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Wednesday, 4 December 2002
Page: 7174

Senator BOSWELL (Leader of the National Party of Australia in the Senate and Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Transport and Regional Services) (4:14 PM) —Amendment (1) on sheet 2718 listed in my name, on labelling, was dealt with under Senator Harradine's amend-ment. I now withdraw that amendment. I move amendment (R1) on sheet 2702 revised:

(R1) Page 11 (after line 5), at the end of Division 2, add:

12A Offence—International trade in human embryos, human embryonic stem cells or any product derived from human embryos

(1) A person commits an offence if the person engages or seeks to engage from Australia in international trade of human embryos, human embryonic stem cells or any products derived from human embryos except for the purpose of placement in the body of the woman for whom it was created.

Maximum penalty: Imprisonment for 10 years.

On Monday night, there was a discussion between the minister and me on cloning. I gave an explanation which was incorrect, and the minister pointed that out to me. I would now like to correct the record and state that the claims that human embryonic stem cells could be used in the cloning process have a scientific basis. Firstly, like any other cells in the human body, embryonic stem cells may be fused with an egg, in the `Dolly' process known scientifically as somatic cell nuclear transfer. Secondly, there are reports of mouse experiments in which a mouse was wholly derived from embryonic stem cells.

See, for instance, Andras Nagy et al, `Derivation of completely cell culture-derived mice from early-passage embryonic stem cells' in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, volume 90, pages 8424 to 8428, September 1993; and Janet Rossant et al, `Report to the Serono Symposium on Preimplantation Embryo Development', published by Springer, New York, pages 157, 165, edited by B. Bavister, 1991. A similar event is reported by James A. Thomson in relation to embryonic stem cells from marmoset monkeys. See James A. Thomson et al, `Pluripotent cell lines derived from common marmoset (Callithrix jacchus) blastocysts,' Biology of Reproduction, Volume 55, pages 254 to 259, 1996.

These reports on animal experiments indicate that it would be possible to derive a human embryo wholly from embryonic stem cells. This possibility was noted by the Australian Health Ethics Committee of the National Health and Medical Research Council in its December 1998 report to the Commonwealth health minister on human cloning, at section N220, referring to uncertainty about the potential of individual ES cell lines and quoting the article by J.A. Thomson et al entitled `Primary embryonic stem cells':

It is not known whether human ES cells could form a complete viable embryo by any method, but this possibility has raised the greatest concern about the derivation of human ES cells.

In the same paragraph that they refer to the Thomson article, AHEC also cite the article by Andras Nagy et al in which there is a description of the production of a completely ES cell-derived mouse. AHEC describes these tetraploid embryos as being incapable of progressing through to development themselves, but as being able to provide an environment in which ES cells could do so. Given that embryonic stem cells have produced embryos in mice and marmoset monkeys, there would appear to be a good chance that human ES cells could, if suitably manipulated, develop into embryos. The history of research in this field would certainly imply that extensive studies of a variety of approaches would be required before one could dismiss this possibility with any confidence whatsoever.

I mention that because during the debate I was assured by many scientists that it was possible to actually use a stem cell to clone. Unfortunately I gave the minister the wrong reference, which she pointed out to me. That is not the only reason that I am moving this amendment. The amendment is to prevent us from trading in embryonic stem cells or human embryos or any derivatives from those. The reason I put it forward is that in Australia we have certain standards according to which we treat embryos, stem cells and human tissue. We have an AHEC, which is the ethical standards association, and we have a number of NHMRC guidelines. It is illegal to trade in human tissue. I think that would be a position that most Australians would agree with. But it is no good for us, as senators, to say that we will set up strict guidelines and strict regimes for human tissue in Australia if, when these embryos or embryonic stem cells are moved from Australia, we then have no control over them at all.

I pointed out in my last speech that, if we sell guns or some types of radioactive material, we always sell them overseas with a rider that says that you cannot on-sell these products and you can only use them in certain ways—you cannot develop an atom bomb; you can use this particular uranium in a certain way. It is called an end-user certificate. But we do not have any such thing in Australia for this case. At the Senate committee that investigated the evidence on this, I asked on a number of occasions what happened to embryonic stem cells that went out of Australia. At the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee on 29 August, Ms Matthews said:

The results of the research would be able to be sent overseas. If you are talking about the embryonic stem cell lines and whether they could be sent overseas, yes, the embryonic stem cells could be sent overseas.

