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Wednesday, 6 December 2006
Page: 112


Mr GRIFFIN (5:12 PM) —The Prohibition of Human Cloning for Reproduction and the Regulation of Human Embryo Research Amendment Bill 2006 is a difficult piece of legislation for many people—and understandably so. It has come to this place as a matter of conscience. We do not have many matters of conscience, as members would be aware, and that in itself provides a whole new dilemma for many of us. When it is normally a matter of government business, legislation is often considered through your internal party processes. You go to the question of your party’s policy. You review how it fits with respect to your own views and those of your party. You come to a conclusion as part of a group and go forth on that basis.

On an occasion such as this, the requirement is for you to take advice, not only from your community but also from experts, and to consider the matter. But at the end of the day you stand alone to make the decision as you see fit. There have been very few matters of conscience in the time that I have been here—some 13 years—but this is one; the earlier bill in 2002 which related to these issues was another; and, as I recall, there have only been two or three others. As such, as I said, this bill produces some special questions for members to consider.

It is also difficult because it is one of those occasions when often people in your community feel very strongly that there is a need to relay their particular concerns on the issue, often in emotive terms and, I have to say, always in heartfelt terms. I have had correspondence from my own area and from elsewhere in support of this legislation; I have also had correspondence very much against it. I do not question the beliefs of those on either side of that debate. I do sometimes question the language that they use, but I have no doubt that people believe what they say when they raise the matter of what should be done regarding this particular piece of legislation and that those views are solemnly held.

In trying to come to a decision about this particular bill, I tried to spend a little time looking at the debate. I was in fact on the earlier Andrews committee, as it has become known, for the last nine or 10 months of that committee’s consideration of the issue, and I came to a number of conclusions at that time. I do not think it would be a surprise to anyone that my views are still basically consistent with the view that I took at that time, though, of course, in some respects the debate has moved on. I also took the time to go back to what I said in the debate on that previous occasion. A number of things that I said then still hold true now, or at least hold true in terms of my own views on this difficult and vexed issue. Back in 2002, I said:

What can we say about this debate? We can say a few things, and one is that, as someone who has spent a fair bit of time looking at this, I am not sure what will end up being the case in regard to scientific research in this area, both in terms of adult stem cells and in terms of embryonic stem cells. With my knowledge, which is limited and that of a layman, with respect to research in these areas, the one thing that is clear is that the jury is still out. There is evidence with respect to adult stem cells that suggests we will see some major achievements on behalf of humankind in the years to come. There is evidence to suggest that the same thing may well happen with embryonic stem cells. I do not know about this because I am not a scientist, I am not an expert in this field, and one is getting, on a regular and continuing basis, evidence that suggests things both ways. We are certainly seeing a situation where proponents of both sides of the cause are endeavouring to deflate or inflate particular claims to assist their own particular views with respect to this issue.

When this matter was being considered by the committee the circumstances were that overwhelmingly, but not entirely, medical experts who were involved in adult stem cells and in embryonic stem cells agreed on one thing: that research into both should continue and that, as is the case with medical research and as is the case with, for example, drug development in a range of areas, often where you go and how you get there is not quite that simple and developments in one can and will often assist developments in the other. The intention overall is to move forward in a way that ensures that society has better techniques to deal with the range of debilitating conditions that face people as they grow older or that they may have faced from an early age. So I do not think there is a convincing view one way or the other on the question of which research is best; I think both research areas are essential and ought to be progressed on that basis. It comes down to your ethical view and what you see as being the question here. I think that is the key.

There has been quite a bit of comment on the situation we face now in considering the Lockhart review. There has also been quite a bit of comment about the fact that the House had a view several years ago on stem cell research—the House voted unanimously on the previous occasion to block certain aspects of that particular type of research—and that we are now in fact altering that. Again I quote from my speech in 2002 on the system that we were constructing at that stage:

Will that system be perfect? No, I do not believe it will be perfect. Is it important to have a system? Yes, it is. Are we in a situation where we ought to be able to deal with the serious issues around this question? I believe we can, but I do not believe that, if the legislation passes this parliament and is then implemented, that will be the end of the story; not at all. For example, at the moment we are particularly dealing with the question of what we do with research into excess IVF embryos. I will be quite frank about this. As a member of the majority viewpoint on the Legislation and Constitutional Affairs Committee, I support the use of excess IVF embryos in the circumstances outlined. Depending on developments in the future, if evidence is produced to show that this research will be successful in dealing with the range of conditions that have been mentioned—and that is a big if—then I would be prepared to consider other aspects of therapeutic cloning that have been talked about in relation to treatments in this area, but not now.

