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Tuesday, 12 November 2002
Page: 6128

Senator TIERNEY (7:31 PM) —I rise to speak on the Research Involving Embryos Bill 2002, on which all members and senators have a right to exercise a conscience vote. Parliamentary leaders are to be congratulated for allowing a conscience vote on this bill, as it throws up a number of complex ethical issues. The last time the parliament was in this situation was in 1997, when we were debating the euthanasia laws. The issues considered in this debate are even more complex because they involve the mystery surrounding the beginning of life itself.

Like other senators and members, I have received numerous letters, faxes and emails from lobby groups and concerned citizens. There has been considerable media comment, and the debate in both chambers of parliament has been robust and passionate. Our democracy works best in such situations. Like many of my colleagues, I have been rung by the press and asked how I am going to vote. I have refused to say, because I believe you should listen to the debate in the parliament before making your final decision. The contributions of Senator Chris Ellison, opposing the bill, and Senator Marise Payne, supporting the bill, stand out as persuasive arguments for both sides of the debate. In the end, we all make a judgment based on the arguments, our own personal histories and our own values.

Before the Prime Minister drew up this legislation, he consulted widely across the scientific and religious community. He found no consensus. Leading churchmen argued for and against, and top scientists also disagreed on the necessity of carrying out research on embryos to advance the science of stem cell research. The bill takes a middle course, allowing research to proceed under certain conditions and preventing open slather. However, history informs us that it is hard to keep this balance over time. It is difficult to ring-fence a dynamic research environment. In so many areas of social policy in the past, strict conditions have been laid down in legislation, ring fences carefully constructed and regulations vigorously designed. Five or 10 years later the carefully designed constraints are largely dismantled. We have seen it happen in social policy on gambling, abortion, censorship, in-vitro fertilisation and marriage laws, to name but a few. Late one night an amendment to a bill or a changed regulation can mean that all that was originally agreed to suddenly changes or is reversed, or a court can put a new interpretation on the legislation.

At this point in our history we have a dynamic social and research environment, and my greatest concern is that, once we legalise embryonic stem cell research, from day one the pressure will be on to change the rules. Can we trust the scientists to stick to the agreement? Professor Trounson's deceptive conduct with the rodent experiment, under the full glare of public scrutiny, does not fill me with confidence about what scientists may do in the privacy of their laboratories in the future. Why this point is so important with regard to this piece of legislation is that at the centre of this debate are ethical issues relating to the beginning of life. A number of speakers against the bill have agreed that life begins at the point of conception or, at the very least, at the point where the fertilised egg attaches itself to the womb. They argue that, once the life force begins, it should not be interfered with except in exceptional circumstances. Others claim the time benchmarks in the gestation process. It is because of this uncertainty that I am very concerned about the inevitable future pressure to relax the rules. What must be maintained is the very wise balance in the proposed legislation, and on this basis I will be supporting a regime where existing embryos which would have been destroyed anyway are used for research.

Some speeches have argued that there is a technical difference between expiring on the research bench and reaching the end as a result of experimentation. On balance, for embryos at the start of their development, I think this is splitting hairs, so I have come down on the side of the bill as it is presented. If we allow this research to go ahead, the potential for the relief of suffering and heartbreak in our society is enormous. I am sure that we all have family members whose quality of life would be enhanced enormously by treatment breakthroughs in a wide range of medical conditions for which stem cell research holds promise.

I must confess at this point to a particular personal interest. Having been a victim of polio just after birth, about 10 years before the Salk vaccine was developed, I saw in my regular visits to Camperdown Children's Hospital in the late 1940s and the 1950s the ravages of full-blown polio in children. I thank God daily that I can walk. Post-polio syndrome means that it will catch up with me in old age. I have been told by specialists that I will need a major operation in about 10 years to correct some of the effects that have developed slowly over a lifetime. With the advent of stem cell research, a gloomy prognosis for old age is now reversed. There is now hope that not only old age conditions may be reversed but some of the original debilitating effects dating from the 1940s could also be reversed. If the effect of a mild dose of polio can be reversed, what might be possible for more serious conditions and their debilitating effects? Things such as severe physical disabilities, Alzheimer's, dementia and diabetes—to name a few—could be stopped in their tracks and, in some cases, reversed.

