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Tuesday, 12 November 2002
Page: 6134

Senator PATTERSON (Minister for Health and Ageing) (8:16 PM) —I would like to thank honourable senators for their contribution to the debate on the Research Involving Embryos Bill 2002. We will have an opportunity, no doubt, in the committee stage of the bill to discuss the various issues, but I want to take this opportunity to put my view on the public record. As always with debates that involve conscience, it is challenging for us. It most probably presents some of the best debates that we hear in the chamber and it is some of the most soul-searching time, such as with the euthanasia debate. I, like others, have wrestled with this issue. In developing views on this matter, some people have approached it from a scientific angle and great weight has been given to the benefits of research on excess ART embryos, particularly the potential benefits of embryonic stem cell research. While I am concerned to hear people possibly overstating the extent of cures for diseases which are likely in the short term, there has at least been widespread agreement—even by some of those who do not support embryonic stem cell research—that there are potential significant benefits to be gained. I would suggest that the gains would be in the long term rather than in the short term, as some have claimed. These benefits have been espoused by many already from both sides and in both houses. Others considering this issue will be concerned with the question of when life begins. Surely one of the most fundamental questions one could consider is whether life begins at the moment of fertilisation, when cells first differentiate, at the arrival of the heartbeat or even, as some would claim, at birth. They are questions on which we are unlikely to agree.

As legislators we need to weigh up all these things. Reflecting community values and the views of our constituencies is difficult in circumstances where opinions on this issue are often very strong and deeply held, but often polarised. Senator Harradine asked that those who take one view not be belittled or intimidated in any way and, equally so, those who take an opposite view have every right not to have their views belittled or ridiculed. I respect the right of all senators to debate the bill from whatever perspective, belief or value system they wish. In the end, when deciding how we will vote, we must each exercise our own conscience. Some have said that they have exercised that vote on the basis of their religious beliefs; others have said that they are lapsed Anglicans. As a Christian and a frustrated Anglican on occasions, with the hierarchy of my church and their intrusion into politics, I have also brought to bear my moral views and my moral conscience on this, and I think I have every right to have them respected, just as I respect the moral and religious views of others. In so doing, I will most probably disappoint some of my colleagues who were surprised when I supported the Andrews bill, when I voted against euthanasia. Again, I have thought very carefully through this bill and have come to the conclusion that I support the Research Involving Embryos Bill because I believe that it allows individuals to exercise their conscience, in the same way as we are exercising ours.

If we pass this bill, people who are involved in IVF treatment will have the power to exercise their conscience to determine what should be done with their embryos which are no longer needed as part of their treatment program. If we pass the bill, people will have the choice to allow their excess ART embryos to die—I prefer to use the word `die' than `succumb', as that is a euphemism for `die'—to donate them to another woman or couple, to donate them to ART related research or to allow them to be used for other research, such as embryonic stem cell research. I know some people in this chamber will feel that we should not allow this to happen. However, for many other people the chance to be able to donate their embryos to potentially develop cures for disease and extend life further is a gift they wish to have the right to bestow.

I do not underestimate the controversial nature of the subject matter addressed this legislation and I respect the views of those who have considered the issues raised by this bill but who cannot support it because of the moral dilemma it poses for them. However, I believe that we have before us a comprehensive system that strikes an appropriate balance, ensuring community standards and ethical values are upheld and also enabling the enormous potential of research on excess ART embryos to be explored within appropriate regulatory parameters and subject to close scrutiny.

The bill establishes a national licensing body within the National Health and Medical Research Council to be known as the NHMRC Embryo Research Licensing Committee. The committee will be comprised of experts in a range of fields, including ethics, ART, research and law. The committee will also include consumer representatives with expertise in consumer health issues as they relate to disability, disease and ART services. I have to say that this is a long road from the original research that was being done at Monash University. I happened to be there undertaking foetal movement research when some of the original research was being done without this sort of scrutiny. I welcome the national licensing body which will undertake the scrutiny of the licensing process. I believe that the proposed membership of the committee and the appointment process involving calls for nominations from a range of organisations in consultation with states and territories will ensure that the committee is a balanced one with appropriate expertise to enable proper decision making.

