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Tuesday, 12 November 2002
Page: 6064

Senator COOK (1:15 PM) —I rise to speak in support of the Research Involving Embryos Bill 2002. There have been many speakers before me on this bill and there are still many more to follow. It may be that all that can be said has been said and there is nothing new now to add. But I believe that all of us in this chamber owe it to the Australian public to show that we are aware of the extent of the concern that it has generated for many within the community and that indeed they are entitled to hear the views of their elected representatives on this very sensitive issue. My office, like many others, has received a large volume of mail on this matter, some supportive of the bill and some not. Some of the centrally organised campaigns have been, shall I say, rather cynical in tone, implying that parliamentarians may not have made the effort to acquire sufficient knowledge to responsibly make such decisions as this bill before us involves. All I have read or heard of the parliamentary debate so far belies that cynicism.

This is not only a sensitive issue; it is also a serious one. The number of speakers in this debate indicates that members and senators regard it as such. Nearly every senator is stating their own position. It has been the subject of two separate parliamentary committee reports with numerous witnesses and submissions in public hearings. There has been much media attention directed to it. There have been seminars arranged here in Parliament House for members, senators and their staff. That is because there is recognition that both the scientific and ethical arguments can be complex and abstruse. There has also been all the material sent to parliamentary representatives from those within the scientific, medical and religious communities as well as from interested community members. In fact, to remain ignorant of the issues would have taken a very deliberate effort indeed.

Because each member or senator will be voting according to his or her conscience it does tend to encourage far more individual research than when a party political approach is adopted. This debate is therefore, in my view, a fine example of our Australian democracy in action. Others have suggested that we could have been wrongly persuaded by scientists, since we ourselves, as members of parliament, do not have the specific scientific qualifications necessary to distinguish between the arguments for and against. This is to misunderstand the role of parliamentary representatives. The Minister for Defence, for example, is not a soldier; the minister for health is not necessarily a doctor; and so on. Our role in this parliament is to take advice from the community from a range of experts and then make considered decisions that reflect the will of the people.

There are a number of ways of understanding the will of the people. One way, but not the only way, is through proper surveys of opinion. According to a series of surveys conducted by a team from the Australian National University over a decade, most Australians support the use of foetal tissue such as stem cells for medical research and treatment and their attitudes are remarkably stable—their attitudes have not changed over the decade. The data from five surveys conducted between 1993 and 2001 showed that a large majority of Australians support the use of foetal tissue from abortions already carried out for other reasons—not for research purposes. Support ranged from 68 to 85 per cent. The wide variations in support depended on the purpose of the research and also the motives. According to one of the survey team, Dr Jonathon Kelley:

This suggests that part of the reason so many support the use of foetal tissue from birth-control abortions may be that people see some redemptive value in using the tissue rather than disposing of it.

While this series of surveys deals with tissue from abortions rather than the spare embryos created as a consequence of in-vitro fertilisation procedures, it does demonstrate what people think on the matter, including what their assessment is of the moral issues involved. However, the most definitive way of understanding the will of the people in respect of this bill is by taking the example of in-vitro fertilisation itself. There has long been acceptance both in the parliament and in the community of in-vitro fertilisation procedures to create a family for couples who would otherwise be unable to have children. A consequence of these procedures is that spare embryos are created and those that are not required are destroyed after a set time.

It has been said that of those who oppose this bill many of them also oppose IVF procedures. It is even said that the opposition to this bill is based on the hope that if it is defeated it will lead to a revisiting of the IVF issue. Certainly I have received letters asking me to oppose this bill on the basis of objections to IVF procedures. Much of the opposition I have received to IVF is based, as well, on particular religious views. Yet IVF procedures are—overwhelmingly, I would submit—a settled issue as far as the parliament and the community are concerned. While I am confident that not all the moral or ethical opposition to embryonic stem cell research is based on religious belief, the very fact that both major parties have allowed their members a conscience vote on this issue indicates that this is an issue of personal belief.

