I am standing here this afternoon in strong support of the private member's bill moved by Senator Patterson, the Prohibition of Human Cloning for Reproduction and the Regulation of Human Embryo Research Amendment Bill 2006. At this stage I want to take this opportunity to acknowledge the work done by Senator Patterson and also that done by Senators Webber and Stott Despoja to bring this issue before us, because this bill needs to be before the parliament . To fulfil the responsibilities that we were given by this same place three years ago, when the original discussion was held, we need to have this bill back in this place. And it was not only a debate at that time.
I do not often quote members in the other place, but Mr Kevin Andrews, who chaired the 2001 House of Representatives Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs for its inquiry and report, Human cloning:
'scientific, ethical and regulatory aspects
of human cloning and stem cell research,
concluded in the foreword of that report:
These are not matters to be decided behind closed doors by scientists or lawyers, however expert and sincere, without widespread community consultation.'
Nor are they matters that can be resolved by doing nothing. As a society we are confronted with profound issues that require ongoing attention and discussion.
Accordingly, when we had extensive debate in this place when the previous bills were brought to us, a decision was made that there would be ongoing review. The minister of the day, Minister Bishop, appointed a committee to go away and look specifically at the issues that were put into the terms of reference:
'developments in technology in relation to assisted reproductive technology, developments in medical research and scientific research and the potential therapeutic applications of such research, community standards and the applicability of establishing a national stem cell bank'.
They are all issues that were strongly debated in this place, when we heard from the various proponents who held strong views either for or against the legislation. The Lockhart committee, which was determined by the minister of the day, was made up of people who were widely respected in their professions. The committee was made up of not just scientists but lawyers and ethicists-people who were prepared to take up the very strong duty that was given to them by the minister and to come back and make recommendations.
That is what they did. They came back with over 50 recommendations, and it is our job to consider those recommendations. Indeed, the legislation that is before us is formed in such a way as to put those recommendations in place. That is not to say that it will be straightforward. We know that is not true, because these issues generate strong views. And it is not going to be easy to come up with a common response. However, that is our job.
I believe that the Chair of the Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs, Senator Humphries, talked this morning about the effort that was put into reviewing the bill by the committee. As usual, the committee did not have long enough to consider the range of views presented to us, but it worked very hard-again, with the strong support of the secretariat-to condense the key issues for us in this place. There could not be agreement, but in the majority report we said that, on balance, having regard to the evidence from the scientific community and from the community at large, and having regard to the views expressed by people to their elected representatives, we would support those recommendations.
The major reason for that was an acknowledgement that the Australian scientific community has a strong and noble reputation. Our existing system is not just one that values science; it also values appropriate regulation. The existing regulatory framework offers an environment in which people should feel able to strongly investigate and do research, and be able, without fear, to put forward their views. This is where science is great. And there is no result in the scientific industry that is straightforward or simple; we know that. In fact, for me, as a member of the committee who was looking at the wide range of evidence presented to us, I think the most overwhelming evidence was the genuine request by the scientific community that we, as elected politicians, allow them to have the opportunity to do their job; that we should allow them the opportunity to move forward, with appropriate regulation. I have been quite angered by the attempt to demonise science in this debate. There have been allegations that if you do not stop scientists they will move forward quickly, there will be no restraint and there will be a rush towards creating things that move well beyond that which the community wants or deserves. I found no evidence in support of those statements. I found no evidence from the scientists who appeared before our inquiry or from the professional organisations that represent the scientific community. Even those scientists who spoke most strongly against this proposal talked about the responsible professionalism of other scientists. However, it was disappointing that, in some attempts to promote one position or the other, people who were not supportive of embryonic stem cell research felt that they needed to attack the credibility of scientists who were putting forward the alternative view. In evidence given by the large majority of other scientific people who appeared before us, they talked about the need for scientists to work together. They said that there was not going to be a single, magical way to develop the kinds of research technologies and the kinds of developments that we all hope will be the result of an effective scientific research base in this country.
It is possible that effective scientific research will be able to respond to a range of horrific conditions in our society-illnesses and the results of accidents. There has been an outcry that we need to move forward to see whether we can access possible cures or therapies to respond to these terrible things that people are suffering from. However, at no stage in the evidence given to the committee did we hear any wild, exaggerated expressions that things would happen quickly or that there would be an immediate response or an immediate result. There was an effort made to impress the committee with the need for long-term progress, with the need to work together cooperatively, in order to enhance the industry.
Embryonic stem cell research is but one aspect of an ongoing research need in our community. It does surprise me that, instead of celebrating the advances achieved by the scientific world, we feel the need, if they do not follow the methods that we personally support, to attack. I asked some of the people who appeared before the committee whether they were surprised by the degree of attack in the wider community regarding what they were saying, in particular by people holding particular religious views. To a person, they said they were not surprised and that this was something which they were very familiar with in their daily work. I find it very sad that, instead of being able to respect the views of others-to respect their work ethic and professionalism, and to respect the fact that there is a wide range of community responses-sometimes there is an attempt made to denigrate others' views or opinions. There is an attempt made to attack and to label people, and to claim some kind of superiority of view because you have a certain faith base or a certain values base. I do not find that acceptable. I have said that on numerous occasions. I respect people being able to work effectively and cooperatively when there is a great difference of opinion between those who support this kind of research around embryonic cells and those who do not. They should be able to acknowledge that difference openly and to identify that that is the problem, rather than trying to dress it up in some other way to make it more palatable to the wider community. We questioned people from the Lockhart committee during our inquiry. I asked Dr Kerridge about the processes that were going on. He said that their committee:
... did not seek to dissolve moral disagreement about the status of the embryo. That has not been possible in 2,000 years. We thought it was very unlikely we would do it in six months.
