[Relevant documents: First Report from the Joint Committee on the Human Tissue and Embryos (Draft) Bill, Session 2006-07, HC 630, and the Government response, Cm 7209.
Twelfth Report from the Science and Technology Committee, on Scientific Developments relating to the Abortion Act 1967, Session 2006-07, HC 1045-I and the Government response, Cm 7278; and the Fifth Report from the Committee, on Government Proposals for the Regulation of Hybrid and Chimera Embryos, Session 2006-07, HC 272-I, and the Government response, Cm 7139.
Fifteenth Report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights, on Legislative Scrutiny, Session 2007-08, HC 440, and the letters from the Minister of State (Public Health) of 1st May 2008 and the National Gamete Donation Trust of 22nd 2008.]
Order for Second Reading read.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
When Louise Brown, the world’s first test-tube baby, was born in England 30 years ago, her birth heralded a major breakthrough in fertility research, pioneered by British scientists. The advent of in vitro fertilisation—the creation of embryos in a laboratory—also raised important ethical questions that demanded sensitive and lengthy consideration. In 1982, Baroness Warnock was asked by the Government to chair an inquiry to consider some of these questions. In 1984, the report of her Committee of Inquiry into Human Fertilisation and Embryology was published. After extensive consultation and debate, this led to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990.
That landmark legislation laid down legal limits on the use of embryos, and ensured that all IVF treatment and research involving embryos was properly licensed by a body independent of both Government and scientists. Thus the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority was created, the first such authority anywhere in the world. It has attracted international respect and admiration, not just for the important work it does but for the way in which that work is carried out.
I believe that the 1990 Act and the process that led to it showed Parliament at its best. Baroness Warnock stated at the time:
“We are conscious of an increasing sense of urgency that controls should be introduced where none exist, and that the law should be brought up to date so that society may be protected from its real and very proper fear of a rudderless voyage into unknown and threatening seas.”
Parliament’s objective has always been to support scientific advances that benefit patients and their families, through a clear legal, moral and ethical framework that provides proper controls and safeguards and reflects the concerns that many people have about research involving stem cells and embryology.
As the Minister who in 1997 authorised the funding of the research that led to the cloning of Dolly the sheep and, almost the same day that that was announced, set up the human genetics advisory board, may I say to the Secretary of State that what he is proposing in this Bill on stem cell research is absolutely right? The fact that Professor Wilmut, who was involved in the Roslin Institute at the time of Dolly the sheep, is now saying we can move on to adult stem cell research does not mean that he or someone else does not need to continue to conduct embryo research so that we can look for a better quality of life for people suffering from terrible wasting diseases.
The hon. Gentleman is right, and I commend him on his part in this; indeed, his Secretary of State at the time, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), and many others in all parts of the House played an important part in the development of this policy.
Is not one of the very important changes from any other consideration that we have given this issue the fact that the Government will, on this occasion, take key clauses in a Committee of the whole House, so that those of us who generally support many of the measures in the Bill can voice any disquiet that we have specifically about those clauses rather than in respect of the general direction of Government policy?
I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention, which I believe is helpful: there was an element of surprise in my voice then! It is important to hold the debate on some of the most sensitive issues on the Floor of the House rather than in the Committee corridor, so that all Members can participate. That is consistent with the approach taken when the 1990 Act was introduced, when a great deal of effort was made to ensure that the argument was not a partisan one and that people who had deeply held views and beliefs, both ethical and religious, had the chance to contribute.
The Secretary of State says that he likes the way in which the 1990 Act was handled; large parts of that Bill were taken on the Floor of the House at the Committee stage. The difference on that occasion was that every Member of the House was given a free vote on all issues that they perceived to be ethical, at any stage. Ministers were included in that arrangement. They made it clear in their speeches both when they were speaking on behalf of the Government and when they were giving their own ethical judgments, and Ministers were divided on some Divisions because their ethical judgments varied. Are the Government going to allow that kind of full expression of parliamentary opinion on this occasion?
I commend the right hon. and learned Gentleman on how that Bill was handled. It would not then have been simply the role of the Secretary of State to decide how the process worked, and it is not simply my role to decide how it works on this occasion. I believe that there is a difference between that pioneering Bill, which established this legislation for the first time, and the situation 18 years on. We believe that some elements of this Bill require exactly the same completely free vote for Ministers and others, but that the Bill itself—a flagship Government Bill, in respect of which we are building on a precedent that has gone on for 18 years—should be whipped on Second and Third Reading. That is based on the fact that Members who have a concern about some of the more difficult issues will get the chance to vote on them, because, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) points out, we are taking some of the Committee stage on the Floor of the House.
The Secretary of State said that Baroness Warnock had made it clear that there was a perception of fear, and that the regulator would be tough and would give the public confidence in the new organisation. Can he point to any instance when a scientist or clinician has abused their research or therapeutic licence between 1990 and the present day?
I am not aware of any such problem, and I have talked to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority recently and I do not think that it is, either. May I commend the hon. Gentleman on his work in chairing the Joint Committee of both Houses, which did a splendid job? Indeed, it directed the Government in perhaps different avenues, which protected us from some of the earlier plans that we might have had for the Bill, in particular the merger of the HFEA and the Human Tissue Authority.
The Secretary of State says that Third Reading must be whipped. If the contentious issues to which he has referred are still in the Bill then, and are still, therefore, matters of conscience, how can he ask Members on his own side to vote against their consciences on Third Reading? I ask that because I have been considering whether to vote for or against Second Reading, and even whether to abstain. If there is to be a whipped vote on Third Reading, I feel—I hope that my colleagues feel the same—that we will have to vote against on Second Reading tonight.
The right hon. Gentleman and his party have every right to decide how they will vote, just as we have every right to decide how we will vote. I believe that it is absolutely right that once every Member of the House has been given the opportunity to decide on the specific issues that we have outlined—the three issues that contain most of the controversy in the Bill—the Bill as a whole, which contains many sensible reforms of varying degrees of controversy, should be whipped. It is right for the Government to do that. This is a flagship Government Bill. The Government want to see it enacted. We think that it is a good Bill that does good things, and that we have dealt with the issue extremely sensitively in respect of our Members.
I fully respect the Government’s position, but equally they should respect the position of Members who, on an issue of conscience, will end up voting against the Government tonight. I will do that with sorrow, but I do not think that it will damage the Government in any way, and certainly not in the way that former Cabinet Members writing books about the Government is damaging.
The Secretary of State talks about providing the opportunity to consider these important ethical issues, but is it sufficient opportunity when we are given barely three hours to consider the issue of human admixed embryos and barely three hours to consider saviour siblings and the need for a father, as well as all the other schedule 2 matters? Surely that brings Parliament into disrepute, when people outside want us to consider these vital issues clearly and carefully.
We will discuss the programme motion after I have finished moving Second Reading.
The purpose of the Bill is to ensure that the 1990 Act is revised to keep pace with new avenues of scientific research and to reflect wider change in our society. As with the 1990 Act, the Bill has been the subject of careful consideration and lengthy consultation involving the public, scientists, faith groups and, of course, Members from both sides of the House and from the other place.
In 2004, following reports by the Science and Technology Committee and the expert group convened by the Government to consider how existing legislation could accommodate and regulate new developments in stem cell research, we announced a review of the 1990 Act. A public consultation then took place in 2005, which led to a White Paper in December 2006. The Bill was then published in draft form for scrutiny by a Joint Committee drawn from both Houses. I am grateful to all the right hon. and hon. Members of this House and noble Lords and Ladies from the other place who have given this Bill the benefit of their expertise, including, of course, Baroness Warnock herself, who continues to keep a close eye on the legislation that she so skilfully instigated.
My right hon. Friend has just outlined the thorough scrutiny, consultation and thought that went into the draft Bill, which benefited the Bill before us today. Does he not agree that it is regrettable that we will discuss an amendment on limiting the legal time limit for abortion, which has not been subject to the same scrutiny as the rest of the provisions in the Bill?
The Government have no plans to change the abortion laws and regulations. It is up to right hon. and hon. Members to decide whether they want to table amendments. My hon. Friend has pointed out that this Bill is probably one of the most closely scrutinised pieces of legislation. That scrutiny has been carried out in a way that has allowed Members from all parties to contribute. That is a commendable way to deal with legislation in this House.
On the substantive point about medical research, does the Secretary of State recognise that many organisations, including the Motor Neurone Disease Association, of which I am president, have watched with great interest and hope as the Bill has been formed? Many people face a sentence of death because of incurable diseases such as motor neurone disease, and are depending on the opportunities provided by parts of the Bill to find cures for such dreadful and debilitative wasting diseases. I thank the Secretary of State for the attention that he has paid to the feedback from organisations such as the MNDA.
I hope that the Secretary of State accepts that whatever Members’ views about the Bill may be, we all want people with debilitating and incurable diseases to be treated and to live a full and long life. However, does he also accept that the scientific breakthroughs, to which he has alluded in his speech, have to date come only from existing adult stem cell research, not embryo research or stem cells extracted from embryos?
It is entirely true. Why will the Government not accept that that is the fact? Notwithstanding that comment by my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton, the fact is that Professor Wilmut has moved his research and funding to stem cell research, not embryo research.
I do not agree with the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard). In terms of what has happened recently, the induced pluripotent stem cell breakthrough that seeks to transform adult stem cells back to the embryonic stage could not have been reached without legislation that allowed embryonic research in the first place. I accept the hon. Gentleman’s point that although Members on both sides of the House have different views about the Bill they all want to see cures for conditions such as motor neurone disease, but we need to use the full panoply of opportunities for that.
The clear and consistent message from the wide consultation that I mentioned earlier, and from the debates we have already had, is that the current Act cannot keep pace with scientific developments that have occurred since its enactment. Over the last 18 years, methods that are not explicitly governed by the 1990 Act, such as cell nuclear replacement, where the nucleus of an egg is removed and replaced with the nucleus of another cell, and parthenogenesis, where an egg is stimulated either electrically or chemically to develop into an embryo, have been developed. Similarly, there is no explicit provision for the regulation of the use of admixed embryos, which combine human and animal genetic material for scientific research. That development is recognised by scientists across the world as an essential building block for establishing cures for many life-threatening diseases, such as multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
Scientists want to create admixed embryos principally because of a shortage of human eggs for stem cell research. The process of creating the admixed embryo most commonly used to grow stem cells involves taking an animal egg and replacing the nucleus with the cell nucleus from a human skin cell. The resultant embryo is 99.9 per cent. human. We know of no scientist anywhere in the world who wishes to implant such embryos in a woman or an animal, but even if the desire existed, the legal authority would not. Such actions will remain a criminal offence under international law.
The Bill will ensure that all human embryos created for research—regardless of how they are created—are subject to the same regulatory framework. It will retain the restrictions imposed by the 1990 Act—that the maximum permitted period of development for all research embryos is 14 days. In practice, no research embryos have been developed as far as that maximum. This is not the first development that has combined human and animal material. If scientists in the UK had not been able to fuse human and animal cells in the ’60s and ’70s, developments such as the human genome project would not be possible and drugs such as Herceptin would not have been created. The Government believe that it is important to bring this new and exciting scientific development within the strict legal and ethical framework that the Bill provides.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that full hybrids—that is, embryos that are 50 per cent. animal and 50 per cent. human—are permitted under the Bill. In the Joint Committee on the Draft Human Tissue and Embryos Bill, scientists were unable to think of any good experiments in which such hybrids would be needed. In fact, Dr. Lovell-Badge said:
“I cannot think of a good experiment to do now but I am sure someone will think of a good experiment.”
Can the Secretary of State think of a good experiment? The scientists cannot.