I believe that one of the great attributes of this nation is that we have a secular system of government—a system that separates the church and the state. This does not mean that on questions of ethics we should not listen to the views of church leaders. Their study and their work involve questions of morals and ethics and so we should listen to what they have to say on such matters. The committees inquiring into this issue did, of course, receive submissions from the churches and from groups with particular religious views. But the question of when the embryo qualifies as a life or as a person attracting the same duty of protection is an issue of personal belief. For many, it is dependent on a belief in God as the creator of all life. For those of us who do not share this belief it is a matter of humanist morality. I would like to quote the definition of a secular state that appears in a volume of the publication Contemporary European Affairs, because it seems to me to be particularly relevant at this particular moment in our history:

The secular State preaches and defends reciprocal tolerance. It forbids any group whether of believers or agnostics, and whether it forms a majority or not, to claim power and to use such power to assert the spread of its beliefs and its own domination.

Not only is secularism the only approach that allows for equal treatment between those who hold religious beliefs and those who have none at all, it is also the only approach that offers equality of treatment between those holding different religious beliefs.

As I said, now is an apposite time in our history to reflect on how lucky we are to belong to a nation that allows such a plurality of views and beliefs. I am convinced that even those who object to this bill because of their religious beliefs would agree that it is preferable to have a system of government that tolerates all religious beliefs rather than one based on a particular belief and therefore intolerant of any other. Those societies where this is not so do not enjoy the rights and freedoms that we in Australia take for granted.

Previous speakers have pointed out that there are two central issues to this debate. Firstly, there is the scientific question: will the research result in beneficial outcomes and, if so, is it essential that embryonic stem cells be used or is the use of adult stem cells of equal or superior value? The second question is the moral or ethical question: even if there are beneficial outcomes, are we justified in proceeding in a sort of crude utilitarianism—the view that the end justifies the means—or even the John Stuart Mill approach of the greatest good for the greatest number? Are we able to move in either way?

In addressing the potential scientific outcomes of stem cell research, we need to be mindful of the benefits anticipated. It has been claimed that these potential benefits have been `talked up' and this may be so. But without optimism and enthusiasm to forge new scientific frontiers Australia would not enjoy its position as a world leader in biotechnology. The possible benefits of this research include the great healing potential of embryonic stem cells. They have the capacity to grow new body parts, such as tissue and organs, which could be used to provide new skin tissue for burns victims, new pancreatic cells for diabetics and to replace damaged cardiac muscular cells and arteries for heart disease victims, and they could be therapeutic in the treatment of Alzheimer's by replacing damaged nerve cells.

Is there anyone here, knowing someone with such cruel afflictions as Alzheimer's, which attacks the mind and leaves the body intact, or motor neurone disease, which attacks the body but leaves the mind intact, who would not embrace the potential of finding a cure or remedial therapy for these two distressing diseases alone, let alone others which are increasingly more prevalent, such as diabetes and heart disease?

It has been claimed that similar benefits can be obtained through the use of adult stem cells. However, there is compelling evidence that the best hope of a breakthrough for a cure or improved treatment and a better quality of life for those with these serious illnesses is through embryonic stem cell research. Embryonic stem cells are easier to identify and isolate. There are many more of them; they grow more quickly and more easily in the lab than do adult stem cells. They have been successful in experiments on animals. If these do not appear to be arguments of significant weight to sway the argument one way or another, I am swayed by the words of Professor Bob Williamson, who is the director of the Murdoch Children's Research Institute and a professor of medical genetics at the University of Melbourne. In his submission to the Community Affairs Legislation Committee he said:

What I believe to be absolutely certain is that there are real benefits in allowing adult and embryonic stem cell research to proceed side by side in the same laboratories, so the experiments cross-refer and so that lessons can be learnt by comparing the two systems.

I particularly like his analogy of two strong runners in a marathon race, which is that we should not make the decision to eliminate one of our strongest runners before we even start.

If it so happens that in the longer term adult stem cells turn out to produce superior results, then I have no intrinsic commitment to embryonic stem cells because of any antitheistic ideological position. I simply want what I believe we all want—the best outcome that offers hope of a cure or a better quality of life for those afflicted with some of the most feared diseases we know. As the Leader of the Opposition said in another place, we do know that such breakthroughs will only come if the research is allowed to continue.