The committee that was looking at these issues at the parliament's request acknowledged that this was an issue about which there would be no agreement, and throughout the printed Lockhart report that is stated several times. I think that we need to understand that the committee members did not dismiss views with which they did not agree. In fact, they reiterated during our inquiry and also in various public forums during the last few months that they did not have preconceived ideas or beliefs around the task for which they were given responsibility. They came to the Lockhart committee to do a job. They received a range of submissions-several hundred-there was a wide range of public consultation reflecting on the issues raised by Mr Andrews in his 2001 statement and they talked with people from a wide range of community views. The Lockhart committee did that task and put to the government a range of recommendations, and I am proud that the legislation in front of us is attempting to put those recommendations into place. There was considerable debate about why, when our last round of discussions in this place on these issues was so recent, we are bringing it back to this place again. Are we rushing too much? Will we be opening up doors in the future such that we will have to continue doing this kind of review of what is available to the scientific community and what is not? Of course we will continue to have these debates, because that is our job. Our job is to consistently review what is happening in the community, to review what is available and what is not and to see what we as the elected representatives of the country believe should be effectively moved forward in our legislation.
It is not unusual that legislation or ideas come back to this place after a time. I will quote Dr Paul Brock. Many people in this area have been quoting him, and a few of the quotes I wanted to use have already been used by other senators, and I will not state them again. I want to quote to the Senate the response Dr Brock gave to our committee when I asked the question about why, as a number of people have asked, we are looking at it so soon. Shouldn't we let things happen more in the community and in science before we bring it back? He said:
That is the story of public policy. We do it in climate change; we do it in the economy; we do it in education. We constantly re-examine policy issues further down the track in parliament in the light of experience, new knowledge and changing circumstances. Why should this issue be any different from any other issue of public policy?
That is exactly why we need to continually look at what is being asked of us, look at the range of progress and experiences and then, using that knowledge, having talked to the people who are working in the industry, effectively frame legislation, being absolutely aware of community attitudes and of the existing regulations, and make a decision about whether or not we think it is appropriate to change. And that is what is before the Senate this week.
My strong hope is that senators in this place will listen to the range of evidence about why it is necessary and possible now to take another step and will listen to the voices that said that we in this country are ready-that the scientific industry in this country is ready-to move forward and use skills and technologies that are available overseas. I think that is important to note. Whilst I do not get into the argument about people leaving Australia and going elsewhere, I do accept the really big question, which was raised consistently in our inquiry, that if this technology is available overseas and if advances are made then how can we as a community possibly stop Australians in our community having access to successful scientific advances that were achieved overseas. I have not been able to get a clear answer to that question, except from the Catholic health services, which were very clear that they would not allow any such technology or any such medical advances to be used in their services, and I respect that. I think it was good of them to be very clear on the record that that is their position. But I am struggling that we as politicians and, more than that, we as human beings living in our community could just say no to any possibility or hope, through this form of research-which is only being done by people who are of goodwill, who have professional skills and who are the strongest regulators of their own work-of being able to have any advancement in some of those conditions, which we have all seen.
There is absolute agreement in this place and in our committee that all of us want to see effective cures and therapies formed. None of us believe that it is going to happen immediately. There is no false expectation in this place or amongst the range of community groups that work with people who have Alzheimer's disease, motor neurone disease and the range of others, sufferers of which felt confident enough to come forward to our committee and share their experiences. Those groups all gave support to a framework of regulated scientific advancement that could at some time down the track look at some form of success.
I think that we as politicians should listen. It is not automatic that we would agree. It is also not automatic that because we do not agree we do not respect the other view. On a number of occasions during our inquiry we had evidence from people who felt that their views were not being given significant respect because they had a religious focus. I can assure you, Madam Acting Deputy President, that our committee gave full respect to all of the evidence that came before us. The members of the Lockhart committee went to great lengths to ensure that their integrity of listening to all evidence with respect was absolutely made public. Again, any attempt to demonise them should be removed from the public debate.
I think that this kind of process, where we are able to have the evidence before us, to listen to it and to hear from the people who may benefit from any scientific discoveries should be the way that parliament operates. These decisions should not be taken elsewhere; they should be taken in this place on this wide range of developing legislation and also developing appropriate regulation. The responses we had were that there is genuine faith in the regulatory frameworks that the Australian community has in place. What we are asking through the Lockhart report and also through Senator Patterson's bill is that we allow a move forward and that we allow another form of technology. This is not to say that we do not respect and understand the views of people who are opposed to that. What we are saying is that we should be able to move forward.
In the short time I have left I want to make some comment about some of the comments that have been made about exploitation of women in this whole activity. I find it offensive that the people on our committee or on the Lockhart committee would in any way be looking at any form of scientific advance that would exploit women. We were informed that through the current NHMRC and TGA processes that would not be allowed. But I also, once again, want to quote Professor Kerridge. He acknowledged that there is a question about the research of women's eggs in this process and said:
The question for us, though, is: is that significant enough to require prohibition by law-in other words, to stop women from being able to make an informed choice about their oocytes donated for their families or others or altruistically for research? We did not think that was a very convincing argument...
Once again-and this is such a significant point-the committee were not ignorant of the concerns. The committee were very much aware. They understood the worry and were able to look at a way into the future that would put their recommendations into place. That is what we ask. I strongly support these recommendations, and I ask that senators listen, that they look at their own consciences, because that is the process we are using, and move this debate forward.
06 November, 2006