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Thursday, 22 August 2002
Page: 5517

Mr HUNT (4:49 PM) —I rise to support the Research Involving Embryos and Prohibition of Human Cloning Bill 2002. I do so with a great respect for all of the individual views presented both within this parliament and outside this parliament, within Australia more broadly and more generally. I do so with respect for the fact that it is the role of this parliament—as the appropriate place—to make the choices and to prescribe the limits and conditions which are the subject matter of this debate. I do so with a third element of respect: the fact that it is a conscience vote and that each individual in this parliament is tasked to consider the very nature of what it is to be human and what it is to be part of the progress of humanity.

The Research Involving Embryos and Prohibition of Human Cloning Bill 2002 does two things.

Firstly, it imposes a ban on human cloning, and it is a ban which I fully support and which I believe all members of this House support.

Secondly, it lays out a national framework and strict limits by which surplus IVF embryos which would otherwise be destroyed may be used to contribute to the creation of life-giving, embryonic stem cell research.

In looking at this, there are two fundamental questions in deciding whether or not we should allow embryonic stem cell research to continue.

The first question is from a therapeutic perspective: is embryonic stem cell research necessary and is it valuable? From a scientific and medical perspective, is it necessary and is it valuable?

Secondly, even if there is a therapeutic justification, is it a moral action? The member for Melbourne previously drew this distinction. I welcome this distinction, because it is not enough simply for it to be a good outcome—we have to assess the whole action to see whether or not it is justifiable.

My conclusion is that the answer to both questions is yes. But I do recognise that it is not a question about a fundamental truth as to what is right—that is ultimately a matter for each individual judgment—so I have been involved in wide consultation, both within my electorate and more broadly.

There are those who have counselled me against the position that embryonic stem cell research should be allowed: Dr Joe Santamaria, whose views I considered very carefully, Mr Gil Mullings and Mr Arthur Ballingall—all from my electorate. On the other side I have also met with Professor Alan Trounson from Monash University and taken a great deal of counsel from my very close friend the Reverend Dr Rufus Black, Chair of the Medical Ethics Board at Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, who is already one of the most articulate voices on medical ethics within Australia and will, I believe, over time become perhaps the leading Australian voice on questions of what it is to be human.

Having made those consultations, I came to my conclusions. The first question to be asked then is: from a therapeutic perspective, is embryonic stem cell research both necessary and valuable? In looking at embryonic stem cell research, we look at the problem of human suffering. Last night I spoke with Nancy Taylor of Ipswich in Queensland. A week ago Nancy sent this letter:

Dear Sir/Madam,

I am 47 years old and I have recently been diagnosed as having Motor Neurone Disease. My husband is 49 years old and has been diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease for the last 7 years. It is highly unlikely that even if embryonic stem cell research is approved that it will resolve either of our problems due to the time needed for research and resulting developments.

However, we have children and grandchildren. Neither of our diseases are genetic in origin, nor is there any known reason why we both have them. We ask that you approve this necessary research so that future generations may benefit. I believe that this research, as well as adult stem cell research, needs to be undertaken in a controlled manner. The greatest gift one can give is that of life. These cells would be destroyed otherwise please don't let them go to waste.

N Taylor

It is this problem of human suffering which I wish to address and I believe embryonic stem cell research offers the potential for dealing with it.

Science advances in waves. The great Sir Isaac Newton said:

If I have seen further than others it is because I have stood on ye shoulders of Giants.

In this field the first wave has been that of adult stem cell research, which began in the period around 1960. There have been many great advances which have resulted from it: approaches to blood related diseases and the repopulation of bone marrow for leukemia. There is further potential, but it is a significantly limited potential. Whilst there is much to be achieved, there is much which cannot be achieved.

Professor Bob Williamson from Murdoch University and Professor Alan Trounson have explained in discussions with me a number of limits to what adult stem cell research can achieve: there is a lack of capability to multiply; adult stem cells are currently difficult to find and they lack the flexibility of embryonic stem cell research—for example, there is no isolation yet of either cardiac or pancreatic stem cells—impacting on the capacity to use this technology to actually help those who are suffering painful and genuinely debilitating illnesses and aliments; adult stem cells may contain DNA damage from ageing and environmental degradation and that poses a risk to those who take them; adult stem cells may also contain genetic defects; and, above all else, there is an inability to address a large number of the core genetic disorders within the population today.

So we have a clear need—a human therapeutic need that is unmet by the existing technology. But what is the value of embryonic stem cell research itself? Does it actually offer a way to address some of that need?

Embryonic stem cell research is the second great wave in this field and it really commenced in 1998, so it is a new technology.

Already in that time we have seen very strong evidence of its capacity to play a great role in dealing with many diseases, including Parkinson's disease, the disease which affects Graham Taylor from Ipswich. The journal Nature in July 2002, just one month ago, reported research from Jong-Hoon Kim, who said that Parkinson's disease was potentially able to be cured through the work of embryonic stem cell research.

Similarly, for motor neurone disease, the disease which afflicts Nancy Taylor, Wicherteleand others in the journal Cell in July 2002, again only last month, talked about the way in which motor neurone disease could be treated. We have approaches to treating diabetes—Lumelskelyd in Science, July 2001. There is the potential to increase tolerance in transplants of organs between individuals—an extraordinary potential—that was set out, again, in July 2002 in the journal Nature immunology. All these represent a genuine approach to dealing with human suffering.

So the value of embryonic stem cell research is clear. It will, of course, be limited: it will not cure aliments overnight, it will not cure everything, it may not cure anything. But it does offer the greatest hope that we have yet had for sufferers of motor neurone disease, of Parkinson's disease and diabetes. It offers that hope and that is all that we can ever ask from science. Every wave of scientific research begins with an expectation and a hypothesis, and we subsequently go on to verify it. In the first four years, the early indications are that this technology offers an extraordinary capacity to achieve things which we would otherwise not be able to achieve. It must proceed in concert and in tandem with adult stem cell research, but it offers an approach to dealing with diseases which is not available anywhere else.