I will turn now to the moral or ethical question of whether we are justified in proceeding with such research, regardless of its benefits. It seems to me that those who support this bill do so because they believe it is the right thing to do and those who oppose it do so for the same reason—they believe it is the right thing to do. The issue is how we determine what is right. As the study of moral or ethical philosophy reveals, there are few moral absolutes that are universally held. Many mores or practices that we hold as being self-evidently good, such as free speech or the right to choose one's own partner in marriage, in some cultures can be seen as dangerous and/or disrespectful. However, I suggest that a short-list of universal moral absolutes would include, at the very least, that we do all we can to reduce needless suffering. It would be hard to mount an argument against it.

In embryonic stem cell research we hold out the hope that we will be able to reduce the suffering of those who are afflicted with the cruellest diseases or who have suffered tragic accidents, and also reduce the suffering of those who care for and love them. It would also have the consequential benefit of reducing society's burden in caring for them, although this is not and should not be the primary motivation. I am not a proponent of the view that we are entitled to use embryonic cells for research simply because `they are going to die anyway'. I think this is a straw argument set up by those opposed to this bill and this research in order to knock it down. The phrase, `They are going to die,' is meant to imply a moral status to the embryo. It has emotive connotations meant to influence opinions against the research. As a number of speakers before me have pointed out, and as is self-evident from the controversy surrounding this bill, there is no universal acceptance of the moral status of the embryo—beliefs about the embryo at this stage of its development are a matter of belief, not of fact.

An analogy which I prefer, and which is another way for us as parliamentary representatives to determine the will of the people, is the long-accepted practice of organ donation for the purpose of transplantation. In transplantation the donor is what is often referred to as `brain dead'—that is, the body lives but the mind is no longer active and will never be able to be reactivated. The donated organs are removed, the life support system that keeps the body alive is withdrawn and the body is allowed to succumb. Not only do the community accept this practice; it seems to me that they laud it, admiring those who have the courage and the generosity to contribute to the reduction of suffering in this way.

There are other arguments mounted against this bill. One is that we are on a slippery slope here—that is, basically this is the thin end of the wedge and, once we allow this research to occur, it will open the door for going further and creating embryos on demand purely for research. Human life, so this line argues, then becomes simply another commodity. I must say that, if that argument is followed, community respect for the sanctity of human life will be undermined, with a consequent `coarsening' or loss of certain moral values. That is the argument. This and many other similar objections have been addressed by incorporating limiting safeguards in the bill. In fact, it is only with the passage of this bill that these safeguards will come into effect on a national basis.

There will be a new regulatory system with provisions for public reporting on an annual basis. There will be penalties for breaches and there is a built-in review provision. Most importantly, there will be a requirement for full and informed consent by donors. This in itself can be regarded as a way of judging in the future what the will of the people is—that is, the number of putative parents or those who achieve parenthood through IVF who are willing to donate their surplus or spare eggs to research. This will be only one of the elements that the licensing committee will report on each year.

I think it is also important to point out that the licensing committee will comprise a range of experts, not simply those in the scientific area but also those in other fields, including ethicists. It is not possible to say at this early stage in the research process whether the significant benefits we hope to see as a result of this research will arise or not. However, research is proceeding in a number of countries overseas and, while this in itself is not a sufficient condition for us to follow suit here, it is one factor that we as decision makers need to consider. We cannot afford to allow the brain drain of some of our best biomedical students and scientists to other countries with a more enlightened approach. Even if other lines of research prove to be more beneficial in the longer term, we may lose biomedical expertise that we as a country can ill afford to lose.

There have been some suggestions that the push for this research has more to do with rampant scientific or financial entrepreneurship. I believe, however, that most of the arguments proffered are based on genuinely held opinions. The depth of conviction on this issue should not be underestimated. I for one do not treat it lightly. It does not reflect a party political divide. Those of us who support the bill do not make the error of assuming that this is just a debate about a clump of cells that should be treated as if they are of no consequence—nor is the basis for decision making on an ethical issue such as this of little or no significance. In our pluralistic society, how we decide such issues has far-reaching implications.

I am proud to be part of the debate and to have the opportunity to put my views knowing that my right to do so is respected, even if the views are not necessarily agreed with. I consider myself lucky to be part of a nation that accepts the right of all to hold a particular religious belief, or to hold none at all. There is no consensus on this issue, and by its very nature no consensus is likely. This is the reason why a conscience vote was granted: in recognition of the range of opinion and the depth of conviction held. (Time expired)