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Tuesday, 12 November 2002
Page: 6104

Senator SHERRY (4:09 PM) —The Senate is considering the Research Involving Embryos Bill 2002, which sets out the parameters for allowing research involving the use of human embryos in Australia. All senators are allowed a conscience vote on this bill—that is, the individual can make their own decision, free of party meeting—in the Australian Labor Party's case, this is free of caucus and the collective decision making involved. This is a rare event in Australian parliamentary history. In Australia, the party system involving pre-parliamentary discussion and decision making in the party caucus before the respective debates in the parliamentary chambers is long established and perhaps the most tightly applied in any Western democracy.

In my 12 years in the Senate, this is only the second occasion when political parties have allowed such a conscience vote to occur, the other being the overturning of the Northern Territory's euthanasia bill in 1997. I welcome a conscience vote. I am a strong supporter of such an approach being applied to so-called matters of life and death. It is not an approach that any member or senator should fear. There is certainly more than the usual amount of lobbying, debating, persuading and perhaps cajoling. There has also been a strong flow of representations. In my case, I have received some 350 representations in a variety of forms including letters, emails, articles and personal representations, and I thank all of those people who have contacted me.

As legislators we have been left to determine our vote based on our own set of individual ethical principles, our practical experience and our evaluation of the evidence. I contend that each individual's decision is no more ethical or moral and no less ethical or moral than others' decisions. It is an individual's decision, and I respect all my colleagues for their contributions and for the final vote that they will exercise. I also thank my party, the Australian Labor Party, for allowing me this opportunity to make my own decision on this matter. It certainly will not be the end of the two-party system now or in the foreseeable future. Many other fundamental economic and social issues form the basis of a political party's belief systems and that will continue long after I have left this place.

Let me outline the approach I have brought to this bill in order to make a final decision. There are a number of principles that I would like to broadly touch on when considering public policy. My first approach to general economic and social policy is that there is a role for government. Obviously the role for government in our society, when providing a range of services to the community in such areas as health, education, personal security, employment protection and many others, varies to a degree. Government intervention, in my view, is necessary to ensure a relative equality and that, critically, the areas of support that I have just referred to are delivered to both the individual and the community.

I have a strong aversion to government determining the individual personal behaviour of adults, so long as that behaviour does not interfere with another individual's. I also have a strong view that human life should not be ended by the state nor should the state sanction the ending of human life at any time, except in respect of circumstances involving defence of the state. I also have a deep concern about experimentation with human life. At the same time, I am a strongly practical person who always tries to ask the basic question on any policy matter: will it work? I should make it clear that I do not adhere to a particular Christian denomination, but I consider myself a Christian. Australian society is strongly influenced by Judaeo-Christian principles, particularly those of the value and respect for human life, and I hope that remains so.

There is no doubt that embryo research is a very complex issue, particularly when we come to the scientific material that we have been asked to consider. Indeed, in this debate many have remarked on the difficulty of assessing the scientific material before them. I should say I have never been in awe of or blinded by science. It exists to serve our community, usually for the good and sometimes for the bad. I found it an extremely difficult area on which to make a final decision, not because of the science but because the application of the broad set of principles and ideals that I referred to earlier, when applied to embryonic research, made it very difficult to come to a final, clear answer.

Early on, when this matter was first raised in a legislative form, I decided to read a representative cross-section of at least some of the material. To read it all is impossible. In this regard, the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee report was particularly useful. I acknowledge the work that senators put into the production of that report and thank them for doing that. It is a good example of the type of detailed examination of legislation in this Senate chamber in a range of areas that it is always important for us to consider. I have also listened to at least some of the debate in the other chamber and here in the Senate. The debate has been characterised by a range of strong and at times very emotional claims at, I have to say, both extremes of the issue. For example, some who are against the legislation we are considering have raised a spectre of some sort of Nazi-like Boys from Brazil engineered humans. At the other end of the spectrum we have had the lure of a cure for many diseases, and perhaps even immortality. While not condoning such extreme arguments in this debate, could I simply say that that is life, human life, with all of its remarkable diversity.

Let me turn to the critical issue: allowing research on human embryos. There is little disagreement that the embryo is a human life. But is it a life? I must say that this is an issue that I have spent many, many hours trying to turn over in my mind and come to a very clear understanding of. I suppose some people would find it a little strange that a senator is not quite sure of the meaning of what a life is. But it is something I have had to think about long and hard. I have no doubt that the human embryo is certainly a building block at the commencement of human life. There is no doubt about that. Allowing research and experimentation will have, I believe, massive consequences, perhaps not immediately but certainly in the longer term. Once this is allowed to commence, it will be impossible to reverse and will only be controlled and supervised with the utmost difficulty.

I have come to the conclusion that I will not be supporting this legislation at this particular time. I would emphasise `at this particular time'. I have also asked myself, `Is there any other possible practical alternative to experimentation with human embryos?' And there is. There is research in the area of adult stem cells. There has been extensive debate about the therapeutic prospects of research into adult stem cells. It appears at the present time that that research and its medical outcomes are probably not as significant as research using embryonic stem cells. However, the possibility of research in this area is still strong and should at least be considered. If this possibility had not been available, I probably would have supported the bill. However, given the acknowledged momentous decision we are being asked to make, I would prefer to wait. If the possibilities of adult stem cell research cannot be realised over a reasonable time period—in my evaluation, perhaps four to five years—I would reconsider my support for this legislation at a later date if we have that opportunity. My view on this bill can best be summarised as saying, `No, not at this time.'