Aug 21, 2002

Research involving embryos and prohibition of human cloning Bill 2002


Second Reading

21 August 2002

Mr ALBANESE (Grayndler) (5.39 p.m.)—I rise to support the Research Involving Embryos and Prohibition of Human Cloning Bill 2002 in the strongest terms. In 1997, I attended the Cornflower Ball. This was a fundraiser held at the Sheraton on the Park in Sydney for the Motor Neurone Disease Association of Australia. It was an extremely successful event attended by 400 people. Alan Jones donated his time to be the MC, and many other prominent Australians attended in order to raise funds to fight this debilitating, horrific disease. I attended with my friend Colin Mills, who was at the time the General Manager of Marrickville Council. Along with him were Barry Cotter, the Mayor of Marrickville; Carmel Tebbutt, who was at the time the Deputy Mayor of Marrickville; and other councillors, including Max Pearce and Rebecca Kaiser.

It was very personal for us, because Colin Mills was someone who was diagnosed with motor neurone disease. He became the General Manager of Marrickville Council in 1990. He was innovative, creative, intelligent, articulate, and incredibly hardworking at the level of government which is closest to the community—and he believed in that community. A few years later he was diagnosed with MND, just like his mother, who passed away in her early 30s, and an uncle of his. Tragically, on 24 July 1999, at age 52, he passed away. I thank his wife, Lee Mills, whom I spoke with today, for permission to personalise this debate by talking about Colin. What Lee said to me today was, `Please support this legislation, because Colin would have wanted you to support it.’ I watched Colin go from being a fit, intelligent leader of a community to gradually losing control of his feet and leg muscles as, over time, the disease gradually took over to the point where he had to use a wheelchair. It is something that is very hard for someone who is just a friend to watch, let alone for a member of the family. Gradually, bit by bit, the disease took control of his ability to use his body.

Colin and I went on a delegation to Egypt in 1996—we all paid personally—to set up a sister city arrangement between Marrickville and Damanhour. Marrickville has a very large Egyptian population. At that time, Colin also went to Madeira in Portugal. Colin had a great deal of difficulty getting around. Egypt is not the easiest place to go, and Colin showed enormous courage in getting carried up and down steps and into pyramids, because he knew that he did not have long in this life. If he could show the sort of courage that he showed, then I think the Parliament of Australia can show the courage to support this bill. I do not believe that the arguments against this bill stack up to logical analysis.

The Labor Party are allowing a conscience vote on this bill, but we do have a party position—and it is a position I support. We do not support human cloning; we only support research on embryos created for IVF purposes that would otherwise be destroyed. We only do this on the condition that the specific consent of the donor is given, and only for research where there is a real likelihood of a significant advance in knowledge. Of course, it is not just motor neurone disease that this research has the potential to find cures for but also diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, spinal cord injuries and Alzheimer’s disease. I strongly believe that we need to take action as a parliament to ensure that this research can occur. To give one example, Alzheimer’s disease currently affects 320,000 Australians, but that number is expected to increase by a staggering 254 per cent by 2041.

When we look at the arguments that have been put against this use of surplus embryos, we are essentially left with an alleged moral position. Some try to take the moral high ground and pretend that their ethics are greater than those of people who support this legislation. We have had examples of it in this chamber. We have had the member for Sturt, who said the following in the debate last night. I want to read it into the Hansard again as part of my contribution because it is exactly why I think his argument is wrong. He said:

Before I deal with the comparisons with adult stem cell research, I would like to comment on the suggestion often put that we are going to let these embryos die anyway, so why should we not use them for some purpose for humankind? There is a profound moral difference between killing and letting die.

He went on to say:

Human embryos which are frozen as part of assisted reproductive technology programs and then, when no longer required, are allowed to thaw and succumb, are being treated with respect and in concert with the purpose for which they were created, which was to assist life. They are treated with the respect that they deserve as human beings to be allowed to thaw, succumb and pass away.

I am sorry, but I say to the member for Sturt that I respect Colin Mills’s life; I respect the people who need this research, not surplus embryos that can either be used for research and the betterment of humankind or be flushed down the drain, which is what happens to them. They will be destroyed anyway. So it is not a moral dilemma of either-or. It is not that, if this legislation is not carried and the surplus embryos are not used for research, they will somehow develop into human beings in a glass jar in an IVF clinic. It is a profoundly false argument that is being put forward.

