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Wednesday, 6 December 2006
Page: 9

Mr LAURIE FERGUSON (9:32 AM) —This is a matter with deep resonance in my electorate. My office has been contacted by a number of constituents seeking to influence the direction of my vote on this matter, which intersects faith and claims for possible scientific progress. I am aware that the Prohibition of Human Cloning for Reproduction and the Regulation of Human Embryo Research Amendment Bill 2006 raises issues which are traumatic to some of my constituents. To this end I am deeply respectful of their sincere feelings and attitudes on this matter. Whilst not in accord with their belief about the starting point of life, I still appreciate the intensity of the feelings of those people.

This is why I have always been liberal about the need for a conscience vote within my party on such matters. Nevertheless, the UK High Court in 2001 determined that an embryo that is created through the mechanism of therapeutic cloning is not a human life. This is a view that is distinctly at variance with the stance of these constituents. This bill raises profoundly complex issues which require significant scientific knowledge and understanding. Having forsaken science in fourth year high school, it has been a steep learning curve for me. My support for this bill is based on a general commitment and desire to see medical solutions for a range of diseases and injuries. These are presently very debilitating, painful conditions that cannot be treated. Each has attracted varied speculation about possible progress on cures.

This bill seeks to subject clinical practice and scientific research involving assisted reproductive technology and the creation and use of human embryos to specific national legislation. Indeed, this regulatory move is critical if our science community is to be able to work along with their colleagues in Europe and the United States. To this end, the bill is not just about stem cells and cloning. I note a letter from the Americans for Stem Cell Therapies and Cures of 14 November this year, which, in having talked about the $3 billion 2002 initiative in that state for funding, further commented:

Modern scientific research exists across international boundaries and global collaboration is essential to accelerate opportunities to make stem cell therapy a reality for a broad range of debilitating diseases. The Australian Stem Cell Centre and the scientists they represent are a vital component of a competitive and ethical international stem cell research community, most evident in their involvement in international collaborative initiatives and organisations such as the International Consortium of Stem Cell Networks. The state of California recognises that Australia is a leader in stem cell research and many Californian institutes presently collaborate with some of Australia’s leading scientists. By adopting the recommendation of the Lockhart report, Australian legislation will become a leading global partner to that of the state of California, allowing our best researchers to extend existing collaboration and form a global partnership in alliance to accelerate the progress of stem cell research towards a greater understanding of disease and injury and to make available new therapies for a broad range of debilitating diseases and injuries.

That letter covers the heavy expenditure in California after a popular vote there and lays down Australia’s situation if it is not involved in this area: there is currently a large degree of collaboration, research being organised between that state and this country, and it will be somewhat endangered if this legislation does not go ahead.

There has been much public comment that the current ban on the trade and commodification of human eggs, sperm and embryos will be watered down. No such thing will happen. This bill addresses the Lockhart review finding that the 2002 legislation allowing research on excess assisted reproductive embryos had inadvertently impeded research into improved methods for achieving pregnancy. Key provisions in the bill are intended to improve current licensing arrangements. In reality, licences would only be given through the NHMRC on the basis of tight legislated standards. The provisions are intended to ensure that vacancies on the National Health and Medical Research Council Licensing Committee are promptly filled. They provide for the inspection of non-licensed facilities, impose significant criminal penalties for breaking the law and compel the minister to report to parliament on the establishment of a national stem cell bank and a national register of donated ART embryos.

It is important to note what this bill does not do. It does not license the creation of embryos for harvesting alone. It does not facilitate the cloning of humans. It certainly does not herald a market in embryos and eggs. Under stringent licensing, the bill allows for two new activities recommended by the expert and respected Lockhart review. The first is the use of so-called fresh embryos. These are embryos generated in the IVF process which have been deemed to be unsuitable due to genetic defects. Current legislation requires that these embryos be discarded. The bill redresses this aspect and enables their use in scientific research.

The Lockhart review also forms the basis for the recommendation of the second activity, regarding the use of human embryos created by somatic cell nuclear transfer and other techniques that do not involve the fertilisation of a human egg with a human sperm and not implanted into the body of a woman. They are prohibited from developing for more than 14 days. My colleague the member for Lalor points out that such embryos are to be created only for the development of specific embryonic stem cell lines, as is currently legally permitted in the United Kingdom, Sweden, Japan and Singapore. Indeed, it is this second point which has been the focal point for public discussion and debate.

In the Sydney Morning Herald, Ian Kerridge, Peter Schofield and Loane Skene point out that in the debate surrounding stem cells:

... the distinction between morality, faith, science and politics is less clear. Unfortunately, many of the arguments against legislative reform to allow therapeutic cloning rely on a series of myths.

They describe as a myth the claim that there is no scientific or medical rationale for allowing embryonic stem cell research or therapeutic cloning. They note that this claim is not accurate, that research is ongoing and that initial research on animals has yielded positive outcomes. They say:

The House of Lords, a majority of the US Senate, the American and Canadian medical associations, 80 Nobel laureates, the Australian Academy of Science and past and present Australians of the year have all supported the potential of embryonic stem-cell research and therapeutic cloning.

