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Monday, 2 December 2002
Page: 6877


Senator HARRADINE (6:07 PM) —I move amendment (2) on sheet 2751 revised:

(2) Page 11 (after line 5), at the end of Division 2, add:

12A Offence—disadvantage or victimisation of persons conscientiously objecting to conducting research on human embryos

A person commits an offence if the person:

(a) disadvantages, victimises, threatens or discriminates against another person in the course of his or her employment, research or study because that other person conscientiously objects to being involved with research on human embryos and human embryonic stem cells;

(b) compels another person in the course of his or her employment or study to be involved with research on human embryos or human embryonic stem cells if that other person conscientiously objects to conducting research on human embryos or human embryonic stem cells.

Maximum penalty: $10,000 for a body corporate or $2,000 in other cases.

Note: A human embryo includes an excess ART embryo.

This is an extremely important matter relating to conscientious objection. This amendment proposes a new section 12A, which creates an offence if a person disadvantages or discriminates against persons conscientiously objecting to conducting research on human embryos.

The amendment will ensure that those who do not wish to participate in destructive experiments on human embryos will have their rights to a conscientious objection protected. It is a fundamental right not to be personally complicit in what one considers to be morally objectionable practices. People are entitled to basic freedoms of association, freedoms of conscience and to connect as one desires as long as no harm is done to others. The right not to be involved in practices that one considers to be morally objectionable is simply an exercise in the expression of those basic freedoms.

It is important, therefore, that individuals are not forced to be directly or indirectly complicit in acts or practices that they deeply believe to be ethically or morally objectionable. A person's act of professional engagement in destructive embryonic research in the workplace or in the educational setting can count, from that person's point of view, as moral complicity to the extent that it actively supports the conduct of the practice. It is not important that the practice in question is bad or immoral; it is rather that the person concerned genuinely and deeply believes it to be so. Therefore, it does not require that a person oppose the Research Involving Embryos Bill 2002 in order to support this amendment.

It is generally agreed that in some cases a person's genuine and conscientious objection to engage in a particular activity is sufficient grounds for them to be exempted without penalty—for example, conscientious objection to military service on deeply held pacifist grounds. Where someone who is required to perform some duty or obligation is granted a conscientious exemption, it is usually because compliance by that person would involve a deep and grave violation of their moral integrity. In other words, they are exempted because complying would cause them significant moral and psychological distress, if not harm.

Conscientious objection is an important protection in the employment sector—and I address my remarks to the Labor Party through you, Temporary Chairman Brandis. It is very important for workers. Employment is a very basic social need and employment opportunities are limited. They are a limited resource even if the employer-employee relationship is, in many cases, a voluntary and a so-called private one. This calls into question just how voluntary an employee's relationship with an employer is. Most employees do not have the luxury of being able to move to a new job if a regime is imposed upon them to which they have a conscientious objection. Where complying with the employer's directives would cause significant moral and psychological distress, an employee should have the right to conscientious refusal. An employee has a right to a work environment that does not cause them harm or significant distress. The exercise of that right cannot justifiably be penalised. That is the case in this particular instance where there is a deliberate attempt to integrate adult stem cell research with human embryonic stem cell research.

Education is another area which I have sought to cover by this amendment, particularly with respect to those students studying biology and other university subjects. Education is a basic social good to which all are entitled. Moreover, people are entitled, arguably by moral right, to education in an environment that does not cause them moral harm or significant psychological distress. In fact, it is often thought that one of the fundamental goals of an education is to enhance or at least facilitate moral and psychological development. Therefore, if students were required to engage in educational activities involving the destruction of embryos, even though they found this deeply morally objectionable, their rights of protection against harm and distress would be breached and the educational activity itself would probably run counter to the purposes of education. Conscientious refusal should be allowed to students without penalty or discipline with alternative educational and assessment tasks set.

This is a very vital amendment. The Prime Minister of this country has said that we all ought to have a conscience vote. It is very fine for us to give ourselves a conscience vote on a measure. What does this measure do? It opens the way for destructive experiments on human embryos. The fact of the matter is that there are researchers involved in adult stem cell research in other research areas within a particular institution and, in that case, they may be required to undertake certain research activities involving human embryos, even if it is not explicit or overt but part of a structure or a regime. If we are going down this path, I believe we have a responsibility to protect people's consciences. I know that it will be said that the NHMRC has in its guidelines—and again I emphasise that they are guidelines—the provision of conscientious objection. The guidelines say:

Those staff who conscientiously object to research projects or therapeutic programs conducted by institutions that employ them should not be obliged to participate in those projects or programs to which they object and they should not be put at a disadvantage because of their objection.

They are guidelines; they are not insisted upon by law. In fact, they do not cover the area of education, so we do need to have this up-front in this legislation so that everybody knows about it. It is a principle of justice and equity. I believe we should adopt my amendment.