SPEECH ON THE SECOND READING DEBATE:
PROHIBITION OF HUMAN CLONING FOR REPRODUCTION AND THE REGULATION OF HUMAN EMBRYO RESEARCH AMENDMENT BILL 2006
I rise to contribute to the Second Reading debate on the Prohibition of Human Cloning for Reproduction and the Regulation of Human Embryo Research Amendment Bill 2006.
At the outset I would like to commend Senator Patterson for bringing this Bill to the Parliament. I deeply admire Senator Patterson’s compassion and commitment to the health of Australians. This Bill is yet another demonstration of that commitment. I would also like to commend Senator Stott Despoja for the work she has put into drafting her own Bill. She too is similarly motivated.
And could I take the opportunity in light of both Senator Patterson’s and Senator Stott Despoja’s announcements of their intention not to recontest their seats to acknowledge their contribution in this place. They will be remembered as substantial figures of the Senate.
This is a difficult issue for many of us. We are all, I am sure, united in our desire to cure disease. We are all united in our desire to ensure that medical research is ethical. No one comes to this legislation with anything other than a desire to make good decisions.
The Prohibition of Human Cloning Act 2002 and the Research Involving Human Embryos Act 2002 each required an independent review two years after the respective Acts received Royal Assent. This was as it should be.
Consequently, the Legislation Review Committee chaired by the late the Honourable John Lockhart QC undertook a review as required by law with people chosen by the Government with the agreement of the States. The members of the Committee deserve congratulations for wrestling with some extremely difficult and complex issues.
In presenting this Bill to the Senate, Senator Patterson is discharging her responsibilities as a legislator and is giving the Parliament the opportunity to decide on the recommendations of the Review as I believe was the intention of the provisions in the 2002 Act.
In considering this Bill and the Lockhart recommendations, we each need to determine our own framework for making a decision. We all need a frame of reference against which to judge the issues. We need to determine what our criteria is and what are the threshold issues. It is our duty to do so as legislators. And given the public interest in this legislation we have an obligation to explain what informs our decision. I will endeavour to do so.
The Senate Community Affairs Standing Committee’s report does a very good job of accurately presenting the arguments on both sides. Senator Humphries brought his usual calm reasonableness to bear on this task as Chair. There are 54 recommendations in the Lockhart Committee Review. Not all of them are contentious. Not all of
them require legislation. I am going to focus my comments primarily on recommendation 23. This recommendation proposes that human somatic cell transfer should be permitted to create and use human embryo clones for research, training and clinical application, including human embryonic stem cells. Much of the debate has focussed on this recommendation.
Of the arguments put both for and against this legislation there are many I found entirely unconvincing.
I reject the view that the Legislation Review Committee was, to quote one side of the debate in the Senate committee’s report, “stacked”. This claim reflects on the motives and professionalism of the members of the
Lockhart Committee. The Committee was comprised of people with immense integrity such as Professor Peter Schofield who I was fortunate to have as a Scout group and church youth group leader as a teen growing up in Sydney.
I was also unimpressed by arguments which sought to cite quantitative measures of the public mind on these issues such as the volume of submissions against the legislation. The number of submissions on a subject is more an indication of passion and organisation than it is of community sentiment. Submission numbers are a poor indicator of community view. Likewise, arguments on the other side of the debate which quoted research or opinion polls in favour of the recommendations do not sway me. As senators we are elected to lead debate, to have opinions, to be advocates and to argue our case. It would be sad if our decisions on these matters were informed by polling.
Then there is the category of argument on both sides which are, at best, debating points, or at worst are designed to cloud debate. In this category of argument fall claims such as the risks to women of egg donation. I have no doubt there are some risks. But they are acknowledged. And all medical procedures come with risk. All procedures should be accompanied by informed consent. Also in this category of argument is the spectre of tumour formation in the use of embryonic stem cells. Again, this is recognised. It is acknowledged. It is a hurdle to be overcome. But overcoming hurdles in the pursuit of cures is what medical research is all about.
On the other side of the debate, I have little time for the argument that embryos created by human somatic cell transfer are not really like other
embryos because they are not fertilised by sperm. This line of argument seeks to obscure the fact that the new type of embryo is as much a human embryo as one created with sperm, albeit one that if implanted would be less likely to thrive.
