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Monday, 11 November 2002
Page: 5819

Senator CHRIS EVANS (9:45 AM) —I rise to speak on the Prohibition of Human Cloning Bill 2002, which was passed in the House of Representatives on 29 August. In doing so, I speak on behalf of the Australian Labor Party and support the bill. The broad purpose of the bill is to ban human cloning and other reproductive practices that have been deemed unacceptable at this time by the Commonwealth government and each of the state and territory governments. I note this consensus amongst all the governments in Australia, not by way of a preliminary point before launching into the substantive arguments against unregulated scientific practices involving human reproduction, but because consensus amongst federal, state and territory governments on basic ethical issues about the use of human genetic material in science is rare. To my mind, and in the view of the Australian Labor Party, this rarity is not simply of statistical interest. The infrequent occurrence of the unanimous position on issues of bioethics strongly suggests that the position should be respected, particularly because in this case the result of rejecting this bill is not the achievement of one school of ethical thought over another or even the achievement of a particular policy outcome. The most significant consequence of rejecting this bill is to leave untouched the current fragmented and inconsistent regulatory approach to human cloning in Australia.

It is useful at this early point in the debate to recall the reasons the bill has been presented to the Senate for our consideration. On 5 April this year the Council of Australian Governments agreed to introduce nationally consistent legislation to, among other things, ban the cloning of human beings by any method. The impetus for the COAG decision was the indefensible fact that there are laws regulating human cloning practices in only a minority of Australian jurisdictions. Fundamental bioethical questions, such as whether asexual reproductive cloning should be allowed in Australia, are not issues on which Australians would expect or want piecemeal regulation that varies dramatically from state to state. The premiers and chief ministers acknowledge this and decided to avoid that frequently trodden path in the Commonwealth of Australia, whereby different regulations in the same area are chosen by the nine different parliaments as they see fit.

The common position reached after exhaustive discussion by the states and territories prior to the COAG meeting, a position that incorporates the findings of experts in medical research, assisted reproductive technology, ethics and law, is I believe fundamentally sound. Indeed, the COAG decision to ban any method of human cloning, a decision which is reflected in the provisions of this bill, is based on a panoply of arguments against reproductive cloning. These arguments are clearly supported by a majority of scientists in this country, as the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee inquiring into this bill was clearly told.

One of the most significant arguments in favour of prohibition on human cloning is the considerable uncertainty surrounding the long-term wellbeing of potential client subjects. Such uncertainty about how engineered genetic material might develop is a danger inherent in any type of experimental biology. However, this danger is completely unacceptable when the genetic material in question is human. In particular, the exposure of a cloned infant to the distinct possibilities of premature ageing, somatic mutation, cancer and a multitude of other defects that have been associated with cloning to this point is not something that I believe the Senate can countenance.I note with grave concern in this context that the most celebrated real-life product of cloning so far is Dolly the sheep. Dolly was created by somatic cell transfer only after hundreds of reconstructed eggs were developed and implanted in more than a dozen surrogate sheep. Despite the devoted expert reproductive exercise that resulted in Dolly's birth, she has suffered in her short life from more serious ailments than most of us will ever experience. It is simply unacceptable to allow human cloning in Australia at this time when development of animal clones is in its infant stages yet already has produced concerning trends for disease propensity in cloned subjects.

So far I have mentioned the desirability of implementing the shared national vision for regulating this incipient branch of reproductive science, as well as the unacceptable dangers in the science for the clones themselves. However, there are many other arguments in favour of prohibiting cloning which, due to time limits, I must be selective about in my contribution today.

The third argument I wish to raise in expressing Labor's support for the bill relates to the danger that unregulated human cloning will provide fertile ground for enthusiasts of selective breeding. Labor does not support the development of scientific techniques that enable a couple to pick and reject certain genes even before a child is conceived, particularly genes that do not carry any disease or physiological defect but are linked to some quality of mind or body desired by the parents. Some members of our society rightly take advantage of the techniques that science has developed to detect gross abnormalities in developing foetuses. However, eugenics of any type that involves cloning or the design of human beings prior to conception is not condoned by the ALP.

My fourth point in support of the bill is somewhat more pragmatic, or utilitarian. It is an argument about resource allocation. As we all know, the science of cloning is imprecise. One consequence of this imprecision, and the multiple attempts that must be made in order to derive just one cloned embryo, is that it is highly expensive. As I understand it, at the Roslin Institute in Scotland 430 eggs were extracted from 40 sheep, with only 29 embryos eventuating, to result in the birth of only one clone—Dolly—and this is the successful instance of bringing to birth stage a cloned animal embryo among many failed attempts. In Australia at the moment, spending on science is scarce enough. Serious questions would certainly have to be asked about resource efficiency and social equity if human cloning were ever to be put before the federal parliament for support in the future.

Furthermore, human cloning experimentation also has implications for public safety. Much innovation and investment would be needed before proper risk assessments of any reproductive cloning technology could be made. Indeed, the potential for therapeutic applications to arise from human cloning— this potential providing the only justification to my mind for even considering allowing cloning—cannot even be explored until the full negative effects of cloning in animals are known and techniques for reversing them are developed.

The final argument I wish to raise in explaining the Labor Party's support for this bill relates to the threat it poses to notions of identity and individual autonomy, notions so fundamental to our society. One of the offences this bill proposes is the intentional creation of an embryo that is a genetic copy of another human being, dead or alive, by whatever means. This blanket prohibition on cloning is very important because it rejects exceptionalism. The bill prohibits the copying of another human's genes, whether or not the maker's intention is to destroy the resultant embryo or to allow it to grow full term into a human baby. Prohibition of human cloning per se, rather than allowing a clone to be developed to a certain cellular stage, is important because of how we regard ourselves. To the extent that our sense of identity is predicated on individual uniqueness, this sense would be threatened whether a 32-cell clone of ourselves or a fully developed child clone existed.

Ever since the European Enlightenment, and arguably since the collapse of feudalism where a serf's identity was officially subsumed within the corporate status of a land-holding other, individualism has been accorded the highest value in western society. Australians would need to think very hard about the implications for their sense of self or their identity in ceding scientists the liberty to make even an embryo with two pronuclei that shares the genes of another human being.

In concluding, I make a brief comment about a provision of the bill that makes further debate on these issues possible at a later stage and that makes the Senate's passing of this bill even more sensible. Clause 25 of the bill provides that the act must be reviewed two years after it receives royal assent. This means that the small minority of scientists and members of the public who support cloning through somatic cell transfer, because of the possibility that it may reveal how certain genetic diseases develop, will have an opportunity to again argue their case. If animal cloning proves to offer any of the benefits that Australians in favour of cloning hope that it does, the review will provide them with a forum where they can present this and argue their case. At this stage, however, any form of human cloning is viewed by the ALP as both premature in scientific terms and unacceptable in ethical terms. We believe that the Senate should pass the bill in its current form, thereby implementing a national vision that has been painstakingly developed by scientific and ethical experts alike.