That was the point of the committee; that was the point of the legislation having a sunset clause with respect to considering this issue again in terms of where we go. I do not believe the circumstances are there now to say that is necessarily the way forward and I want to be able to look at that again in future if required. I hope it is required or that adult stem cells have advanced to a stage where that research takes care of those issues and we do not have to deal with these ethical questions. But, if we have not got to that stage, my view is that we ought to consider those questions down the track. That is how you avoid the slippery slope in these circumstances: you put in place safeguards that allow you to revisit the issues and consider them in the circumstances.

I mentioned that I saw it very much as an ethical question. Again, I quote from that speech in 2002:

When we look at where we go from here, it gets down to that ethical question of the status of an embryo. What are we talking about here? Is this a human life or isn’t it? What happens to that human life? I am sorry, the arguments have been stated right across. I personally do not believe that an embryo at the age that we are talking about constitutes a human life or the potential development of a human life because it is not actually implanted. It is not in a situation where development is going to occur, and we know it is not going to occur ...

That was definitely my stated view at that time and I have not changed that view.

Where do we go from here? We are considering this legislation because the legislation we passed several years ago set up a review process. We are now here because of the review process and that is in line with what was agreed at the time. Those who would suggest that, by reviewing these things at the moment, we are effectively going back on what the parliament decided at that time are not actually correct. The parliament made a decision at that time to review these issues, particularly with regard to the question of somatic cell nuclear transfer—therapeutic cloning—in Australia. There was a moratorium. The fact of the matter is that there is no doubt that the matter was supposed to come back here for consideration depending on what was seen as the situation in the community. That is certainly what the Lockhart review sought to address. There have been many significant reports that have been surprisingly uniform in their recommendations of developments in this area. It should be noted that Australian scientists and scientific bodies have not differed from overall public opinion but have themselves pushed for strong nationally applied regulation of cloning and stem cells.

There have been a number of emotive points made on the ‘slippery slope’ argument. I stress that some of the emotive points that have been made by those who are, if you like, boosters for this form of research have also been quite unreasonable. My earlier speech had quite a few things to say about the way Professor Alan Trounson handled the debate from the pro research line. I think it was at times mischievous almost and certainly not helpful to the overall cause of having a proper, deliberative discussion on where we go. The fact is that when we are talking about cloning, as in the cloning of human beings, everyone is opposed.

It has also been argued that there will be a demand to push the time out beyond the 14-day limit, but there is absolutely no case for this, as the stem cells that are needed for SCNT begin to emerge from day five. Again, there is no need for it; therefore, it will not be done. If there were a need for it, then it would have to come back here, we would have to consider the issues and make a decision at that time. I think that, when those time lines start getting fiddled with or are proposed to be fiddled with, we then have a real issue that people should seek to consider and ought to consider under the circumstances.

Ethical considerations, as I said earlier, are very important. Different views are held by people with a great deal of passion across the chamber. It is quite understandable, and I have a great deal of respect for those who hold views different from mine on these particular issues, but we ought to note that that situation also exists in the community, not just in this parliament. Representatives as we are, the fact is that the views held within this chamber are also held in the wider community and they are diverse. There are varying moral and ethical issues which come into play. For example, in their submission to the 2006 Senate inquiry into the private member’s bill, the Lockhart committee said:

The Committee was acutely aware of the special moral status attached to embryos and the concerns that many groups, particularly Christian churches, had regarding their destruction. But the Committee also recognised that not all communities in Australia attach the same significance to the embryo and that other concerns, such as the need to care for the sick and vulnerable and respect the wishes of individuals, are also morally important.

Why are embryonic stem cells necessary? Again, as I mentioned earlier in my quote from the speech back in 2002, it is premature to choose one type of research over another. We have to test both premises. We have to look at what they both provide. There is no doubt that both of them—adult and embryonic—provide opportunities for real advances in science, but at this stage we cannot say how much. We need to make sure that we test both premises within the constraints of the law. If we do that, hopefully we will see medical advances into the future.

The Lockhart review also put the focus on a current anomaly which the proposed bill will address. The 2002 Australian legislation allowed for the creation of human embryonic stem cell lines from fertilised human eggs that have become surplus to the needs of IVF implantation, which means that they would never be implanted into the woman’s uterus. But the 2002 legislation currently does not allow the creation of such human embryonic stem cell lines derived from an unfertilised human egg in the SCNT process which would also never be implanted into the woman’s uterus. This is a logically and ethically inconsistent situation. Maintaining the consistent logic of its ethical and scientific argument, the Lockhart report recommends that legislation be drafted to allow the use of unfertilised eggs as well as fertilised eggs for the creation of stem cell lines. This bill would enable that to happen.

I will not go into detail on the progress of research. There is no doubt that a range of claims has been made. But I think we have to be aware, when we come to issues of research, that outrageous claims will at times be made, and they ought to be looked at and they ought to be tested. Much has been made of what happened in South Korea. The point about that is that claims were made, but those claims were also assessed. They were peer reviewed, they were found to false and they were then treated as they should have been and discredited. Again, just because there is some bad research does not mean that you stop research.

