Howard Supports Stem Cell Research

The Prime Minister, John Howard, has announced government support for stem cell research and a total ban on human cloning.

Howard held a press conference in Canberra to make the announcement.

  • Listen to Howard’s press conference (10m)

Transcript of Prime Minister John Howard’s press conference.

PRIME MINISTER:

I am today writing to the Premiers and Chief Ministers with a proposed approach to the issue of stem cell research. This is a very difficult but very important issue and it’s one that challenges the governments all around Australia to strike the correct balance between the evident research potential that’s involved, the capacity that research might have in the future to both prolong human life and also to relieve human suffering, and also most particularly to provide research and medical science breakthroughs in relation to the most debilitating of human afflictions and human diseases.

It does raise important ethical considerations as well. It goes to the issues of human life itself, the time at which human life commences, the way in which it should be revered and treated, the way in which we should hallow our very existence.

I think it is desirable that we have a uniform position throughout Australia. I don’t believe that this is a matter where the forces of competitive federalism should operate and we are all Australians before anything else and in relation to these issues I believe there should be a consistent nationally supported position across Australia. In the course of formulating my own views and contributing to the formulation of the Government’s views I have consulted quite widely with scientists and with a number of church leaders. I’ve today as I’ve said written to the Premiers proposing a joint approach and this matter will be discussed tomorrow at the meeting of the Council of Australian Governments.

I’ll be proposing a total ban on human cloning and other unacceptable practices which are detailed in the correspondence and its supporting attachments that I’ll make available. I am proposing in behalf of the Commonwealth that the Commonwealth and the States and Territories should allow the use of surplus ART embryos for research purposes. In other words allow stem cell research using human embryos subject to certain carefully crafted and very important conditions. Our proposal at this stage is that only existing embryos should be available for that research. It is proposed that the consent of the donors should be obtained in every case where the human embryo is to be used for research purposes otherwise the conditions attaching to the research should be generally those that were laid down by the recommendations of the majority in the Andrews Committee House of Representatives report.

Overall we propose that the arrangements should be overseen by the National Health and Medical Research Council. I also propose that the arrangements be reviewed after they have been in operation for a period of three years. It is our proposal and our intention to legislate both the ban on human cloning, and also the conditions attaching and governing the use of embryos for research purposes that we should legislate that nationally. We will ask the states and the territories to mirror that legislation at a State and Territory level so that we have a comprehensive national legislative framework governing aspects of this.

Members of Government parties will be allowed a free vote on this issue. I understand the Australian Labor Party has decided on a free vote. I think it is appropriate that on issues of this kind there be a free vote and that free vote will extend to Cabinet Ministers as well as to members of the backbench. I should also note of course that in the currency of debate on the legislation it would be open to anybody to put forward an amendment or even sponsor a private members bill and conditions of free vote would apply in relation to those as well. I’m not inviting that to occur I should point out, but I’m simply making the point that once you allow a free vote on one aspect of a broad issue it’s a bit hypocritical to say well you can’t have it on other aspects. So I want to make that perfectly clear.

This is not an easy issue and there are genuinely held views on various sides of the debate. I believe that the conclusion that we have reached and the way that we intend to handle it is one that strikes the right balance between a careful regard for ethical considerations but also a belief that no stone should be unreasonably left unturned to provide an avenue for the relief of human suffering. This country has a remarkable capacity in the area of medical research. We have been at the forefront of many areas of medical research and I believe the potential in this area is very great. That is not the only consideration. It has to occur under very strictly defined conditions and I think what we are proposing will be seen by the broader community as striking that correct balance. But because it does involve issues of human life, considerations of when life begins, the circumstances in which it may end and the circumstances importantly in which it is lived and enjoyed or endur! ed as sadly is the case with many people who suffer debilitating diseases, it’s only right that people have a free vote.

This is not an issue where you have a Labor view or a Liberal view or a National Party view. It’s an issue where people have individual views and there are unpredictable stances taken by people and any attempt to stereotype people on an issue like this I predict will be doomed to failure and disappointment. I hope that the States and the Territories agree with the approach the Commonwealth has taken. I’ve listened to what they’ve had to say, I’ve listened to what the scientists have had to say, I’ve listened to what in particular Archbishop Pell and Archbishop Jensen have had to say. I respect their views, I’ve taken them into account. I always believe they should be factored in. But in the end I am answerable to my conscience and the individual members of the Government are answerable to theirs and I think the approach that I’ve proposed is the fair and sensible way of handling this issue and I hope it does gather the support of the states.

