Thursday 1 November 2007


Second Reading

Mr FINCH (Rosevears) - Much has been made of this bill being the subject of a conscience vote and as we have witnessed with this debate in Canberra, in the other States, in another place and in this House, this is a very troubling one for our consciences, Mr President.  On the one hand there is the potential for breakthroughs in medical research which could save lives and ease suffering.  On the other are the complex medical and ethical issues involved with cloning and embryos for stem cell research. 

This bill, which duplicates legislation that has passed federally and in Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland, provides guidelines for therapeutic cloning in Tasmania, should any research organisation apply for a licence to do it some time in the future.  We do not know the likelihood of that, Mr President.  Would it not be fair to say that research based on therapeutic cloning is more likely to be based in the major medical research centres?  Whether this House approves this bill or not, therapeutic cloning will be taking place across Bass Strait.  It is most likely that, whatever this House does with the bill, most medical research involving embryonic stem cells is likely to be centred at Melbourne's Monash Science, Technology, Research and Innovation Precinct, know by the acronym STRIP.  That is where the Australian Stem Cell Centre is based.  The centre is the first bio-technology centre of excellence established by the Federal Government in 2003.  The centre has additional nodes in New South Wales, Queensland and South Australia, but not in Tasmania.  The centre receives Federal funding of more than $104 million annually with about $11.5 million from the Victorian government.  It is interesting to note, Mr President, that the Victorian government has stated that its vision is for the State to become one of the world's top five biotechnology locations.

It is worth looking at what is happening in some other countries.  In the United States, a world leader in medical research, the private sector is vigorously pursuing stem cell research.  But Congress has expressly banned federal funding of research resulting in the destruction of embryos.  In the United Kingdom, which maintains a competitive advantage globally, therapeutic cloning of embryos aged under 14 days has been allowed since 2001.  China and Japan allow therapeutic cloning, but Canada strongly prohibits it.  Certainly looking at other countries does not much help in our moral and ethical debate here. 

Much has been made of this bill condoning the destruction of potential human life for research purposes and there is something in that argument.  But it can also be argued that human life does not exist until a human egg is fertilised by a human sperm.  Of course this proposed legislation is primarily concerned with embryos created by somatic cell nuclear transfer or SCNT cloning in which a twin embryo is created without using sperm.  However, this cloned embryo would still be virtually the same as an embryo created by egg and sperm in an IVF clinic and some argue just as human.  But under this legislation there is no possibility of an SCNT-created embryo ever becoming a human being.  It has also been argued that the killing of an embryo for medical research, whether left over from IVF treatment or therapeutically cloned, is reasonably and morally justifiable because an embryo is not a human being. 

On Tuesday we were briefed by Dr David van Gend, Director of Australians for Ethical Stem Cell Research.  He has said, and I will quote him:

'We trust that you will resist false arguments that attempt to dehumanise the cloned embryo - a rhetorical strategy intended to make these embryos available as mere raw material for research.  Specious arguments such as "it is not an embryo because there was no sperm involved" - even though Dolly the sheep was cloned without sperm, but was undoubtedly a sheep embryo, born as a lamb.'

So there is much splitting of hairs in these arguments. 

But 'Is this bill really necessary?' is one of the questions.  Some argue that the cloning of human embryos is unnecessary because there have been significant advances in research using adult stem cells.  It is now believed they may be significantly more adaptable than was previously thought.  We were told by Dr van Gend that the galloping horse of adult stem cell research and science has made magnificent progress with no help from cloning.

I would like to paraphrase a quote which was sent to me by a Christian leader in my constituency. 

The good news of course is that we do not need cloning; we are getting the great benefits of stem cell science by entirely ethical means.  MPs who reject cloning as unethical can reassure their constituents that it is also unnecessary.  As the Director of the National Adult Stem Cell Centre, Professor Alan MacKay-Sim told the Senate last year, the purpose for using therapeutic cloning can be achieved with adult stem cells.  Already adult stem cells from our own tissues are being used, according to the journal Nature Biotechnology, as therapy in some 80 human conditions.  By contrast embryonic stem cells remain entirely unusable in humans because they form tumours in animals.

So that is an argument from a Christian leader in my community, Mr President. 

However, like most aspects of this debate, there is a contrary view.  I will quote from a summary of the Lockhart review of therapeutic cloning.  The first point:

'The Lockhart Committee also looked at the state of play in regard to adult stem cell research and, while recording the advances, did note the considerable practical challenges still confronting this line of research.'

The second point:

'It is noteworthy that research into adult stem cells has been under way for decades.  This confirms the time horizons we must contemplate for stem cell research.'

The third point:

'The risk of cutting off particular lines of research at this stage, however, does not allow any hope of progress in those areas.'

The fourth point:

'Embryonic cell lines are different and offer different promises in terms of developing a better understanding of disease processes at a fundamental level; their remarkable pluripotency, the relative ease of obtaining large numbers of cells to work with (compared to adult stem cells); and, in the case of an individual's cell lines developed through SCNT, the ability to evade rejection by the body's immune system.'

So, Mr President, it seems that it is possible to address any aspect of this debate with a pro and contrary argument.  Dr van Gend and others argue that embryonic cloning research will attract money from adult stem cell research.  One wonders, Mr President, why that would be.  Surely the research money goes where the results are predicted.

As far as adult stem cell research is concerned, it is a matter of who you listen to, Mr President.  The Australian Stem Cell Research Centre has dropped funding for an adult stem cell lung regeneration project.  I will just quote from the ASCC's report on the funding cut move:

'The ASCC undertook an independent assessment of the Adult Stem Cell Lung Regeneration Project in late November 2006, based on detected inconsistencies in the regular report to the ASCC.  The results of the investigation were communicated to Monash University in late December 2006.  The matter is now under investigation by Monash University, the host institution for the research and employer of the scientists within the project, and we will await their advice.  The ASCC no longer funds that project.'

Mr President, two years ago the Lockhart review maintained there was sufficient research potential in therapeutic cloning to support an argument for it to be allowed, and I will quote from the conclusion by John Lockhart QC:

'The committee has concluded that there is a need for augmentation of the current system to allow research within a rigorous ethical framework into emerging scientific practices that will assist in the understanding of disease and disability.'

My view on therapeutic cloning, Mr President, is that the moral and ethical arguments should take into account the potential to save human lives and to alleviate suffering, but there is little proof out there so far that the suggested medical benefits will indeed be forthcoming.  However, as Professor Peter Schofield pointed out in his briefing yesterday afternoon, research is about speculating; that's the nature of research.

His argument is borne out by dozens of important medical breakthroughs over many years, as we have heard.  The medical research community seems to be deeply divided on the potential for therapeutic cloning.  It all seems to be a bit of a gamble at this stage, Mr President.  However, I do not feel that I should stand in the way of research which is supported by the Lockhart Committee, has been approved by Federal Parliament and three other State parliaments and may save Tasmanian lives.  I therefore support this bill.