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Thursday, 5 December 2002
Page: 7257

Senator SANTORO (11:47 AM) —I wish to make a few remarks but, in view of the time limits that we are facing in this debate, in deference to other speakers who may want to continue with contributions to this debate, I will keep them brief. This is really the first opportunity for me to take a significant role in the work of the Senate chamber and, because of this, I seek the indulgence of the committee to make some general remarks about the Research Involving Embryos Bill 2002 before going on to briefly discuss section 42. By any measurement, by any criteria, this is a historic debate that I have been anxious to participate in. I have received probably more representations in relation to the matter that is under debate in this bill than at any other time in my 26 years of political activity and involvement. I must admit that it is an argument that is immensely difficult. I have sat around dinner tables and at group meetings discussing it. I have seen families divide over it. I have seen friends divide over it. I have seen people argue vehemently against each other who were never in that state of mind until this issue came before the community in the way that it has.

It is a conscience vote, and I have thought very long and very hard about this. One of the reasons I delayed coming into the debate was that I wanted to see and hear carefully the arguments that were being put forward by my new parliamentary colleagues. I must admit that I was particularly impressed by two speeches that were made very early in the piece by Senator Minchin and Senator Hogg. Those two contributions, in a very poignant and very convincing way, addressed the key question that I think everybody that has participated in this debate has sought to address, and that is: when does life begin?

I wish to declare my own personal view about this, and that is that I believe that it begins at the moment of conception, and that any other interpretation puts at risk the whole Christian ethos as well as the principles of moral science. When we start going down the road of arguing as to when life is viable, we start heading down a very dangerous road. If a society is prepared to make laws defining when early life is viable, what is there then to stop it making laws defining when, for example, later life becomes non-viable? This particular issue was addressed by my colleague Senator Knowles when she referred to Territory rights versus Commonwealth rights.

I listened carefully to what Senator Knowles had to say but I was not convinced, because really the Commonwealth does have overriding rights over territories that it does not have over states. The rights of states are entrenched in our constitutional arrangements, indeed in our Constitution. These are the sorts of rights that we are trying to protect—or that Senator Barnett and those that support his amendment are seeking to protect. I cannot but recall—in fact, I was prompted to recall it by one of my colleagues here today—that the Northern Territory voted very recently against becoming a state. It did not want to take on the rights that would accrue to it as a political entity, as a constitutional entity, had it voted to become a state. That is the fallacy within Senate Knowles's argument.

If we do not support this amendment and if the clause goes through as it is, it is highly likely that this part of the bill will be open to quite significant and possibly successful constitutional challenge. If I were a heavily involved member of the Catholic Church taking a strong interest in this part of the debate, I could see myself strongly motivated to take it to the High Court with a view to overturning what potentially we are about to do here today.

Senator Collins, I believe, put the whole view in relation to conscience votes and party positions in a very enlightened way. I cannot enlighten you in terms of answering your question, because I totally agree with you and I have not heard any other argument to the contrary here today. So I support Senator Barnett's position. There is a lot more that I would like to say, but, in view of the time limits and the indulgence that I have had in canvassing some second reading aspects of the bill, I will allow other senators to continue making their contributions.