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Thursday, 17 October 1985
Page: 1416


Senator DURACK(3.40) —I seek leave to amend the notice of motion standing in my name relating to the Human Embryo Experimentation Bill 1985.

Leave granted.


Senator DURACK —I move:

(1) That the Human Embryo Experimentation Bill 1985 be referred to a select committee, and that the committee inquire into and report upon

(a) for the purposes of the in vitro fertilization (IVF) program, whether it is (i) necessary or (ii) desirable to carry out research on relevant human embryos by manipulation, dissection or administration of drugs;

(b) if it is necessary or desirable to carry out such research, whether any guidelines can be formulated to govern such research;

(c) for the purposes of the IVF program, whether it is (i) necessary or (ii) desirable to freeze relevant human embryos;

(d) whether it is (i) necessary or (ii) justified to discard relevant human embryos and in what circumstances, and if so, whether any rules should be established to govern this procedure;

(e) whether the Bill requires amendment to preserve its general prohibition of research on relevant human embryos without halting the IVF program, and if so, what amendments should be made;

(f) what sanctions, if any, should be imposed for the breach of any prohibitions contained in the Bill; and

(g) whether legislation is desirable to control research on relevant human embryos, or whether that can be achieved by self-regulation, such as under the existing National Health and Medical Research Council ethical codes.

(2) That the committee consist of seven Senators, as follows:

(a) three to be nominated by the Leader of the Government in the Senate,

(b) two to be nominated by the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate,

(c) one to be nominated by the Leader of the Australian Democrats, and

(d) Senator Harradine.

(3) That provisions relating to the powers and procedures of the committee be contained in a subsequent resolution.

Judging by the great number of letters and petitions which have been sent to me over the past few months and the petitions that have been lodged in the Senate-Senator Harradine has estimated that there are over 100,000 petitioners-it is obvious that the Human Embryo Experimentation Bill highlights a wealth of feeling and opinion both in support of and in opposition to the in vitro fertilisation and related embryonic research program. It is an issue of polarised emotion and belief. Certainly we are facing enormous challenges in attempting to deal with all the issues surrounding in vitro fertilisation or IVF.

Legal responsibility and society's ability to cope with the extraordinary advances in reproductive technology are at the forefront of those issues. It is imperative that we do not ignore these challenges that IVF has set us. It has become increasingly clear that provision must be sought to carefully monitor-or, in some extreme cases, halt-the so-called advances that reproductive technology is capable of making.

The crux of the problem addressed by this Bill is whether or not experimentation on embryos should be allowed. It is clear that once a technology has been introduced it cannot easily be withdrawn. This is particularly true of a technology such as IVF. In vitro fertilisation programs are providing hope for a considerable number of people, however remote that hope may be. Infertility, and the attempts to rectify it, excite extreme reaction because of the very high emotional stakes involved. Infertile couples are particularly vulnerable in these days of `gee-whiz' technology. We have come to expect that medicine can solve every problem, if not now then at some time in the forseeable future. Since the late 1970s and the birth of the first test tube baby there has been a general, albeit misguided, belief that medical science can now counteract infertility. Although medicine has made significant and incredible strides, that is not yet true. In fact, there is evidence that the occurrence of infertility is rising.

There is a considerable level of misunderstanding concerning the use of IVF as a cure for infertility. Infertility can be dealt with in a number of ways. In vitro fertilisation programs offer a last, very extreme, resort. It is far from the cure-all that is occasionally portrayed in the popular Press. The process is costly-financially, physically and emotionally. The success rate-that is, the number of healthy babies born through IVF-is not particularly high. Serious questions need to be put concerning how patients are treated in these programs. The risk of exploitation is considerable, expecially as far as issues such as surrogacy are concerned.

We also need to consider who is becoming involved with IVF programs. Nevertheless, it is unreasonable and unrealistic to expect to bring about the end of these programs. The joy felt by those couples who have had successful pregnancies as a result of IVF has been widely displayed in the media. For some couples it remains their only alternative to childlessness. Adoption has become increasingly difficult and, for many couples, impossible. To take action to shut down IVF programs would be unreasonable and narrow minded. For that reason it is essential that any legislation concerning IVF and related research does not prejudice the benefits of such technology in doing away with those aspects of embryonic research that we cannot allow to continue unchecked.

