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Tuesday, 12 November 2002
Page: 6058

Senator JACINTA COLLINS (12:51 PM) —As a participating member of the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee inquiring into the Research Involving Embryos Bill 2002, I have followed this debate quite closely. There are some concerns in relation to the process and, if I have time, I will deal with those a bit later in my speech. Let me commence my remarks with one reflection: I believe that the issue here is not the character and the strength of my personal Catholicism. In many senses in respect of this debate I do not believe it is a relevant issue. I believe that there are quite strong secular reasons for opposing this bill, and it is on those that I will concentrate.

The debate in this place and in the media has loosely centred on the words `stem cells'. However, this is not the real essence of what we have been deliberating. The acronym ESC has often been used to spin a promise of a clean, bright future, yet the words have also been used to downplay the darker side of what we have really been discussing. What we are contemplating here is the unprecedented sanctioning of destructive research on human life. That is the fundamental issue we as legislators in a secular society are dealing with. In my view it is undeniable that, from the point of conception, nothing is added to the fertilised ovum but nutrition, care and the time for it to grow into a baby, a child, an adolescent and an adult. To me, the human embryo is not a potential human being or a pre-human being; it is already human. As legislators, we need to determine what standing that human life should have.

Recent research shows that Australian society is now more cautious about what is and what is not human than some in this place would acknowledge. There have been references to what is, in my view, a very limited Morgan poll, but I would like to bring to the Senate's attention a recently published study by the Australian Social Monitor which found that, to the question of whether an embryo was a human being at the moment of conception, 56 per cent of Australians responded `definitely yes' or `probably yes', had mixed feelings or were undecided. Another interesting element of that research is the finding that there was a growing tendency among young Australians to acknowledge that an embryo was a human life around the time of conception. So it is not the case that the Australian community is becoming less concerned about the value of a human embryo; rather, it is becoming more concerned. In my view, that probably reflects some of the developments in biology and the education of young Australians in understanding how life develops. Senators should not delude themselves that the sanctity of human life is a diminishing community attitude. This research shows that, among young Australians, it is growing.

Whilst obtaining much-prized embryonic stem cells has been the justification for destroying human embryos, in reality the scope of this bill is much broader than what was canvassed before COAG. The bill goes beyond the COAG statement, which called for `research for the extraction of stem cells'. I have listened to some of the earlier contributions to this debate. Senator Lees, for instance, said, `All we are talking about here is research on extracted human stem cells.' She is wrong. Unfortunately there is still much confusion in people's minds after our Senate inquiry, which is why I will reflect later in my remarks on some points about the conduct of this inquiry. The scope of this bill is much broader than what was sold to the Australian public and, indeed, sold to the Australian premiers.

While I will be opposing this bill, I will also be moving, with others, amendments designed to restrict the scope of the project that has been presented through this bill. Not only is the scope of this bill much broader but also, even among those participating in the NHMRC and the Australian Health Ethics Committee, there are still strong concerns that the bill as currently framed does not present, as has been claimed, a strict regulatory regime. So there will also be amendments aimed at ensuring, if the Senate does allow this project to occur, the strong regulatory regime that it was claimed would be put in place will actually be presented.

The Research Involving Embryos Bill 2002 reverses a significant amount of legislative thinking that has been done in the area of embryo protection and assisted reproductive technology. Whilst we are looking at an unprecedented step in how we sanction the treatment of human life, we need to reflect on our past thinking in this area. As a senator for Victoria, I represent much of the policy thought and consideration that has occurred in that state in dealing with assisted reproductive technology. The Victorian Infertility Treatment Act 1995 contains a number of provisions giving protection to human embryos. In section 5, `Guiding principles', the act acknowledges:

... the welfare and interests of any person born or to be born as a result of a treatment procedure are paramount ...


... human life should be preserved and protected ...

The act goes further to explicitly ban `destructive research on embryos', stating:

A person must not carry out research, outside the body of a woman, involving the use of an embryo—

(a) if the embryo is unfit for transfer to a woman; or

(b) in the case of an embryo which is fit for transfer to a woman, if the research would—

(i) harm the embryo; or

(ii) make the embryo unfit for transfer to a woman; or

(iii) reduce the likelihood of a pregnancy resulting from the transfer of the embryo.

I highlight the fact that there are similar laws in other states and a range of international conventions to which Australia is a signatory that call on us to be extra careful and vigilant when it comes to making decisions that endanger human life. Much of this is based on a very simple philosophical theme. This is what the Australian Prime Minister breached with his misconception about the difference between letting life succumb and allowing research to be conducted. There is a strong principle about the distinction between killing and letting die. We have dealt with it in relation to issues around human death—how we allow people to die; we have dealt with it in relation to issues about what research can and should be conducted; and we have dealt with it in a range of Australian states when we have established regimes for assisted reproductive technology.

The fact that a legislative void has been allowed to continue to exist in some states is no reason to deny or simply overturn the public policy debates that have occurred within Australian jurisdictions and the principles upon which they are based. Clearly, they are based on the principle that we preserve human life. We understand that human life does succumb, but that does not mean it should be the subject of research. People say in relation to embryos, `We have got them all sitting in this stem cell bank and it is such a waste if they are not used for research.' In fact, the suggestion has been made that it is unethical if they are not used for research. I am sorry, but anyone with a basic understanding of the human reproductive process knows that such supposed waste occurs in the menstrual cycle of any sexually active woman. The fact that many embryos never actually eventuate into an adult human life does not mean that they are not human. Nature itself reinforces that principle.

