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Wednesday, 6 December 2006
Page: 53

Mr PEARCE (Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasurer) (12:59 PM) —I rise to contribute to the House’s debate on the Prohibition of Human Cloning for Reproduction and the Regulation of Human Embryo Research Amendment Bill 2006. As all members would be aware, this is a complex and contentious issue which has driven much passionate debate within the community. The residents of Aston have been forthright in communicating their well-considered and thoughtful views on this issue. I want to place on the record that I appreciate the time and effort that my constituents have brought to bear on the national debate, and they have all meaningfully contributed to my own thinking on this important matter. It is important to note that it is issues such as this, where members have the opportunity to exercise a free vote, that I believe show our parliament at its best. This is the third time that a free vote has occurred since I entered the parliament in August 2001, and I think it is instructive to observe yet again that it has been in this free-vote debate that we have heard what I believe are some of the most significant, personal and heartfelt contributions ever made by members of parliament.

I want to acknowledge and recognise what I believe is the fundamental motive driving those who have introduced this bill into the parliament. I think those supporting this bill are, without question, doing so in an endeavour to assist and help people in the future through advances in medical research and disease prevention. I want to say very strongly that I too share the desire to assist and help people, but I believe strongly that the approach taken with this bill is misguided. The genesis of this bill arose from the recommendations of the Lockhart review. In 2002 the parliament passed the Research Involving Embryos Act and Prohibition of Human Cloning Act. As a result, the Lockhart review was established by the parliament to consider issues arising out of the debate and the legislation that was passed in 2002.

In the 2002 debate I said I found the issues most challenging, but in relation to the question of research involving embryos I said:

... I believe the structure of this bill provides us with a framework that allows some investigation to occur in what will be a controlled and regulated environment.

I thought back then that I could, on balance, support this issue because what we were talking about with the bill back in 2002 was a limited and constrained approach to research on pre-existing embryos that were surplus to IVF requirements and were otherwise destined to be destroyed. In relation to the second component of the 2002 debate, the prohibition of human cloning, I said:

... I oppose outright the human cloning component.

I recall with interest that all my parliamentary colleagues from all sides of the parliament agreed with this view back in 2002. Human cloning was unanimously rejected by the parliament back then, and I am not convinced that anything has significantly changed since that time.

In considering this bill before us now, my view remains consistent. I oppose human cloning. In examining this bill and the Pandora’s box of issues that surround it I have arrived at a point where I believe the potential consequences of the bill are profoundly disturbing. I find it disturbing for a number of reasons, but there are three key issues that cause me to be greatly concerned about the bill and its future ramifications. First, I oppose the deliberate creation of cloned embryos for the purpose of their destruction. I believe it is unethical and inappropriate, I believe it is contrary to human dignity and I believe it degrades fundamental community standards.

Second, reproductive and therapeutic—in reality, the more appropriate word would be ‘destructive’—cloning are based on precisely the same technology. I believe the use of one will inevitably lead to the use of the other and therefore result in the inappropriate and potential misuse of technology for destructive purposes. This is an aspect of the laws that will potentially come from this bill that I am concerned has not received the full consideration it warrants. This bill seeks to impose limitations on those researchers who abide by its requirements. However, those who do not respect the legal boundaries of this bill could, and I believe some will, pursue unethical and illegal activities to the detriment of community standards.

My third reason for not supporting this bill is based on the fact that there remain very significant medical and scientific issues about the use and suitability of this technology for humans. The technology now available could profoundly and adversely inflict more harm and disease on people rather than be the panacea we are told it might be. I have read that evidence exists that the cells tend to be rejected by the immune system. More critical is that they may cause teratomas, which are monstrous malignant tumours.

John Martin, the emeritus professor of medicine at the University of Melbourne, has written:

There are no cell-based therapies for any disease that would warrant the preparation of human embryonic stem cells by … “therapeutic cloning”.

Commentators have made the point that research has been conducted on adult stem cells and embryonic stem cells since the 1950s, but only adult stem cells have produced any cures. Adult stem cells have produced breakthroughs in the treatment of type 1 diabetes, liver disease and spinal cord injuries, to name just a few. Queensland scientist Dr Peter Silburn has said:

... if you have a galloping horse like adult stem cells, why not pursue that?

Importantly, it is critical to note that embryonic stem cells have produced very little effect in treating people with prolonged and life-threatening illness. Professor John Martin has suggested:

... it remains the case that embryonic stem cells have never yet been shown in animal research to provide a cure that is sufficiently prolonged and free of complications to warrant human studies. To accept the urgency of work on human embryonic stem cells in the face of the ethical barrier, then at least one experimental example should be provided of safe, prolonged and substantially effective treatment that is better than any existing treatments.

Many eminent academic scholars with either a scientific or ethical focus have argued cogently and reasonably for their views. The scientific method demands that for a process to be considered reliable and valid a significant amount of compelling evidence proving the accuracy of the theory must be presented. I am yet to be convinced at this stage of the debate that the scientific evidence in support of the bill has reached that necessary and crucial threshold. Of even greater significance to me, I am not satisfied that we can meet our ethical obligations to protect the Australian community through the blind pursuit of scientific advancement of the sort that this bill would require. As a result, I am not able to support this bill.

In closing, I wish to repeat the words of Professor Martin, who said:

In truth there is a long way to go before a compelling argument can be made for the development of human embryonic stem cells by somatic cell nuclear transfer. Whatever the nature of science, it must be ethically justifiable.

Even if proof through animal experimentation were provided, and a case more convincing than anything that has so far been produced was made, great caution is needed. Even then, even under those circumstances, which are circumstances not available to us today, we would only proceed, I believe, if, as Professor Martin put it, we were prepared to accept the highly questionable utilitarian principle that the end always justifies the means. I hold the view that the people of Australia would not suspend their ethical principles in the blind pursuit of any goal, no matter how noble that goal may be.