Many arguments on both sides are unconvincing, peripheral and merely used as tactical distractions. I indicated during the debate on RU486 that I very much regretted that some aspects of that debate had taken on the characteristics of a constitutional referendum campaign – a yes/no referendum style approach with associated campaign tactics. Sadly, this is again the case with this Bill, particularly on the part of some of its opponents. This is regrettable. Such an approach to important legislation does not inform, edify or illuminate debate. The more useful debate has been around the relative potentiality of embryonic versus adult stem cell research.
I have listened to the proponents of both talk about the promises of each. I have little doubt that both contain reason for hope. But I have not been convinced that one holds out more hope or better promise than the other. Indeed, even if I had been, I don’t think this would inform my decision. Adult versus embryonic – it’s a false choice. The truth is that none of us know which offers the greatest hope. No one can until hypotheses are proposed, scientifically tested and proved or disproved. Therefore, the relative potentiality of the lines of research was not a factor in my decision.
For me the threshold issues are:
– whether it is right to create embryos for the intention of destruction through research, and
– whether it is right to clone humans, even if only allowed to progress to embryonic stage
Before moving to the substance of this Bill I should place on the record that, had I been in the Parliament at the time, I would have voted for the Research Involving Human Embryos Act 2002 to allow excess embryos created for couples undergoing ART to be used for research. It was an imperfect, but practical and ethical response to a morally fraught issue. The excess embryos ultimately would have been destroyed whether that legislation passed or not. The view put by opponents of the 2002 legislation that the embryos would not be killed, that they would merely succumb, was a piece of sophistry.
But the reason for creating an embryo in the first place does matter. Excess ART embryos were created with the intent of giving life. The embryos proposed to be created for embryonic stem cell research would be created in all cases with the intention of destruction.
However, Professor Schofield in a briefing for Members and Senators
posed a valid question. He asked what was the practical and ethical difference between the destruction of excess ART embryos through research and the destruction through research of embryos created through what is proposed in this legislation. Both are destroyed in the pursuit of good life-giving outcomes. The intent at the creation of both
sorts of embryos is similar. In one case, it is to give life. In the other, to give health outcomes that may maintain or improve life. It is a strong argument. And I can see the ethical inconsistency in opposing the destruction of embryos in one circumstance and supporting it in another.
Having said that, intent does matter. And I must confess to being troubled by the creation of an embryo specifically for experimentation and destruction rather than as a by-product of a process designed to bring life. I am not indicating that I believe an unimplanted embryo has or should have the same status as a developing foetus in utero. But, it is human tissue with the same theoretical potential as any other embryo.
My misgiving on this point is probably not enough in itself, however, for me to vote against the Bill. I can see the moral inconsistency in
supporting the use of embryos excess to ART for research, but opposing it in the circumstances proposed in this Bill. What troubles me more and is for me the threshold issue, is that the proposal is to create human clones.
I understand and accept that no one is proposing that any of these new sorts of embryos be implanted into a woman. I understand and accept that even if they were, they would be unlikely to thrive. But I cannot cross the line to create cloned human embryos that have the theoretical potential to become cloned human beings. I am not
convinced it is right to create human clones even if they are only allowed to progress to embryonic stage.
I am also troubled by recommendations 24, 25, 26, 27 which seek to allow:
– the creation of human embryo clones by transferring human somatic cell nuclei into animal oocytes
– the creation of human embryos by means other than fertilisation by an egg
– the creation of a human embryo by using genetic material from more than two people, and
– the creation of an embryo using precursor cells from a human embryo or human foetus
Given I have doubt about these issues, I cannot in good conscience vote for the Bill in its current form. I take no delight in doing so, because I know the proponents of this Bill are well motivated and only want to help those who suffer.
I thank my constituents who have taken the time to contact me to share their perspectives. Particularly those who are motivated by a strong sense of what it is that makes us human. And those who shared with me their hope for research that could cure their disease or repair damage to their bodies.
I know there are many looking for cures that will be disappointed by my vote. I understand that. I commend the mover of the Bill and the motives of all who support it. I regret that I am unable to do so.