I am not known for my knowledge of good experiments, but I can point out that the same Joint Committee told the Government that true hybrids ought to be used, because the famous hamster test done years ago used true hybrids. In fact, cytoplasmic embryos are the most exciting development that most scientists wish to use. Nevertheless, I believe that it is important not to rule out other important areas of research.
A cytoplasmic hybrid embryo will have just 0.1 per cent. of animal tissue in it, but does the Secretary of State agree that in reality, once we mix in any element of animal, the principle of using hybrids for research purposes is established? That is the point that the Committee was trying to make; once we go down that road, it seems illogical to rule something out because of a particular mix.
I speak as someone who has been through in vitro fertilisation treatment and written a book on it. Does my right hon. Friend accept that the alternative to using admixed embryos, which is using human eggs, is itself unethical because of the risk that it poses to women, and the pain that it involves? The use of an alternative is therefore ethically preferable.
I accept my hon. Friend’s point. Thankfully, modern drugs ensure that not so many eggs are produced in IVF, and to a certain extent, that is why the problem has arisen.
The Bill introduces explicit regulations on embryo screening. Embryo screening and selection will be allowed only for the purpose of detecting serious genetic diseases or disorders. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority has licensed screening in a number of cases since 1990, including for single-gene disorders such as muscular dystrophy and sickle cell disease. The Bill will clarify the powers of the HFEA to license embryo screening to enable parents to have a child who is a genetic match for an older brother or sister who is seriously ill. That has been permitted by the HFEA in a handful of cases as a last resort, where there are no other donors and all other medical avenues have been exhausted.
Let me try to dispel that fear. Once again, that is a misrepresentation. That course of action would be used, has been used, and has been licensed by the HFEA, when there is no other medical avenue to pursue. All such cases have involved the treatment of very rare blood disorders, and the tissue taken has been from the umbilical cord. The Bill will support such screening as a last resort, and it is expected that tissue used would be confined to cord blood and bone marrow only.
The Bill makes it clear that it would not be possible to test an embryo where the intention is to remove an organ from a child to treat a sick sibling. Nor will the Bill permit parents to screen embryos in order to include, rather than exclude, a particular disability. Following the results of the public consultation, the Bill also outlaws sex selection for non-medical reasons.
I wonder whether my right hon. Friend saw on breakfast television this morning the Whitaker family, who were forced to go to the United States for saviour sibling treatment and who now have a very happy family. The child at risk is now well. Is that not good news?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Not only that family but the—thankfully few —families who have used the system would be keen to ensure that other families had the same opportunity.
The past 18 years have witnessed significant social change. Since 1990, clinics have been required to take into account the welfare of any child who may be born as a result of assisted conception when deciding whether to offer treatment to couples. The 1990 Act insists that clinics must take into account
“the need for a father”
when considering new applicants for treatment. Following debate on this issue in the other place, the new Bill will replace this with
“the need for supportive parenting”.
This does not signal a desire to diminish fatherhood, nor are we denying children who have been conceived through assisted conception access to information about sperm donors. Indeed, the opposite is true. If the current law leads same-sex couples or single women to seek sperm in the unregulated sector, where donors will not be screened or recorded on the HFEA’s register, access to information about the man who donated the sperm will not be available for the child.
I wish to clarify that, as it is the aspect that I am interested in. The new wording has been introduced in the Bill, yet I am aware of no gay couple who have been refused treatment. They are protected under the Human Rights Act and they cannot be refused treatment. The original provision was a guidance measure, as a signal, mainly to heterosexual couples, that the absence of fathers has an extremely detrimental effect on families. Why, oh why, are we driving the change through now?
The original legislation was put in place before the House agreed on civil partnerships, and before the House agreed to outlaw discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. The right hon. Gentleman says that gay couples can go through the process. That is the case, and it is the case for lesbian couples. However, those people are treated completely differently. That is the point. We are seeking to make sure that the treatment is the same for gay and lesbian couples as for heterosexual couples.
I am unclear about the basis for the Secretary of State’s assertion that same-sex couples or, for that matter, single mothers are being denied access to treatment by regulated clinics as a result of the application of the “need for a father” test. What is his evidence for that proposition?
If we are considering a Bill—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman asked for evidence. We are considering a Bill 18 years on, after we have introduced civil partnerships and legislation against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Leaving in the Bill a provision that is challengeable, and could lead to couples feeling that the law has discriminated against them, would be a missed opportunity. The right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) and others make the argument, but as there is currently no issue, and the need for a father has never adversely affected any gay or lesbian couple going through the process, why not make the law consistent with the other laws that Parliament has carried, while we have the opportunity of updating the legislation?
In answer to the question asked by the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) about the evidence of discrimination, he need look no further than the eligibility criteria for treatment in the NHS, which refer to a male and female couple, and the evidence given to the Select Committee that was chaired by the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) by Pink Parents, who clearly stated that clinics expect them to bring a man along just for show, so that they can tick the relevant box.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point; the issue came up time and again in the consultation on this legislation.
The basic principle at the heart of the clause is that clinicians making these decisions should value good parenting and consider, in the most comprehensive way possible, what is best for the welfare of the child. The clause also reflects current practice. When there is no legal father, the HFEA guidance requires clinics to assess the prospective mother’s ability, and that of others in the family or social circle who will share responsibility for the child, to meet the child’s needs.
Clause 54 will also give same-sex couples who have children through assisted conception the same parenting rights as heterosexual couples. The current law recognises the woman who carries the child following assisted conception as that child’s mother. If the woman is married, her husband, unless it is shown that he did not consent to treatment, is recognised as the child’s legal father. However, at present, the female civil partner of a woman who gives birth following assisted conception has no legal status. She is not recognised as the parent of the child, and her name would not appear on the birth certificate.
The Civil Partnership Act 2004, widely supported in the House, recognised the joint parental responsibility of same-sex couples. The Bill would mean that the non-birth woman in a civil partnership would have the same recognition as a husband whose wife underwent treatment using donor sperm. It would also mean that male couples and civil partners could apply for a parental order, in line with married couples. That would bring this area of law into line with national legislation prohibiting discrimination on the grounds of gender or sexual orientation—legislation that, again, was widely supported in this House.
May I make some progress, please?
I have highlighted the elements of the Bill that have attracted the most publicity. However, although they have a lower profile, other clauses contain sensible reforms that will have a more immediate impact. One example can be found in clauses 24 and 25, which amend the restrictions on the use of data collected by the HFEA about fertility treatments.
The 1990 Act recognised the importance of maintaining patient privacy and imposed tough restrictions on the use of any information that could identify a patient. Under current legislation, even if at the time of treatment a patient says that he or she is happy for information that may assist identification to be passed to researchers, the HFEA is not permitted to comply. That places severe limits on the use of data collected by the HFEA—data that ultimately could improve the success of fertility treatment and the health and well-being of children conceived as a result of such treatment.
Although it is imperative that we support the patient’s right to privacy, it is also essential that we enable scientists to make better use of HFEA data, which are a valuable and comprehensive source of information that will lead to better treatment for patients. The Bill would provide a regulation-making power for releasing information to researchers without the patient’s consent if that were necessary for the public interest. Any such regulations would be subject to consultation.
In the past 18 years, scientists in this country have pioneered medical advances that could not have been anticipated in 1990. The “unknown and threatening seas” to which Baroness Warnock referred have been navigated successfully thus far, thanks to the lodestar provided by Parliament, which has allowed scientists to reap the benefits of embryonic stem cell research. Specialist regulation of reproductive technologies and clear legal boundaries have united scientific breakthroughs with public confidence in their development and use. Among other things, that represents a considerable triumph for parliamentary scrutiny and debate.
Approximately one in seven UK couples have difficulty conceiving. Assisted reproduction brings happiness and fulfilment to millions of people. Stem cell research has enormous potential to develop new cures for degenerative and other life-threatening diseases. It brings hope to hundreds of thousands of sufferers and their families. This Government believe that we should continue to support such research in order to exploit advances in medical science, but only provided that there are clear safeguards within the ethical and moral framework that Parliament has established with such skill and sensitivity. I commend the Bill to the House.
The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 has been a success. The first legislation of its kind in the world, it led to a framework for the development of assisted reproduction and embryo research that has been a positive example for policy making worldwide. I should like to join the Secretary of State in applauding the work of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) and colleagues who took that legislation through and the manner in which they did so.
The legislation was rooted in the work of the Warnock committee and its report. It was always clear that the legislation is not intended simply to facilitate research. Technically, it was not needed for that, and research was able to proceed. The issue was that that research required to be established within an ethical framework so that science is bounded, some forms of research are prohibited, and all research on human embryos requires a licence. That was encapsulated in the Warnock committee’s view:
“The embryo of the human species ought to have a special status and no-one should undertake research on human embryos the purpose of which could be achieved by the use of animals or in some other way. The status of the embryo is a matter of fundamental principle which should be enshrined in legislation.”
It is a matter of regret to me that the Government appear to have lost that sense of the intention of legislation. In the Queen’s Speech, they said that its purpose would be
“to ensure that Britain remains at the forefront of medical research”.
However, the legislation is not just about reflecting scientific progress. The fact that scientists can do something does not mean that they should. Ethical boundaries do not shift in a mechanistic way to reflect the utility of new research techniques. When we scrutinise the Bill, I urge the House to have in mind not just the ease with which research may be conducted as a consequence, but always to consider the ethical implications.
The 1990 Act had ethical issues at its heart. That is why our predecessors in 1990 conducted the legislation on free vote. It is why, at the end of 2006, my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) and I said that Conservative Members would have a free vote throughout the passage of the Bill. It is why the Government could and should have done exactly the same. Unfortunately, back in 2006 the Government imposed a whip on regulations relating to the anonymity of sperm and egg donation, and they imposed a whip on Labour peers during the passage of this Bill. It has only been as they have relented under pressure from their own Members, from us and from the media that they have consented to a partial free vote on certain aspects of the Bill. I entirely share the view of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) that if Members have ethical considerations that, in their view, prevail over any other considerations in a Bill, they should be in a position to exercise their conscience and judgment, including on Third Reading.
For my part, therefore, what I will say reflects my personal view, and I do not intend that it should bind any of my colleagues. None the less, my hon. Friends on the Front Bench and I will sometimes wish to raise issues and table amendments to protect the interests of the House now and the interests of our constituents for the future.
Speaking for myself, I support Second Reading of the Bill. Even those who wish to amend the Bill at subsequent stages must recognise that the legislation needs to be updated. The example I would give, which will be familiar to many hon. Members, is that of the decisions that the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority made in January concerning two projects involving the use of animal eggs from which the nucleus had been removed. Despite the fact that the 1990 Act prohibits the mixing of animal and human gametes, other than to test the fertility of sperm, the authority regarded the embryo created as human and concluded that, as such, it could license research. The HFEA’s decisions and interpretation of the 1990 Act suggest that substantial research using hybrid embryos would continue even if there were no legislation, so the Bill is necessary to provide clarity and to update the law. That does not mean, however, that the Bill should go forward unamended.
On that point, is the hon. Gentleman aware that there is research that could be carried out now—I am most familiar with such research on motor neurone disease, but I am sure it could be done on other diseases, too—about which scientists are awaiting clarification of the law through this Bill? That will allow them to be sure that they stay within the law while carrying out laudable life-saving work.
I am aware that there are scientists who rightly want greater clarity in the law, for an entirely understandable reason that reinforces the importance of the legislation and its success so far: scientists feel far more confident about the nature of what they are doing, and of public support for it, when Parliament has provided an ethical and legal framework. That was true in 1990, it has remained true and it is important for us to provide that assurance now. It is partly for that reason that my colleagues and I will propose a number of amendments. First, we will do so to secure improvements to the future scrutiny of regulations made under the legislation; secondly, to maintain the ethical values reflected in the 1990 Act, which we believe are unnecessarily being dispensed with by the Bill; and thirdly, to ensure that licensing by the HFEA carries necessary safeguards.