The Embryo Research Licensing Committee will be given the task of scrutinising projects proposing to use excess ART embryos. The committee will ensure that the embryos in question were donated with the fully informed consent of the couple for whom they were created. The committee will also ensure that the outcomes of the project will be likely to provide a significant advance in scientific knowledge or technologies which could not be reasonably achieved by other means.

The committee will also consider the number of excess ART embryos likely to be necessary to achieve the goals of the project, relevant NHMRC guidelines and the Human Research Ethics Committee assessment of the application. Further, it will be a condition of any licence issued by the committee in relation to work that may damage or destroy the embryo that the embryo must have been created before 5 April 2002. COAG set this restriction to address concerns that the COAG agreement would lead to deliberate creation of embryos for research purposes.

I believe strongly that it is wrong to create human embryos solely for research. It is not morally permissible to develop an embryo with the intent of truncating it at an early stage for the benefit of another human being. However, utilising embryos that are excess to a couple's needs after a successful implantation is a very different matter. I believe it is disingenuous to suggest that approving this research will open the door to further killing of living human beings when the Prohibition of Human Cloning Bill 2002 bans the creation of a human embryo for a purpose other than achieving a pregnancy. In addition, COAG have asked that a health ethics committee be established, which will report back by April 2003 on protocols to preclude the creation of embryos specifically for research.

Consistent with the balanced approach I believe this legislation has taken, COAG was conscious that limiting research to excess ART embryos created before 5 April 2002 might unduly restrict the numbers of excess ART embryos that are available for research. COAG therefore asked the NHMRC to report to COAG by April 2003 on the adequacy of supply and distribution for research of excess ART embryos which would otherwise have been destroyed.

Given the public interest in this issue, I am pleased that the proposed new regulatory system also includes detailed provisions relating to public reporting. Not only will the NHMRC licensing committee be required to report annually on its operations but it will also be required to maintain a comprehensive, publicly available database of all licences issued, including details about the number of excess ART embryos actually used in relation to each project. This will provide maximum transparency and accountability within the system, and also inform government's future decision making on these issues.

During debate in the House of Representatives and in the media, there has been considerable comment about adult stem cell therapies and their relative worth in comparison to embryonic stem cell research. The use of those stem cells in research is outside the scope of the legislation and therefore will not require a licence under this legislation. Valuable research on adult and embryonic stem cells will be allowed to continue in accordance with NHMRC guidelines.

I strongly believe that there are merits in pursuing both avenues of research, as developments in one area may result in new insights in the other. The other thing it will advise us of is whether embryonic stem cells have any potential capacity over and above those of adult stem cells. It is therefore imperative that both types of research are pursued simultaneously to maximise the chances of making medical breakthroughs which will bring real hope to those suffering from disability and disease.

The bill preserves the integrity of the original bill, before it was split, by providing for the NHMRC to conduct an independent review of the operation of the Research Involving Embryos Act to be undertaken by the same persons who undertake the review of the Prohibition of Human Cloning Act. An independent review of the acts will be undertaken by persons chosen with the agreement of each state and territory. The review will consider and report on the scope and operation of the legislation, taking into account developments in technology in relation to assisted reproductive technology, developments in medical and scientific research and the potential therapeutic applications of such research, and community standards. Parliament will consider any amendments recommended as a result of the review process.

The establishment of a national regulatory regime in no way heralds an increasingly liberal attitude to research involving human embryos. Nor does it represent the first step on the slippery slope towards human cloning. What it does mean is that, for the first time in Australia, there will be national oversight of uses of excess ART embryos. The NHMRC licensing committee will demand that stringent criteria be met before a licence may be issued and that conditions of licence are complied with. The NHMRC licensing committee will also be appointing inspectors to ensure that this bill is strictly observed.

This bill does not require anyone to do anything. What it does is give people the capacity to exercise choice as to what they do with their excess IVF embryos—broadly, to let them die or to donate them for research that may assist humanity. In both cases the embryo has been created to give life and in both cases the embryo will die. I would have to say that it is here that I really do have a question that mystifies me. I guess I am the sort of person who is somewhat consistent in my views, and I find inconsistency in others difficult to comprehend.