JOURNALIST:

[inaudible]

PRIME MINISTER:

I would expect so, but I don’t guarantee that. I don’t guarantee anything in this business. You never know once a free vote circumstance is established what will come. My on balanced judgement at this stage would be that it will get through.

JOURNALIST:

So that’s an essential on-balance judgement of the view within your Party Room? You’ve had a meeting on this with your Party Room. Was that the sense you got…..?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I also pay some regard to the views of the Opposition. It’s a free vote and you don’t know what happens in a free vote.

JOURNALIST:

But your view of the mindset of your Party Room?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well my view is that there is a range of views in my Party Room and as it’s a free vote I won’t even presume to start sort of ascribing percentages. I don’t think that’s fair. It might be….some may even see it as intimidatory. I wouldn’t want that to be the case.

JOURNALIST:

What is the head of power under which that legislation would be brought in?

PRIME MINISTER:

A variety. The Corporations power would be there, there may even be some resort to the external affairs power, perhaps, I’m not certain about that. If you look at the gene technology legislation, similar constitutional considerations applied there.

JOURNALIST:

If the premiers and territory leaders agree when would you expect to put the legislation into parliament?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, we would want to put it in place as soon as possible. The idea would be that we’d try and have it in place by the end of June, that would be the goal. And that’s what I’ve said in my letter to the premiers.

JOURNALIST:

What is your view – ?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I take a pretty conservative view myself on that.

JOURNALIST:

Have you spoken to any premiers about this matter recently and if you have, what view have you formed?

PRIME MINISTER:

I haven’t had any personal discussions in recent times with the premiers about that.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister can you elaborate on that …

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I take a conservative view on conception, yes.

JOURNALIST:

Could you elaborate on that?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, that’s a personal view.

JOURNALIST:

Can we get an insight into your conscience…?

PRIME MINISTER:

I beg your pardon, you want an insight into my conscience. Well I did in the past on these issues I’ve taken a, whenever there have been votes on issues relating to abortion I’ve taken a conservative view. But I lead a party that has a range of views and I have an obligation not to ram my view down somebody’s throat and I’ll listen…

JOURNALIST:

(Inaudible)

PRIME MINISTER:

Well as currently advised, I would yes. Look, the issue here to me, the central ethical issue here is that I have been personally unable to find a huge moral distinction between allowing the human embryo to succumb as a result of its exposure to room temperature and ending it through research. I think the analogy of turning off a life support system is invalid because in the case of the life support system, somebody who’s been put on a life support system as a result of a trauma, which has otherwise interrupted a full and enjoyable life; in the case of a human embryo, is the result of ART research, that’s not the case. That’s why I would find it quite consistent with the view I take. I mean it’s a question of the embryo will succumb, I just can’t see that there is a moral – as I feel at the moment – and people change their views on this, I can’t see that there is that moral gulf and I think that’s quite important because that is the ce! ntral ethical issue in this, everything else in my view is peripheral.

JOURNALIST:

Do you believe the human life has started in a six-day-old embryo?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I can only repeat what I said to you before.

JOURNALIST:

And you’re not convinced by the arguments of Archbishop Carnley?

PRIME MINISTER:

No.

JOURNALIST:

So how important Prime Minister in reaching this decision. How important to you was the view of Professor Trounson who originally told the committee that there was enough stem cell lines available but then subsequently changed his position because you met with him quite recently to discuss that. And secondly, was it a mistake giving Kevin Andrews’ carriage of this issue and asking him to bring forward to Cabinet the submission, given his well-known view supporting a ban on embryonic stem cell research.

PRIME MINISTER:

No. Why is it? I mean on that basis you can’t ever give anybody who’s got a strong view either way carriage of the legislation.

JOURNALIST:

And on Professor Trounson how important was that?

PRIME MINISTER:

Professor Trounson’s view was taken into account but I also found the discussion with Archbishop Pell and Archbishop Jensen quite valuable. This is a hugely difficult issue and I think the way that we have worked our way through it is the right way, and in the end I think it is the absolutely right thing that an issue like this should be resolved by the national parliament, with each man and women in that national parliament exercising a free vote, and I think that is the right way of handling it.

JOURNALIST:

Do you share his concern about the thin edge of the wedge leading to a slippery slope?

