Tuesday, 7 November 2006
Prohibition of Human Cloning for Reproduction and the Regulation of Human Embryo Research Amendment Bill 2006
I do not want to drag the debate out, but I feel it is appropriate to put a few views on the record in regard to the particular matter I have been querying throughout the debate. I find myself in a strange position. I am not sure I like conscience votes so much at the moment, actually. But, seriously speaking, I still think they are good in principle and we should have more of them.
The issue I just raised by way of a question to Senator Patterson goes wider than the legislation before the Committee of the Whole. On a personal level, I do not have a problem with what this legislation seeks to do. I know many people do have problems with the legislation and I respect the reasoning that some of them have expressed for that. The perception that is at risk of being adopted along with this legislation is that some embryos have less value than others. I do not think there is much doubt, particularly at this stage of scientific knowledge, that embryos created through SCNT are different in some way from sperm-egg embryos. It is not surprising that people perceive them differently for that reason. I am in a strange position. Most of the people who have been opposing this legislation have been doing so because they do not like embryos being used at all, but I am someone who can accept embryos being used. Indeed, the counterintuitive result of my position would be that it would be better if sperm-egg embryos were able to be created specifically for research as well so there was not potential for a different value to be attached to different classes of embryos.
I continually have in my mind the view that all people are created equal, even though I realise that embryos are created in different ways. But if they are both perceived to be embryos then the perception that they may have different worth is a perception that I think could have significant problems if applied in different contexts. I do not think it is a problem if applied within the context of this legislation, but if it is applied in other contexts I think it is a problem, potentially. That is why the principle that all people are created equal is one that most, if not all, of us adhere to.
Senator Patterson gave some indication in her answer before about why this approach was taken in the legislation. I appreciate that the legislation attempts to be a faithful reproduction of the Lockhart committee’s report. And, again, I would like to congratulate the committee on their work, even though I am not convinced they got it right in regard to this particular point that I am pursuing.
My understanding is that the situation is different in the UK, that sperm-egg embryos can be created specifically for the purposes of research. That is a position that some would see as being even further from what they would see as desirable. But I also know—and I think Senator Patterson alluded to this—that there was a debate about whether entities created through SCNT could be determined to be embryos. In different contexts, in different countries, people have argued that they should not be considered embryos. My understanding is that some of those who would be against this sort of research have taken the view that we should not consider them as embryos. They have done that within the context of debates in their own country. Clearly, we are at a stage where there are different perceptions, and I would suggest we are still working through those perceptions about what the real status is and what the real intrinsic worth is of an entity created through the SCNT process.
As I said in my contribution in the second reading debate, I think there is a much greater risk from people unfairly taking away hope of a genuine prospect of cures and better treatments than there is from creating false hope. Therefore, there is a strong onus on people who seek to prevent that hope being explored in regard to a certain area of research to have very good reasons. I think the principle that all people are created equal is a good one, one which should be maintained and one we should continue to apply. I recognise that at a community level there are still different views and, I suggest, there are views that are still forming about what we consider an entity created through SCNT to be.
Again, as I said in my contribution in the second reading debate, I do not think conscience votes are just an opportunity for us to impose our individual, personal philosophical positions on the community or on legislation. If I were keen to do that, I would be looking for every chance I could to legislate to reduce the killing of animals for food consumption and other unnecessary purposes. I do not do that because I recognise that I have a broader responsibility, whether I am engaging in a conscience vote or not.
One of the difficulties the Lockhart committee clearly had was the issue, in its terms of reference, which Senator Patterson referred to, of trying to assess what community standards are in an area that is still developing. It is an area of research that is still complex and challenging. In that context, I note the requirement for a further review by some committee down the track that will have the pleasure of going through what the Lockhart committee has just done. If this legislation were to pass, this particular point that I am drawing attention to now would be one that I hope they give a lot of attention to.
I would like to make some comments, particularly in light of the passage of Senator Bartlett’s amendment, because I think it really puts more into focus an issue that was raised in the inquiry and that has been raised in quite a number of the submissions—that is, the scarcity of eggs. These provisions remain in the bill, and one of the concerns that I have—and which was raised by Women’s Forum Australia, GenEthics and, in particular, FINRAGE, which really did focus on it—is the number of eggs that will be required. We can see from overseas that it is impossible—the scarcity of eggs was an issue that was very much focused on. If this legislation is passed, it will create a demand.