... ... ...

If stem cell lines are subsequently sent to Singapore, the use of those stem cell lines is permitted in accordance with Singaporean law.

Dr Morris said:

The licence would only apply to the work undertaken in Australia. If something is exported to another country, the laws of that country would apply.

Ms Matthews said:

Leaving aside the customs regulations, under this bill there is no prohibition on the export of the products of embryos, such as embryonic stem cell lines and other products.

The NHMRC provided additional responses to the Senate committee. The response to questions raised indicated that the bill does not directly regulate the exportation of an excess ART embryo and the exportation of human embryonic stem cell lines. It said:

It should be noted that COAG did not address the matter of exportation of human embryos from Australia. It is proposed that the NHMRC, in consultation with the Department of Health and Ageing, Customs and other relevant agencies, develop further advice ...

It clearly states there that there is no provision to regulate the use of our Aussie embryos and embryonic stem cells that are sent overseas.

On the cloning bill last week or the week before or whenever it was—time get confused—we all voted down cloning in Australia. It was a unanimous vote of both houses of parliament. Yet here we have today, a week or so later, that we can actually send stem cells over to Singapore. BresaGen and ES Cell have said that they will operate a company in Singapore. They will open an office in Singapore to develop embryonic stem cell lines. I pulled off the net this morning a news report from the ALS news entitled `Singapore backs embryo cloning'. It says:

The Singapore government will allow the cloning of human embryos for certain research projects giving the island state some of the world's most liberal guidelines for stem cell research.

Singapore hopes the guidelines will allow local firms to take a leading role in stem cell research that could lead to both profits and cures for disease.

I have established that animals have been cloned from stem cells—both monkeys and mice. I now establish that the Singapore government does allow cloning. It is well established that ES Cell and BresaGen are opening an office in Singapore.

I want to say that it is no good us passing a bill that says that we prevent cloning in Australia, which was carried unanimously by both houses of parliament, and then turn our backs and say that we can send embryonic stem cells and other stem cell products to Singapore—or to anywhere in the world, for that matter—and from then on, once they are out of the hands of the Australian law that we set up on trading in human tissue, it is a freewheeling, laissez-faire situation out there, where you can expect anything from any country that does not have our high ethical standards. I said in my previous speech that we cannot say that we have done the right thing, that we can sleep easily in our beds tonight and that we have put down guidelines and legislation that will prevent cloning and then turn our backs when embryonic stem cells go out of Australia.

I am very concerned about this. I think there are two very important issues in this bill. One is the testing of drugs and the other is the export of embryos and embryo stem cells. I just cannot think how we can say with any justice, any conscience or any degree of morals or ethics, `Let's look after our Aussie embryos in Australia; but, when they go overseas, it is up for grabs.' I do not think that anyone believes that. I do think the punters out there—the voters—believe that. I think they would say that, if it is good enough to put in very strict regimes in Australia for Australian grown stem cells, then surely the same rules and the same regulations must apply when those stem cells go overseas.

Unfortunately, I must have asked about this half a dozen or a dozen times, and no doubt Senator Harradine will back me up on this; and we were told constantly and honestly—and I thank them for that; there was no obfuscation—that, once they are out of Australia, anything goes. The only way I can see that you can stop this is to support the amendment that I am putting up, which says that you cannot trade in human embryos overseas. Otherwise we are really hypocritical. We would be hypocrites to pass legislation in Australia but walk away from it when the embryos go overseas.

I would like the people who are listening in to this debate and watching it on the screens in their offices to give this very careful consideration—not just to come down here and say, `I voted on this side and I'm going to continue to do so; I'm going to lock in to that.' I am asking them to think about this, to think about what will happen and whether they believe that the people who elected us would want that to happen. I know there are a great many people in Australia who find this repugnant. There would be a great many people in the conservative churches, or any churches, who find this repugnant. Not only the people who have a religious commitment but all people would find repugnant our walking away and washing our hands of embryonic stem cells so that Singaporean companies and governments can make a profit. I must admit that they were honest: they want to make a profit. That is a great motivation; I am a person who likes to think in terms of making a profit, but not at the expense of ditching every ethic that we have. (Time expired)