I turn to the major issues in the Bill, again reiterating that I do so on the basis of my personal views, rather than the view of the official Opposition as a whole. I turn first to the clauses on human admixed embryos, as they are described. I note that the Government’s expert advisory group reported in July 2000
“that the use of eggs from a non-human species to carry a human cell nucleus was not a realistic or desirable solution to the possible lack of human eggs for research or subsequent treatment.”
We can say that it is now realistic, but the question is whether it is desirable. In January 2007, the Department of Health gave evidence to the Select Committee on Science and Technology. The Government said that
“we have not seen so far a firm consensus within the scientific community…about precisely which human-animal creations should be allowed, any immediate imperative for doing so, or the availability and interpretation of supporting evidence.”
As recently as last year, therefore, the Government’s intention was to prohibit human-animal embryos while creating an order-making power by which Parliament could subsequently sanction such research under licence should a consensus emerge.
In February 2007, just one month later, the Government’s position had changed, and they proposed to legislate to permit such hybrid embryo research. When we debate the changes in more detail, the Government will need to explain their change of mind. I accept that there is a need to pursue different models by which stem cells can be created or reprogrammed to provide potential therapeutic benefit. Although research on reprogramming adult stem cells is encouraging, it would be foolhardy to block embryonic stem cell research and it is increasingly evident that the availability of human eggs for research purposes will be a serious constraint on the conduct of such experiments.
Does my hon. Friend acknowledge that it is important when considering animal-human hybrid research to demonstrate that it is necessary and that all other avenues and alternatives—adult stem cell research, induced pluripotent stem cells, umbilical cord research—have been considered? Will he commend Lord Hunt’s test that the HFEA must be satisfied that there is no other way of conducting the research avoiding embryo use? Would it help if that were made explicit in the Bill?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend and, from reading HFEA minutes, I believe that the HFEA applied that test when it considered projects in January. Those who promote such projects must demonstrate that they are necessary and desirable. It is clear from the structure of the Bill that, if an alternative route—not using embryos—were available, the HFEA should not license such a research project.
Will my hon. Friend comment on the future storing of umbilical cord blood and whether he would like that to be greatly increased, as proposed in the private Member’s Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes), as a possible alternative to some of the avenues that he has discussed?
As an individual Member.
The hon. Gentleman raised the interesting question of why the Government changed their mind on human-animal hybrid embryos. Was it not because a scientific consensus emerged among the Academy of Medical Sciences, the Medical Research Council, the Wellcome Trust and the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, in a unanimous report, supported by people who do not often agree with anyone, such as the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink), who supported the recommendation that the Bill should appear as drafted?
I am interested in that point. My constituency of South Cambridgeshire probably has as many scientists engaged in stem cell research as any constituency in the country. From the many people to whom I have spoken in my constituency, I believe that the consensus rests on the proposition that embryonic stem cell research is one of several models of research, which may deliver substantial therapeutic benefit in future, and on the fact that constraints emerged on the availability of human eggs, which meant that there were significant benefits to be derived from using animal eggs. However, that belief did not extend—and I have not heard scientists in my constituency arrive at a consensus on the matter—to human-animal embryos in which there is a substantial mix of human and animal nucleic DNA.
The document that the Government presented to the Science and Technology Committee in January 2007 stated that
“there may be different arguments—both scientific and ethical—applying to creation of hybrids by cell nuclear transfer which in terms of their nuclear DNA are ostensibly human,”—
that applies to the research projects that have been licensed so far—
“and to embryos containing both human and non-human nuclear DNA.”
I therefore find it perverse that the Government have not structured the Bill around the scientific consensus. They have not based the measure on the proposition that embryos that are ostensibly human can be created, and, by virtue of the use of animal eggs, may enable embryonic stem cell research to make progress. Instead, they have structured it in such a way as to permit the creation of embryos with both nucleic human and nucleic animal DNA. As the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith) said, that is a 50:50 embryo, as it were.
That is precisely the ethical judgment that was considered back in 1990, on the basis of the Warnock report. The conclusion reached then was that such a form of embryo research should not be contemplated. We need to consider whether we should amend the Bill to exclude embryos created by using human gametes and animal gametes or a human pronucleus and an animal pronucleus, as the Government propose under clause 4.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the work of Professor Shinya Yamanaka, which has apparently been adopted by Sir Ian Wilmut, demonstrates that the Bill could and should be amended? If their research, on induced pluripotent cells, was to become the main way of dealing with such matters, we could eliminate any prospect of cloned human-animal embryos being used.
My hon. Friend may be interested to know that my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Mark Simmonds) has visited Kyoto to inform himself about that. For my part, I have been to the Roslin institute. Although we do our level best to understand, absorb and internalise the work of scientists, we are laymen. We should be careful not to preclude different models of research that have the potential to deliver effective therapies for life-threatening diseases. That is not to say that we should accept every model of research, if it contravenes what we would regard as an ethical boundary. Indeed, that was the purpose of the legislation in the first place.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) makes his point, but I do not know to what extent it will be possible to proceed with research in a way that minimises the necessity of embryonic stem cell research. To an extent, I hope that it will be—my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate made exactly this point. It would be the job of the authority, when undertaking its licensing, to ensure that embryonic stem cell research was minimised, not that it was excluded. That is the balance that I seek.
Given the scarce resources in the NHS, which both my hon. Friend and the Secretary of State have mentioned, would it not make more sense to put them into areas of research that we know have had results, rather than into alternative avenues of research that to date have produced no results whatever?
On the hon. Gentleman’s point about the Medical Research Council, is it not a fact that there is no differentiation, and that 50 per cent. of the research effort goes equally into adult stem cell work and embryonic stem cell work? The MRC is playing it both ways, because as the hon. Gentleman said himself, it is not clear which will win out in the end. In fact, adult cells cannot make neurites and are exactly the cells that one would want for brain damage to be repaired.
I understand that the figures are, broadly speaking, 60 per cent. for embryonic stem cell research and 40 per cent. for adult stem cell research. In any case, there are other options, too.
As we debate therapies for treating diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, I am reminded that only three years ago I was at the laboratory of molecular biology, which was doing groundbreaking work for the MRC, of which it is an intramural institute, that was based not on stem cells, but on understanding and manipulating the underlying molecular structure of the brain. I cannot judge—I could barely understand, let alone interpret and predict—which avenue of research will be most successful. The important thing is that they should be properly judged, one against the other.
To complete the point, I understand fully that any embryos created under those circumstances could not be implanted in a woman—the Bill makes that prohibition clear—nor could they be kept beyond 14 days. However, the view taken consistently in framing the Bill in the first place is that embryos that are true hybrids and therefore not capable of being characterised simply as human should not be created.
Let me turn to embryo testing. We understand that the interests of the child to be born must be paramount. The dignity of life demands that a life should not be created simply to serve the interests of another. However, the testing of embryos to prevent the implantation of an embryo with an inherited or genetic condition will, in many cases, be in the best interests of that child if the condition is life-threatening or would severely impair their quality of life. We will table amendments to ensure that the measures are restricted in that way.
Likewise, we believe that the so-called “saviour sibling” provision should be tightly restricted to life-threatening conditions and those that would seriously impair the life of a sibling—[Interruption.] The Bill says “serious medical condition”, but it does not specify in sufficient detail the criteria to be applied. The balance of advantage against ethical constraints must be judged case by case, and we need to provide strong language in the legislation to ensure that the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority does not allow the boundary of what is to be permitted under the “saviour sibling” provision to be stretched too far over time. We will invite the House to consider amendments for that purpose.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) and I had an exchange with the Secretary of State about the need for a father. We wanted to know whether there is a problem to which a remedy is required, but he did not answer that or offer evidence. I know that, through the code of practice, the HFEA has arrived at a point at which same-sex couples can access assisted reproduction through regulated clinics. It demands that prospective parents offer supportive parenting and a male role model.
When responding to interventions, the Secretary of State said something that was inconsistent with the Bill, but that showed the direction in which it should go. Same-sex couples and single mothers can be successful parents, but if we enable a child to be born in circumstances in which a natural conception would not be possible, we have an ethical responsibility to ensure that the welfare of the child is fully protected. It is in the interests of every child to have a mother and a father, but if no father is present—as is, unhappily, the case for many children today—a male role model should be available. For that reason, I, personally, do not regard the substitution of “supportive parenting” for “father” as sufficient. The reference to the need for a father, which has not been reflected in the code, should be recast in the legislation as “the need for supportive parenting and a father or a male role model.”
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Does the hon. Gentleman envisage that the new family unit will somehow be assessed by a doctor when such people come and ask for artificial insemination? Will the doctor need to say, “Show me Uncle Jim; I want to sit down and talk to him to find out just how much of a commitment he is making to this family, and how long he is likely to be around”? Does he expect doctors to do that?
I do not know whether the hon. Lady has talked to fertility clinics about this issue, but Bourn Hall clinic is in my constituency, and I know it extremely well. I know that it discharges its current responsibilities under the HFEA code responsibly. When assisted reproduction is provided, it is for clinics to look at the parent or parents and ensure that they can meet the criteria in the code of practice. All that I suggest is that current practice, based on the code of practice published by the authority, should be reflected directly in the language of the legislation—no more or less.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government have got themselves twisted into knots over this issue? Only 2 per cent. of IVF treatments are to single parents or gay couples, but the problem is wider than that, even if we put those people to one side. By making this change, we send a powerful signal to everyone involved that fathers no longer matter. We know of the difficulties of breakdown when fathers are absent; the guidance—for it is only guidance—is there simply to remind everyone of the necessity and need, where possible.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that intervention. He will know that writing legislation is a bit like writing contracts; we have to legislate not only for the great majority of cases but often for a small minority as well.
If the Government had not proposed a change in the legislation, I do not think that I would have suggested such a change and I do not believe that anyone would have regarded it as necessary. The present legislation is being implemented by the authority in a way that, in practice, is not discriminatory to same-sex couples. However, given that the Government have introduced the Bill, I believe that it is better to reflect the practice in clinics today than to try to resist language that accurately describes what is being done across the country.
No. I want to complete my speech quite quickly because there are many Members waiting to speak.
The Secretary of State said, perfectly correctly, that the Government were proposing no changes to abortion legislation. Indeed, speaking from the Conservative Front Bench, I do not think that we are. However, when we come to consider amendments on abortion, I hope that the House will bear in mind three issues.
First, there continue to be far too many abortions. We have the highest rate of teenage pregnancy in western Europe. We fail too many young people through family breakdown, poor parenting, inadequate social support and poor education. Lack of self-esteem has a corrosive effect on young people, and I have no doubt that the high numbers of teenage abortions are a symptom of this wider malaise. This is a central challenge that we have to face in repairing our broken society, and we should not debate this matter in isolation from that challenge. Furthermore, far too many abortions—about a third—are repeat abortions. We must look at the effectiveness of sex education and of contraceptive services. Personally, I also believe that many more young women—women of any age, for that matter—should be made aware of, and offered, long-acting reversible contraception through the national health service.
Secondly, if a woman needs an abortion in terms sanctioned by the Abortion Act 1967, it must surely be better for it to be an early, medical abortion than a later, surgical one. I therefore hope that the House will consider whether the requirement for two doctors to consent to an abortion being performed, and the restrictions on nurses providing medical abortions, need to be maintained.