The argument of those people who have benefited from IVF, who have knowingly consented to the creation of excess embryos and who would then argue that using them for embryonic stem cell research is different from creating them to let them die when they are in excess, seems to me to be not consistent. In my view, if that belief is carried to its logical conclusion, people who have that belief should either not use IVF or only have one egg extracted and one egg fertilised. If that does not work, despite the difficulty of the extraction process, if you are taking your belief to its moral conclusion excessive embryos should not be created. I do find it difficult to see an argument that creating an embryo with a possibility of giving life and then letting it `succumb'—using that euphemism—is different from creating an embryo and then using it for potentially beneficial purposes, if it is in excess.

The other thing, when we are starting to debate these issues, is that it is somewhat like asking how many angels are on the head of a pin: is it better to let an embryo succumb—or `die', as I prefer to say—or to give it some form of continuing life as an ongoing embryonic stem cell? One may argue that an embryo from which embryonic stem cells have been taken—and the cells have the potential for continual life as long as they are maintained and given nutrients—is a form of life. It may not be the sort of life that we think of every day, but it is a form of life, letting an embryo live rather than die. As I said, it is a philosophical issue but it does mean that the embryo has some continuing life.

I cannot see the logical or moral difference between taking an embryo out of storage, where it will certainly die, and using the embryo for beneficial medical research. If one objects to embryonic stem cell research on moral, religious or ethical grounds, then consistency would demand that this objection should also extend to all embryonic stem cell lines. I believe that those people who have taken a very strong view about not using embryonic stem cells ought to be arguing that we should not use any embryonic stem cell lines and that we should stop even using those that exist. They should advocate a ban on the importation of any embryonic stem cell lines, a ban on the use of stem cell lines currently in existence in Australia and, more importantly, a ban on the importation of the therapeutic benefits derived from embryonic stem cell research overseas. It is taking the decision of the people who oppose the bill now to its logical conclusion to say that to be consistent one should accept that we do not undertake research on existing stem cell lines, that one should accept that we do not import stem cell lines and that one should accept that we do not import the therapeutic benefits derived from embryonic stem cell lines.

I challenge those who are opposing embryonic stem cell research to place their hand on their heart and say they would reject, for themselves or their family, the therapeutic benefits derived from embryonic stem cell research. If people take that view and are prepared to say that, then I will respect it. However, that view demands consistency and the acceptance of the logical and moral responsibility and the consequences of the position that accompanies it. To reject the stem cell bill—to reject research on embryonic stem cells—is to also say that we reject the potential therapeutic outcomes of embryonic stem cell research. That is the test that I put to myself. If therapeutic benefits were to arise out of embryonic stem cell research in the future—from my limited biological knowledge, and I do take a fairly deep interest in these issues, I believe that there is potential for treatment to arise out of embryonic and adult stem cell research—I do not think that I could legitimately say that I would refuse a family member or anyone for whom I had medical power of attorney the benefits of such therapeutic treatment.

If as a nation we restrict embryonic stem cell work, then we must also bear the responsibility for those patients we have chosen not to try to save by the same means. I wonder, when innovative treatments arrive from overseas, if anyone in this chamber will be willing to ban the importation of such cures. The Research Involving Embryos Bill 2002 strikes an appropriate balance between ethical considerations whilst allowing Australia to remain open to the possibilities of finding new cures and therapies for diseases and disabilities which affect the lives of many Australians. I commend the bill to the Senate.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Knowles)—The question is that the amendment moved by Senators Murray and Ridgeway be agreed to.

Question agreed to.

Senator STOTT DESPOJA (South Australia) (8.34 p.m.)—I move on behalf of the Australian Democrats the amendment standing in my name in relation to a review:

At the end of the motion, add:

“but the Senate requests:

(a) the Attorney-General to provide a reference to the Australian Legal Reform Commission (ALRC) and the Australian Health Ethics Committee (AHEC) requesting that they investigate and prepare a report on the intellectual property and patent issues concerning stem cells and stem cell products; and

(b) the Attorney-General is to cause a copy of the report prepared in accordance with paragraph (a) to be provided to the Parliament and also to the persons conducting the independent review of the Act; and

(c) the persons conducting the independent review of the Act must consider the ALRC and AHEC report and comment on it in their review”.