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Thursday, 22 August 2002
Page: 5475

Mrs GALLUS (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Foreign Affairs) (1:08 PM) —I acknowledge the excellent contribution of the member for Brisbane who has said many of the things I would like to say, and for that reason I shall probably keep my speech shorter than it would have been. As everybody knows, we are here today looking at the Research Involving Embryos and Prohibition of Human Cloning Bill 2002 which has two parts to it: firstly, in relation to cloning and, secondly, and probably more importantly, in relation to what happens to the embryos that are created as part of the IVF process. As has been discussed in this debate, the bill allows those embryos to be used in embryonic stem cell research under certain conditions.

First of all, I would like to look at what currently happens in IVF in the creation—and, I must say, the eventual destruction—of embryos. It starts with couples who are unable to have children. The woman is stimulated by hormone treatment to produce a relatively large number of eggs. That is done because the process itself is not without some harm to the woman so it is considered better for her to produce a large number of eggs at that one time. The eggs are placed together in a glass container with sperm from a male donor. Some, all or none of the eggs are fertilised according to chance by the sperm within the next few hours. The number that is fertilised could be any number up to about 10, give or take one or two. The fertilised egg is then left to double, quadruple and so on until about day three when the embryo has eight cells. At this stage the embryo is usually implanted into the female. Because of the undesirability of multiple births, only one or two embryos are implanted into the womb of the female. There is a difference in that with older women, where it is less likely to work, sometimes three eggs are placed into the womb of the female. The remaining embryos are then frozen in liquid nitrogen. These frozen embryos can be kept for between five and 15 years, depending on state legislation. States vary in their legislation. I understand the NHMRC regulation says that they believe that 10 years is the desirable limit, but I also understand that this is a theoretical limit and in actual fact the limitation on the life of the frozen embryo has never been fully determined. For all intents and purposes in this country it is now five to 15 years, depending on state legislation.

After this time period, as many of my colleagues have pointed out in this debate, the embryos are destroyed. They are literally dumped into a rubbish tin. That is one of the concerns I have with the debate put forward by those people opposed to it who have said in this chamber that they are opposed because they want the embryos to be treated with respect. At the moment they are not treated with respect: they are destroyed by being dumped into a rubbish tin.

What will happen once this legislation is passed? Some of these frozen embryos that would otherwise be discarded into a rubbish tin will have cells taken from them. These cells will be used in research to develop treatment for people who at the moment have untreatable diseases. I find it extremely difficult to see where the ethical objection to this bill lies. It would seem to me that the moral imperative is on the other side; that it is morally wrong to have a chance to use embryonic cells that would otherwise be discarded to help people—to help prolong life, to help save life or to help mitigate the effects of debilitating diseases—and not do it. How could you prefer to just discard the cells? I shall not expand that argument because I believe it has been gone into by many people in the House and, as I said, by the member before me, the member for Brisbane. I think it is a concern of all of us that we in fact see that the moral imperative is indeed to pass this bill.

As I will use this speech to reply to many of my constituents who are opposed to embryonic stem cell research, I want to address some of the questions they have raised with me to perhaps calm some of the concerns that they have. The first question is: can the cells taken from the embryo be grown into a baby? The answer is no, they cannot. The embryo cannot develop outside the uterus, and the cells certainly cannot be grown into a baby.

Another question that I have frequently been asked is: can the cells taken from the embryo be used to change the inherited genetic make-up of another person? Again, the answer is no. They can make sick tissue better, but they cannot change the inherited genetic make-up of a person. Indeed, if you had an inherited genetic disease whereby those genes, if they were dominant, would be passed on to your children, they would still be passed on. But then, of course, your children would also have the option to be treated in the same way to make those sick tissues better.