Thirdly—consistent with that thought and with the principle of according increased protection to the foetus during its development—I believe that we should take a more restrictive view of late abortions. The change made in 1990, which lowered the time limit from 28 to 24 weeks, has clearly been justified. The limits set at each stage, from 1967 onwards, have been intended to reflect the limit of viability. The research published by Field and others in the British Medical Journal last week was based on a study of the survival of extremely premature babies born in the former Trent health region. It clearly shows that an increased proportion of babies born at 24 and 25 weeks’ gestation are surviving to be discharged home from neonatal intensive care. The authors report no corresponding increase in survival in respect of babies born at 23 weeks. It must be noted, however, that 18 per cent. of those babies admitted to neonatal intensive care did survive. As we are talking about a total of 510 babies a year born at 23 weeks’ gestation, that means that approximately 100 of those babies would live and go home. If they were aborted at 23 weeks, they would not live.
Let me talk about the study first, then I will happily give way.
The authors also report that no babies born at 22 weeks survived. Like other studies, they suggest that this might represent the limit of viability. I cannot say whether they are right, but I note that, of 150 babies born alive at 22 weeks over the whole period of the study in Trent, only 24 were admitted to intensive care. In the latest period, 2000-05, only nine were admitted to intensive care. From my point of view—I am not a scientist, but I can read statistics—in order to draw any conclusion from such a small number of cases, one would need to assess why those babies were being born so prematurely. Were they failing to thrive? Were they twins or other multiple births? Were they suffering from a genetic defect?
Abortions at 22 weeks would be of a foetus that was otherwise healthy, unless they were carried out on the specific ground of a prospective abnormality or handicap of the child concerned. So while such a baby would require intensive care, and doubtless very large numbers might not survive, I do not regard that study as providing conclusive evidence that a baby cannot be sustained at 22 weeks.
I would personally be loth to move from the principle of linking the time limit for abortion to the viability of the foetus. That is where it was established in 1967; it has moved over time. It is arguable, but I would argue personally that the evidence would support a further reduction—in my view, to 22 weeks—in order to ensure a prospective legal framework that could accommodate improving medical science.
I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware of other studies—for example, in University College hospital, London, and in other countries—showing that if poorly babies who are born prematurely receive immediate good neonatal care from a specialist dedicated team of staff, the outcomes are very much better. University College hospital figures are much better than those emerging from the Trent study. One conclusion from the Trent study is that anyone going into premature labour should go to University College hospital and not to the Trent region.
My hon. Friend may have gathered from what I said that I am effectively arguing that in circumstances where neonatal intensive care was provided to all such babies born at 22 weeks and where the foetus was otherwise healthy—or rather the baby was healthy at that stage—the prospects for survival at 22 weeks may well be far greater than suggested by the negative view expressed in the study from Nottingham and Leicester. It is not for me to say any more than that, but I think that it provides a basis for reducing the limit—albeit, in my view, by just two weeks.
No, as I am going to conclude.
Let me make my point of view clear. I shall support the Second Reading of the Bill, but I shall vote against the programme motion. On human admixed embryos, in respect of which the Government are changing the ethical framework of the 1990 Act, it is unacceptable to dispense with such a controversial issue in as little as three hours. The number of interventions on the Secretary of State’s speech demonstrates that other issues will also take considerable time. As far as abortion is concerned, I have no doubt that a full day’s debate, rather than just three hours, should have been allocated. Issues about the time limit, the manner in which approval for early abortion is given and other aspects of the availability of early abortions cannot be given their due weight in a debate of just three hours.
I hope that colleagues on both sides of the House will vote against the programme motion and thereby start the process, which I hope the Government will bend to more as time goes on, of allowing Members on the Front and the Back Benches to express themselves freely on this subject. I hope that the Bill will be amended to reflect the continuing need for an ethically robust framework. I believe that science prospers when the ethics of research are also strong. I hope that the House will join me in supporting the Bill on Second Reading.
May I first tell my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State how pleased I am that the Bill is before us on Second Reading. I was involved in debates about the human embryo during the 1980s. Issues were posed in a private Member’s Bill, which I will not go further into; I was also heavily involved in debating the legislation in the 1990s. My right hon. Friend was right to describe that legislation as pioneering—indeed it was. It was rightly debated extensively on the Floor of the House.
Let me respond to both the right hon. and learned Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) and the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley), who mentioned that we now have 18 years of experience of regulation in this area. I and many other Members will have visited the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority and talked to those who work for it. When it was introduced, it was not a blank sheet of paper for the future; it is quite different now from what it was back in 1990.
I am pleased that we are updating the regulation of assisted reproduction and embryo research in the light of scientific developments over the past 18 years. In 1990, we were very restricted in what we could do; we need only look at the decisions that the House has taken on the issue, through statutory instruments, which we could not have taken back in 1990. I remember when I was a shadow health spokesman that I had to help a Minister and his Parliamentary Private Secretary to get through a provision on the lifetime of stored embryos. That had not been put in the original Bill—no one wanted to go there, because of the ethical issues at the time. The Committee of Selection hand-picked Labour Members to bring in time scales for the storage of human embryos, so that eggs whose owners had walked away and were untraceable could be got rid of. Those were the types of difficulties that were left because we could not know the detail in 1990. Eighteen years on, the situation is a little different.
The Bill will help to maintain the UK’s position as a world leader in embryo research, including stem cell research. In addition, it will reflect modern social attitudes and Government policies on the family. Given the changes introduced by the House over the past decade, that is necessary. Research involving human embryos is necessary for the progress of assisted conception techniques. That was true then and it is true now. According to House of Commons Library figures on IVF up to 2005, there are now thousands of IVF births a year whereas many years ago there were hundreds. That is a result of this type of research.
Such research also holds great promise for the understanding and development of treatments for a range of diseases and disorders. In particular, embryonic stem cell research using cells extracted from early embryos potentially offers major breakthroughs in medical science. Research involving the creation of human embryos outside the body led to the first IVF-conceived birth in 1978—some Members of the House went to her 21st birthday held down here, when she came to say hello.
The UK has a widely admired and established system of statutory regulation, based on an independent licensing authority, the HFEA, which reflects the special status of the human embryo, as recognised in the Warnock report which underpinned the 1990 Act. The hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire said that that special status should have been enshrined in legislation, but my understanding is that it is based on a gradualist approach to the moral status of the human embryo: that it has an increasing status as it develops. That is my understanding of why we legislated as we did in 1990. The law therefore allows research, but only within certain parameters, such as a 14-day limit on the development of embryos in vitro. The Bill seeks to update the existing law, primarily in the light of technological advances, thereby helping to maintain the UK’s position as a leading research base.
I want to comment on the three issues that will be subject to a free vote, on which many of us have written. On human admixed embryos, some of the language over the past 18 years has not changed at all, as the Easter sermon in Scotland showed. It is not about creating monsters, as much as people still make that argument about such science, and it never was. If it were, I would not have been as supportive of such science over the years. It is purely laboratory research and aimed at increasing knowledge about serious diseases and treatments for them. Embryos must be destroyed at 14 days, and so far no scientist has been able to develop the embryo beyond six days. Those embryos cannot be placed in a woman or, indeed, in an animal. Interestingly, no one is suggesting that the 14-day limit on which we agreed in 1990 should be changed. Whatever was said at the time, no one is saying now that we got it wrong then. Medical science has come nowhere near trying to give that boundary a shove, and telling us to change what we understood to be right and proper. I do not consider that the science has become out of control. I think that some of the decisions made by the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) in 1990 were right, and that that has been shown by the test of time.
The Bill seeks to clarify the regulation of human admixed embryos for research. The 1990 Act refers only to human embryos, not to new and innovative ways of creating embryos combining human and animal material, which is why the provision on admixed embryos has been introduced. The Bill proposes that the same licensing process should apply as for fully human embryos, and that the 14-day legal limit should apply to admixed embryos as well. The issue has arisen under the current legislation, as has the HFEA’s responsibility for managing the science effectively on behalf of us legislators, and I see no problem with accepting that element of the Bill.
Another issue is that of embryo screening and selection, and saviour siblings. The Bill spells out for the first time in law a number of rules relating to the screening and selection of embryos and gametes. In broad terms, embryo screening and selection will be allowed only for the purpose of screening out serious genetic diseases or disorders. The HFEA has licensed screening in a number of cases since 1990, including cases of single-gene disorders such as cystic fibrosis.
The Bill will ban selecting the sex of a child except when the intention is to avoid a serious sex-linked disease, and it addresses the issue of saviour siblings. As a last resort, an embryo may be selected so that the resulting child is a tissue match for a seriously ill older brother or sister. That has been licensed in a handful of cases involving rare blood diseases. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) referred to the family of three young children and their mum and dad who appeared on BBC television this morning. They had to travel to America, a total journey of 80,000 miles. They were lucky in the sense that they were able to do that, unlike many of our constituents who might otherwise be assisted in the same way. The Bill makes it clear that such activities are lawful, and gives Parliament the opportunity to debate them. I agree with that as well.
My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson), who has now left the Chamber, raised the issue of what he described as “spare parts”. He asked whether saviour siblings could be created for the purpose of organ transplants. The simple answer is no. Whatever anyone may say, the Bill does not allow embryo selection decisions for that purpose, although other parts of the law—governed by the Human Tissue Authority—do allow it.
Another issue that causes people to shuffle around in their seats a fair amount is that of the “need for a father”. I do not think that the Bill is about “doing away with fathers”, or about being politically correct. I think the Government are right to recognise the important role that fathers play in their children’s lives. There is a range of policies designed to strengthen that role, and to underline fathers’ responsibilities. In fact, the Bill will bring conditions into line with legislation already passed by the House on civil partnerships—
I am sorry that the right hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron), the Chairman of the Health Committee, was cut off in his prime. It is a pleasure to follow him.
I welcome the opportunity to debate the Bill. It has been a long time coming, and rightly so. There has been a process of deliberation: a draft Bill has been considered by a Joint Committee. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) for his chairmanship of that Committee, and to its other members, who produced an impressive piece of work during an exhaustive process. What was particularly impressive was that the Government were prepared to listen. That is the way in which legislation ought to be developed before being presented to the House.
Why is the Bill necessary? The history in this area has been of legislation trying to keep pace with scientific endeavour and developments. The 1990 legislation followed the first great breakthrough: the first IVF birth back in 1978. It was six years after that that Baroness Warnock produced her report, which set out the ethical and moral principles that have guided us ever since, and which have stood the test of time. They included according a special moral status to the human embryo. Although those principles might not have secured universal acceptance, they have clearly provided a rational framework for the development of legislation. However, it took another six years before legislation finally arrived, in the form of the 1990 Act. I pay tribute to the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) for marshalling that legislation through Parliament, because, remarkably, it has also stood the test of time.
We have led the way internationally, but science has moved on and those advances raise new ethical, legal and social issues. Although the 1990 Act has clearly given public confidence because it introduced a robust regulatory system, in order to maintain public confidence legislation must be able to meet new challenges; hence the need for updating. Ultimately, it has to be Parliament that sets the framework—the boundaries within which scientists and the medical profession can lawfully operate. In setting the framework here and now, we have to look forward and anticipate new breakthroughs, in order to make sure that the legislation is as durable as possible.
I want to say at the outset that, like the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats will have free votes on all matters in the Bill. We have party policy on a number of issues—how could we not, when among our number we have my indefatigable and immensely impressive colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris)? Regardless of whether people agree or disagree with him, he clearly brings remarkable intellectual force to the debate. My party’s policy position is to be pro-science and in favour of research, but within proper limits and with proper safeguards.
I would not necessarily agree with that comment—and let me move on.
I have an important point to make. There is a heavy burden of responsibility on us all in how we conduct this debate. When dealing with issues that engender strong feelings and anxieties and on which Members and others have deeply held convictions, it is incumbent on those on all sides of the argument to remain measured, avoid exaggeration or sensationalism and respect the other point of view. Some of the comments made outside this place so far in the debate have not met that test. Church leaders and others to whom people look for guidance have a particular responsibility for the comments they make.
