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Tuesday, 12 November 2002
Page: 6145


Senator PATTERSON (Minister for Health and Ageing) (9:19 PM) — Senator Harradine and I will most probably have to continue to disagree on this issue. I often agree with Senator Harradine on some issues and we have to disagree on others. However, a human embryo is defined in both bills to mean:

... a live embryo that has a human genome or an altered human genome and that has been developing for less than 8 weeks since the appearance of 2 pro-nuclei or the initiation of its development by other means.

The definition has been adopted because it encompasses all embryos, regardless of how they were created. The definition includes embryos created by the fertilisation of a human egg by human sperm—the appearance of two pronuclei is the first observable point at which it is clear that fertilisation has commenced—and embryos that have had their development initiated by any means other than by fertilisation of a human egg by human sperm. This includes embryos created by somatic cell nuclear transfer and it also includes parthenogenetic embryos.

It has been suggested that the definition of `human embryo' in clause 8 of the Prohibition of Human Cloning Bill 2002 and clause 7 of the Research Involving Embryos Bill 2002 is circular and that an additional definition of `embryo' is needed. My legal advice states that this is not the case. The term being defined is `human embryo', which is a class of embryo. It is a standard rule of statutory interpretation that where a term is not defined in the legislation the ordinary meaning of the word applies. The ordinary meaning of the word would normally be identified in common available dictionaries. The consistent thread of such definitions is the reference to human development up to the eighth week. Common definitions support the contention that a further definition of the term `embryo' is not required in order to maintain the effectiveness of the definition. The definition used in the bill was developed following extensive consultation. It is clear. It is broadly drafted, so it will still be appropriate even as technology develops and it describes a clear, identifiable point in time from which it is legally possible to say that the embryo exists rather than relying on uncertain or imprecise concepts.

With all due respect to Senator Harradine, the amendment creates many difficulties. Because of its reliance on vague concepts, such as the presence of a suitable environment and development in an integrated way, many things can be defined as embryos which I am quite sure it was never intended should be so considered. For example, somatic cells—such as a skin cell, a sperm or an egg—would be defined as an embryo because any of these things, if placed in a suitable environment, can develop in an integrated way. For example, a somatic cell, if placed in a nucleated egg that is placed in a suitable environment, can develop in an integrated way. Effectively, a somatic cell would then be defined as an embryo, which is clearly not our intention. This simply demonstrates the difficulty in defining a term such as `human embryo' and the dangers that are inherent in making an ad hoc change that may look reasonable on the face of it but which may have unintended consequences.