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Wednesday, 4 December 2002
Page: 7177

Senator IAN CAMPBELL (Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasurer) (4:35 PM) —There are a number of things I would like to respond to in the remarks made by Senator Boswell and Senator Harradine. Senator Boswell pleaded to our colleagues, who are glued to their monitors following this debate—I do not mean to sound sarcastic—to listen to the arguments. I think it is fair to say that most senators have probably concentrated more on this debate than any other debate in recent times. Certainly, because of my role as Manager of Government Business in the Senate, I have had to speak more than just about anyone else in this place to the supporters of the bill and those who are opposed to this bill. I think that there is a very deep understanding of many of the issues that are being discussed. That clearly means that the outcome will be representative of the views of the Senate as a whole, ultimately. I join with Senator Boswell in his plea—not to the extent of suggesting that people are not concentrating on the debate but to pay tribute to the level of interest that there has been in the debate.

I know, from coming in here for divisions, that senators do not always know exactly the amendment that we are dealing with at the time, but overall they have been following this debate very closely. I do not think it is fair to pretend or to even assert that all senators are not following it or taking an interest in it. I think we are all taking it very seriously. Some senators, such as Senator Harradine, Senator Boswell and others, are living it and breathing it, amendment by amendment. Not everyone is as interested. I think we should be all proud as senators that the debate has been well informed and that most people are paying attention to those areas that are of particular concern to them. I know that Senator Patterson, for example, is approached regularly by colleagues saying, `What is the amendment? Do you have details?' Everyone is trying quite hard to make informed decisions, and I think that generally the debate in this place has been of a significantly better quality, as in most cases, than the debate in the other place.

I turn to Senator Boswell's and Senator Harradine's particular remarks—and I have been provided with these notes by the ministers and officers. Senator Boswell did cite a paper by James A. Thomson and others, a co-author of which was John Hearn, who gave evidence before the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee. The paper was one of the original papers describing the isolation and culture of embryonic stem cells. The paper did not show that embryonic stem cells could form embryos. Rather, when cultured at a high density, these cells formed embryoid bodies. These are collections of cells of different lineages but they have no ability for organisation, as occurs in an embryo. The ability to form embryoid bodies was evidence that the stem cells were pluripotent. John Hearn, who is from the Australian National University, has advised that human embryonic stem cells do not have the capacity to form advanced embryoid bodies, as described in the paper for marmoset stem cells.

Senator Boswell has indicated that the reason he moved this amendment—which was, as Senator Boswell would agree, defeated in a slightly different form earlier— was the concerns that embryonic stem cells could be used to create human embryos or could be used in cloning experiments overseas. They are obviously very legitimate and sound concerns. In relation to this, yesterday Senator Boswell provided the minister with citations from three peer review journals which he says support his claim that a mouse has been wholly derived from embryonic stem cells. The minister has obtained expert advice on these articles and can assure the chamber that this is not the case.

The articles cited by Senator Boswell relate to work that was undertaken about a decade ago. That work was undertaken prior to the discovery of the technique known as somatic cell nuclear transfer, or SNCT, which was used to develop and create Dolly the sheep. The work reported in these journals shows that, when the mouse stem cells were mixed with certain other mouse cell types in culture and the combination of cells was placed in a mouse uterus, it was possible to achieve a viable mouse embryo. The technique reported was cumbersome and had a very low success rate in mice. As a technique for the cloning of animals, this research was overtaken by the development of SCNT, which has been used successfully, albeit with a low success rate and significant health problems, in resultant cloned animals in a range of mammals, from mice to cows.

However, in relation to the concerns raised by both Senator Boswell and Senator Harradine regarding the possibility that human embryonic stem cells could be used in the cloning of human embryos, this is theoretically possible. The technique of SCNT, whereby the nucleus from any cell of the body excluding sperm and eggs—for example, skin, liver, muscle, brain and theoretically any stem cell, be it embryonic or adult—is transferred into an egg which has had its nucleus removed, could theoretically be used to clone a human embryo. However, in this respect a human embryonic stem cell has no advantage over any other human cell that has a full human genome. Any human cell can be used in the SCNT procedure, along with a healthy human egg.

Under the Prohibition of Human Cloning Bill 2002, this technique, or in fact any other technique that may be developed to clone human embryos, is banned with strong penalties. The export and import of prohibited human embryos is also banned and, as announced during debate on the Prohibition of Human Cloning Bill, the government is banning the export of all human embryos and the import of viable products of human embryo clones through changes to the customs regulation. In relation to Senator Boswell's concerns that human embryonic stem cells will be taken overseas and used in the cloning of human embryos, I hope I have explained that human embryonic stem cells are not unique in this regard. Senator Boswell wants to prohibit international trade in embryonic stem cells, and I can see that this concept will get some support. However, this bill is not the appropriate forum in which to address such concerns.

I say in parenthesis that Senator Harradine, in the introduction to his remarks, said that this bill allows this to occur. It is not actually this bill that allows it to occur; that is not quite specifically accurate. I think Senator Harradine and Senator Boswell would agree with me that they would like this bill to not allow it to occur. This bill does not particularly change the situation, and we are saying that this is not the bill to address those concerns. I think it is also fair to say that the government, during the debate on the cloning bill, did in fact give an undertaking to ban the trade in materials from related human cloning and to review it in 12 months. So I think it is fair to say that the government have shown their bona fides in relation to this issue and the concerns about the trade in human embryonic stem cells that Senator Boswell and Senator Harradine have raised.

This amendment is outside the scope of the Research Involving Embryos Bill 2002. Of the two bills considered, it would have been more appropriate for such an amendment to be moved to the Prohibition of Human Cloning Bill. In fact, such an amendment was discussed but not supported. I mentioned during the debate on the Prohibition of Human Cloning Bill that the Prime Minister has undertaken to amend the Customs (Prohibited Exports) Regulations 1958 to provide for a 12-month prohibition on exporting human embryos, during which time the government will determine the most appropriate way of regulating such exports. I have also stated the government's intention to amend the customs regulations to implement a ban on the import of viable materials derived from human embryo clones, and again this bill will be reviewed after 12 months.

With regard to Senator Boswell's revised amendment, considerable work is required to understand the ramifications of such a proposal and to work out the details, if it is considered desirable. Some of the details to be considered would include, firstly, whether the proposed ban would be extended from embryonic stem cells to other human tissues, given that any human tissue could be utilised in cloning techniques. I understand that such an arrangement, for example, may prevent the transfer of human tissues required for transplant. Secondly, would the proposed ban only cover trade where money is exchanged? What about where cells are given freely to colleagues in other countries? Such an arrangement would set a dangerous precedent, as the international scientific community relies on collaborative research programs that depend on international sharing of resources in order to extend global research efforts.

If these proposals were to gain support it could result in the Australian research and medical communities being isolated from international counterparts. Such a result would have disastrous effects on Australian research efforts and, therefore, on the future health and wellbeing of Australians. It is also fair to say it would have a disastrous effect on the development of world-wide leading edge research. Therefore, it would have an effect on the attraction of scientists and medical researchers to develop their careers in Australia or in fact to enter into those careers in the first place. I am sorry for delaying the Senate for so long, but I think Senator Boswell and Senator Harradine in particular would appreciate the detail we have gone into in responding to their concerns and also the sympathetic nature with which the government has viewed similar concerns in relation to its consideration of these trade issues with regard to the Prohibition of Human Cloning Bill. For these reasons, we will not be supporting this amendment.