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Thursday, 14 November 2002
Page: 6347

Senator BARNETT (11:13 AM) —I rise in support of the amendment and agree with Senators Minchin and Bishop. I will not go through all the arguments again, but COAG in its communique of 5 April clearly talks about the protocols to preclude the creation of embryos specifically for research purposes. It talks about the NHMRC reporting within 12 months on the adequacy of supply and distribution for research of excess ART embryos which otherwise would have been destroyed.

That is a very important point—and it probably has not been raised this morning— that is, within 12 months we are going to have this council deliberating on the adequacy of supply and distribution for research of excess ART embryos. And what are they going to say? Will there be any guidelines? Will there be any thought or sense from this parliament as to what sort of message it is sending? That report obviously will be an important one. It is being done for a reason and, if they are going to comment on the adequacy of supply and distribution, they need some sense from us as to a limit. There should be a minimum number of excess embryos for research purposes, and that is the point that Senator Bishop has been making.

We have been asked by COAG to develop a strict regulatory regime, and that is what we are doing, or attempting to do, under the Research Involving Embryos Bill 2002. As Senator Minchin said, there is a limit on the number of these excess embryos of, apparently, about 70,000. The COAG communique says that it is restricted so that human embryos are not created specifically for research purposes. The Hon. John Anderson made it clear that he was concerned about the `slippery slope' argument—that you will find that over time there will be enormous pressure to obtain human embryos for other purposes, whether it be for research or whatever.

This was brought to the attention of the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee and is set out on page 52 of the committee's report. I will not go through those arguments, but a number of witnesses put the view to our committee quite strongly that they are concerned about the slippery slope—about the number of embryos that will be available in time. One of the witnesses to our inquiry, Professor Illingworth, gave a broad estimate that the non-viable human embryos from ARC centres, at this stage, was around 40,000 per annum. I just make that point.

I am concerned about the open slather situation. If this amendment is not included in the bill, what will be the consequences? The consequences will be that the bill may in time be interpreted—and there will be a review in three years or prior to that if COAG sees fit—as allowing for this 5 April deadline to be removed, and there is an amendment relating to that. If that is not there, what is the interpretation under the bill? I will be concerned if this is not included in the objects clause. There is such a good argument that can be put for this amendment. I say: what happens if it is not in the bill? Surely, there is a possibility of open slather, of unrestricted access to human embryos, and this has to be a major concern. It has been reflected throughout the committee hearings, in public debate and by the COAG agreement that there must be a strict regulatory regime covering the number of human embryos that can be obtained for research purposes or for other purposes down the track. This is the concern. We need to set some guidelines and we need to express the intent of this parliament. I really hope that we can come together on an agreement such as this and say that we need a strict regulatory regime and that we can be consistent and support one another on this particular amendment.

Let us go to the proponents of the bill. What do they say? They say, `We don't need any at all at the moment' or `We need only a very limited number of human embryos for research purposes.' Some talked about 50, 100 or a couple of hundred human embryos. That is all they require to do the research they need to do. I say, `Okay, if that is all you need, that is the way it has to be.' This amendment is consistent with that. We are limiting the number of human embryos to the minimum necessary to achieve the purposes of those activities. Why can't we just accept their views? They are the proponents of the bill; they are the scientists. I say, `Okay, I will go along with that; under this bill we will limit the number.' Obviously, I do not support the actual bill but, if we do have to have a bill, let us have a strict regulatory regime. I have made the point about the review in three years time. Currently, under the bill, the 5 April deadline goes—and then who knows what will happen? That is the slippery slope argument that I am concerned about.

If this amendment is not in the bill, we have an open chequebook, an open slather possibility. I just hope that the minister, the government and others in this chamber will see the merit of having these guidelines tightly framed so that there is a limited number of human embryos necessary to achieve the purposes for which those activities are conducted. I support the amendment. I think it has merit, and I hope that others who are perhaps listening in their rooms or in other places can see the merit. This is directly consistent with the COAG agreement and follows through on that, and it is consistent with what the proponents of the bill actually want and seek. I hope that the minister and others in this chamber and elsewhere have thought through the arguments and will support the amendment.