These are respectable sources of information that demand attention. They are not characterised by narrow bigotry or commercial self-interest. The article continues:

Myth 2: That the law does not need to be changed because scientists can already use adult stem cells and excess embryos from assisted reproductive technology.

The authors counter that the current law enables researchers to use adult stem cells but that this differs from embryonic stem cell research. Indeed, these two research areas are complementary; they are not competing. The article continues:

Myth 3: That the risks of egg donation and the possibility of women being exploited demands that therapeutic cloning be banned.

In contrast, the authors feel that safeguards against abuse are necessary but that this does not require a ban on therapeutic cloning. Women and men need to be fully informed before making the decision to donate organs or tissue. Further:

Myth 4: That allowing therapeutic cloning will ultimately lead to reproductive cloning.

A strong and transparent regulatory and licensing system is the best safeguard against any abuse. Indeed, the existing law has enabled a number of inadvertent harms in the area of reproductive technology. Regulation will provide a comprehensive framework which will enable regulatory authorities to maintain oversight over research and development. Finally:

Myth 5: That respect for human life demands cloning be banned.

The authors counter that the prevailing community attitude regarding the status of human embryos is not clear. However, there is little doubt as to the level of respect afforded to human life. The question of how much respect we afford embryos does not logically facilitate a ban on this scientific endeavour. In recent correspondence to members of this House, the Australian Academy of Science wrote:

The Academy agrees, on the basis of the expert advice of its fellows that both adult and embryonic stem cell research offer great potential in medical research. Adult stem cells from a patient have the great advantages of proven safety and the absence of immune rejection. Embryonic stem cells and their relatives made by somatic nuclear transfer (therapeutic cloning), have the great advantages of being able to make every kind of cell in the body and to multiply indefinitely. The recommendations of the Lockhart Committee will allow both adult and embryonic stem cell research to proceed in parallel to maximise the opportunity of developing medical applications from this research.

I also received correspondence from Motor Neurone Disease Australia, which asked that I support this bill. MND Australia argues that to create stem cells of a person diagnosed with MND offers the potential for advances in research that are not available through stem cells derived from other sources. We should have some recognisance of the views of people who suffer from this condition. They obviously have some focus on the matter, they obviously are very committed and they obviously see great personal advantage in these changes. MND Australia further commented:

Lifting the current ban on embryonic stem cell research will bring Australia in line with most other countries—

and they cite those I mentioned previously. The letter continues:

It will also ensure that Australian scientists and researchers have the opportunity to make future contributions to advances in this area.

In speaking to this bill, the member for Blair made the obvious point that this is a highly complex matter for which we are highly reliant on the advice of others. I was impressed by his contribution, knowing the direction from which he historically comes on these matters.

He spoke of his engagement with the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation and of their support for the bill. He pointed out that embryonic cloning may hold the key to finding a cure for type 1 diabetes. In defending the scientific community, the member for Blair stated:

So I hear what they—

that is, the advocates—

say. Their advice is good and unequivocal. It comes from a source that is authoritative and untainted by dogmatic ideology. There is no conflict of interest which is the fundamental problem: the credibility gap faced by scientists who are themselves engaged in alternative research.

This is not a free-for-all, as there are sentences of up to 15 years. I, for one, do not assume that scientists undertake experimentation to play God. I ascribe to a belief that there is a genuine pursuit of improvements for the health of humanity.

I turn to comments in the American medical journal Frontline by Vijay Swaminath. He inquires as to what embryonic stem cell research can do. He argues that the supply of donated tissues and organs to replace ailing or destroyed tissue is much too limited and that the demand is skyrocketing. If embryonic stem cells can be successfully directed into forming cells of specific tissues, they offer a source of replacement cells and tissues to treat diseases such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, spinal cord injury, stroke, heart disease and diabetes.

Again I stress that I am sensitive to the perspectives expressed by people opposed to embryonic cloning. Nevertheless, I endorse this bill as I am convinced that the legislation will enable Australian scientists to work towards finding cures to diseases such as type 1 diabetes and motor neurone disease. It is not my wont to be unquestioning of prophets, but I believe that there are strong pointers to genuine progress in these matters. I am convinced that the legislation provides the proper safeguards against improper use of embryonic cells, and it is for these reasons that I support the bill.

In closing, yesterday I read an article in a Financial Review from some time ago. The article concluded that, because of the stance of the Prime Minister, this type of debate would not occur. From whichever side we are on with regard to this matter, we have to put on the record our respect for the activities of Senators Webber, Stott Despoja and Patterson and the member for Moore, who have obviously overcome a degree of reticence from the government to having the debate. Regardless of where one stands, it is good to see this kind of process happening in the parliamentary system, whereby a group of people who have a commitment to a particular issue can overcome the rigidities of parties in this House. By any international standard, political rigidities and loyalties are more intense in this parliament than we see in the United States and the United Kingdom, for instance. So I do put on the record my appreciation of the efforts of those individuals over the past few months.