I refer senators to page 176 of the report, which canvassed alternatives for getting eggs, particularly since we have now removed those provisions. Clause 23A of the bill expressly proposes the use of precursor cells from a human embryo or a human foetus—clearly, the use of eggs from cadavers. Whilst people do donate organs, there are ethical issues that this raises, and I do not think that this bill carefully canvasses those concerns and, in particular, the ethical and legal issues associated with that. Those were issues that were raised by witnesses at the inquiry and which have been raised in submissions. And, for me, they remain important issues. They remain in this bill and there remain very big question marks around them in relation to support for this bill.
In my earlier speech, I referred to a study ‘Proposed regulation in Victoria of the use of donated foetal ovarian tissue for assisted conception or my mother was an aborted foetus’. It raises very difficult issues. In South Korea, researchers have used ovarian tissue from human cadavers to produce live births and ovarian tissue grafting to create animals. The study states that it was traditionally thought that when a baby girl is born she is already endowed with a quota of approximately two million oocytes. The question becomes: should these be used for donation? There are social, ethical and legal issues that I do not think that we have covered. What is the status of the foetus and what is the protection at law that it deserves? Whilst abortion is legal in Australia, there are issues associated with that, such as the possible oppression and exploitation of women and the effect on children born of this reproductive technology.
Those are the issues that I think still remain in the bill. This bill is not a good one, and for those of us who oppose it, they are just some concerns. There are so many other concerns and, as I asked when I spoke earlier: are we ready to cross the boundary? There are certain scientific and ethical boundaries that should not be crossed. Once they are crossed, you cannot return. The questions I posed in my earlier speech were: what has changed since 2002? Do we believe that our constituents and the Australian public are ready to take that quantum leap? As so many speakers who have spoken against this bill have said, to take the quantum leap and to pass this legislation is to in effect create human embryos for the purpose of research and for the purpose of their destruction.
In conclusion, there are two basic arguments in opposition to this bill. The first is the utilitarian argument, which goes to concerns that have been raised about cancer and women’s issues, whether adult stem cell technology is offering genuine cures and what the commercial driver for change is, which has really been assisted reproductive technology and not medical cures. There are also, of course, the ethical issues. This debate has raised scientific, medical and ethical issues, and those ethical issues—the arguments about the slippery slope, the sanctity of life and, most importantly, the evidentiary threshold for change, which I do not believe has been met—seriously need to be considered as we make this decision.
I rise to close the debate on the Prohibition of Human Cloning for Reproduction and the Regulation of Human Embryo Research Amendment Bill 2006. I presume I am closing the debate, since nobody else jumped up. I appreciate very much the contribution of honourable senators in the chamber—
I want to make a few remarks before the end of this debate on the Prohibition of Human Cloning for Reproduction and the Regulation of Human Embryo Research Amendment Bill 2006. I do not apologise for detaining the house at this time of night, because I think that the issues that are being raised by this legislation are extremely important and deserve to be fully understood by every senator and every person listening to this debate. I hope I can shed light on a couple of matters that have been discussed in the course of the last 36 hours or so.
I see that we have amended the legislation in a number of ways. We have, for example, taken out reference to the idea of hybrid embryos being used for scientific research. At one level that pleases me greatly. I think that it is a good development to see. It was claimed that the legislation did not in fact lead to the sorts of concerns that some had expressed about this, but I note that, nonetheless, the amendments have been made. I do take the point that Senator Bartlett made in respect of this, which is that as a consequence of that amendment all the experimentation that will be done in this field will be on human embryos, not on hybrid embryos, which would arguably have minimised the number of human embryos required to be used in those experiments. I did not suggest that we should take one course or another, because, frankly, neither course was particularly acceptable. Both courses result in, in my opinion, unacceptable uses of human embryos in circumstances which I believe have not been fully understood, certainly by the broader community in Australia.
The point is not so much what this bill does with respect to opening up a variety of uses of cloned human embryos; the point is what other legislation that will follow it down this pathway will do. I repeat the point that with this legislation we accept the concept that it is acceptable for one human being, albeit in a pre-birth state, to be used and then destroyed for the therapeutic benefit of another. That human being, under this legislation, remains less than 14 days old. Under this legislation, its life is brought to an end at the end of that 14 days. I fully accept that that is the case. It is not changed by this particular legislation. But I have asked in the course of hearings of the Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs and I have asked again in the course of debate here for a clear description from those who support this legislation of why they draw the line at 14 days—a clear, ethical description of the reason for that line.
