to embryonic stem cell research. As overseas data shows, one per cent of births in America result from artificial insemination by donors via Internet mail-order sperm banks, and genetic testing is well advanced, both overseas and in Australia. It is estimated that within two years 50 per cent of all IVF cases will be undertaken not to overcome fertility problems but for preimplantation genetic diagnosis.

So what does preimplantation genetic diagnosis mean for generations to come? It is worth remembering that legal insurance exclusions already exist for those suffering from some conditions, such as heart disease, and that in the United States insurance implications for specific gene carriers for some other illnesses and conditions are already a reality. To what extent would a future Australian society tolerate or sanction transgenic remedies or perhaps the sterilisation of prepubescent girls carrying such genes? This proposition sounds absurd today but it is not beyond the realm of possibility if moral and ethical arguments are no longer persuasive.

Embryos from IVF treatments hold the promise of precious children. As fertilisation rates are low, any resultant embryo is highly prized. This legislation will allow researchers to derive new embryonic stem cell lines from embryos surplus to clinical requirements, donated with informed consent by couples having undergone such infertility treatment. It is possible that that consent may sometimes be given at the end of a physically, emotionally and financially debilitating and perhaps unsuccessful IVF process. Since it is not uncommon for IVF couples to have up to 10 IVF cycles in order to achieve a viable pregnancy and childbirth, the process requires stamina, commitment and a healthy bank account. Consent may also be given after a couple has learned that their remaining embryos are less than optimum for transplantation, the most viable embryos having already been used, or following either a pregnancy or the birth of a child or children. It is currently legal to preserve excess IVF embryos for future pregnancies or to donate them to other couples. In all states of Australia, all IVF clinics are required to adhere strictly to National Health and Medical Research Council guidelines to `limit storage of embryos to a maximum of 10 years'. The NHMRC has advised:

In all data gathered to date, less than 10% of patients will donate their embryos to other infertile couples. The majority of patients (50-65%) request to donate to research. The remainder (25-40%) request that the frozen-stored embryos be destroyed.

However, a survey published in the New England Journal of Medicine on 5 July last year found that 59 per cent of parents who initially planned to discard their embryos after three years later changed their minds. It is not drawing a long bow, despite the NHMRC data, to suggest that Australian couples, on reflection, would not support their embryos being used for research purposes, particularly research unrelated to IVF.

A belief that the legislation before us proposes not arbitrarily set but tight prohibitions has been disputed in evidence to the Senate inquiry. Even faith in our scientists and doctors at the cutting edge of scientific technique and medical therapy may ultimately be irrelevant when subjected to ethical and moral barometers. Going back to the economic argument, despite assurances and legislative penalties, with the prospective huge financial incentives science may well be motivated to create human life purely for research purposes. Earlier this year, Dr John Smeaton, the Chief Executive Officer of BresaGen, a South Australian based company, estimated that embryo research had the potential to become a multibillion dollar business. It has already received US National Institutes of Health funding—specifically, a $US1.6 million grant for expansion, differentiation and distribution of four human embryonic stem cell lines in the United States. Dr Hurlbut's view is that therapeutic cloning is a likely possibility. He argues that arbitrarily set prohibitions are `vulnerable to transgression through the persuasive promise of further scientific benefit'. While cloning is illegal in Australia, some other countries do allow therapeutic cloning. They are listed in the Senate committee report. The pressure for Australia to do likewise in the future is not remote, despite the fact that it is very likely that the Prohibition of Human Cloning Bill 2002 will pass this parliament. There can be no doubt that we are therefore at a significant turning point.

Embryonic stem cell research itself has been undertaken in mice for nearly 30 years. According to Dr Peter McCullagh from the University of Sydney, the results of this research so far have been less than spectacular. He argues:

... rigorous animal testing ... is required for two reasons: to determine whether it works and, if so, whether it is safe.

It seems to me that the evidence—after nearly 30 years—shows that it is neither. A particularly persuasive argument for me was from Professor Michael Good, an Australian medical researcher and Fellow of the Australian Society for Microbiology and Honorary Fellow of the Royal Australian College of Physicians. In a frank articulation of his views, he said:

... the science does not stack up. The Australian public has been hoodwinked by the proponents of this research.

He went on to say:

they—

that is, the proponents of research—

talk about providing cures for very ill patients from human embryonic stem cells. However, embryos would have to be mass produced in order to provide the millions of cell lines that would be needed for transplantation for diseases such as diabetes, Parkinson's disease and so on. This is because we all possess near unique tissue types. It is extremely rare to find stem cells with the identical tissue type to ourselves. If not correctly matched, the chances of graft rejection are greatly increased. Furthermore, women would have to undergo super-ovulation to provide the number of eggs that would be needed to generate the cell lines.

In relation to the results obtained, Professor Good's comments are particularly enlightening. He said:

In all other fields of medical research, `proof of principle' research is conducted firstly in animals. There are scant animal data when it comes to treating diseases with embryonic stem cells. Why?

