Ms LEE RHIANNON [8.18 p.m.]:
I am pleased to speak for the Greens on the New South Wales Human Cloning and Other Prohibited Practices Amendment Bill 2007. The Greens support the bill. The Greens appreciate and respect that the question of research involving human embryos is a very emotionally charged issue. This debate has often been robust and for many it has been challenging. That is a welcome part of our democratic process. The bill grapples with the ethical dilemmas that surround the beginning and end of human life; an issue that provokes a diversity and polarity of views.
It is of the utmost importance that we respect the different and legitimate views that have been expressed in this debate. I am disappointed that Cardinal Pell stated that I tried to silence his opinion in this debate. At all stages I emphasised that Cardinal Pell had the same rights as we all do to participate in public debate. As this debate is played out in the community and in the Parliament it is clear in my mind that we all believe human life is inherently valuable and deserving of protection. Each of us is unique and endowed with human rights. Where the waters part, so to speak, is on the inevitable question of when that life begins, when a tiny collection of cells becomes a human being, a human being entitled to human rights and protection.
The Greens respect the fact that different people draw that line in different places for a variety of moral, ethical and spiritual reasons. This multitude of views makes up the democratic fabric. I believe basic biology dictates that the embryos in this bill do not constitute life, they do not constitute a human being. The embryos that we are considering in this bill are not fertilised. They represent the potential for human life and, if fertilised and implanted into a woman's womb, may develop into a human being. But as it stands, for the purposes of research under this bill, embryonic stem cells do not constitute a human being. The embryos in this bill are not made by egg-sperm fertilisation; rather by a process called somatic cell nuclear transfer. Somatic cell nuclear transfer is a research method, not a process that facilitates reproduction.
A point that I am struggling to understand is how this bill stands apart from laws that already allow for the destruction of human embryos. The destruction of embryos is an inevitable consequence of assisted reproductive technology [ART], in which many embryos are created to increase the chances of pregnancy. At this point it is worth looking at what the bill is and what it is not. In the frenzied fray of public debate on this issue I am concerned that the facts have been lost and that, at times, the language becomes twisted. This bill will enable scientists in New South Wales to undertake somatic cell nuclear transfer and parthenogenesis for research purposes. Stem cell research is important for studying normal and abnormal development of cells, for disease modelling and for drug screening. It is important for developing cell therapies for treatment of infertility and debilitating diseases.
But it is what the bill is not that is the most important. This bill does not allow human cloning for reproduction; collecting a viable human embryo from the body of a woman; selling or trading of sperm, eggs and embryos; developing an embryo outside the body of a woman for more than 14 days; creating a human embryo by fertilisation of a human egg by a human sperm other than to achieve pregnancy in a particular woman; implanting into the womb of woman embryos created by any means other than by fertilisation of a human egg by human sperm; and creating a chimeric embryo, that is, an organism containing two or more genetically distinct cell or tissue types. This bill provides large penalties for attempting any of these acts. This bill broadens search powers to ensure that no facility is embarking on any prohibited practice. It enables inspectors to enter premises that are not licensed when there is concern that prohibited research is going on in those premises. The maximum penalty for undertaking prohibited practices is 15 years imprisonment.
Objectors to this bill claim that adult stem cells are as useful as embryonic stem cells. I understand that that is not the case: adult stem cells do not offer the same scientific properties as embryonic cells. The type of tissue adult stem cells can create is limited to those cell types belonging to the tissue or organ of origin. Embryonic stem cells come from a five-day-old to six-day-old embryo. They are less mature and more flexible than adult stem cells. They have the potential to create an entire entity and so can become any cell type in the body. This means that embryonic stem cells have greater potential than adult stem cells in developing potential treatments. The research allowed under this bill is important for understanding normal and abnormal cell development in genetic disorders such as type 1 diabetes. Type 1 diabetes affects 140,000 Australians and 2,000 new cases are diagnosed each year. Direct costs of this disease are estimated to be of the order of $3 billion per year nationally. This is just one of hundreds of conditions the treatment for which may directly benefit from the passage of this bill.
The Greens believe that the potential this bill offers to enable research to relieve suffering, treat diseases and improve human dignity is so great that it is unethical to deny the benefits to the many people who could benefit from this research, assuming that there is a framework of safeguards and scrutiny, and assuming cells are not allowed to propagate beyond 14 days or be implanted in a woman's uterus. The Greens believe that this bill provides sufficient safeguards for constructive and ethical research. More than that, I believe we have a responsibility to those who are suffering from debilitating diseases such as Parkinson's disease, cardiovascular conditions, cancer, spinal cord injury and motor neurone disease to explore this research. These diseases carry a burden that is physical, emotional and financial for sufferers, their families and the wider society. I draw on the Lockhart review, which states:
" the higher the potential benefits of an activity, the greater the need for ethical objections to be of a high level and widely accepted in order to prevent that activity."
A number of constituents have raised with me concerns that this bill will result in the exploitation of women. Their concern is that women who are vulnerable through social disadvantage, workplace or family pressures may be prevailed upon to donate eggs. It is simply unacceptable to coerce women into donating eggs. I have considered this concern closely and, on balance, I believe that there are sufficient safeguards in this bill to minimise the possibility of exploitation. Firstly, it is important to acknowledge a woman's right to make an informed choice about whether or not to donate her eggs. Women routinely make this choice when donating tissue or bone marrow and when they undergo other medical treatment. Secondly, this bill prohibits the sale of sperm, eggs and embryos. It also prohibits discounted or free assisted reproductive technology services in exchange for donating eggs, sperm or embryos.