The main point I want to raise here is that society has not suddenly stumbled across embryo research and found it a morally blank canvas that has never been considered before. Australian legislators have thought through these issues before and seen the need to protect life in all of its stages. But we now have a small group of scientific researchers and companies pushing for embryo experimentation. More than in any other ethical debate in Australia, support for the bill has come from a small group with substantial pecuniary interests in the outcome. Monash University professor Alan Trounson has become the voice of this group, and the professor has certainly not excelled in the public debate. Many of his statements to the media and to the parliament have been infused with exaggerations, controversy and inconsistencies.

Professor Trounson informed government members that he had divested himself of shares in projects that would benefit if this legislation were passed by the parliament, yet we found evidence only a few months ago that he still had 200,000 shares in ES Cell International—that acronym again; we cannot say it is about embryos, because we do not really want to acknowledge that we are talking about their destruction. Throughout the debate, Professor Trounson's views on the number of embryos needed for stem cell research and what cloning practices should and should not be allowed have changed, leaving many confused about what is being asked for. The professor also lashed out at opponents of embryo experimentation earlier this year, portraying challengers as irrational hypocrites, according to the Australian. Professor Trounson later apologised, as he also did to me over the renowned `rat incident', which I will not go into further. But this is no way to handle an enlightened debate.

Rather than repeat some of the issues already raised by other senators about Professor Trounson, I want to raise a different issue. I have had a long interest in reproductive technology in the context of the Victorian legislation in the eighties and its development and the public policy debates there, so I am one of the few people to be informed of the fact that Professor Alan Trounson— this is the best way to say it—has form. He has well-established form. I want to bring to the Senate's attention what occurred in the public policy debate in this area in Victoria in the late 1980s.

In late 1986, the members of the Standing Review and Advisory Committee on Infertility in Victoria had to deal with a research proposal submitted by Dr Trounson's team to investigate the effects of microinjection. To place a microinjected embryo in a woman's womb without such research, the scientists claimed, would be ethically irresponsible. Attempts were made to amend the legislation. Perhaps time was moving far too slowly, though, because by the time we got to April 1988 an unidentified source from the Monash University medical centre leaked that the supposedly unsafe experiments had occurred. Despite sanction, they had been conducted. Whilst we had the scientists claiming that, without the research that they could not get approved, it would be unsafe to conduct this procedure, they went ahead and did it anyway. This is Professor Alan Trounson.

What occurred after this is interesting too. The Waller committee had not been informed but it learned indirectly that the work had begun. The committee was surprised and disconcerted, according to the chairman, Louis Waller. The health minister then ordered IVF scientists to stop using this technique. With the exception of one feminist group, no-one pointed out that this was grossly unethical experimentation on women and that Dr Alan Trounson was the one that was associated with it.

I would encourage anyone to have a look at the comments made by Dr Carmen Lawrence in the debate on this bill in the other place with respect to the history and the form of the IVF industry. I think it is fair to characterise her as suggesting that there have been several problems in the past but that behaviour appears to have improved. I am not as confident as that. Some of the debate about the ethical issues has gone back to examples of unethical research in the States dealing with men with syphilis, allowing non-treatment to occur. Some ethical analogies have been drawn from that example. In some of my recent research regarding IVF and other related medical technologies, I discovered that in the late 1980s there was a similar type of incident on our back door. This was in New Zealand, where it was allowed for women not to be apprised of the fact that they had abnormal cervical cells. Thirty years of research occurred without people being advised that they had potential cervical cancer, and women died.

The response to and the culture on these issues are the most alarming aspect, because the response was not to praise the feminists who unearthed that this had been occurring but to say, `They did have the best intentions in terms of medical science and research, and it's really unfair for you to be criticising these people because we must allow this sort of research to occur.' I am sorry but I will never sanction research, whether we are talking about embryos or adult human lives, that destroys or allows the destruction of life. This is the fundamental point that the Prime Minister does not seem to have understood. There is a very big distinction between killing and letting die or, in the case of the embryos that are in storage, allowing them to succumb.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS —The Leader of the Government in the Senate, unfortunately, has taken this moment to start interjecting in the debate. Given that this debate has been conducted in the Senate with quite a high level of goodwill, I would encourage him to desist, because I do not believe that that is the character or the nature of this debate. He and others might feel uncomfortable with the notion that Professor Alan Trounson does have past form, and I still look forward to the Prime Minister's review of the funding arrangements that were established. Some people have forgotten, but for many months this government has been stalling on dealing with the funding that should never have been approved in relation to embryonic stem cell research.

In portraying the potential of embryonic stem cells, this small group of scientists has downplayed the potential of adult stem cells and the need to follow normal scientific research processes. The normal scientific research processes are to conclude basic research first and then to move on. I will not go into the detail of the argument of adult versus embryonic stem cells, because I do not really think that is the argument. The point in my mind is not whether one is better than the other; the point is that, with respect to adult stem cells, we have established principles, we have success stories and we have more likely successful outcomes. I have never said that this then means that we should not continue with work related to embryonic stem cells, but what I will always say is that such work should never allow the destruction of human life.

I have not covered anywhere near as much ground as I would have liked to in these 10 minutes, and I suggest to the government that, if they are happy, I will seek to incorporate the remainder of my speech so that they have an opportunity to review its content. The one point I would like to close on is the distinction that some people make between organ donation and embryonic stem cell work. Organ donations occur after someone is dead. In my mind, the only valid comparison in relation to embryonic stem cell research work would be if parents were prepared to allow germ cells to be taken from an embryo that had been the result of a spontaneous abortion. If Professor Alan Trounson says that he only needs a few stem cell lines, then let him have such stem cell lines, because they do not involve the conscious destruction of human life, and that is what this parliament should never sanction. (Time expired)