PRIME MINISTER:

Laurie, I have spoken to John Anderson about this on a number of occasions and I respect the strengths of the view that John holds. I’ve stated my view on the ethical balance, I can only repeat that. In relation to John’s view you would say that if he believes that this is the thin end of the wedge, I can understand him having the concerns that he expressed. I don’t quite see it in those terms I see it in the terms that I’ve tried to explain it. I think on this issue we both have a fairly conservative view, I think perhaps his view may be a little more conservative than mine, if that’s the right label to use. I can only say that I’ve tried to arrive at a view that I think is right and respects all of the considerations that somebody in my position should take into account. I don’t have a right to impose my view on others but I have a right to hold to it tenaciously and to argue it and to try and explain it, which I will endeavour to do to the Australian people and I do hope that the Premiers see the wisdom of us having a uniform position. And we’ve put up a proposal that should be able to unite everybody because it is not an open slather approach, it is restricted to stem cell lines from existing embryos, it does need to be the consent of the donors, it is going to be overseen by the National Health and Medical Research Council, there will be a review after three years, there is a total ban on human cloning and they’ll be, you won’t be able to by definition, and it’ll be especially prohibited anyway, to create embryos for just for the purposes of research so it is not an open slather approach but on the other hand it acknowledges that, as I tried to explain a moment ago, when you come down to it there is not in the judgment of many, including myself, a moral, a huge moral gulf, or indeed any moral gulf between allowing an embryo to succumb as a result of being taken out of the freezing condition and in effect exposed to room temperature. I can’t for the life of me see a moral difference between that and the use of the embryos in research. Now many people whose views I respect with probably disagree with me on that but that is my view and it’s a view I’ve come to after a lot of reflection and a lot of thought. And it’s a view I’ll be arguing. As I say that it follows from that in the absence of being persuaded otherwise I would probably, in a free vote, I’d be more likely than not it support the legislation. But naturally I reserve the right, particularly because it’s a free vote, to listen to the arguments and to be persuaded otherwise.

JOURNALIST:

Who will introduce the legislation? Will it be yourself or the Attorney General?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I haven’t really thought about that. The Government has got to sponsor the legislation to sort of get it there and the people will be able to contribute to the debate. And I hope it will be a debate that brings credit to the national parliament, I hope it will be one of those debates that people take seriously. They contribute free of any kind of party intimidation or obligation and I would address an appeal to people in the community who hold strong views to put their views, put their views sensibly and this is an opportunity, this is an occasion for the national parliament to do itself credit and to have an intelligent debate and once the debate has been handled and gone through with then let us put in place a regime that balances those considerations of which I’ve spoken.

JOURNALIST:

Given that you are introducing national legislation, would you be surprised and perhaps disappointed if someone tries to move a private members bill as well given there is the chance…

PRIME MINISTER:

I would not be surprised, let me say I’m not encouraging it. I would hope that the legislation gets through in the form that it’s put forward because I wouldn’t be putting it forward if I found it unacceptable or repugnant or inappropriate but people have a right. I mean we have to be fair dinkum about this question of free votes, you either believe in them or you don’t and quintessentially this is an issue that goes to matters of protection of life, right to life, but also the quality of people who are afflicted by disease and it involves a classic clash if you like or a classic interface between all of the issues that bear on those considerations and that’s why I believe it ought to be a free vote and if people want to move an amendment they should be free to do so, if they want to move a private members bill they should be free to do. But I repeat I’m not encouraging people to do that and there’s nothing, there’s no sort of hidden deep dark strategy in my making of reference to that. It’s just to state the obvious, that once you say the area is covered by the free vote then every aspect of the area ought to be covered by a free vote, not just the bit the government determines, that’s being very hypocritical.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, you say you want a cooperative approach with the states, but will this legislation, the federal legislation, override in state that –

PRIME MINISTER:

The idea is that if they agree then we’ll put through legislation, or try and put through legislation to this effect and they will, in some cases, try themselves. But I understand some of the states are going to have free votes, I think Mr Bracks said there was going to be a free vote in the Victorian Parliament so he’s really in the same position. What I would like to see is mirror legislation at a Commonwealth and a state level and then you don’t have any argument about constitutional power.

