Last Tuesday night, the Senate passed Kay Patterson’s private member’s bill to legalise human embryo cloning. It was carried by the barest of margins, two votes. As a conscience vote it exposed senators to a level of public scrutiny seldom paralleled in normal debates. Many felt exposed and vulnerable. Most registered the weight of the decisions before them. It stretched their comfort zones. Speeches were impassioned, and oscillated between those promoting cloning in the search for disease therapies, and those anxious to safeguard human life from deliberate destruction. Ultimately it came down to numbers, just enough for some, frustratingly short for others.
The next day Senator Andrew Bartlett mused publicly whether his vote was too hasty, even cast in the wrong direction. Such was the pressure.
The debate was too short and intense. It lasted only two days. A senate committee had held separate hearings, but even these were hurriedly convened and tightly managed. The upshot was a divided report coming on the back of a commissioned technical study, which raised as many questions as it answered.
The fair-minded would quickly concede that these issues are complex and confronting. They are far from settled in the scientific and ethical academy, let alone the community generally. So there’s little chance that overworked and hard-pressed parliamentarians can easily rise above the clutter of their daily lives, to ponder the application of fundamental principles in moments of pause and reflection!
However, the debate reflected what previous inquiries had revealed. Maintaining rational argument and logical deduction is difficult in the face of moving human anecdote.
Nowhere is this more acute, than when dealing with the crusade to alleviate suffering and chronic disabilities. Yet experimenting with human life is fraught. The prospect of miracle cures stirs the imagination and excites curiosity. It conjures what could be possible, but challenges long-held fundamental values which underscore our sense of community, even human rights. As much as the challenge is to courageously march into the unknown, so too is the conviction that correct behaviour often involves restraint.
Thus the dilemma faced in making a conscience vote. It is not enough to base decisions on emotional responses, intuitive reactions or mindless obedience. It calls for a deeper, more exacting introspection of what is important. Put simply, it asks an individual to discern which values should prevail in the inevitable contest between desirable outcomes.
What was placed before the senate did a disservice to the advancement of both the protection of human life, and the search for disease therapies. Senators were asked to choose between the two, rather than be implored to deliver for both. Despite well-founded concerns from medical research scientists about the effectiveness and productivity of embryo cloning, the senators were presented with a choice which insisted that only through embryo cloning could the hope of disease therapies be properly advanced. A choice that necessitates the destruction of embryos, and as such diminishes the intrinsic value of human life in general.
This decision has taken the senate to a new place. It has effectively enshrined a precedent that human life is expendable. By permitting the cloning of human embryos the senate has given approval to the deliberate destruction of innocent human life. A precedent which cannot be justified in the context of advancing disease therapies, given the almost universal recognition that such therapies may, if ever, eventuate at best no sooner than twenty years from now.
It is said that at times of intense conflict of conscience, prudence is a virtue. So too is having adequate time to digest all the relevant information. In the rush of this decision, some senators pleaded for more time. Others felt corralled into hasty, uncertain voting. Too few seriously debated the health risks associated with amendments that place extraordinary burdens on women to produce enough eggs to satisfy the research agenda and timelines.
This wasn’t the senate at its best. Often it is noted that conscience votes bring out the best of parliamentary debates. It liberates members to speak their minds free of party constraints. This debate had some of that, but it was sadly wanting on time for contemplation.
Maybe this is what Senator Andrew Bartlett means. Surely having second thoughts is not a crime, but doing nothing about them could be.