My party’s nominations to the Bill Committee will be two Members who come from very different standpoints on some of the issues involved: my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh), who is a Catholic, and my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon, who is a former junior doctors’ leader. That reflects the fact that although we have party policy on a number of issues, within our party—as within others—there is a wide range of views, and they should be represented properly and fully on the Committee.
I wish to deal with some of the key issues in the Bill, the first of which is the case for embryo research. As a layman who has witnessed the horror of degenerative and genetic conditions, I believe that there is a powerful case for research, which increases understanding and could ultimately lead to cures. My father had Parkinson’s, before he died, and I also knew well a local radio newsman in Norfolk who had motor neurone disease. I witnessed the deterioration that that cruel and horrible condition caused. If there is a chance of our finding cures or treatments, that is surely a worthy objective. Any such research would, of course, be subject, under this Bill, to tight control.
I wish to discuss human admixed embryos, which are inevitably one of the Bill’s more emotive issues. Surely, for the purposes of research, it must be right to consider their use. We are talking about keeping them only for up to 14 days and, again, only in a laboratory. As I have said, some of the claims have been exaggerated. There is a genuine problem of a shortage of human eggs hampering research. It is difficult to recruit egg donors—the process is a physically demanding one for a woman to go through—and there are long waiting lists of people seeking donor eggs for IVF treatment, so scientists struggle to obtain enough eggs for research. Surely it makes sense to save human eggs for IVF treatment, so if we really want research that has the potential to deliver cures of treatments for some of these awful conditions to be done, there must be a compelling logic to making use of admixed embryos.
I read a moving account in today’s edition of The Guardian by Geraldine Peacock, the vice-president of the Parkinson’s Disease Society. She has had the early onset of Parkinson’s for the past 18 years, which is nearly a third of her life. She says:
“I take 39 pills a day to keep me mobile. I freeze like a statue without warning and cannot move unless someone else touches me. It is relentless. This illness invades you. It feels like being locked inside your own body. I can cope with all of this as long as I know that there is hope.”
The proposed legislation, and the capacity it offers for more research, give her and many others that hope, which is why I, personally, support that part of the Bill.
The most important issue is that such embryos facilitate research into horrible conditions. Anyone who witnesses such conditions is inevitably left with the sense that it is worth trying to defeat them. That is why I support the measure, which was also supported by the Joint Committee and by the Select Committee on Science and Technology. I understand the concerns, because we are dealing with a challenging concept and there is a sense that it blurs the distinction between animals and humans, creating unnatural entities. None the less, I am clear as to where I stand.
I wish to make one final point on this issue. The HFEA consultation in April last year found general public acceptance that such research for medical purposes may have some value. The HFEA has said:
“But there is a clear demand from people to know more about what researchers are doing and their plans for future work, highlighting a need for better communication about science and research from both the scientific community and ourselves as regulator.”
The Bill has helped to generate a public debate, but the science community has an ongoing duty to continue that communication.
I want to raise an issue that was debated in the House of Lords, which I hope will be considered further in this House. The suggestion has been made that a regulation-making power could be included in the Bill to allow sperm and egg derived respectively from a male and female stem cell—not from testes or ovaries—to be permitted sperm or permitted egg for the purpose of implanting a permitted embryo in order to treat the infertility of those individuals, such as cancer sufferers, who cannot produce their own gametes in the normal way. The science is not there yet, but there is the potential to allow thousands of cancer survivors and their partners to have a child of their own genetic material. That is remarkable science, which was undreamed of not long ago. I would welcome an indication from the Government that they have not closed their mind on that issue.
I want to deal now with the genetic testing of embryos and, first, with the question of negative selection, which involves testing IVF embryos for serious inherited diseases and selecting those that are free from disease. Some disability rights campaigners argue that it is wrong to screen out and that it is tantamount to regarding an individual with a disability as less valuable in some way. I do not share that view. It must surely be preferable to avoid babies being born with very serious disabling conditions. That seems quite different from doing everything possible to avoid any discrimination against an individual who has a disability. There is also the potential to reduce the prospect of a termination at a later stage in pregnancy. For that reason, that negative selection seems entirely appropriate.
Secondly, I want to deal with the question of positive selection and the saviour sibling issue. By tissue-typing IVF embryos, we can identify an embryo that is a tissue match for a sick older sibling suffering from a serious disease so that the transplant of umbilical cord or bone marrow would be a more effective treatment. The original draft Bill limited screening for that purpose to circumstances in which an older sibling had a “life-threatening” disease. The Joint Committee thought that that was too narrow, and the Bill now refers to “serious” disease. That seems entirely rational. It would be hard to argue that we should help only those with a life-threatening condition, leaving those with serious conditions without hope.
I can understand the ethical concerns about saviour siblings. How does a saviour sibling cope with the knowledge that they were created for such a purpose? I do not dismiss that anxiety, but my judgment is that the benefits outweigh the concerns. Inevitably, each hon. Member must reach their own conclusion. The reference that the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) made to the Whitaker family was a powerful testimony to how the procedure can be enormously valuable for a family. In that case, it has led to a family being able to live happily.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that it is a treatment of last resort, first because it is costly and secondly because the family would look for a match transplant from elsewhere first? Indeed, as far as I am aware there have been only six cases of saviour sibling treatment in this country.
But does the hon. Gentleman agree that in many conditions it is not just a question of simple genetic screening? Many of the conditions that afflict humanity are caused by many genetic factors interacting with the environment. As we would not be able to provide that evidence, we would be able to facilitate and help only a low number of people.
I completely agree. I was putting the anxieties of those who are concerned, but the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about the test that should apply in such cases.
Doctors, scientists and patient groups have pursued two campaigns, co-ordinated inevitably by my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon. The first relates to giving the HFEA the power to license the use of cells from existing holdings, which are anonymous, where the donor is either dead or untraceable. The second relates to the use of cells from children, with parental consent, where a child is suffering from a terminal or progressive illness.
Those important issues secured cross-party support in the Lords and I hope that the Government will facilitate discussion of them and will take a favourable view of both. As I said, they are supported by scientists, the medical profession and patient groups.
I shall now deal with licences for therapy. The 1990 Act provided for the use of embryos specifically for research, not for therapy. The 2001 regulations permitted therapeutic cloning to provide the prospect of generating stem cell therapy for diseases such as Parkinson’s and diabetes. All those who support such research do so because of its potential to provide therapy. However, it is unclear whether research licences could lawfully permit the use of embryos for therapy if the research proved ultimately successful. It would be odd if we did not address now the potential for such research to succeed. Do we really want to return to the matter with more primary legislation? We should address it now to set up a framework to deal with the eventuality that the research will succeed in due course.
The need for a father is for many people the most emotive issue of all. It challenges many of our assumptions about families and society. I was struck by the number of single women and lesbian women who are already having IVF treatment. In 2006, 1.4 per cent. of the 40,484 IVF treatments were for single women and 0.5 per cent. were for registered lesbians—560 single women and 200 lesbian women in one year. Conservative Members argue that if that treatment is happening already, what is the point of changing the situation? However, there appears to be evidence that the need-for-a-father test is an additional hurdle that excludes some women. My hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon refers to the criteria set by the NHS in its clinics. I understand that there is evidence of unequal access; if women are able to obtain treatment only in private clinics, some will inevitably be excluded.
My hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon tells me that the criteria that the NHS set refer to—[Interruption.] Let me develop my argument. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority code of practice rightly says that if a single or lesbian woman seeks treatment, the treatment centre should assess the prospective mother’s ability to meet the child’s needs. Given that IVF treatment is already being given to single and lesbian women, the changes proposed—the deletion of the requirement to take into account the need for a father—is not actually that dramatic
In a moment; let me just develop my argument. As for the focus on what is surely the most important issue of all—the welfare of the child who will be born—the British Medical Association put the matter rather well in its briefing:
“We have consistently rejected the idea of applying inflexible rules on access to fertility treatment, believing instead that each application should be considered on its merits. Assessments should be made on the individual factors in each case rather than on blanket restrictions applied to certain categories of people or family arrangements.”
I could develop that further: it is perhaps not entirely accurate to say that there are “blanket restrictions”, but there are hurdles for some groups of people with particular family arrangements. Surely that is not right. Surely the test should be to consider in each case the welfare of the child that would be born.
I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that there is no direct relationship between the text of the Bill and the criteria applied in the NHS for access to infertility treatment. We have complained many times to the Minister of State, Department of Health, the right hon. Member for Bristol, South (Dawn Primarolo), and her predecessors about the fact that arbitrary social criteria are applied. The changes in the Bill will not prevent that from happening. For example, the Bill will not stop primary care trusts from saying that a woman cannot have access to fertility treatment if her partner has children from a previous marriage, or from restricting access to such treatment for same-sex couples or single parents. It is a red herring to base arguments about the Bill on the NHS criteria.
I hear the hon. Gentleman’s point, but I disagree with him. [Interruption.] May I just develop my point? The BMA addresses the question of whether there is evidence that children born to single women or lesbian couples are disadvantaged in any way. Its submission says that there is evidence that children raised by single women are more likely to be disadvantaged, but that is not true of children born to single women or lesbian couples who choose to start a family on their own through assisted conception. The early research indicates that such children fare just as well as those born to two heterosexual parents through assisted conception.
We are always told that we should make policy on the basis of evidence. If the evidence suggests that there is no disadvantage, there should not be in-built discrimination in legislation placing an additional hurdle before some people because of what they are. We should instead look at individual circumstances. The argument is not about anybody claiming to have a right to a child; it is about individuals having the right to be considered objectively for IVF treatment. The Bill would require treatment clinics to consider the welfare of the child, including the need for supportive parenting. That seems to be the right test, and I will support it.
Let me turn to the issue of whether the birth certificate of a donor-conceived child should have that fact recorded on it. There is considerable force behind the argument that the individual has the right to know. The issue was debated at length in the other place, and one of the possibilities that was considered was the use of a symbol to indicate that a child was donor-conceived. The Government are committed to carrying out a review of the law and practice, and I would be grateful if the Minister said, in her closing speech, where we are with that process and when the review is likely to reach a conclusion.
Finally, the issue of abortion is not part of the Bill, but we shall deal with it through amendments. Inevitably, it has always been a matter of individual conscience, and rightly so. We have heard in the past few days of a research study that shows that there appears to be no real advance in the survival rates of babies born before 24 weeks. That appears to be the scientific consensus. The Conservative spokesman, the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley), addressed the issue. If we are making legislation on the basis of evidence, we should not be persuaded that there is a case for changing the current 24-week limit.
In conclusion, I share the policy aim of reducing demand for abortions. We must all be concerned about the number of abortions taking place. The need to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies highlights the importance of sex and relationship education in schools, which should be part of the minimum curriculum entitlement. That is what my party believes. It is dreadful that the United Kingdom continues to be top of the league table for teenage pregnancies, and the number of unwanted pregnancies suggests that we are failing as a society. If we can address that, we can deal with the number of abortions that take place. It must also be right that we ensure that the abortions that take place are carried out as early as possible by improving access where necessary. I agree with the comments of the Conservative spokesman in that regard.
It is not often that a Bill comes before the House that is so full of challenging moral and ethical questions. We welcome the fact that the Bill is being debated, and I repeat my hope that the debate is conducted on the basis of evidence and in a measured tone.
The Bill is required. It is almost 20 years since the 1990 Act. The Bill ensures that the regulatory framework for assisted conception is brought up to date and its purpose clarified. The Bill’s second function is to maintain public confidence. The subject of embryo research is complex and highly emotive and it is crucial that the public are kept on board.
