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Wednesday, 6 December 2006
Page: 12

Mr ABBOTT (Minister for Health and Ageing) (9:44 AM) —To many beyond this parliament, and perhaps to some within, scruples over human cloning and the creation of embryos for research must seem like a contemporary version of the argument over how many angels can sit on the head of a pin. Why should we bother over what is done in test tubes to a few cells when there is the potential to cure horrible diseases? We had an example of that thinking from the member for Reid a few moments ago. Indeed, listening to some of the more enthusiastic proponents of the Prohibition of Human Cloning for Reproduction and the Regulation of Human Embryo Research Amendment Bill 2006, it is as if no cures were ever found before embryonic stem cell research and no cures ever will be found without it. But the bill is important because every single one of us began as a group of cells similar to those whose fates we now decide.

I want to make it clear that, as far as I am concerned, this debate is not about the importance of research. Everyone supports medical research and the government has demonstrated its support by pledging nearly $1 billion more for medical research in the last budget. This bill and this debate are not about finding cures because no-one in his right mind would discourage the search for new and better ways to ease suffering and prolong healthy life. Certainly this debate is not about religion; there are people who take religion seriously on both sides of the argument. This bill and this debate are about the ethical boundaries, if any, within which research should take place. I imagine that every single member of this parliament would recoil with indignation at the suggestion that he or she supported human experimentation and the use of humans as guinea pigs for science. I regret to say that the only difference between full-blown human experimentation and what is permitted in this bill is time.

The embryos and the clones that this bill permits for research are, in all material respects, indistinguishable from and every bit as human as the embryos created by assisted reproductive technology, from which some 7,000 babies are born every year in Australia. Some of these ART embryos are implanted and some are not, but they are all human embryos. The proponents of this bill claim that there is a difference between embryos created by human eggs and human sperm on the one hand and those created by somatic cell nuclear transfer on the other. Lest anyone say that this is scaremongering, let me stress that what I am about to quote comes from the official documentation of the National Health and Medical Research Council. The document says:

... somatic cell nuclear transfer, or SCNT … was the technique used to create the first cloned mammal, ‘Dolly’ the sheep.

The NHMRC goes on to say that SCNT is controversial because:

The resulting embryo could, in theory, lead to cloned human beings. If a cloned embryo is placed into a woman’s uterus, and it implants and develops to birth, a new human being will be created whose nuclear DNA will be identical to the person who donated the original body cell.

This is not the scaremongering of the church and its more zealous supporters. This is the National Health and Medical Research Council pointing out the dismal prospect created by this bill and the slippery slope which we are now on. The proponents of this bill say that clones will never be allowed to develop beyond 14 days, but just four years ago Senator Patterson solemnly denied the slightest intention to create clones at all, so no-one can be confident that today’s absolute prohibition will not succumb to the report of yet another expert committee in four years time. The proponents of this bill claim that there is a difference between embryos created for research and embryos created for reproduction. There is a difference all right: one is created for life and the other is created for death—one is an end in itself and the other is part of what is intended to become a burgeoning human spare parts industry.

Members of this House are preparing to cross a moral Rubicon. They are preparing to jettison the axiom of Western moral thinking that the end does not justify the means because, as we have heard so often in the course of this debate, you cannot say no to people in need. Who could not be moved by the personal stories that many members have brought to this debate, but I want to point out that supporters of this bill are not the only members of this House who have experienced human suffering and they are not the only members of this House who are sensitive to it. I say that we owe it to the beloved dead to base our policy on our principles and not on our grief. I cannot say what I might want if a child of mine could be saved by cutting ethical corners. I cannot guarantee that self-preservation or the desire to protect loved ones would not get the better of my principles. That is why the actions of people under extreme pressure have never been regarded as the litmus test of what is morally right. I know the pressure that people in this House are under. I know that the unborn cannot lobby their MPs like those who are sick and their relatives. Still, as Edmund Burke said to the Electors of Bristol, ‘I owe you my judgement, not my obedience.’

I am pleased that the member for Bass has proposed an amendment to remove one of the ugliest features of this bill, and I very much hope that the proponents of this bill will consider that amendment carefully. I want to state that, for myself, this bill can be improved but it can never be made acceptable. Like the Treasurer, who preceded me, I respect the motives of those who have brought this bill forward, but I utterly reject the conclusions that they have come to. On this topic, I look forward to a future parliament with no less good will but much better judgement. This bill represents the triumph of hope over judgement and it should certainly be rejected by the parliament.