There is a scientific reason for that line to be drawn at 14 days, which is that in their present state of knowledge scientists believe that they can extract the necessary stem cell lines from embryos during that period, before the embryo reaches 14 days. That is in their present state of knowledge. But no-one in this debate has guaranteed that it will not be possible for scientists to return to the Senate and say: ‘Fourteen days is not long enough. We want more.’ If a scientific case is made for more, the question I want to have answered today in response to this debate is: why do we say that 28 days is not acceptable but 14 days is? What are the limits of acceptable experimentation on human embryos at that stage of their lives? We do not know. It has not been explained. The extent of the parameters and the appropriate limits of scientific inquiry have not been described by anybody who supports this legislation. Some have said that an embryo at that stage of life is not a human being. I respect them for the frankness of their point of view but I would be more comforted if I could know when an embryo or a foetus becomes a human being by that reasoning.
How many more iterations of this debate are we going to see, describing the expansion of this area of technology, this area of exploration by science, that will further penetrate into that area of discomfort that I certainly feel, and I know other senators feel, at the idea of embryos at a later and later stage in their lives being used for this purpose? I do not know where that will end. I think that today, in conjunction with this debate, is the appropriate time to ask the question and to get answers. If we do not have an answer, we should not support the legislation.
Senators, if you are comfortable in supporting this legislation tonight because you think that an embryo at 14 days is not really a human being, you need to ask yourselves: what about an embryo at 28 days? Is that a human being? What about an embryo at 50 days or beyond? If you cannot describe clearly where that line gets drawn then you have to accept that there is some prima facie value in the argument that the line is not clearly drawn anywhere in that period and that in fact the critical line is the line that we cross by passing this legislation today, where we say that it is acceptable to use a human being at any stage of its development for the therapeutic benefit of another human being. I want to understand what this legislation does in that respect. The proponents of the legislation have not, with respect, outlined at any point what they see as the appropriate limits of scientific inquiry—that is, at what point scientists may not continue to conduct such experiments.
I think this legislation has a number of very troubling features. It has been amended to remove some elements that had the potential to be particularly troubling for the proponents, but there are other things which I think are quite unacceptable. The fundamental point about the legislation is that it allows the creation of human embryos, other than by fertilisation between an egg and a sperm, for scientific experiments. The legislation will also allow the NHMRC licensing committee to create human embryos where there are more than two genetic parents. This has been described by some people as science fiction—the idea of people with multiple parents, like something out of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxybut it is possible. It can happen. This legislation actually makes it allowable. It gives the NHMRC licensing committee the power to authorise experiments for that purpose—provided the embryos do not live beyond 14 days. Why 14 days? What is the immutable magic about 14 days? Where will we end up if there are further debates in this place suggesting that some later period is appropriate? Why is a later period not acceptable?
The legislation would also allow the creation of human embryos using precursor cells from a human embryo or a human foetus. For example, the cells of an aborted foetus could be extracted for the purpose of creating a human embryo. I do not think the Australian community fully understands that implication of this bill. I am certain that, if I walked through the streets of this city and stopped 100 people, there would be almost nobody who would be able to tell me that that is what this legislation does. That raises a very interesting question about just what Australians think is happening here tonight. We have heard a lot about how, supposedly, the opinion polls demonstrate that Australians want this legislation; they want to see heinous diseases destroyed and for the community to be freed of those diseases.
Professor McNeil, who appeared before the Senate community affairs committee in Melbourne on the last day of hearings, appeared to support the legislation, but he made a very interesting point. He said that most opinion polls suffer from the disability that they present people with a simple question—a little bit of preamble but a simple question—and people are expected to understand enough about the science to be able to say whether they approve or disapprove of these particular uses of those embryos by science. He said that the only research that had been being conducted by means of deliberative polling—which, as members would be aware, is a form of polling where you actually take people to one side, properly educate them about the issues, and then ask them the questions—was conducted by Swinburne University. It found much more ambiguous outcomes as far as the attitudes of Australians to this technology are concerned. I think that there are, quite rightly, questions that Australians would ask about where this leads.
