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Tuesday, 12 November 2002
Page: 6133


Senator ALSTON (Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts) (8:08 PM) —I rise to speak on the Research Involving Embryos Bill 2002. It is not often that parliamentarians are given a conscience vote. Such a liberating process is almost always reserved for matters involving high moral questions. This debate is no exception. It is hard to find more fundamental issues than those that enter the realms of eschatology: when does life begin and in what circumstances should it end? The utilitarian argument of `the greatest good for the greatest number' is often used as an analogue of the much more expedient `the end justifies the means'. Neither should be allowed to prevail over matters of deep principle. Where there is doubt, one should err on the side of caution.

Much of the debate today has centred on the next nirvana, whereby the use of embryonic stem cells from human embryos is seen as potentially the cure for many of the major diseases and illnesses of our time. The reality, however, is that the legislation does not purport to limit the use of embryonic stem cells for such high-minded purposes and, given the enormous difficulty in framing such definitions in a highly technical and fast moving field of science, it is unlikely that any regulatory regime will be watertight. What is much more likely is that if the legislation is passed in its present form it will not be long before there is pressure to harvest very significant numbers of embryonic stem cells for general research purposes.

Perhaps the key issue in this whole debate is whether it should be permissible to actively intervene in harvesting embryonic stem cells, thereby killing off the prospect of a human life when those embryos which are surplus to IVF requirements are almost inevitably going to be allowed to succumb or die in a few years time. Once again the utilitarian argument seems to prevail: if it is going to happen anyway we may as well get on with it. This argument is not far removed from the euthanasia debate, which essentially says that rather than allowing nature to take its course human beings are justified in cutting life short for the alleviation of suffering. In other words, as the argument goes, there is not a sufficient moral difference between, on the one hand, allowing surplus frozen embryos to thaw and succumb and, on the other hand, destroying those surplus embryos for the benefit of scientific research which might advance lifesaving and life enhancing therapies. Again, there is the argument that since the embryos are going to die anyway we may as well make use of them.

Despite some expedient attempts to treat human life as beginning at an arbitrary seven or even 14 days after conception there seems little argument amongst modern embryologists that life commences at fertilisation and thereafter the genetic endowment of the embryo allows it to spring into life of its own accord. However, as the Southern Cross Bioethics Institute has stated so eloquently:

The profound ethical difference between killing and letting die has been, and still is, an essential component of our legal and moral understanding of the way we deal with each other ...

If a human being has a terminal illness we do not permit other people to kill that human being for research purposes, no matter how vital that research may be, or what utopian cures such research may promise. The legal (and ethical) distinction between allowing a person to die of their disease when we can no longer arrest its inexorable progress, and killing that person, is accounted for in the crime of homicide or murder.

Human embryos which have been frozen and which are no longer needed or wanted for further ART treatment cycles, are thawed and are allowed to succumb. This is similar to other human beings for whom we have no meaningful treatment and who too are being maintained by an artificial life support system. We do not maintain artificial life support systems when those systems are no longer meaningful, when they no longer serve any therapeutic purpose. We remove those support systems and the person dies of the underlying condition.

Being maintained in deep freeze when there is no longer any prospect of being transferred to (a) mother's uterus, or any prospect of any other life sustaining treatment is an offence to human dignity. The support system (being maintained in deep freeze) should be removed and the embryo allowed to succumb. There is a very significant ethical difference between being directly and intentionally killed, and being allowed to die.

Stem cell therapy has great potential but there are many sources of stem cells. Adult stem cells, which do not suffer from tissue rejection problems, are constantly being used and improved with exciting and positive outcomes in areas such as multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease and sickle-cell anaemia. It is only adult stem cells that have helped patients to date or are likely to do so for the foreseeable future. On the other hand, stem cells taken from embryos—in a process which thereby destroys the possibility of human life—offer much more problematic prospects for providing therapeutic benefits. Indeed, there is little, if any, evidence to indicate that embryonic stem cells have yet produced a single positive clinical treatment.

While there may have been some apparently positive outcomes in relation to animals, problems of immune rejection and genomic instability render this area of research very problematic. Almost by definition, the supply of human tissue from adult stem cells is endless and therefore there is no question of a shortage of such material for research purposes. Adult stem cells are also more stable than embryonic stem cells and are not as prone to forming tumours. On the other hand, use of embryonic stem cells—apart from the moral and ethical issues involved— will inevitably lead to increased demand for much greater harvesting, thereby compounding the ethical issues.

It is also a matter of serious concern that debate on the bill has been surrounded by an emotive campaign aimed at appealing to those desperate to benefit from scientific breakthroughs for some crippling and life threatening illnesses rather than promoting a serious analysis of the moral issues involved. It seems that certain leading members of the scientific community see many commercial opportunities, both domestic and export, which are not necessarily limited to so-called therapeutic cloning—in particular, general research into pharmacological testing or toxicity. Indeed, despite some temporary tactical retreats in order to get the bill through, it seems that its principal proponent will stop at little to get his way. In relation to the Human Embryo Experimentation Bill 1985, Professor Trounson said:

I would do anything to cure disease.

He also said:

I don't care if it is a floodgate. If it opens an opportunity to treat really serious disease and disabilities it is all right with me.

Such single-minded expediency inspires little confidence that his consideration of these issues will be troubled by any moral scruples. As Dr Tonti-Filippini has made clear, these bills suffer from serious legislative vagueness and are very much at odds with the proclaimed objectives. The issues at stake are fundamental to the basis of an ethical society. I do not accept that this bill is necessary for progress in treating many serious illnesses. Unless and until it is demonstrated that adult stem cells are inadequate, there is no reason to move into other areas of stem cell research. I will therefore be voting against these bills.