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Tuesday, 12 November 2002
Page: 6117

Senator LIGHTFOOT (5:26 PM) —Like Senator Forshaw and others, I have listened to the debate for some time now. As the debate proceeds, so my conviction firms and grows that I should not support the Research Involving Embryos Bill 2002. I would like to thank the Prime Minister for giving me the opportunity to have a conscience vote on what has emerged as a very serious social issue with respect to human stem cell harvesting. As I understand it, there are several ways to collect human stem cells. You can obtain, or harvest, adult stem cells from children and adults, you can obtain stem cells from placentae or umbilical cords shortly after birth or you can harvest the stem cells from embryos—and those embryos are necessarily destroyed in the process of having the stem cells taken from them—and then grow those stem cells in clusters in media. I am not an expert on stem cells by any means. In fact, it was probably not a term that I had heard of until a year or so ago. But I do know that there is sufficient disquiet in the community that the wishes and concerns of the people ought to be expressed here, in this bastion for the last review of legislation.

As Senator Forshaw just alluded, perhaps one day, when other experiments are finished and there is certainty as to what diseases will be rectified by using human stem cells, all this will be seen to be negative and to have delayed that cure. But, notwithstanding that and notwithstanding the good that will undoubtedly come from it, I am still not sure as to the degree of good. I am still not sure as to whether the experimentation that has been undertaken on human embryonic stem cells has achieved anything or achieved those goals of reversing Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, juvenile diabetes, spinal problems, quadriplegia or any of those debilitations. I am not sure that that has actually happened. If I were sure of that then I would not be convinced that destroying life in order to enhance or sustain another life is the moral thing to do, unless those stem cells came from mature sources—they were adult stem cells—or alternatively came from placentae or umbilical cords that were going to be disposed of in any case.

But can anyone believe that embryos are not alive, that the creation of life does not start with embryos? Everyone in the chamber—in fact, everyone in this building— started life as an embryo. If that is the case, and it surely is, why is an arbitrary figure put that embryos of up to 14 days can safely be harvested? They are not in fact harvested; they are mined, in the sense that they do not reproduce. Once you take the embryo and destroy it, it is destroyed. You cannot reharvest it. It is a little misleading to say that. Embryos are the smallest living precursor to human beings. They are the very light, the very spark, that gave life to everyone in this chamber. They are the most defenceless of all living things in this world. They depend on us for sustenance and safety up to the stage where they can be part of the human race. For that reason alone I do not think that they should be destroyed when there are alternative sources of stem cells. Stem cells are of course not like a skin cell, a kidney cell or a heart cell. They are cells from which you can grow almost all—if not all—those things that I have just mentioned, which form the complete, complicated human biological mass.

I wonder too whether we have given thought to those people who have given so much to the world—the geniuses of da Vinci, Michelangelo, Francis Bacon, Shakespeare, Wagner and Tchaikovsky—and to what it would be if they had been destroyed at their embryonic beginning, the genesis of their life. I wonder whether we have given thought to that and whether—and I am not a particularly religious person—we have given thought to the fact that Jesus Christ himself was an embryo at his earliest stage.

The bill is not just for human embryonic stem cell research—it would be bad enough if it were—but it seems to me that it is going to give licence to those things which we know nothing about and over which we will have no control. Those things over which we have no control include the export of these tiny living cells—they may be a prohibited export, but they are so small that they will no doubt find their way overseas. Alternatively, like other issues that have affected us for the past few decades, they may find their way into Australia. These will be embryos whose genetic make-up we will have no knowledge of. I am drawn to think about this because of the tragic events when pituitary glands were harvested overseas and brought into Australia. They brought bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, into Australia and many other parts of the world and gave us the human variant of that: Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. I wonder how we are going to stop that coming into Australia if we are able to set up these embryonic stem cell farms overseas and the cells are subsequently brought into Australia.

I was in Dubai a few days ago and it was announced that a stem cell centre was planned for the United Arab Emirates, where foetal blood would be collected and sent off to cryogenic captivity somewhere in the UK. That is not necessarily bad, because they proposed to harvest stem cells from the placenta or from the umbilical cord of newborn babies and to store the product. If that child at some stage, as an adult, should need the cells then they could be sourced—having been kept meticulously with respect to records—and used for the benefit of saving that child or adult as he or she progressed through life if he or she met with some disaster or accident.