I conclude by saying that this process really deeply troubles me. I was chair of the Senate community affairs committee, and the committee worked very hard over three days to understand the very detailed information in the Lockhart review—a very large report—and to understand a small cross-section of the huge amount of scientific debate and argument about this. We discovered that there was very lively and very real debate in the scientific community about this and no consensus about the issues subject to this legislation. We produced in very short order a report for this Senate. Now, just a little over a week later, we are voting these changes into law. Given the lack of understanding by so many Australians of what is entailed in these changes and the nature of the process that we have used, we do not greatly dignify the process or serve the public interest by the means that we have used to reach this point today.
I appeal to senators to consider whether it actually is in the public interest of Australians to pass this legislation tonight. I suggest to them that, with the passing of this legislation, we will cross a critical line. We cannot retreat from this point. With the passing of this bill tonight, we will have established that it is acceptable to use one human being for the therapeutic benefit of another human being. The possibilities from that proposition, once established, are quite limitless. We need to ask ourselves where that will end. It begins tonight, and I would argue that we should not take that step unless we are absolutely certain that we know where we are going to end up.
There is a saying that governments should not pick winners, and I agree with everything that Senator Humphries has said. I have never heard a pregnant mother refer to her ‘embryo’. I have asked people tonight, ‘When does an embryo transfer to being a foetus and when does a foetus become a baby?’ Most mothers say, ‘My baby is doing fine.’ In my view, this has been one of the most dishonest processes that this Senate has endured. I think that there has been a lot of emotional and political blackmail in the process, and I think it is disgraceful.
I too would like to make a few remarks before the end of this debate. As I said in my speech, I really do not believe that the need for this legislation has been established in this debate. I believe the Senate would be wise to reject this legislation in the interests of senators being given more time to evaluate the current state of stem cell technology in dealing with the known basic problems which stem cell technology and treatments face. There are many hurdles to be overcome before stem cell technology can be used therapeutically, and I referred to them in my speech.
Chiefly, I am concerned, as I said, about the fact that senators have been rushed into expanding the horizons of stem cell technology by committing to somatic cell transfer when major problems, such as how to differentiate a stem cell from a particular cell of a particular organ, have not been overcome yet. Professor Mackay-Sim said to me on the phone last Thursday that differentiation was a very difficult problem to solve. People seem to imagine that, with stem cell therapy, it is simply a matter of putting a stem cell in an organ and tissues of that organ will develop—but that is not the case. That is a very fundamental hurdle which has to be crossed.
There is also the question of limiting the growth of stem cell implants, which in effect become tissue cultures in a person’s body. As we all know, all organs have a size and there is a natural mechanism at play which limits the size of various organs. A stem cell tissue culture would not be subject to those sorts of natural limitations. Just as cancer cells overgrow, so very probably would stem cell cultures overgrow within the body—and that could be quite catastrophic for patients.
Then, of course, we have the most important question of tumour formation. It was pointed out to us during the course of the debate that embryonic stem cells have a 25 per cent chance of turning into a very unpleasant kind of tumour called a teratoma. According to Professor Mackay-Sim, whom I spoke to last Thursday, adult stem cells have a tumour problem as well. I do not see that somatic cell transfer will add to finding answers to those basic problems—answers which must be found if stem cell therapies are ever going to be developed.
As I said in my speech, I find it hard to see any justification for this legislation. I must say that, in my view, the only real beneficiaries of this legislation are those in the biotechnology industry. I can understand the desire of people in the community to see cures developed for various illnesses, but I do not believe that that legitimate desire is served by rushing into legislation such as this. Scientific research is a long, slow process which requires much patience to produce results. It seems to me that this legislation has been conceived in haste, and that is never a good practice in medical research.
The Senate may imagine that it is facilitating a more rapid development of therapy through the use of stem cells, but I doubt very much whether that is the case. I would urge my colleagues to not pass this bill and to let a little time elapse so that they can fully evaluate the state of stem cell research and see what directions this country should go in the future and what regulation should apply to provide the best benefits to the community.
I concur with the comments of the previous three speakers in the sense that, from what we have heard throughout the debate in the last few days, this legislation raises as many questions as it answers. For many of us, there is no confidence that the legislation, as it is drafted and as it has been amended here today, is going to deliver the outcomes that are in the best interests of the Australian community. I urge all my colleagues to be cautious about passing this legislation with such haste.