There can be no import or export of stem cell lines derived from embryos using practices consistent with Australian legislation. The main concern I raise about this bill is the potential for the privatisation and commercialisation of this research. The dangling question in my mind is really about corporate control of beneficial technologies. Who owns the science and who benefits? How will those benefits be shared? Will the intellectual property be held for the public good or held by the company that undertakes the research? Will this bill lead to corporate control of cures for diseases? Will this bill feed into a system in which human tissue and embryonic cells are traded for profit? There is a disappointing and worrying lack of protections in the bill to guard against these things happening.
It seems possible that companies that develop therapies arising from this type of research will be able to patent the knowledge, monopolise the knowledge, and make a great deal of money. The ability of a person to access the benefits of research would be based on ability to pay and not need. My colleagues Senator Kerry Nettle and Senator Bob Brown raised these concerns in the Federal debate and moved amendments that would have ensured that the fruits of the research remained in the public domain. Unfortunately, those amendments were defeated. We need a much tighter regulatory framework of the biomedical industry to ensure that medical breakthroughs are not exclusively for the mega-rich. Transnational biotechnology companies dominate stem cell research around the world and the patents on stem cell lines are bringing massive profits for the biotech industry.
A preferable model, and one that I think would create more public confidence in this issue, would be a model by which benefits and profits remained in the public domain and therapies remained available within the public health system. It seems only logical that research, and not a quest for corporate profits, should be driven by the public good. In the United Kingdom the stem cell bank is a key mechanism to ensure that embryonic stem cell research stays as much as possible in the public domain. All viable stem cell lines must be deposited with that bank. It is disappointing that we do not have a similar body in Australia to ensure that innovations are shared.
Finally, I turn to the recent comments by Cardinal George Pell, and his allegations that I attempted to silence him by taking issue with his statement that there could be "consequences" for Catholic members of Parliament who voted for the bill. It is curious that the Cardinal has singled me out for such severe and inaccurate criticism when one considers the comments made by many other members of Parliament. I am left wondering whether Cardinal Pell, having come under such strong criticism, tried to shift the attention away from himself by making out that I am trying to stifle his voice. That is untrue and my statements about this matter reflect my commitment to free speech. Let us remember that many members of Parliament made much stronger comments than I did. Mr Kevin Greene said that the Cardinal was attempting to bully Catholic members of Parliament. Ms Reba Meagher said that he was threatening retribution. Ms Jillian Skinner stated, "I have been subjected to the pressure of this man." And many more levelled direct criticism.
Archbishop Hickey has been referred to the Privileges Committee of the Western Australian Parliament for making statements similar to those by Cardinal Pell. I note that following strong criticism of the Cardinal by a large number of members of Parliament Cardinal Pell appeared to shift his public position. He suggested that his comments had been misunderstood and said that his remarks about withholding communion were "theoretical". Gerard Henderson, in spelling out his support for the Cardinal in today's edition of the Sydney Morning Herald , states that Dr Pell is criticised only when he defends church teachings and that no-one complained when he criticised WorkChoices. For the record, if the Cardinal had threatened to withhold communion from members of Parliament who refused to vote against the WorkChoices legislation I, and I am sure many, many others, would have voiced criticism. I am certain also that his extreme statements would have been referred to the Privileges Committee.
I do not have a problem with any concerns, complaints and criticisms that Dr Pell or any others bring to this debate, but the threat of consequences in one's life has no place in this debate or in our society. The concept of muscular Catholicism does nothing to enhance the fine principles that many Catholics hold and bring to this debate. The Greens believe strongly in the principle of the separation of the church and the state. This is a key tenet of our modern democracy. I respect the opinions of people of all faiths. I respect Cardinal Pell's right to express his views. But, with all due respect, Cardinal Pell's contribution to the debate was much more than a personal view: he attempted to intimidate or strongarm members of Parliament into voting against the legislation. That level of intimidation, using religion as leverage to force members to vote in a certain way is not acceptable. Decisions about complex ethical matters should be based on considered debate not ecclesiastical judgment and threats of retribution. For this reason I have asked the President to refer Cardinal Pell's comments to the parliamentary ethics committee.
The Greens respect and recognise that the bill provokes a moral and ethical dilemma for many people in the community. I have received many representations from individual and organisations on both sides of the debate. My staff have read each one of them, and I thank people for forwarding their views. The Greens believe, however, that in weighing up this matter the public interest is better served by passing the bill than by opposing it, and thereby stifling the potential discoveries that may flow from it. The bill does not allow open slather using unethical practices; it provides for the use of modern science and technology. As former scientist turned science writer Elizabeth Finkel said in 2005, "Allowing ideology to drive science is a recipe for second-rate science." The Greens are satisfied that there are sufficient safeguards built into the legislation to stop its being used maliciously or going beyond the bounds that the community would find acceptable. Further, we commit ourselves to being watchdogs over the future operation of this legislation.
Lee Rhiannon, MLC
Parliament of New South Wales
Tel: +61-2-9230 3551 Fax: +61-2-9230 3550
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