Another issue which has come up recently and had quite a bit of comment—it is great to see so many from the other side here to listen to me; I gather that is why they are here—is the issue of foetal tissue and the circumstances of it. The member for Bass has an amendment relating to the issue of opponents of cloning saying that using foetal tissue, including eggs, for cloning amounts to allowing for an aborted baby girl to be used as a parent of embryos which will then be destroyed. I think that is understandable as a point to be made, but I think it is alarmist in the extreme.

This bill would allow the creation of embryos from a type of foetal cell consistent with the objectives of the equivalent research on human embryos. This is simply an extension of existing legal access to foetal tissues for a promising line of research that is also being undertaken elsewhere in the world. The use of cadaver and foetal tissues for research is permitted under state legislation and underpinned by guidelines issued by the National Health and Medical Research Council. The guidelines regulating the use of foetal tissues are separate to those governing assisted reproductive technology research. The bill specifically prohibits the creation of IVF embryos from foetal precursor cells by prohibiting the implantation into the body of a woman of an embryo created from foetal precursor cells. The bill limits the permitted development of such an embryo to not more than 14 days after fertilisation.

There are some final points I would like to make about Australia’s legislative and regulatory approach to these issues. We should not lose sight of the importance of the fact that Australia has an excellent national legislative regime in this area—one that covers all ART and research activities in Australia no matter where they are conducted or how they are funded. The enactment of this bill will see this regime backed up with very strong oversight and penalties. This regime is also backed up with a series of NHMRC guidelines that address informed consent, institutional ethics approval and the ethics of working with human subjects. Senator Colbeck’s amendment to this bill in the Senate will mean that there will be an opportunity to look at the current state and territory laws which govern the donation of human tissue and organs and their use in research. Finally, because this is an area where science, medicine and public opinion are all moving forward, the bill requires another review like the Lockhart review to report to the Council of Australian Governments and both houses of parliament within four years. We should not resile from this responsibility to follow the consequences and implications of our votes on this bill and the act it will amend.

Regardless of where we stand personally on these issues, we must acknowledge that these issues have been the subject of very adequate public scrutiny and debate, that they represent the views of the majority of Australians who do look for the very real medical and scientific advantages which will inevitably result one day in some way and that Australia has taken a very middle-of-the-road approach that allows research in this difficult area to proceed under strict guidelines. We have not banned it and we have not adopted the blinkered American approach, where federally funded research is limited and hamstrung but anything is possible in the privately funded sector.

Australia has a proud and sound record of balancing ethical, scientific and regulatory constraints with innovative progress. Australian scientists have not broken the rules in the use of recombinant DNA and genetically modified organisms and cloning, and they are not looking to do so. Australians have been altruistic volunteer donors of blood, human eggs and sperm. Despite the desperate shortage of organs for transplantation and the fact that human organs and tissues and eggs can be sold in some countries, that does not happen here because the law does not allow it.

There have been too many scare campaigns based on pseudoscience or no science at all and too many foolish statements about slippery slopes and the lack of research outcomes that ignore the facts. Of course we must recognise, with great courtesy and respect, that there are those who cannot support this legislation, and they, in return, must acknowledge that, in this pluralistic society, there are many views on these issues and that ethics is not the purview of any one group.

The 2001 report on human cloning by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs addressed this. It said:

One view of the status of the embryo should not be imposed on society as a whole especially when to do so may be to the detriment of those with serious or debilitating illness or disease. There is also a broader duty to society to be taken into account …

We need to distinguish the ethical and moral arguments from the scientific and biological ones, and we need to understand that they both have a place and a right to be heard. From time to time in our political life, we are given the opportunity to make important decisions that shape the future and determine what sort of country we will be. I believe that this is one of those cases. We are fortunate to be given a conscience vote in this case, although this does not make the decision to be made any easier.

I will finish with a quote, again from my speech in 2002, which I think encapsulates where we are up to:

There is the question of where we go from here in this issue. I respect the views of everyone in this debate. I am hopeful that the decision that I am personally taking is the correct one. I do not know if it is the correct one. I do not believe any of us can be sure about it. I believe on balance, under the circumstances, that support for this legislation is the correct decision to take at this time. This is a matter which will be moving forward and has been moving forward at quite a pace. It is something that needs to be evaluated on a continuing basis. It needs to continue to have complete scrutiny both from the public and the community at large, from scientific researchers on all sides and from government to ensure that the potential excesses that could occur are avoided. In the circumstances, I believe these things can take place in a way which allows us to examine and progress some of the potential opportunities for research. If those opportunities are successful, great. If they are not, then I think we have to see where we go from there, but I support the legislation.