I speak as a female who is infertile and who went through years of medical treatment, sadly, without the doctors ever discovering why I could not conceive naturally. In Britain about 20 per cent. of young women and couples go through the same experience. They want a natural conception, they hope that scientific advances will help them, but in many cases those fail. The Bill deals with a regulatory framework that is of the utmost importance.
As the chair of the all-party parliamentary infertility group, I want to put it on record that I see the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority as an excellent body. It is highly professional, it has a sound reputation and it is seen as authoritative. Through its actions it protects patients, monitors safety and efficiency, reassures the public who are concerned about the manipulation of embryos, and protects those working in the field. It is a highly professional organisation which commands worldwide respect.
However, I am concerned that the Government have not chosen to examine the way in which the regulations impact not just on research, which is crucial and has been the subject of much debate today, but on treatment. I have previously pressed this case and failed, but I suggest to the House that to license “standard” IVF procedure and treatments now is excessive. I say that not because I think that there should be no inspection—of course there should. However, the Healthcare Commission could investigate, make judgments when appropriate and ensure effective service delivery. Instead, we have a system in which the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority and the Healthcare Commission regulate. We have been promised a lighter touch, but frankly it is not appropriate at this stage for us to continue with the HFEA’s regulation of treatments.
The licensing procedure often takes 18 months to deliver; it is highly costly and takes a very long time. Many of our clinics pay up to £70,000 a year to deliver the system to people who are diagnosed as having medical problems; those people are the one group with such problems to whom we say, “Sorry, but you have to pay for any hope of effective treatment.” I am disappointed that the situation has not changed.
My second concern is that the HFEA spends an inordinate amount of time deliberating over licences. Those are complex research licences, and nobody would deny the complexity that it tries to handle. I am really pleased that under the Bill the HFEA will be able to engage a committee of experts to help it deliver an effective licence. That is appropriate.
My hon. Friend has talked about her disappointment about infertility treatments. Does she agree that women are sometimes overstimulated with hormones? If we cut that down to levels that did not cause the multiple damage to eggs that has now been shown, we would save the national health service millions.
My hon. Friend is absolutely correct, and of course I agree.
However, I should take my hon. Friend and the House a stage further and say that the regulatory licensing could seriously improve. This House and our Ministers should insist that the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence regulations be fully implemented. In 2004, we had a commitment that three full cycles of in vitro fertilisation should be available to all who fitted the clinical criteria. By 2005, it was said that each primary care trust would support at least one full cycle. At this point, a seriously small minority get three cycles, although I cannot give a percentage because I did not bring that information with me. However, the majority of people are in the middle. They hope for some treatment, but little is delivered. This is 2008, and NICE regulations are involved; frankly, it is a scandal. The women involved hope that the service could help them conceive naturally, but it is not available.
Not only that, but there is a variation between primary care trusts. I have just mentioned the number of cycles that are funded; waiting times and the eligibility criteria are also a problem. Many women become eligible at 35-plus, although everybody knows that a woman’s fertility decreases savagely at that point. However, they enter the delicate process at 35 and are given opportunities that in fact are not opportunities at all.
I wish that people shouting about every child needing a father or about the problems that they see with hybrids were as vocal and intent about ensuring that a service was delivered to ordinary women and couples. This House promised that, but nobody seems capable of delivering it. I feel very passionate about this: I do not chair the all-party group for nothing. It is a seriously difficult situation for women and couples to handle.
I will, of course, contribute to the debate on hybrids or admixeds, but I cannot support that part of the Bill—it is a step too far, and I intend to vote against it.
On the issue of every child needing a father, I will support the Bill, because supportive parenting is an appropriate way forward. Speaking with my other hat on, which I share with the hon. Members for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) and for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), if it is acceptable that children who are available for adoption and fostering can be adopted and fostered by single women or by homosexual couples, I see no reason why they should be excluded from accessing all that can be provided for them in terms of embryology treatment. It is completely unacceptable that it is seen as acceptable for one group but not for another. The children who are being adopted by women and homosexuals are invariably those with special needs who are unwanted by heterosexual couples. The House needs to wake up to the hypocrisy that we sometimes seem to develop among ourselves. I come from a very happy home with a brilliant father—somewhat autocratic and always passionate, especially about Welsh rugby and the Labour party, although we can forgive him on those scores. We cannot say that what we have had in our own lives is the only option available. I have known many divorced women and men who have been the most magnificent parents.
On saviour siblings, I will again support the Bill. I cannot understand why the House could not allow a child to have a healthy life by using a brother or sister to support that. I cannot believe that there is an ethical or theological problem, as I do not know whose theology does not have compassion writ large in it.
On the whole, this is a valuable, thoughtful and thought-provoking Bill. It has produced for me one of the largest postbags that I have had in a long time, consisting of intelligent contributions to the debate. I hope that following our debate we will come to the right decisions.
As several hon. Members have reminded me, I had the pleasure of moving the Second Reading of the 1990 Bill. I am glad that we all look back on that as a rather successful and groundbreaking piece of legislation on which we can now build. In case it be thought that this is causing an unusual degree of immodesty on my part, I must concede that—in common, I suspect, with the present Secretary of State—although I presided over those activities and played a leading part in taking the Bill through the House, my Minister of State, Virginia Bottomley, had played a far larger role in putting it together than I had, as had a large number of medics and officials in the Department. It was a necessary piece of legislation, and I am glad to say that, as a result of a very long and careful production process, it has been a success. I was Minister of State when my then boss, Norman Fowler, asked Baroness Warnock to consider the problem in 1982, before it had become a matter of major public controversy, and her recommendations created a virtual consensus that has remained until now and lies behind this Bill.
It is important to bear in mind what the Bill is about, now that we are updating it as we undoubtedly must. Embryo research had been carried out in this country for about 20 years before we legislated in 1990. The first test-tube baby had been born in 1978 and IVF was becoming widespread. In the 12 years before the 1990 Act, such research was an entirely voluntary, unregulated activity, where each researcher made his or her judgment about the ethics involved and how far they should go. We had introduced a licensing authority in co-operation with the royal colleges, but its role was purely voluntary and advisory. Most respectable researchers allowed themselves to be guided by its views.
The purpose of the 1990 legislation was to establish a regulatory and statutory framework. It was precisely because everybody agreed that the human tissue in question had to be treated with particular respect, and because everybody realised that serious ethical concerns were being raised about what was being done, that we set up the new authority. It was decided that the judgments involved should be made, to a certain extent, independently of Parliament, politicians and Ministers, when it came to particular areas of research, but it was set up for the purposes of control.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) made the point that a happy side effect of the 1990 legislation was that it made this country one of the leading places in the world for research into degenerative diseases, genetic diseases and research of all kinds connected to the human embryo. It was not the purpose of that legislation, and it should not be the purpose of this Bill, to enable us to have a more permissive regime in order to compete with other jurisdictions. The point is to reassure citizens that Parliament has had regard to the need to set a proper legal and ethical framework within which the best scientists and medics can feel confident to proceed.
That leads me to touch on the way in which the Bill is being handled, about which I have some criticisms—though none of the Secretary of State. I hope that I presented the Bill in 1990 in the same reasonable and sensible way that he just has. The Bill seems quite devoid of any party political or ideological content. In 1990, because of the very sensitive nature of the subject and the strong religious and philosophical views that people held, we introduced a quite different way of handling the legislation. A complete free vote was allowed to every Member of the Government—each and every Minister and not just each and every Back Bencher. Although as Ministers we presented the Bill to try to ensure that there was some sort of sensible, workable, well-drafted legal framework, we left it entirely to the House as to what the contents were.
There was no question of Ministers being given permission to absent themselves on particular issues if they wanted. Ministers went into both Lobbies at various stages. When I spoke from the Front Bench, along with my colleagues who happened to be Ministers, I made a clear distinction—as the Secretary of State just did—between what I was saying on behalf of the Government, based on the advice of medics, or perhaps parliamentary draftsmen, and what I was saying as the Member of Parliament for Rushcliffe, which was my own ethical judgment that would determine the vote that I would cast. That is what should be done.
My friend Geoffrey Howe, who was then Deputy Prime Minister and Leader of the House, had the biggest part to play in this matter when he insisted that we should table alternative amendments. The Government tabled a whole list of contradictory amendments.
It was confusing for those who do not normally look at the amendment paper. People published guides to it, as I recall, and we invited the House to choose from a range of options after how many weeks an abortion should be permitted. We asked for people’s views on that, and it was an important way of proceeding. Contrary to my wishes, because I had other things to do at the time, the then Leader of the House insisted on the amendments being drafted in such a way that we could get into the debate on abortion at length.
I do not make the point simply out of concern for Roman Catholic and other opponents of parts of the Bill on the Labour Benches, although I have the highest respect for their views, because no one can feel that they have absolute moral authority on the matter. However, I am concerned about the reputation of Parliament, and even about that of whipping votes. I believe in party discipline, and one sometimes needs to enforce the Whip on administrative, financial and legal matters—Members should revolt only now and again, and on serious matters of principle. However, the moral authority of legislation is affected if people are allowed to argue that it was pushed through with too much party political control.
It is amazing that the 1990 Act lasted for 18 years, when we all know people who believe passionately that some of the things that it permits render it almost evil because they hold religious views that I simply do not share. I take a secular view of such matters. I am a social liberal, who is on the social liberal side of most of the arguments that the Bill presents. If it were simply a matter of realpolitik, I would tell the Secretary of State, the Prime Minister and the Chief Whip, “I don’t know what you’re worried about. If you allow a free vote, you’ll find that the socially liberal majority of the House of Commons is enormous, entirely in line with the opinion of the citizenship at large.” Governments often get a bigger majority with a free vote.
I believe that the House of Commons should be given the right to demonstrate that all parties have the same range of views—on the Front and Back Benches—and the only possible expression of that in our constitution is through a free vote.
I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for giving way—it means that he gets a bit of extra time, from which the House will benefit.
I am not sure that the mood in the country is exactly as my right hon. and learned Friend has expressed it because 77 per cent. of people said that the obligation to have regard to the child’s need for a father was either important or very important. Those of us who oppose the “father” provision speak on behalf of more people than perhaps the social liberals do.
I commend members of the general public who are interested—as many are—in the matter to study our debates and discover the current position. If we asked most people how many single women and lesbian couples were allowed assistance under current law, they would be astonished at the reply. The matter should be examined in some depth. I shall comment on that shortly.
We cannot deal with every issue at this stage and I therefore want to explain to those, mainly those of my constituents, with whose views I do not agree, what I believe to be the fundamental ethical point. We go into much detail, but the fundamental issue at the heart of the debate is the ethical argument about what represents a human personality and what regard we should pay to the embryonic tissue with which we deal in research or medicine. I understand the concept of natural law, but much medicine and science is an unnatural intervention in the order of things, and one is constantly making ethical judgments about the extent to which that is justifiable to ease human suffering.
Of course, I accept that human life begins at the moment of conception—that is obvious. However, at what stage of development should one grant the protection of the civil and criminal law to an embryo as if it were a living adult? I cannot for the life of me accept that that applies simply to a fertilised embryo—millions die naturally every day and never become implanted in the womb. I believe that the judgment of 14 days or the emergence of the primitive streak has held up well for the past 18 years and we should stick to it. Then, we must consider how to deal respectfully with human issue and how the Bill should protect it. However, we should not strive to go beyond that. That applies to one’s views on abortion embryo research and everything else.
Has the right hon. and learned Gentleman read—as I have, with interest—the representations from Catholics for Choice? Like him, I take a secular position, but the representation states:
“There is no unanimity within the Catholic church or among faith groups as to when a foetus becomes a person”,
and that that has been the subject of debate among theologians for centuries.
