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Wednesday, 6 December 2006
Page: 60

Mr BARRESI (1:29 PM) —In 2002, when we first debated the Research Involving Embryos and Prohibition of Human Cloning Bill, I came to my position after much anguish and eventually supported the embryo bill while opposing the human cloning provisions. I stated at the time:

Whatever we decide on this bill, we will be back to debate the next challenge that science throws up at us.

I further observed:

... the issue of cloning for therapeutic research will make its way back into the public debate.

In the space of just four years, we have moved from clearly rejecting the concept and science of cloning to a place where we are actively considering permitting this to occur. To make it more palatable, we are asked not to think of it in terms of cloning. Scientists have given us a form of new words—somatic cell nuclear transfer—which can be used to cloak their ultimate intention.

I supported the original bill in 2002, but today I find the Prohibition of Human Cloning for Reproduction and the Regulation of Human Embryo Research Amendment Bill 2006 a far more troubling proposition, and I envy those who have arrived at their decision so easily. The prospect of finding a cure for the most debilitating of illnesses and diseases is one which we should all as members of the human race strive for. Science and scientists will continue to do this no matter what we decide here today. It is in the nature of science to push the boundaries, to call for less regulation and to seek greater freedom for research. It is the responsibility of us as legislators to respond to such calls by being mindful of the ethical considerations.

Unfettered scientific research is a proposition that few in any civilised society would support. Yet what we find today, just four years later, is a call to go another step closer to eventual human cloning, no matter what safeguards we are told are built into this bill or, for that matter, the title of the bill itself. Included in these safeguards is the protection of those women who may be susceptible to exploitation in what my view would become an inevitable market for donor eggs. My concern is that the ultimate cumulative change derived from permitting a series of small gradual steps will be far beyond anything we would deem appropriate in one large move. When it comes to those proposed changes, we must be aware of the absolute potential of the sum of the parts.

Our scientific community are seeking to have a moratorium lifted so as to allow them to undertake research that this place determined only recently should not take place. In reaching my decision to oppose this bill, I had the opportunity to listen to many of the contributions from my colleagues. I note in particular the contribution of the member for Moore, Dr Mal Washer, and also that of my Senate colleague Senator Alan Eggleston—both medical practitioners and each taking opposing positions. I found Senator Eggleston’s exhortation that we are being rushed into this decision—and that even the scientists feel that we as legislators are poorly informed and not fully aware of the consequences of our decision—compelling. We have allowed the highly emotive plea that a cure is just around the corner to overcome the most basic ethical considerations, and we have allowed ourselves to be blindsided by a biotechnology industry that will go on calling for less and less regulation.

I consider the author of this bill, Senator Kay Patterson, a close personal friend. I am convinced that her intentions in presenting this bill for consideration are genuine, yet I cannot support her arguments in this matter. A number of my colleagues have based their arguments on their view of the beginning of life. I have no desire or intention to revisit them as part of this debate. My primary reason for saying this is that this is not a bill about the value or efficacy of reproductive technologies. However, I would like to note that while sperm is not involved in the creation of a cloned embryo, I also recognise the argument that sperm is merely the vehicle to transport nuclear material and is easily replaced by other scientific means within the laboratory setting.

For me to vote in favour of lifting the prohibition, as outlined in this bill, I would require a number of conditions to be met. The first is that I would have to be convinced that there is an urgent need to review the guidelines, and I do not believe that this case has been made. We were assured during the previous debates that there were substantial numbers of human embryos in frozen storage in IVF clinics available for research, including the extraction of embryonic stem cell lines. The National Health and Medical Research Council has reported that there were 104,830 embryos in frozen storage in 2003, and, as at 31 March 2006, only 122 excess assisted reproductive technology embryos had been used for the derivation of human embryonic stem cells. I do not believe that the demand is as pressing as some supporters of this legislation have presented. We are being rushed into a decision. The argument that other nations have embraced such research is not a compelling one. To accept that argument is to make all our policy considerations subordinate to international legislative action. We do not do it in relation to other policy areas and we should not do it here.

The second condition is that the gains to be made from lifting the prohibition would be massive and realised in the short term. I ardently believe that cures and treatments need to be found for diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, degenerative neural conditions and diabetes. I have received heart-rending appeals from sufferers of these conditions and their family members claiming that somatic cell nuclear transfer offers their only hope for a cure. It is this that has presented me with the biggest problem. It is also the overwhelming reason why I voted in favour of the 2002 bill—but not so now.

Publicly and consistently the supporters of this bill and the science it champions appeal to the community’s sense of compassion and proclaim that a cure is just around the corner. Yet behind the closed doors of their labs and among themselves the scientists, like Australian of the Year Professor Ian Frazer, talk openly about preliminary treatments being available at best in 75 years time. The supporters of this technology need to come clean with the people of Australia. It is unfair to sufferers and their families to inflate the effectiveness of this science in its current form and to deliberately foreshorten the time lines for the delivery of these cures.

In opposing this bill I am no less distraught when faced with friends or constituents who are seeking the cure to their illnesses. I have paid close attention to the letters, emails and phone calls that have come into my office. This contact from the people of Deakin has been both in support of and in opposition to this bill. I would like to thank all of those who have taken time to share their points of view with me. I respect their views and I trust they will respect my eventual decision.

There will be criticism from some who will wonder how I can support the use of spare IVF embryos while opposing the provisions in this bill. As I mentioned at the outset, I was troubled by this point in the 2002 bill but eventually supported it as the spare embryos would have been destroyed. But to create an embryo, be it a second-class embryo, in order to destroy it is to ask for support that I cannot give. The creation of an embryo in order to destroy it is one situation in scientific incremental steps that I am not willing to support. I acknowledge that I may be on the losing side in this vote. If that be the case, I am at least comforted to note that the bill does have severe punitive measures for wayward researchers.

While unable to support this bill, I would like to commend Senator Patterson for her work. Furthermore, I would like to acknowledge the work and contributions of all who were part of the Lockhart review. It is a pity that this bill does not call for a similar review process to take place. It is after much careful consideration that I am unable to support this bill.