Having listened carefully to the debate on adult versus new stem cells, I have come down on the side of advancing both forms of research in the belief that this will produce much earlier breakthroughs. I realise that research is still at a very early stage—Christopher Reeve is not going to walk next year and his condition may never be cured. But there is the potential with embryonic stem cell research to relieve so much suffering. If embryonic stem cell research is banned, the critical research breakthroughs—not possible with adult stem cell research—may never occur.

Australians overwhelmingly support this view. A Roy Morgan poll found that 72 per cent of Australians support embryonic stem cell research where the donors have given consent. On 4 September this year the Canberra Times printed an article stating that, according to the Canberra Fertility Centre, couples who have completed IVF treatment are already supporting this research and offering to donate their frozen embryos for embryonic stem cell research. The Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, a group of 10 organisations including the Australian Spinal Research Trust, the Motor Neurone Disease Association and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, believe:

... embryonic stem cell research holds one of the greatest hopes for finding a cure for hundreds and thousands of Australians with diseases and disabilities ... that these people should have the opportunity for a better quality of life and to not literally be protected to death by legislation.

With regard to spinal cord injuries, scientists at Washington University have already successfully turned embryonic stem cells into nervous system cells when injected into the spinal cord of injured rats. Dr John Yeo, co-chairman of the scientific committee of the Australian Spinal Research Trust and a board member of the Spinal Research Foundation at Royal North Shore Hospital, has been involved in the treatment and rehabilitation of patients suffering from paralysis and loss of normal bodily functions as a result of spinal cord injuries for many years. In the Sydney Morning Herald on 29 August this year he stated:

We have been encouraged by research which many of us have undertaken to find ways of enticing nerves to regenerate and return to the 'end organ', be it muscle, skin or internal organs.

... ... ...

Use of embryonic stem cells is an essential part of this learning process

... ... ...

we should not miss the opportunity of assisting those in need.

In another medical field, insulin was a major medical breakthrough for diabetes sufferers and has improved the lives of many in significant ways. However, diabetes remains the world's fastest growing disease and Australia's seventh leading cause of death. Over one million Australians have it—with 50 per cent as yet unaware—and every 10 minutes someone new is diagnosed. Insulin treatment is an example of a scientific breakthrough that may be improved dramatically by embryonic stem cell research.

Professor Bernie Tuch, the Director of the Diabetes Transplant Unit at the Prince of Wales Hospital in Sydney at the University of New South Wales, told the Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs inquiry into this legislation that about three papers have been produced in relation to embryonic stem cell research. The first is from Spain in the year 2000. Professor Tuch stated that this paper:

... demonstrated that you could turn mouse embryonic stem cells into insulin-producing cells and that when you transplanted those cells into diabetic mice you would normalise the blood sugar levels.

How can we take away the chance when the possibilities are so clear?

Most arguments in opposition to this bill are based on the opinion that there are several sources of cells, for instance, the pancreas, bone marrow and, of course, adult stem cells. These other options sound fantastic in theory but unfortunately not in practice. The pancreas is the source of insulin-producing cells but research into this would involve the use of the human pancreas and, considering that the number of people in this country who donated organs last year was 185, this seems like a poor option.

We have heard of recent research at the University of Minnesota. It was found that a small number of stem cells in bone marrow have the same potential as embryonic stem cells to develop into mature cells. However, this research is very early and these cells are very small in number. In a recent research publication called Nature from University of Minnesota, Dr Catherine Verfaillie has said:

Adult stem cell research should be done in conjunction with embryonic, rather than instead of, so that the chances of developing therapies for disease are pursued as soon as possible.

Many of the findings showing that adult stem cells can be isolated and manipulated into a variety of mature cells have been difficult to repeat. It has been demonstrated that these conversions occur at very low frequencies and are therefore unlikely to be transferred into therapeutic use. It has been demonstrated that these conversions occur only under severe conditions such as those following irradiation of tissue—again generally unlikely to be used in a therapeutic context.

There is much hope held for adult stem cells but there is no proof that these can meet all the potential needs for cell therapy. Adult stem cells are presently much less able to multiply and differentiate into as many cell types as embryonic stem cells can. In this way embryonic stem cell research is unique. I do not believe that we should give up on any of these options. As I said earlier, I support medical research. I think we should explore all these options along with the remarkable possibilities that embryonic stem cell research presents for the relief of human suffering. (Quorum formed)