Once we start arguing about when the human personality acquires a soul or when it becomes recognisable as such—personally, I would not get involved in debating that—there is great difficulty. I understand that a majority on General Synod of the Church of England have confirmed that they do not regard the fertilised embryo in the first 14 days as a human personality deserving of the complete protection of the criminal and civil law. I respect the Roman Catholic view, but I do not believe that every Roman Catholic shares it. The House needs to establish a consensus.
Briefly, with inter-species embryos, we go beyond the theology and get into people’s strangely uneasy, but almost superstitious views about where we are. We always had the hamster test in the past, and people have already talked about the cow’s egg with the human skin tissue in the centre—
I will try to confine my remarks to the three main issues that we have been discussing today: the need for a father for any child resulting from IVF treatment, human-animal embryos and saviour siblings.
On the need for a father, clause 14(2)(b) removes the provision in the 1990 Act under which IVF clinics must have regard for the need of any child resulting from IVF treatment for a father. I consider that removal to be one of the most ill-conceived measures to be put before the House while I have been a Member. The law as it stands provides an important safeguard for the unborn child, as well as recognising and promoting the generally accepted notion of the ideal family unit—the one designed by nature, that of a mother, father and child. There is abundant evidence showing that children raised in a stable unit of that nature develop much better socially and emotionally, and attain higher levels of educational achievement than their counterparts in other types of family unit. I make that point as a simple statement of fact. In making it, I in no way wish to disparage the love, care and commitment given to their children by most lone or same-sex parents.
The current law does not prevent or obstruct single women or lesbian couples from obtaining IVF treatment. Indeed, we have not heard one example today of a lesbian woman who has not been able to receive IVF treatment. The law simply emphasises the importance of a father to a child and encourages women without a male partner to make provision for a father figure to be involved with the child, such as a grandfather. To me, that seems pure common sense. The best interest of the child should be of paramount importance in this debate. Surely a discussion of the benefits that a child gets from having a father and an examination of how the void created by not having one could to some extent be filled should be a minimum requirement for the IVF treatment assessment process.
The state, through either the NHS or a licensed clinic, in effect licenses the creation of life that would not otherwise exist. It therefore has a responsibility to ensure that all relevant factors are taken into consideration before a decision to proceed is taken. The Government’s decision to remove the requirement for the need for a father to be considered is a clear abrogation of that responsibility.
My final point on this matter relates to the Government’s intention to airbrush out of existence the biological fathers of the children of lesbian couples. I believe the measure is unfair to the child and potentially harmful. It smacks of the state colluding to fulfil a fantasy of parenthood and should be removed from the Bill.
On embryology, I want to challenge the provisions in the Bill that will add to the 2 million human embryos that since 1990 have been destroyed or experimented upon. The Bill goes further, permitting the creation of hybrid animal-human embryos. It provides for full hybrids, which would be created by fertilising human eggs with animal sperm, or vice versa. The resulting embryo would be 50 per cent. animal and 50 per cent. human. I find this aspect of the Bill revolting, and if my postbag is anything to go by, it also horrifies a good number of my constituents.
I have always had serious misgivings about the ethics of this issue, as well as a real concern about the lack of progress in embryonic stem cell research. It is time that the argument shifted to us putting resources into the new methods that have been developed to produce stem cells with greater potential than embryonic stem cells. I have no doubt that many of those who voted for embryonic cloning in 2001, and those who will probably vote for animal-human hybrids in this Bill, did so and will do so out of a genuine humanitarian desire to help those who suffer from disabling diseases. They believe that this is about choosing between the ideal of helping to cure disease and the belief, which is equally cherished by many, that it is wrong to destroy nascent human life in experimentation.
Six years on from the hype of 2001, not only have the hopes of those who were desperate for a cure for their illness been raised and dashed, but no therapies have been developed anywhere in the world using embryonic stem cells. Ian Wilmut, who famously cloned Dolly the sheep, has declared that cloning work with human embryos is needless. He has said:
“The work which was described from Japan of using a technique to change cells from a patient directly into stem cells without making an embryo has got so much more potential.”
At the weekend, Lord Winston said that it was “no shakes” if scientists were not allowed to use part-human, part-animal embryos for experiments.
The Joint Committee heard evidence from scientists about full hybrids. Dr. Lovell-Badge told the Committee:
“I cannot think of a good experiment to do now but I am sure someone will think of a good experiment.”
Professor Bobrow has said:
“We are…not aware of any pressing scientific reasons at the moment for creating such entities, but who knows what tomorrow might bring?”
The Nobel laureate, Sir Martin Evans, who discovered mouse embryonic stem cells a few decades ago, recently said:
“The writing is on the wall for stem cell research that depends on using human embryos”.
My final quote is from the evidence that Sir Liam Donaldson, our chief medical officer, gave to the Joint Committee. He said:
“There was no clear scientific argument as to why you would want to do it”—
“it” being to experiment with pure embryos. He went on to refer to
“and, secondly, a feeling that this would be a step too far as far as the public are concerned”.
I certainly agree with that.
Advances continue to be made in adult stem cell therapy, which involves no moral hazards. Indeed, there are more than 80 therapies and about 300 clinical trials under way using such cells. Worldwide, children are being treated successfully for leukaemia using stem cells obtained from cord blood. There are also early clinical trials using adult stem cells in the treatment of diabetes, heart disease, multiple sclerosis and spinal injuries.
The hon. Lady has mentioned several people, including Sir Martin Evans, Robin Lovell-Badge and Sir Liam Donaldson, but does she accept that every one of them, including Martin Bobrow, want the Bill to go through in its current form? Can she explain why that is the case, unless she is guilty of selective quotation or of selective interpretation in the quotes she has given?
They have said that they are puzzled as to why such experiments should take place. I sat on the Committee, so I know what they said. Those are their quotes, and if that is what they think and that is what they have said, the hon. Gentleman would have to ask them why they want the Bill to go through.
Surely, the future lies in the development of ethically sound, adult stem cell research techniques.
Finally, I wish to address the creation of saviour siblings for the treatment of serious disease, rather than just life-threatening disease. Deliberately leaving open the option for children to be created apparently for the sole and explicit purpose of providing any type of tissue for an existing sibling is appalling. What about the child’s right? What about consent? That child has not agreed to be a donor, and it will not have the chance to do so until it is 18.
I readily understand and appreciate the willingness of parents to do almost anything in their power to save the life or relieve the suffering of their seriously ill child. To be completely honest, if I were in that situation, I might want to do the same. The difference here is that we are legislators; we are supposed to make rational decisions based on the arguments. We should not put parents in the awful position of having to decide whether to create a child for the sole purpose of helping another child.
I have the pleasure of sitting on the Joint Committee with the hon. Lady. Does she agree that a concern with saviour siblings is that their creation is often said to be about just cord blood or bone marrow, but that the reference to other tissue opens the way for the use of regenerative tissue such as that in kidneys or in livers? That is of great concern to parents in relation to existing children and their siblings.
Yes, I do. With saviour siblings, there is also embryo selection, which is used widely in IVF treatment, and I have concerns about embryos being discarded because of the possibility of disability. Embryo selection could be classed as the ultimate form of disability discrimination. Saying that someone cannot be born because they would have a disability is terrible. I know that we are not discussing that issue in the Bill today, but when we discuss saviour siblings and selecting embryos, we are going into serious issues and unforeseen territory.
I urge caution on this issue. We need a good debate and for hon. Members to enter it with open minds. I am grateful to the Government for allowing several free votes—not quite enough, but they have made some progress. I hope that many Members contribute to this extremely important debate.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith), to whose principled speech I listened with respect but, sadly, without agreement.
It is vital that we all, from whatever part of the House we come, take the responsibility of addressing a wide range of issues relevant to the Bill. We must address the issues of infertility, congenital disease, miscarriage and the development of human embryos. We must address how to apply fruitful research to the development of effective treatment, and what constitutes, what causes and what might cure or alleviate serious diseases. We must address how we can improve contraception in this country, and we must address the issue of the genes and chromosomal abnormalities that give rise to the list of distressing phenomena with which all Members of the House are familiar.
My starting point is that I have always felt that where the science is essentially persuasive, as I believe it to be, we should have a model of facilitation. We should go with embryo research because of the tremendous human opportunities that it offers. That is to say, I take an empiricist, pragmatic, instrumental view, rather than the view that some abstract principle should inveigh against the possibility that such research should be allowed or extended.
Some of the media treatment of the scientists who are working day in, day out, week in, week out, and month in, month out is a travesty. It does no credit to the media, and it does a gross disservice to those outstanding public servants who are doing their best for infertile women, for people suffering from terrible diseases and for children in some of the most appalling situations. They are doing their best for this country and they are doing this country proud.
My hon. Friend gives as his central motivation the idea that when he can see science leading somewhere, that process should be facilitated. But where does he place the sticking point? Even if there were an argument that science could take us in a beneficial direction, at what point would he start to feel uncomfortable? How does he make that judgment, and how does he expect other people to make such a judgment?
I shall offer two answers to my hon. Friend, neither of which will satisfy him, but both of which seem to me to be sound. First, I am wholly opposed to straightforward human cloning, and I suspect that that would be a majority view across the House. That is not what is planned or portended by the Bill. Secondly, I say to my hon. Friend: let politicians for a moment, rather uncharacteristically, assume the mantle of humility. I suspect that none of us in this House is as great an expert as Sir Martin Evans or some of the other individuals to whom reference has been made. I know that there is expertise in the House, which is respected, but we cannot compete with that other expertise.
We should not close off the possibilities of research simply because a Member, who is possibly already geared up to vote in a particular direction, chooses to seize on a given research project or a particular academic in order to advance a view that we should not proceed with a particular method. I believe in a degree of competition. I do not believe that the mere existence of alternatives is sufficient to allow us credibly or responsibly to say, “We won’t use that mechanism. We’ll stick to another. We’ll satisfy ourselves with something that already applies.” I believe that there should be plenty of opportunities for different methods to be used, in the hope that eventually one or more will yield positive results.
Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that although adult stem cell research is morally unproblematic, there is a distinction to be drawn here? Embryonic stem cell research is clearly morally problematic; otherwise, we would not be here debating it.
The kind of stem cell research that the hon. Gentleman supports might not attract the same level of criticism, but, on the strength of the information that I have garnered thus far, I am sceptical as to whether it is likely to deliver the scale and quality of outcomes that could be achieved by the kind of embryo research planned for in the Bill. I respect the hon. Gentleman’s position, but I stand by the view that we need all sorts of different sources of potential improvement. We should not act as the exclusive arbiters in favour of one source, rather than of either of the other two main sources that are on the table at the moment.
Let me confront some of the key issues, as other hon. Members have honourably and powerfully done. The first is the issue of admixed embryos. I respect the fact that some Members feel an almost overwhelming revulsion at the idea. I do not share that feeling. I have said that I am motivated by the pursuit of results, and I believe that the pragmatic arguments are strong. There is a shortage of human eggs, and the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) and others have referred to another relevant factor in this context—the fact that the whole process of egg harvesting is difficult, burdensome and hazardous. Moreover, for a proportion—admittedly only a small proportion—of women, it is potentially fatal. My view is that if we can efficiently deploy an alternative by using animal eggs as part of the mix instead, there will be much to commend that. I look forward to the possibility—I put it no more strongly than that—that that process might yield beneficial results.
I would simply say to my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), for whom I have the highest regard and personal affection, that I hope he would accept that all the morality is not to be found on one side. Of course he is motivated by moral considerations, and so am I. I cannot stand idly by and look at the situation of someone who is withered and debilitated by the most appalling disease—be it Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s or motor neurone disease—knowing that there might be a possibility of a cure or alleviation by one or more of the methods provided for in the Bill. I cannot simply turn away, saying that some abstract theory, dogmatic reasoning or religious insistence prevents me from giving the go-ahead to that work. That is where I am coming from on this subject.