Because the lack of normal rigour that is expected of research leads me to question whether there is an ulterior motive ... and I am concerned that it may be to clone human beings.

`Therapeutic cloning' is where a person's cell nucleus is placed in an enucleated egg. At that point the person is `cloned'.

He further stated that the clone can provide `specialised cells' or can be `implanted and allowed to develop into a fetus'. He said:

Fetal-derived tissues ... could be taken and because the embryo or fetus is an identical clone ... tissues ... would not be rejected by the immune system.

... ... ...

From a purely scientific perspective, it is far more sensible than attempting to use unrelated ES cells.

In his view:

The foetus would become a commodity ... now is the time to draw the line.

According to the founding member of Do No Harm: the Coalition of Americans for Research Ethics, Professor of Life Sciences at Indiana State University, Dr David A. Prentice:

Proponents of embryonic stem cell research readily admit embryonic stem cells have a nasty habit of forming tumors when injected into experimental animals ... 20% of rats injected with embryonic stem cells died from tumors formed in their brains.

He went on to say:

A treatment which kills one-fifth of the patients is not very promising ... after over 20 years of work with the cells ... embryonic stem cells have not yet produced a single clinical treatment; there are few and limited successes in animal models; and problems of immune rejection, tumor formation and genomic instability continue to be unresolved.

With respect to contrasting research using adult stem cells, he stated:

Adult stem cells have proven success in laboratory culture and animal models. They are already being used in a range of clinical treatments.

One cannot look at embryonic stem cell research in isolation when there are such positive results already being achieved with adult stem cell research. To use Dr Prentice's phrase:

It's a contrast of promises versus treatments, dead mice versus live patients.

An article in the New Scientist on 23 January this year claimed that adult stem cells are the `ultimate stem cells'. Obtained from mature human cells, their therapeutic application is already commonplace. Trials are under way, using patients' own stem cells to overcome immune rejection problems.

If sanctity of human life is the fundamental principle upon which civilisation and law is based, it cannot be denied that civilised human society is full of contradictions. However, given those contradictions, much harder ethical questions need to be considered—for example, the value of the human pre-brain development entity. Given that the embryos in question are never destined for natural gestation, what is the relevance of their surplus status and should embryonic potential be part of the moral and ethical argument? If so, does the surplus embryo's fragility, vulnerability and lack of potential for viability reduce its inherent moral value?

My colleague Kevin Andrews, who chaired the committee on cloning, put a very persuasive argument when he said:

Human life deserves full respect and protection at every stage and in every condition. The intrinsic wrong of destroying innocent human life cannot be `outweighed' by any material advantage ... the end does not justify an immoral means.

Professor Good said:

Human life is a continuum characterised by growth, development and change. Any definition of its beginning at any time other than conception is arbitrary.

The fertilisation process initiates the most complex chemical reaction known to science. To paraphrase Dr Hurlbut, potency endows the embryo with its human character and inviolable inherent moral status, its unique genetic DNA code creating individual human character. Embryonic cells differ from any other human cell or tissue in that they alone have the potential to develop into a full human organism. The reference to human embryos as a `ball of cells destined for the rubbish bin', I believe, diminishes their significance.

Dr Amin John Abboud, Director of Australian Bioethics Information, told the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee:

... the debate about embryonic stem cell research is, at the end of the day, a debate about cloning.

At the stem cell conference held in Melbourne in September all the participants:

... advocated what they call therapeutic cloning— because for therapeutic benefit you will need that. The existing embryos will probably have no therapeutic benefit.

Scottish scientist Ian Wilmut, who cloned Dolly, this year published findings that every cloned animal in the world is genetically and physically defective. Dr Tonti-Filippini—to whom I referred at the beginning of my remarks—criticised the drafting of the bill and the `secretive, non-consultative culture' of the Human Research Ethics Committee, which he said was `unregulated, unrestricted and unsurveyed research on stem cells and embryos' and he went on to speak about the lack of `restriction on export or import of stem cells'.

While therapeutic cloning is not proposed in this legislation, any extension of this existing research, even for human therapeutic benefit, which uses the human embryo as a resource or commodity for research purposes diminishes our humanity. The potential merits of therapeutic cloning, in the event that it was approved, have not been outweighed by morality relating to the sanctity of human life. The scientific case in favour of embryonic stem cell research is not compelling in my view, whereas alternative forms of research on adult stem cells continue apace with exceptionally impressive results. Issues of our humanity and ethical science are paramount, and I find the moral and ethical arguments opposed to embryonic stem cell research and the use of foetal tissue to develop stem cell lines very persuasive.

Additionally, there is substantial discrepancy and polarisation of views within the scientific community itself while the rest of the community lags a long way behind in its understanding of the science. In my view, now is the time to draw the line. To me, the creation of life is still miraculous, in vitro or naturally, viable or not. Therefore, I will be voting against the Research Involving Embryos Bill 2002.