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Tuesday, 3 December 2002
Page: 7020

Senator BROWN (4:30 PM) —I certainly do agree with the amendment as it is an extremely important amendment. I will not fully canvass once again the reasons for the amendment but I will refresh the memories of senators regarding the amendment. The Greens are moving to establish a national stem cell bank which would effectively hold as property stem cells and would ensure that they are available on an equal basis to those entities who would put those cells to research and other use as laid down in this legislation. It would be a holding bank with guidelines and ethics that many people would want to see in place if embryonic stem cells or, indeed, adult stem cells were to be made available for research purposes.

Before consideration of the bill was adjourned last night, I said that some senators had got this matter back to front. We need to establish processes which will reassure the public that embryonic stem cells in particular are not going to be misused and are not going to be used for commercial advantage with that as the driving ethic rather than the humanitarian grounds that we hear propounded by supporters of embryonic stem cell and embryonic cell research. The best way of doing that is to establish institutions with guidelines and an overview to ensure that this research is kept within the bounds that society wishes it to be kept within; otherwise we will continue to build on the current situation in which there are largely no checks and balances.

I know some people will say, `There is cell research taking place at the moment; we don't want to stop that. What you're proposing here is that we wait until July next year to work out how to set up a national cell bank such as the one being set up in Britain.' I say, `Let us wait.' If somebody wants to move that the current slate of experiments be allowed to continue in the meantime, I would certainly entertain that. But what I do not entertain is the alternative proposal that is before us which effectively says, `Let us wait some years before establishing the organisational basis and the guidelines that go with it.' This amendment only puts into play what the majority of senators, I believe, would want to see happen—that is, we know what the boundaries are; we know who is writing those boundaries and we know that stem cells from any source are not going to be inappropriately used. So you set up a national bank for these cells first. You do not pass this legislation and then say, `Further down the line, we will move to the appropriate mechanism, which is the bank.'

This is a very important amendment, as far as I am concerned. I have great difficulty with this legislation. A while ago Senator Harradine mentioned the Manhattan project—I do not know whether it was in this context or not. I do not think that science was adequately regulated when the explosion of nuclear potential and power into the living fabric of the planet occurred much less than a century ago. I am very concerned that there are laboratories at the moment in the United States and elsewhere fabricating viruses for no other purpose than to allow scientists to see if they can do it. Quite recently, one laboratory in the United States announced that they had fabricated the polio virus from building block proteins—a virus which a good many of us had thought had been effectively eliminated from human society. When the head of that laboratory was asked, `Why did you do that?' from behind his white coat he said, `To show that terrorists could do it.' That is an appalling failure on the part of scientists to regulate themselves, to have an ethic which is appropriate and which puts at the forefront the security of life, in both the short and long term, on this planet.

We are dealing with legislation to regulate the use of embryonic stem cells which are a by-product of the IVF process. One of the strongest arguments put forward in this chamber is, `These cells will be disposed of anyway and effectively killed.' But it seems to me that the legislative process is not tight at all; we have open doors everywhere. Senator Nettle and I are proposing that we establish a national public human stem cell bank. It is an idea which is new, just as research involving these cells is new. But it is an idea which is commensurate with the public concern about these cells. It is an idea which suggests: `Let us have a central holding authority so that we can assure the public that there is clear and transparent use of these cells and ethical guidelines at a one-stop shop,' a one-stop bank on this occasion, `which is under scrutiny by the parliament— that is, by the people.'

This is a simple reassurance mechanism but a vitally important one. I commend every senator to look at this stem cell bank proposal. I also ask every senator to make sure that we put it in place. The amendment that we have is worded to say, `No, don't put it off. Don't separate it out from this legislation. Make it part of it; put it in the schedule.' Let us have the investigation that is required and make sure that it is done properly. It is a learning process but not so much as the experimentation taking place with embryonic stem cells at the moment. It is much easier to set up an institution than it is to work out the processes that should be divined, what the ethics are or how we as a human community draw the line on stem cell research. Let us do it, and let us assure ourselves that a transparent, publicly backed authority is in charge.

One of the concerns that would allay things, as far as I am concerned, is the recognition that we are being driven by a profit motive—the corporate sector sees huge returns coming out of stem cell research—and that the foot is on the accelerator because there is a race to get there first. That is very different from the humanitarian motive and the possibility that there might be a breakthrough which would help human beings with disabilities or those who are suffering in one way or another. If we are going to make sure that it is for the humanitarian motive and not for the profit motive then we have to legislate for that. It is a complex matter but this proposal makes it as simple as possible. It comes out of the findings of a committee in the House of Lords. The United Kingdom is moving to set up a stem cell bank. We should do so too. I ask senators not to allow this to be put on the shelf for future investigation without a time line being set for implementation down the line after this legislation has been brought in. That is a prescription for ensuring that it does not happen. It is much better for the bank to be set up—and then we can change the laws, adjusting them to help the bank to work fully and in the best interests of the people—than for the bank not to be set up because we think we are unprepared. I think we are unprepared for stem cell research, frankly, in many ways.

It would help me greatly in determining how I should vote on this legislation if I knew that there was an authority in place whose full-time, whole and sole concentration was to ensure that stem cell research was for the wider public good and for humanitarian purposes. It would have its eye on the pitfalls and the things that could go wrong and it would ensure that stem cell research was absolutely not driven by the market, which is a great place for making money but a very poor place for manufacturing ethics. I commend very strongly the amendment by Senator Nettle for the establishment of a national public human stem cell bank and believe that we should await the establishment of that bank rather than give licences out first. Let us have the bank and put the money in it and in an orderly and judicious fashion allow that to be distributed, rather than put out the money now and say, `Let's get a bank later and see if we can gather it all together at a later date.'