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Thursday, 22 August 2002
Page: 5463

Mr SECKER (12:05 PM) —I rise to speak on the Research Involving Embryos and Prohibition of Human Cloning Bill 2002. Whilst I recognise that this is a somewhat controversial bill which brings great emotion and hyperbole at times, I do not think that some of the exaggerations by proponents of both sides of this argument have helped the debate. It has disturbed me that some of those who wish to see this bill pass have made greatly exaggerated claims about what experimentation on embryonic stem cells will do, because as yet we simply do not know what can be achieved by this sort of research.

I think it is unfair and cruel to raise false hopes about curing juvenile diabetes, making paraplegics walk again or curing Parkinson's disease—which, from all reports that I have read, is more likely to be cured from the use of adult stem cells anyway. Let me make it plain that I have no ethical problems with adult stem cell research, and I doubt that anyone in this chamber has. They are in fact very small rays of light, if at all, to paraphrase at least one previous speaker. To suggest that experimentation with embryo stem cells could cure Alzheimer's disease is an even longer bow, when we do not even know what the causes of this disease are. These exaggerated potential benefits are not in the best interests of this argument, if we as law-makers are to take them seriously.

It also concerns me that there will be no prohibition on the use of embryo stem cells for the testing of chemicals and cosmetics, which will probably be the major type of experimentation taking place. I doubt that the vast majority of Australians realise that this will be the case. It would be interesting to ask those people who opposed vivisections so vehemently two decades ago, or experimentation on animals with that vivisection, whether they would also oppose the experimentation on human embryos.

Likewise, there have been some exaggerations on the anti side with suggestions that only adult stem cell research is needed. How can this be if we do not know what can be achieved by embryo stem cell research. Also, to suggest that this is the thin end of the wedge or is some slippery slope is a reflection that all of us as legislators do not or cannot know where to draw the line in future. That is one argument on which I very strongly agree with the member for Sydney.

Whilst I, and all of us, cannot know what could be achieved by stem cell research, I have to use my conscience—as does every other member of this chamber—to decide whether to take the utilitarian approach or what may be termed a more moral approach to making a decision. I prefer to call it an ethical approach more than a moral approach, but that is probably splitting hairs. I do this because, although I had a strong Catholic upbringing, I do not think my decision is based on some directive of the church but more because of a logical and ethical reasoning. It always seems to me that Catholics get the blame, or the credit, when issues of a moral nature are raised. But I know people of many different religions are opposed to this measure and, more importantly, I know lots of people who are opposed to it who have never been to a church or practised religion in their life. So it is not just a Catholic thing or a religious thing, it is more an ethical thing.

I am reminded of a thesis that I did at university over 10 years ago on the abortion issue, and this is where I probably get most of my philosophical backing for the argument that I am producing. In that thesis I really tried to challenge my philosophies and beliefs, and back them up with a logical position based on the simple premise of the sanctity of human life and where it starts. There was an argument that a foetus was not a human because it could not survive without the womb. A child under five or even older could not survive without an adult to feed them and guide them against the dangers of everyday life, so this argument was not logical. There was the argument that somehow the foetus was under the control of the woman and, therefore, it was her choice, but a baby is under the control of the parents and that right is not given in that case.

I could find no logical reason why birth or whether it was a six-month old foetus or a one-month old foetus should make any difference to whether it was a human or any less consideration be given to it. Whilst this may seem old ground and a different proposition to this bill, I have used the same reasoning, the same philosophy, to conclude that I cannot support the destruction of human life for commercial gain or possible cures for humankind. Whether the life is 90 years old or 90 months old or is a 90-day-old foetus or a 90-hour-old embryo, it is worth the protection of our legislators. In fact the younger the human, the more protection is needed because the embryo or the foetus cannot protect themselves. All our laws reflect this premise, that minors have more protection and restrictions than adults, who have a greater ability to defend themselves.

The utilitarian approach of the common good for the greatest number has some merit in many cases but we have a duty as legislators to draw a line somewhere on what we believe in, and I believe that the sanctity of life overrules just about every other philosophy. I do not think any less of those people who argue in favour of this legislation, because I have heard many genuine reasons why they favour this legislation. It is just that I cannot bring myself to sanction what I believe to be a form of murder. Just as the murder of a child is often considered worse than the murder of an older criminal, I would agree that the murder of a foetus or an embryo, who is even more defenceless than a child, could even be argued to be worse. These may seem harsh words to some, but that is how I feel.

Let me come to what is probably the most powerful argument for the pro-embryo stem cell research side, which says that the excess embryos are going to be flushed down the toilet anyway so let us use them for good deeds. I do not agree with this process because I know there are shortages of semen and eggs in IVF programs where these embryos could be used, which refutes this argument totally. If there are still excess embryos then I believe they should be allowed to die naturally. Notwithstanding my belief, I accept that our present laws state that after a certain time the embryos are destroyed. The proponents of embryo stem cell research say, `We might as well use them for the common good so that they aren't wasted.' I wonder if that argument, using the premise that the embryo is going to die anyway, would be supported if the question was asked: if an aborted foetus is going to die anyway then shouldn't we harvest the foetus for the common good? For the life of me I cannot see any difference in the philosophy or ethics in harvesting embryo stem cells or harvesting aborted foetuses `because they are going to die anyway', so goes the saying.

What about the criminal on death row—something I do not support either? Should we be able to harvest his organs because he is going to die anyway? Dr Mengele experimented on Jewish people. He said, `They were going to die anyway,' when he was asked why he did it. I think it is because people cannot see an embryo stem cell or visualise its worth that they can treat them as nonentities. I ask: if they are nonentities then why do we have to destroy them to stop them being part of the human life form? In conclusion, I believe that this parliament should protect the most vulnerable human life forms and reject the part of this bill that will allow the destruction of human embryo stem cells and support the part of this bill which properly forbids human cloning.