Certainly there is a pressing need to look carefully at the running of IVF programs. The establishment of companies selling IVF technology and expertise is one aspect which requires very close consideration and which this Bill addresses. Other matters that necessitate examination are those relating to the fate of the embryos-whether or not they are subject to freezing, what is the fate of those embryos not immediately implanted, and so on. While I believe that IVF programs should continue, I am disturbed at the prospects of general experimentation on human embryos.

As I have already noted, the success rate of IVF programs is not particularly high. Statistics naturally differ from hospital to hospital, but generally the failure rate is quoted as being around the 80 per cent mark. Research could reasonably be expected to improve the success rate, by improving methods of embryo nurturing and transfer and of earlier and more effective identification of healthy, strong embryos. Research is an integral part of the IVF program. Without research the success rate will remain low and methods will not develop and improve. It is the possibility of Senator Harradine's Bill bringing this invaluable research to an end or frustrating it that deeply concerns those scientists who genuinely wish to improve the lot of infertile couples.

Embryo research offers other hopes. In discovering more about what causes infertility, scientists hope to find ways of curing it. Insight into the causes of genetic disorders would also, I am told, prove desirable. Lessening the hit and miss aspect of embryo transfer is also desirable in decreasing the probability of necessary abortion and birth defects as a result of the IVF program. Unfortunately, there is a more sinister aspect to this research. This has been well illustrated by a statement made by Dr Geoffrey Borne, the Chancellor of St George's University School of Medicine in Grenada. He said:

I believe it would be very important scientifically to try and produce an ape-human cross by artificially inseminating an ape with human sperm and I hope someone in a position to do so will make that attempt.

It is that sort of thing which creates great alarm, and proper alarm, in the community. Other scientists are attributed with similar abhorrent suggestions, such as the growing of embryos for spare parts and the use of glass wombs. In January 1984 Professor Carl Wood who has had so much publicity and success at the Monash University, spoke of the possibility of cloning embryos, splitting an embryo in order to produce twins or triplets. Recently he is reported as stating that the cloning of adults is a long way off. Another of his remarks which is the cause of concern is that babies born through IVF are considered to be superior mentally and physically. Each of these suggestions carries an air of science fiction about it. Some of them are remote possibilities, probably the product of overactive imaginations. Others, such as the selection of gender, are more tangible possibilities. It is worth remembering that before 1978 the live birth of a human being conceived in a test tube would have been considered as only a remote possibility, perhaps in the category of science fiction. Today the birth of IVF babies is no longer a novelty.

It is clear that if we are to prevent the sorry situation where we are faced with coping with the products of some perverse scientific experimentation we must learn to exercise some control. There is a danger that science may outstrip society. We are not, nor is it likely that we ever will be-I certainly hope we never will be-ready for the likes of that which I have mentioned. We need to take some account of the directions that medical science could take.

The present challenge is to discover how to manage some effective control over this research. A certain measure of experimentation is inevitable if we are to make positive advances in reproductive technology. Australia leads the world in IVF, producing a considerable number of firsts, including the birth of the first frozen embryo baby. We have a wealth of expertise in this country. The loss of that expertise is undesirable. It is unreasonable to completely stifle all experimentation. It is, therefore, essential that we set guidelines under which valid experimentation is allowed to continue. Those guidelines must address ethical and moral issues, such as the origin and age of embryos to be used in experimentation.

It is clear from people who are directly involved in IVF and related research that it is possible to reach some area of middle ground in this debate. A number of experts in this field believe that limits can be set, such as those under the National Health and Medical Research Council guidelines on ethics in medical research. Definition of viable limits on research will, of course, require extensive consideration. Senator Harradine, in his recent address to the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science conference at Monash University, stated:

All my Bill seeks is to prevent human embryos from being created to be destroyed or experimented on. In other words to stop the creation of a race of laboratory disposable human beings.