Another issue is that of so-called embryonic farming. I think it was stated by one of my colleagues that they believe that, if this bill were passed, it would lead to an explosion in demand for embryos and therefore to the creation of embryos specifically for research. First of all, this legislation in itself restricts the use of embryos created before April 2000. But probably more pertinent, because I think those who have put this argument have argued, `Well, yes, that's in the bill now, but there'll be pressure to change that,' there is no need for that pressure because we have an enormous number of excess IVF embryos. I believe the number is something like 70,000 to be destroyed and, of those, only about 50 or 60 are needed because these cells have the characteristic that, once harvested, they can create their own line almost into infinity.

Another issue is that an embryo grown in the laboratory is allowed to be grown for six or, at the most, seven days. The question that has come up is: will there not be pressure to increase this time period to allow for a much larger embryo? Here I think we are getting into the fear of moving from a group of cells to something that almost has a foetus-like characteristic. The answer again is no, because, as I said before, without the uterus, the embryo is unable to develop normally beyond six days. Simply put, beyond six days, it cannot grow and retain its characteristics. It develops abnormally outside the uterus. So that concern is also not justified.

We move on to what appears to have become one of the key issues in this debate: adult stem cells. The first question is: what are adult stem cells? I believe there was some misunderstanding that adult stem cells were actually stem cells that were taken from adult human beings. Indeed, what it means is that the cells themselves are adult. Adult stem cells are ones that have already differentiated into specific types of cells: for example, liver cells, skin cells, nerve cells. They can be taken from adults, children or even foetuses. The next question is: do adult stem cells have the potential to do everything that could possibly be done by using embryonic stem cells? There have been claims that this is so. But the answer is, definitively, no. People like Professor Bob Williamson who are engaged in adult stem cell research admit that. They said, `No, they can't, because they do different things—although one of the hopes is that, by using embryonic stem cell research, we may learn more about the process so we can use adult stem cells in better ways.' This was a very strong point made by Professor Williamson; that we need the embryonic stem cell research to go ahead to enable those people working with adult stem cells to develop the full potential of adult stem cells.

Adult stem cells are currently restricted because, as I said, they are already a specific type of cell. To use them as we use embryonic stem cells, we have to take them back to an undifferentiated stage—move them back from being liver cells or whatever into a more amorphous stage—and then drive them forward into being the type of cell we want. Clearly, this is quite problematic and much more difficult than starting with the embryonic stem cells which are in themselves—it is their key characteristic—amorphous. They can and have the potential to develop into any kind of cell possible in the human body. They are at the beginning of the process; the adult cells are at the end. But this is not, as I said earlier, to dismiss adult stem cell research. Both of these kinds of research are needed, as both Professor Williamson and Professor Alan Trounson have said over and over again. They are not opposed to each other; they are complementary.

The final question is: what is the current potential for embryonic stem cell research as opposed to adult stem cell research? It is to treat such diseases as diabetes, Parkinson's disease and motor neurone disease, to name just a few. When it is developed, this research will allow insulin producing cells to be injected into diabetics, it will enable us to push new dopamine nerve cells into people with Parkinson's and it will allow us to drive healthy motor neurone cells into those people with motor neurone disease. The potential there is absolutely incredible. It is a new generation of medicine, directed towards the improvement of health and averting some of the huge tragedies that occur when people get these debilitating diseases. Of course, it is not the total answer, and it will not solve everything, but it is a first step. It is a step with fantastic possibilities, and I believe to turn our back on such a step would be both immoral and indeed criminal.

In conclusion, I thank my constituents who have contacted me—and, indeed, people from all over Australia who have contacted me by email. I apologise to those outside my electorate to whom, simply because of their sheer number, I have not replied. I thank my colleagues who, I think, have conducted an extremely good and well-disciplined debate. Finally, let me thank very much Professor Bob Williamson, who came up to talk today to my colleagues. I especially thank Professor Alan Trounson, who has given all of this week to being available to parliamentarians to answer, in the most direct and honest way possible, any concerns that they have. I thank both of those gentlemen for their time and honesty in giving us that information.