I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the members of the Lockhart committee. We are all used to the rough and tumble of politics. We are used to people saying things about us that can sometimes cut us to the quick. We develop thick skins in this place—the longer you are here the thicker your skin. But people who are not used to it do not necessarily find it as easy to cope with. I also want to say how much I appreciate how colleagues—as far as they have been able to be—have been as reasonable as possible in this debate. But I do not think it is cricket to actually attack the messenger. Some of the comments that have been made about the Lockhart committee—not necessary by my colleagues but by people who have been supporting them—have been, I think, quite hurtful. For that, I apologise to the members of the Lockhart committee. I would hope that all of us would expect that they would be treated with due respect and dignity.
I pay tribute to the late John Lockhart. He was inappropriately referred to on a radio station in a way that was totally unacceptable. He was very ill when he did his final press and he tabled the report, and he was described in a way that I think was totally inappropriate. To Juliet Lockhart I say: I hope that the accolades that he was given throughout his life and his career and the contribution he made to directing a committee in a very difficult debate overcome the hurt that she felt at that comment. I have been told that John Lockhart chaired that committee with great dignity and great sensitivity. Juliet—who is, I think, trying to listen to this debate—we thank you for sharing with the Australian community your husband over that last six months of his life. He died only weeks after the report was tabled. For Juliet, it must be a very difficult time, especially when some of the criticisms were measured directly at him. But that is in the past, and I hope that it is a lesson that we can all learn from.
We owe the rest of the committee—which included Professor Loane Skene, Professor Peter Schofield, Associate Professor Ian Kerridge, Professor Barry Marshall and Associate Professor Pamela McCombe—our appreciation and thanks. In particular, we should thank Professor Skene and Professor Schofield. They made themselves available to people from all sides. They came here in their own time. I do not think that when they accepted the job they realised that the work would go on for more than a year—nearly a year and a half. I thank them.
I also want to extend my appreciation to Senator Stott Despoja and Senator Webber. Their exposure draft was very important in assisting the debate. Only Senator Stott Despoja and I know what is involved in producing a very detailed bill. Usually, private member’s bills are a couple of clauses. This was quite difficult and, as Senator Stott Despoja said, you could have done a number of things a number of ways. It was a challenge. I appreciate the knowledge that Senator Stott Despoja and Senator Webb brought to the committee hearings, but particularly what Senator Stott Despoja brought, because she was the leader of that twosome—group, partnership, whatever you would like to call it. I am not sure if you can use the first word like that anymore, but anyway. The knowledge they brought meant that the committee hearings were very well informed. I also want to acknowledge that this has been carried out at a very difficult time for Senator Natasha Stott Despoja personally. I appreciate the fact that she has made an enormous effort to be here this week.
I want to also thank all those people who made submissions to the Lockhart review and to the Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs. Many of them did so passionately, on both sides. That is the way that a democracy works: people put their views and participate in the democratic process. I want to put on the record my appreciation of the minister’s help. When I asked for technical assistance from the minister, that technical assistance was forthcoming. My view was that it was a bill that carried huge penalties and to have a bill that was not technically correct would be inappropriate and not in the best interests of the Australian public.
I want to also put on the record my personal thanks to a friend, Dr Sally Cockburn, whom I have known since she was in second-year medicine. She takes a very deep interest in health policy and a number of times would have liked to have given me advice when I was Minister for Health and Ageing, but I was not prepared to take it as readily as she might have liked. She has been a very close personal friend. We have shared lots of ups and downs in our various professional lives, and I want to thank her for her unerring advice, frequently via emails very late at night. I appreciate her bringing her medical knowledge and skills to bear in assisting me in this.
I have to respond to something that Senator Humphries said. He asked, ‘What is so important about 14 days in terms of putting a stop on any development?’ It is the point at which you can physically identify a primitive streak in any embryo. It lets a researcher know when they have overstepped the mark. Anything else is less clear and less objective. That is why 14 days was chosen and that is why it will be very hard for anybody to argue for going beyond 14 days. That is why that was chosen. It was very clear in the submissions; it was very clear to most of us that that was why 14 days was chosen.
I want to again thank honourable senators for their contributions. It is not easy to have these conscience votes. For people who are voting against this bill, I have been on that side, for example, on the bill regarding euthanasia. It is not easy, but it is an important part of the democratic process. I commend the bill to the house.
That this bill be now read a third time.