In relation to the issue of when human life starts, until the debate in the last couple of days, I would have thought that human life started at conception. From that moment on, it is human life. Apparently that is not the view of some of my colleagues: varyingly, human life starts from seven days after conception or from 14 days after conception or at any time in between—I have heard both those figures used during this debate. I had never heard that variance before. It is the first time in my life that I have heard that human life does not begin at conception. If that is the case then the moral issue here is, once again, confounding. If we have other sources of stem cells, other sources from which we can harvest stem cells—be they adult stem cells, or those from placentae or umbilical cords—why is it, when we are still at the experimental stage, that we are looking particularly at human embryos from which to harvest stem cells? I think I know why: they offer a wide range of stem cells, they offer easy access, they cannot sue the person experimenting on them, and there is a lot of money involved. There is big money. There are going to be stem cell farms set up throughout the world whether we like it or not and whether this legislation is passed or rejected. It is the big money that worries me.

Incidentally, I heard Senator McLucas say—I think this is what she said—that she agreed with the UK model: that is, the national stem cell bank. But, as I understand it, the UK model allows for cloning as well. Of course, we are rejecting that, and rightly so. I also wonder what the ramifications would be with respect to the arbitrary periods of seven or 14 days before which embryos could legally be harvested for their stem cells. What would happen if the scientist in charge of a laboratory were to go on holidays, were to be transferred or were to be taken ill and the embryos were allowed to progress in an IVF fashion and reach the stage of 20, 30 or 40 days old? What would happen to the embryo or foetus at that stage? Will that offence become absolute—that is, will there be no excuse and no mitigation and the offence be dictated by regulation or by law? Or is it something that has the mens rea—the guilty mind—tag put on it? If the latter is the case, then there may be a lot of mistakes being made with respect to older embryos. And the older they are, as I understand it, the greater the number of stem cells that can be harvested.

What of the cases where there is self-inflicted damage: where alcoholism plays a role in damaging the liver or the kidneys, where unprotected sex leads to HIV-AIDS being contracted or where there are other cases of what one may describe as self-inflicted diseases? Is it fair that embryos should be destroyed in order to repair this sort of biological damage to people? Some people would say yes, but I think there is a question mark related to ethics and bioethics in this case as well.

I find it immoral that my country and this parliament in which I work seem to have the numbers to pass this bill. I am not a particularly religious person. As I said, I do believe in God. I do not believe I have ever been subjected to propaganda of such a nature that I would make a decision based on what I was taught by the church. The church, over the generations that I have been alive, has been kind to me but it has not dictated to me and I do not think it dictates morality to me. It is sufficient for me to say that I have been guided by the church to vote against this bill.

I still think of the thousands who suffered as a result of experiments with the pituitary glands that were brought into Australia—of which, incidentally, no record was kept. I do fear that unless the legislation is strong enough and unambiguous enough—and it does not appear to me that that is the case— we will have stem cell farms springing up around the world. I fear that scientists of this nature will be a cause celebre, that there will be much money made and that there will be times when those people expecting to be cured of their diseases and dysfunctions— and I sympathise and empathise with them— will be disappointed. I do hope that the scientists involved with this new kind of medical miracle are of better backgrounds than, unfortunately, Professor Trounson appears to be.

Some of the areas that Senator Boswell spoke about today have caused me some concern and only cemented my position. They include concerns about Professor Trounson's untruths and seriously misleading statements to the parliamentary committee. I hope that the human embryo industry can look at other areas and other people and get other corroboration before we accept that embryos can be destroyed in a manner that I find rather repulsive and sickening.

I also found it rather strange, because we protect a lot of our indigenous flora and fauna. We protect our magnificent giant Karri trees in Western Australia and the more diminutive noisy scrub bird in Western Australia; we have taken DNA from them and we have spent many thousands, if not millions, of dollars on their protection. Also, in Gippsland we even protect the giant Gippsland earthworm. We, rightly so, protect the Huon pine in Tasmania, and even the Tasmanian devil. We protect the coral reef in Ningaloo in Western Australia—one of the best kept secrets in the world—and, of course, the Great Barrier Reef in Queensland. We protect all these areas, and all those indigenous things. We protect the ugly crocodile. We protect all of these non-human things, but here we have the beginning of life itself. It is life—the most diminutive, most microscopic part of life that invariably develops, if it is allowed to, into a child and then into an adult. We protect all those big things, but we are going to make a law that does not protect this most tiny and defenceless aspect of human life. I find that strange. Perhaps I am getting too old; perhaps I am not moving quickly enough with the world; perhaps there are things on which I should take some counselling. But, in any case, I am very pleased to say—and I say it unambiguously—that I will not be supporting the bill.