JOURNALIST:

Do you want an agreement before the legislation?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well that’s the idea, I would hope that we can reach an agreement or get close to reaching an agreement on this tomorrow. Everybody has had a bit of a go at it publicly over the last few weeks, I’ve held my tongue until now, I’ve continued to talk to people until the last minute and I’ve reached a view and I’ve had some discussion with some of my senior colleagues about it a couple of days ago about the approach, we’ve previously obviously discussed it in Cabinet on a number of occasions and we’ve discussed in the joint party room. So the time has come for us to say how we’re going to handle it and that’s what I’ve outlined to you today and that will be outlined, is outlined in more detail in the letter that I’ve written to the Premiers.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, you said on the one hand you hoped the legislation would get through and you will argue for it and so on. On the other hand you said about your own position that at this point you would vote for it, you seem to be leaving yourself –

PRIME MINISTER:

As you and others have said I’m an inherently cautious man Michelle and I leave open the possibly that there might be some argument I’ve not thought of that comes along and persuades me. But as of now, if we had a vote on it tomorrow I’d vote for it. Of course. I’m entitled to sort of put that caveat on my position.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard was there any one particular submission or one particularly discussion you had with anyone that swayed your opinion?

PRIME MINISTER:

No I found all of them of equal value but in the end you sit down and you think something like this through and what I said in answer to I think Louise or Malcolm best summed up. I mean if I had been able to find a huge moral gulf between the two deeds, the two approaches, I’d have reached a different conclusion, but I couldn’t. And that in the end, and I couldn’t be persuaded really by anybody I spoke to that there was. And in those circumstances I stick to my position.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, you said that the research would be limited to the embryos that already exist. Are you referring to these 60,000 embryos now or are you talking about embryos that might come into being through IVF –

PRIME MINISTER:

No, as of now. Not in the future. But I’m told that by a number of people that that still allows an enormous amount of research and that won’t place for practical purposes particularly in view of the stage of the research that is reached at the moment, that won’t be impose a practical limitation but it also does send a signal that science is changing very rapidly and we will look at the thing in three years time and that is a token of our desire not to take any careless or indecent haste on the issue.

JOURNALIST:

What impact do you think it will have on the research industry in Australia?

PRIME MINISTER:

I believe that medical scientists by and large will welcome the Government’s decision. I believe they will see it was responsible, as careful, as striking the right balance and it will have a positive impact.

JOURNALIST:

What’s the three year sunset clause, or whatever it is, the review –

PRIME MINISTER:

No there’s no sunset clause; it’s just a review –

JOURNALIST:

What would have to be proved by then, the position -?

PRIME MINISTER:

Look I’m not going to try and sort of predetermine that. I don’t know what science will tell us in three years time. I don’t, any more than I knew five years ago that I’d be having this news conference about this subject. I just don’t know. But it’s a prudent sensible obvious thing to have a review.

JOURNALIST:

– that donating a spare embryo is analogous to donating a kidney to a person who needs a new kidney?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I think you can mount arguments on both sides of that.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister can I just ask you, a question about your meeting with Clare Martin this morning on the –

PRIME MINISTER:

The meeting is this afternoon. I rescheduled it because I wanted to prepare myself for this meeting.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard will Kevin Andrew’s retain ministerial responsibility for stem cell research given his views on this issue?

PRIME MINISTER:

Why shouldn’t he? Why should he or why shouldn’t he? I mean he, I mean there’s no reason because he has a view that somebody may disagree with, doesn’t mean to say he’s got no right to discharge his ministerial responsibility. He’ll continue to do what I’ve asked him to do. But I think you’ve got to understand that this something that one or two other people are pretty heavily involved in as well and I mean I think I may introduce the bill myself but I haven’t really thought about that. It will either probably be introduced by myself or the Attorney General.

JOURNALIST:

Can you just clarify the position of surplus embryos created in the future?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well they are not available for research. It’s in relation to the existing stock of embryos already in existence that become surplus or are surplus.

JOURNALIST:

Is that the cut off point then –

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes.

JOURNALIST:

So with donors giving permission for them to be used for research does that mean that donors who donated the existing IVF embryos will be contacted –

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, what will happen in practice is that people will have research projects, and if you look at the material I’m going to put out, they’ll go to the NHMRC and they’ll put a project and, if it gets approval, then obviously approaches will need to be made. I think it would be unconscionable if people who donated in the first place, were not contacted – or attempts were not made to contact them.