The second fundamental question we face is this: even if embryonic stem cell research offers a therapeutic purpose, does that make it moral? We know that there are situations where, in attempting to achieve a good outcome, we can adopt immoral means; there are things that we would reject. So, in examining this question of whether it is a moral action, there are three issues.

Firstly, the great question is: what system of ethics do we apply?

Secondly, having chosen a system of ethics, what then is the status of the fertilised eggs from which cells are removed?

Thirdly, what are the ethical obligations that emerge in the use of those cells?

Turning to the first of the moral issues, what system of ethics we should use, utilitarianism is often used to justify good outcomes, but it can be used to justify good outcomes with dubious means. I do not accept that, as a fundamental principle, we should adopt the view that the ends justify the means. That, in essence, is the core of utilitarianism. Not only must there be a valid end, there must also be a justifiable means. I adopt a position of moral realism. Moral realism says that both the intention and the means themselves must essentially be good and not the object of a disastrous outcome. Dr Rufus Black, whom I mentioned earlier, wrote recently in a paper on embryonic stem cell research:

If our intention is to care for others, our character will become a caring one because our ways of thinking and feeling become aligned around taking such action.

Intention is an important part. We know that we look to a good outcome, but we must also have a means that is acceptable.

What then is the nature of the five-day-old fertilised egg? Is it human tissue only, is it the foundation of a body or is it already a person? There are strong views on each of those fronts. There is a particularly strong view that it is more than tissue and that it might be the person. Then there is the alternative view that it is more than tissue but less than a person; that it is a body but not a body and mind, which ultimately constitutes a person. Neither view is wrong. Each of those views is internally logical and consistent. It is not a scientific decision as to when the person begins; it is an ethical and moral decision as to when the notion of the person begins.

Indeed, the Catholic tradition itself has held both of these views. St Thomas Aquinas, perhaps the greatest of all Catholic theologians, argued that the fertilised egg was not a person. He argued that it was not a person until the quickening of the foetus within the womb, which demonstrates mental activity. This was Catholic doctrine for hundreds of years until Pope Leo XIII in 1887 changed that doctrine. Within the Catholic tradition itself, both views exist as to what is the nature of the fertilised egg, and so it is ultimately a question of belief. The only way to resolve the meaning of what is a five-day-old embryo is through this parliament—because it is not about fact, it is about personal judgment. It is not a matter for a panel or a commission; it is a matter for elected representatives to freely express their judgments.

My judgment—and I emphasise the fact that it is only my judgment—is that the five-day-old embryo is more than just tissue. But, as with Aquinas, I believe that it is body alone; that it is not a person comprising the indissoluble balance of body and mind. As a friend of mine who is part of the neurosurgical team at the Alfred Hospital in Melbourne, Paula Lindsey, points out, we make this same judgment every day as a society when we allow the transplantation of major organs. That action of transplantation kills the body. The body is not yet dead but it is on life support. This is how the act of transplantation works. Yet as a society we accept the notion of transplants because we intuitively know that, more than just the body, the person has already gone; the person has ceased to exist. We say that the brain is dead but the body is alive, and yet we do not regard that as a violation of the person.

Not only is the five-day-old fertilised egg frozen and not possessed of a brain or mental activity, it also is destined to be destroyed, as has been established by many speakers. Each year 3,000 to 5,000 of these fertilised eggs will be destroyed, irrespective of what decisions we make in this parliament today. In that situation, given the nature of the egg, the fact that it is alive but not in my opinion the person, the intention of its use and the extraordinary capacity it has for relieving human pain, I conclude that it is not an immoral use to achieve a good end by allowing the therapeutic research of embryonic stem cells.

The third moral issue, however, is how we regulate and use this research. The bill establishes a national framework. It sets up a regime to control that use tightly, just as it should. It bans cloning, rightly. It requires the consent of donors—and early indications are that 50 to 65 per cent of those who create the eggs, the parents who provide the two constituent elements, are willing to donate their eggs for embryonic stem cell research. All these elements are critical to creating a framework that is an acceptable way to deal with this difficult problem. Therefore, I believe not only that there is a therapeutic need and value, the first question, but also that there is an acceptable means and an objective to deal with the fertilised eggs, which would otherwise be destroyed by human action. But, as I said when I began my remarks, this is my view, and I respect the views of others entirely. This is not just a question of fact; there are fundamental questions of faith and belief as to when the person commences as opposed to the body.

In conclusion, we hear in this chamber and in this country alternative views not just about the outcomes of stem cell research but about the very highest questions of what ethical systems we should adopt and how they affect our society. This could be the cause of extraordinary division in our society and, in other times and other places, these sorts of questions have led to genuine and great conflict, division and violence. But I believe that the debate we are having is the mark of a truly plural and open society. It transcends party lines; it calls on each individual to make their view but it does so in a way which has compelled and demanded tolerance.

This debate gives me hope, not just about the issue but about the nature of democracy and what we can be as a society. I am proud to be a member of this House, I am proud to be a member of this parliament and I am proud to be a citizen of a country such as this which allows and encourages the most difficult issues about what we are as a society to be debated, to be dealt with, but ultimately to be resolved through civil dialogue.

I sincerely commend this bill to the House, above all else because of Nancy Taylor's sentiments that we ask that you approve this necessary research so that future generations may benefit. I do so with the greatest respect for all of the views represented by every member of this House and for all of the views and traditions which have characterised this debate throughout Australia.