Dr Michael West of the US’s Advanced Cell Technology, who holds staunch pro-life views, argues that those who oppose embryonic stem cell research are misusing information about what a life is. I want to quote from him:

Human cells are alive; we know this. To say that there is human life in a sperm cell or egg cell is correct. But these cells have not committed to becoming any cell in the body. This cell mass (used to retrieve stem cells) is not individualised Not only are these cells not body cells of any kind, they have not even become individual. To ascribe to unindividualised cells the status of a human is a logical inconsistency.

No wonder the member for Warringah had to use the analogy of tadpoles becoming frogs in the Financial Review yesterday. You have to go to those examples because it simply does not stack up any other way.

The member for Menzies is the minister in charge of this. We are somewhat nonplussed by this on this side of the House and, as the shadow minister for ageing, I certainly am. One would have thought that this was the responsibility of the Minister for Health and Ageing. The member for Menzies took a different position from the cabinet on this legislation. In the end, he had to present this bill in the House. I want to say to the member for Menzies that—as he is the Minister for Ageing—it is unfortunate that, 10 months on, he has not introduced a single piece of legislation in his own portfolio before this House; not one. The Minister for Ageing has not started a single debate during his 10 months in office.

Whilst it is certainly a plus for everyone concerned that the member for Menzies is not Bronwyn Bishop, he needs to do more than just not be her. He needs to address the issues confronting the ageing Australian population and the crisis in aged care—the lack in aged care beds, the blow-out in waiting times, the issue of phantom beds, the shortage of in-home care services, the lack of dementia-specific services, the complex accreditation and RCS system, and the chronic shortage of nursing and aged care staff. We want to see legislative action on these issues and appropriate funding provided. But this minister is so obsessed with being a moral guardian, as he purported to be on voluntary euthanasia, that he has chosen to be obsessed by this issue rather than do his job in his portfolio. I think that is to his great detriment.

We know who opposes this bill but, when we look at who supports it, we find that 40 Nobel prize winners want to keep the technology and want to allow scientific research. We know that prominent people such as Michael Fox, Christopher Reeve and others support this research. But perhaps more importantly, we know that it is supported by people such as Alison Alderton, the mother of two-year-old Lucas, a quadriplegic. He is a quadriplegic through no fault of his own; he has a rare neurological condition called transverse myelitis. Alison Alderton said on ABC radio the other night:

He was completely normal in all respects, until at 5 and a half months, he became paralysed from the neck down. Luke stands to gain a tremendous amount from continued embryonic stem cell research. A small increase in function for Luke would mean that he could feed himself, write, care for himself, clean his own teeth, cough and breathe.

Who are we as a parliament to deny Luke that opportunity? I am not a scientist. I do not purport to have the same level of knowledge as those eminent scientific researchers who support this legislation. It may well be that out of this research there might only be one or two breakthroughs. It may well be that there are not any. But who are we to deny that opportunity before the research has been conducted?

We know that, if this bill is not carried, the scientific community will probably leave Australia to conduct this research elsewhere, because it has been legislated for in places like the UK. We know that, if we are to be the clever nation, we have to actually not dismiss scientific breakthroughs and research. We know that is the key to our economic future. We know that this legislation is the product of an agreement between the Prime Minister and all state and territory leaders, as a result of COAG. Bob Carr, the Premier of New South Wales, who has taken a leading role on this issue, has said that New South Wales will go it alone—with, I think, cross-party support in New South Wales. We do not want to create a situation whereby research is legal in one state but not in another. Surely we need to have a national approach to these issues.

I strongly believe that this legislation needs support and is deserving of support. I reject the argument that somehow there is a moral high ground or ethical high ground in saying that surplus embryos—which is all this legislation provides for—are somehow better off being wasted, thrown away or tipped down a drain than being used for research. It seems to me that there is nothing moral or ethical about that. Then there is the hypocrisy of someone such as the member for Warringah, who does not seem to care about the impact of government policy on the quality of people’s lives in areas such as the locking up in detention centres of young children who have done nothing wrong, who by an accident of history happen to be born into a different family from someone who was born here in Australia. That does not seem to me to be an issue of high morality. I urge the parliament to support this legislation. I respect the right of people to oppose it and to have their moral and ethical positions, but I do not respect their wish to impose those positions on people such as the mother of young Lucas, Alison Alderton.