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Thursday, 17 October 1985
Page: 1419


Senator TATE(3.58) —The Senate is considering a motion moved by Senator Durack to refer the Human Embryo Experimentation Bill 1985 and certain associated questions to a select committee. That means that the Bill will not be the subject of a vote in this debate, but its purpose and the way in which it is constructed need to be briefly considered if one is sensibly to decide whether it could usefully be sent to a Senate committee for report rather than be dealt with immediately in our normal legislative process.

I clearly but briefly state that I support the Bill in principle; that is, I see a distinction on the one hand between creating an embryo in order to implant it in a woman's womb and on the other creating an embryo with no such intention but rather in order to carry out certain medical procedures or experiments on it. I see that distinction and believe that the first should be encouraged not simply because of the joy which a successful birth of a healthy baby might bring to a woman who, with her spouse, has exhausted all other possibilities of achieving a pregnancy but because it is especially gratifying that in a world where science, and even medical science, is so often perverted into destructive enterprises, in this instance very fine minds and considerable community funds and facilities are devoted and dedicated to creating children.

I believe the second possibility should be discouraged because there is something inherently improper about the medical manipulation of non-consenting human life where the end and object in view is not the enhancement of that life at the very least by alleviating suffering or disability but, even better, by leading to a fuller development of that human life concerned.

I emphasise `of that life' because the fact that such medical experimentation might save the lives of other humans is ethically beyond the pale. When one considers that the fate of such an embryo is not to develop progressively as it might otherwise have done to the stage of birth into the world, I believe the argument against is immeasurably stronger.

I say that insofar as that distinction is valid and my evaluation of the two instances has force, Australian society should do what it can to encourage the one and discourage the other.

Senator Harradine's Bill attempts to achieve the discouraging aspect by the creation of offences and the imposing of penalties if certain prohibited activities are undertaken. The penalties for contravention are severe-up to four years imprisonment or a $20,000 fine. In that situation, a person or institution involved in reproductive technology is entitled to know in advance precisely what behaviour might attract such penalties. Further, the normal rules as to onus of proof in any legal proceedings should be observed. I believe that Senator Harradine's Bill, as presently drafted, is defective in dealing with the position of a person who could be alleged to be in contravention of its provisions and subject to those severe penalties. The uncertainty brought about by imprecise drafting would, of course, not only be of importance at any trial but would also have an immediate impact on work in this field where prudence on the part of sponsoring organisations would lead to the adoption of the most cautious interpretation of his Bill. I have drafted amendments which seek to remedy these defects and imprecisions. I acknowledge the work of the Scrutiny of Bills Committee in alerting senators to these matters and the assistance of its secretary, Mr Giles Short, in drafting my amendments, though I must emphasise that they are not amendments on behalf of the Committee.

I waited for the whole of the winter recess for Senator Harradine to respond to that report by bringing forward some amendments of his own. However, in the absence of such response I put those amendments forward as my contribution to improving the Bill.

The question remains whether those amendments should be moved at the Committee stage of the Bill-that is, after the Senate signals its adoption of the underlying purpose and scheme of the Bill by passing it at its second reading-or the amendments should become part of a submission to a Senate select committee insofar as that committee may be interested to see whether the Bill could be improved in the way suggested by the Scrutiny of Bills Committee.

My personal preference and earlier preference would be to press on with the Bill, at least to a second reading, so that any Senate committee would have some general guidance from the Senate as to whether the underlying principles should guide its recommendations. But there is an argument that even that might be premature in that senators would be advantaged in any second reading vote by having the benefit of a report canvassing the various issues.

There is a better reason for sending this matter to a Senate select committee. I have said that the Parliament should be encouraging some and discouraging other activities of practitioners in this field. Given the tremendous boon to humanity of the creative aspects of this endeavour, of which we can be justifiably proud, it would be altogether lopsided if the elected representatives of the Australian people were to deal solely with a Bill which is concerned with proscribing activity by attaching penal sanctions. If there is to be such a legislative response to the destructive side of this endeavour-and, of course, that cannot be assumed as a recommendation of a select committee in the absence of an affirmative vote at the second reading of the Bill-it should be in the context of proposals and programs which are supportive and encouraging of the creative aspects of the embryo implantation program.

I believe that a Senate select committee, in receiving submissions and getting into the field itself, can and should come up with a much more balanced set of recommendations as to how this national Parliament should respond to the advances in this reproductive technology. I have expressed my preference that the committee be guided by a second reading vote on the Bill. However, in the absence of that course of action preceding this vote on sending the reference, I will support Senator Durack's motion.