While Senator Harradine's motives are sound-he has stated on several occasions that he does not want to see the end of the IVF program-the Bill in its present form remains open to wide interpretation. As general experimentation has created fear in so many people's minds, this Bill has created fears in the minds of those directly practising in the IVF area and those who support them. It is clear in this respect that the Bill concerns, as I have said, the majority of those people who have an interest in IVF, whether they be the practitioners, patients or technologists. I think this ambiguity needs to be further addressed and corrected. It is for that reason that I have moved a motion to refer this Bill to a select committee.

I will deal briefly with the terms of reference and explain why I have chosen them. As I have pointed out, I share Senator Harradine's grave concern about the extent of experimentation. I am satisfied that the Bill, as it stands, causes concern to those practitioners in the field who think that if the Bill is passed in its present form, the program would be halted. We need to know a lot more about the pros and cons of that argument. I do not propose to express my views on that at this stage. In these terms of reference I have tried to draw out what I think are the relevant issues that should be addressed by scientists, philosophers, lawyers and moralists. It is an issue which goes to the core of human life or the potential of human life, to the nature of that life, and it clearly involves great moral as well as scientific issues.

I think the first limbs of the terms of reference are self-explanatory. In passing I refer to item (c) regarding whether it is necessary, or desirable to freeze embryos. I know that issue worries a great many people. This Bill does not address-I will not address here-what are the legal problems in the long run of freezing embryos. We are here addressing the question of freezing in relation to Senator Harradine's Bill and the immediate conduct of IVF programs. But the whole issue of freezing is a much greater one than that which the Bill addresses or which this committee, if it is set up, will be addressing.

Another very grave issue is the question of discarding embryos that are not implanted or transferred for implantation and, if that is justified, in what circumstances would it be justified? As I have said, the core of my case for establishing a committee is stated in term of reference (e) as follows:

. . . whether the Bill requires amendment to preserve its general prohibition of research on relevant human embryos without halting the IVF program, and if so, what amendments should be made . . .

I congratulate Senator Tate, who has made an attempt at drawing up some amendments. I think they deserve great consideration but they would be better considered by a committee than by the Committee of the Whole of the Senate. I believe-I speak only for myself-that Senator Tate's amendments go very much along the road of satisfying my concerns. We will hear what Senator Harradine says about them later. I think Senator Tate has made a very positive step.

Two other terms of reference which I have added raise important questions. Senator Harradine's Bill has some fairly heavy criminal sanctions for breaches of the legislation, if it is passed. Again I register the very great concern that has been expressed to me by practitioners in this field about how that would affect them. I am sure it would affect them very deeply if they had criminal sanctions of that kind hanging over their head because of what they do. They are likely to be very concerned indeed. It is most important, of course, that legislation should make it clear what is meant if there are to be sanctions of that kind. However, I hope that the committee would address the question of whether criminal sanctions are the right form of sanctions in this area and whether it would not be better to have some form of civil remedy, injunction-type remedy, to enforce such legislation if it is passed by this Parliament.

I included in the terms of reference the question of whether legislation in this area is desirable at all, whether self-regulation is adequate and whether such guidelines as those which have been established by the National Health and Medical Research Council in its ethical codes on this subject are adequate. I do not believe they are. This issue has become one of such enormous importance and widespread concern to the community that it has to be addressed by this Parliament and other parliaments. I think legislation will be required but I would be influenced by what conclusions the committee took after its report is received.

Victoria already has legislation on the subject. I have not asked that the committee look at that legislation because I support the approach of Senator Harradine's Bill. I believe that it is up to parliaments to state the rules, not to have statutory bodies or departments exercising discretions in areas of this kind. I would be deeply concerned about these matters being determined by guidelines set, and changed from time to time, by a statutory body or a Minister of state. I think the composition of the committee speaks for itself. I do not propose to waste any more of the Senate's time in going into that matter. If the Senate supports my motion, I will move a subsequent motion so that the committee can be established in the ordinary way. For those reasons I commend the motion to the Senate.