JOURNALIST:

It seems the way you’ve argued the point, it’s largely irrelevant whether or not you believe an embryo is a human life? Is that the way you characterise –

PRIME MINISTER:

No, no I don’t. I don’t put it that way. No, that’s your interpretation. I wouldn’t put it that way.

JOURNALIST:

How would you put it?

PRIME MINISTER:

I’d put it that it turns upon an analysis of the act of allowing the embryo to succumb and the destruction of that embryo in stem cell research, and because I don’t see a moral difference between those two, I can’t satisfy myself as a matter of conscience that it ought to be prohibited.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, have the Premiers asked you to put other large matters like education and health on the COAG agenda for tomorrow? And if they have, what’s been your response?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, they always do ask that those matters be put on the agenda, and my – my response is that we have Health Ministers and Education Ministers, Councils, talk about those issues, people can raise matters in general business, and in any event I thought the Premier holding the largest majority in any of the lower houses of Australia indicated a few weeks ago that there was oodles of cash available for state education, courtesy of the GST. In those circumstances, I think you might – you know, might understand why I’m not, you know, bowled over by the genuineness of some of their requests.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, will you be sympathetic when you’re meeting Mike Rann later today towards any more, sort of appeals for help for Mitsubishi, or have they had enough?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, we have been very sympathetic over the years to the Australian motor vehicle industry and we’ve stated a position in relation to future arrangements. We’ve outlined that there’s going to be an enquiry. I’ll listen to what Mr Rann has got to say.

JOURNALIST:

On the future of the National Crime Authority, what view will you be taking tomorrow to State leaders?

PRIME MINISTER:

I’m giving some thought to that. I don’t think I’ll have another news conference on that later today, but I’ll be putting certain proposals in relation to that issue. I would hope that we can get a sensible understanding about – about fighting terrorism and transnational crime in this country, and we can have a cooperative approach in that as well.

JOURNALIST:

Would you be taking the investigative powers away from the NCA?

PRIME MINISTER:

Bit early to answer that question.

JOURNALIST:

Will the dynamic of the meeting will be different now that you’re outnumbered?

PRIME MINISTER:

They’re all always different, but I’ll miss – you know, I’ll miss the – the assistance I always used to receive from my State Liberal colleagues at these gatherings and –

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, in your home city of –

PRIME MINISTER:

Beg your pardon?

JOURNALIST:

On embryos, what will the Commonwealth law say about how long embryos should be allowed to be stored for?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, that is a matter that I want to have some discussion about.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, in your home city of Sydney today, there’s an enormous outpouring of grief and anger over the death of the policeman – what’s your reaction to that?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, can I say, and I’m glad you did ask me that question – I share the sense of anger and fury and sadness concerning Sergeant McEnallay’s death. There’s something particularly despicable and particularly blameworthy about the murder – the apparent murder of somebody who is in uniform performing his duty, protecting others. And it’s just a reminder of how dangerous policing is anywhere in Australia. It’s a reminder of the risks that police officers run, and I’ve been quite saddened and sickened by what’s occurred. I make – I can’t make judgements about who’s responsible, but I can express very strong views about what happened. And what happened was abominable, and it’s an attack on the, sort of, moral infrastructure of our society when somebody going about their policing duties is apparently shot dead in cold blood. I think that is – it is such an abominable thing, and it distresses me grea! tly and I can understand the sense of distress and outrage, and I extend my sympathy and that of the Government to the police officer’s family and girlfriend, and everybody – and all of his fellow officers. It’s a very traumatic thing to lose a comrade in arms. In a sense, that’s what’s happened.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, could you just explain why the distinction between –

PRIME MINISTER:

Please explain what? I can’t hear you, I’m sorry.

JOURNALIST:

Sorry. Why – why the legislation on stem cells makes the distinction between currently surplus embryos and future surplus embryos?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I guess it’s consistent among other things with two things. Our sensible but careful approach, and also whilst you can legislate to prohibit the creation of embryos only for research purposes, some people might argue it – it could well be difficult to enforce legislation of that kind. It could well be difficult to really determine in some cases as to whether the embryo was brought into being for the purposes of research, or for the purposes of reproduction. I think it’s governed by both of those considerations.

JOURNALIST:

You recently said the economy was going gangbusters. Given that, do you think there may be a case for the Reserve Bank to raise interest rates at its next board meeting on May 7?

PRIME MINISTER:

You’re asking me to speculate about interest rates? You know Prime Ministers can never do that. Okay? Thank you.

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