There are similar moral considerations with regard to saviour siblings. Let me confront the point that is most regularly and passionately made against the concept. The notion is that what is entailed is the bringing into being of an additional human being for a purely utilitarian purpose. It is said that this would devalue the individual, that that person might suffer subsequently and that the process would be intrinsically wrong. My view is that, in the first instance, that should be a judgment for the prospective parent or parents. If the prospective parent says to himself or herself—or if the partnership decides—that this is something that they want to do because a sibling can be helped, a disease can be cured or a life can be saved and, as a consequence, extended, I have respect for that. The pursuit of tissue-typing offers the best and most obvious example of the deployment of the potential of scientific research for the ultimate purpose—the saving or improvement of human life. These processes exist not in isolation but to provide a particular benefit.
I can certainly conceive that not everyone who wishes to benefit will do so. If my hon. Friend is encouraging me—I am not sure whether this was the gravamen of his intervention—in the direction of saying that more and more people should so benefit, my answer is in the affirmative. I thought that I had made it clear that this is essentially a good thing, which we should welcome and which the Bill should allow to be introduced and extended.
The whole question of the so-called need for a father is writ large in our considerations. My view, for what it is worth, is that the Government’s proposal is perfectly reasonable. I am not convinced that the insertion of the phrase “supportive parenting” was necessary. It was a compromise that was reached in the other place, but the earlier formulation seemed perfectly satisfactory. However, I shall not castigate the Government for attempting to meet reasoned—if, in my view, incorrect —criticism. They have come up with a form of words that is unobjectionable.
My view is that we should not discriminate. We should not have class actions. We should not have the dogmatic exclusion of whole categories of people. We have equality legislation with which these provisions should be compatible. My anxiety is that the call to reinsert the need for a father is not grounded in evidence but driven by preconceptions and, in some—although not all—cases, by rank prejudice. That is wrong. Judgments should be made on the basis of the individual case, not on the strength of a theory.
I have already given way generously, as my hon. Friend will testify. I hope that he will have the opportunity to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to favour the House with his own views.
Let us have a fusion, as in the best traditions of this country acting pragmatically and this Parliament thinking sensibly, between science, appropriate—in some cases robust—regulation, and the social mores of our society today.
I applaud the political record and legislative achievement—in this matter as in almost every other—of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke). He, as a social liberal—a term he used himself—will confirm that attitudes today are different from those that applied 20 years ago. The idea that we have not had enough time to consider the issues is preposterous. Frankly, those who are opposed in principle always level that objection, and no time would be sufficient for them fully to exhaust their list of objections, prejudices and disagreements.
We have had a good chance—the Government have handled the process very fairly indeed—and this is a decent Bill. It is a progressive piece of social reform that offers the chance of making a significant improvement in the quality of life for thousands and thousands of people in this country. I welcome the Bill and hope that it will enjoy a safe passage.
I am an enthusiastic supporter of the Bill. If anyone is in any doubt about any of its clauses, I recommend that they read the excellent debates in the other place, which were of a very high standard. I congratulate our peers, who have considerable expertise. I would particularly congratulate Lord Darzi of Denham and Baroness Royall of Blaisdon on the professional way in which they steered the Bill through the other place.
Personally, I am excited about the potential for research that will be made possible by the application of the Bill when enacted. It can bring about a major step change in the advance of medical research. There have been important milestones on this route, many of which were controversial and were opposed vigorously in their own day. Fortunately, society has grown to accept those technologies today, so let me mention one or two examples.
Organ transplant surgery was pioneered in South Africa, especially by Christiaan Barnard’s work on heart transplant surgery in December 1967. He initially met a lot of opposition, but heart transplant surgery is now accepted and I do not hear much opposition to it in this day and age. Another example—it has already been mentioned—is in vitro fertilisation. It was pioneered by Patrick Steptoe and Robert Edwards, and led to the birth of Louise Brown, the first so-called “test-tube baby”, at Oldham District and General hospital on 24 July 1978—30 years ago now. That technology, too, was highly controversial in its day, but we have grown to accept it. On the birth of Louise Brown, the Archbishop of St. Andrews and Edinburgh, Cardinal Gordon Gray, said:
“I have grave misgivings about the possible implications and consequences for the future”.
Similar warnings about the technology in the Bill are being repeated today.
Throughout time, there has been a conflict between religion and science; we should remember Galileo, for example. It seems almost impossible to believe today, but Harvey’s description of the circulation of the blood and the heart’s role in it met large objections in his day.
Tremendous advances have been made in the cure of disease, especially since the 1930s when the sulphonamides were bred out of our dyestuffs industry. As a result, deaths from cancer, infectious diseases and cardiovascular diseases are all going down. However, a number of other diseases—some rare and mostly devastating for the people who have them—are not susceptible to cures by the use of modern drugs or by advanced surgery. A new breed of drugs, called biological drugs—200 of them in use today worldwide—have opened up some new treatments within the last 20 years for cancer, AIDS, neurological disorders, cancer-induced anaemia, heart disease, diabetes and some rare genetic disorders.
Currently, there are some very difficult-to-treat diseases, including most of the genetic diseases and debilitating degenerative diseases such as muscular dystrophy, muscular sclerosis, motor neurone disease, Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. This Bill gives hope for future generations of people who might suffer from those devastating diseases, and it holds out hope, too, for the millions who suffer from diabetes and heart disease, and for those who damage their spines, usually in accidents.
We hope that by taking the nuclei out of a skin cell or other cell of sufferers of these diseases and creating admixed human embryos, which the Bill deals with, scientists will be able to find out how those diseases develop, with the ultimate goal of stopping them developing at all in every individual who might otherwise have acquired them. The intention is, ultimately, to lead to cures for those people, but the Bill is primarily about the necessary research. I would not want to mislead anyone by saying that there will be cures for some of these diseases tomorrow, next year or even in 10 years, as we are embarked on long-term research. Britain leads the world in embryo research, as demonstrated by the award of the 2007 Nobel prize for physiology or medicine to Sir Martin Evans of Cardiff university.
My hon. Friend has touched on a very important issue. Many people who object to stem cell research say that in all the time for which it has been undertaken it has produced no real results—but is it not the case that even with ordinary pharmaceutical developments, and the medicines that we are now all used to, the lead time is at least 10 years?
With today’s biological drugs, that has extended to 20 years. However, I do not agree that there have been no results from stem cell research. I think it is a remarkable field of research, which is advancing more quickly than the legislation to deal with it. That is the point, and that is why we are here now—because the legislation is not keeping up with the pace of development in this field.
I was privileged to be a member of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee when it published a seminal report entitled “Human Reproductive Technologies and the Law” in March 2005. I have to tell right hon. and hon. Members that if the then Chairman, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson), and I had not decided to guillotine the Committee—something that I had not previously thought possible, but guillotine the Committee we did—that report would never have seen the light of day. That drastic action was necessary because 130 amendments had been tabled; this was shortly before the general election of 2005. I am very pleased that I did that, because that report, produced by Committee members of all political parties, was the seminal report on which all the subsequent Government consultations were based. Select Committees can do some very useful things. We produced other reports—for example, on the Government’s proposals for the regulation of hybrid and chimera embryos and, more recently, on the science of abortion—and in my opinion, those three reports provide the bedrock for this debate.
I do not see abortion mentioned in any of the clauses, and I am disappointed that we are going to spend as many as three hours discussing that issue. I am not denying that abortion is an important subject, but there are already many technical difficulties in the Bill that hon. Members need to get a grip on. In my humble opinion, we need all the time available to discuss all the issues mentioned so far, and others that have not been mentioned, without getting bogged down in the difficult debate about abortion. Personally, I believe that abortion should be the subject of a quite separate debate; indeed, we have already had many debates on it.
Members seem greatly preoccupied with adult stem cells and cells that have been rewound to their embryonic state. This research is indeed important, but let us not forget that when we use adult stem cells, they may have built into them an inherent mutation. That is the danger of adult stem cell research. It may well be that we will find techniques for detecting those mutations in adult stem cells, but I would not like to use therapy from adult stem cells and produce a mutation, or produce a fault in an individual by using them.
Let me also tell the House about the work done in Japan by Professor Yamanaka’s group, and at the university of Wisconsin in the United States, to reprogramme a skin fibroblast. Four genes are necessary for that reprogramming, and one is an oncogene—a gene that produces cancer. It is not therefore surprising that when Professor Shinya Yamanaka’s group in Japan injected stem cells into a four-cell mouse blastocyst and embedded it in a womb, the full-term mouse that developed contained tumours in almost every part of its body. I would not therefore like right hon. and hon. Members to feel that we can completely abandon stem cell research using human embryos or cytoplasmic hybrid embryos, and rely entirely on either rewinding adult cells, or even using adult stem cells. All three lines of research must continue, because faults are inherent in each of them. At the moment we do not know which one will tell us how diseases will develop or produce the best therapeutic results.
In conclusion, let me make a plea to the House. For a long time, in listening to debates in the House on both animals and humans, I have thought that a parliamentary bioethics committee was needed—not a national bioethics committee. If Members want to observe the difference between the two, I urge them to read the articles in “Science in Parliament”, which will appear on their desks next week, and an article in The Observer that Baroness Warnock has already written. Those ought to be part of the debate. I agree that we should be led by a discussion of ethics, and there is not enough time on the Floor of the House to discuss all the issues and the ethics involved at the same time.
The House has been treated to a rich feast of speeches, demonstrating the diversity of opinion on the subject held by our constituents and certainly by right hon. and hon. Members. I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon). Although I do not agree with everything—perhaps anything—that he said, I recognise his tremendous expertise in this field. There are valid arguments on both sides of the debate.
In making decisions about what human embryo research we will permit, we must, as the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East said, be guided by science and discovery. Our civilisation has always cherished progress and we should endorse those who legitimately strive to produce remedies against some of the worst diseases that assail human frailty, but we should not be too hasty in abandoning an ethical understanding of what it is to be human. Nor should we discard the wisdom of the ages: the wisdom that places humans as important moral objects, distinct from other animals. Reaching back to Plato and Aristotle, man has sought to understand the distinction between humans and the rest of nature. We need to hold in balance, on the one hand, our traditional understanding of who we are, including legitimate religious beliefs, and on the other, important scientific endeavour. Why is it that some people who are so socially liberal are inclusive of everything apart from those who hold sincere religious beliefs? That is not true inclusiveness.
Those of us who believe that some—not all—of the Bill’s provisions should be rejected do not oppose research into therapies that could save and improve lives. However, we believe that there is a better way of conducting that research. I want to ensure that public money is spent most effectively. We are constantly told that more than 80 therapies have been developed from adult stem cell research, while so far no therapies at all have been developed as a result of embryonic stem cell research. We have still not been given an answer for that in the debate. Yes, of course, it takes a long time, but we have had 20 years. When the Minister winds up, will she tell us why she thinks that we have not had greater success in that important field?
Greater breakthroughs than we have seen in the past are necessary.
Of the three main controversial issues in the Bill, I am instinctively against human admixed embryos, for moral reasons. I make no bones about that. Mixing the life essence of humans and animals is plain wrong, and a slippery slope to who knows where. But even the science seems to favour those of us who oppose this measure. Those who favour human admixed embryos rely on two main arguments: first, that admixed embryos are necessary because they will provide a mechanism for mapping genetic disorders; and secondly, that they will make up for the shortage of human eggs.
My concern is that the creation of human admixed embryonic stem cells is a distraction from areas of research that are proven to be more effective, because they will never be able to be used as a therapy and no one wishes to see them implanted. Thus, the only use for them is disease modelling. However, even in that context there is a vast problem. How far will such admixed embryos truly mirror the development of human embryos? Stuart Newman, from New York medical school—he has not been quoted yet, and we have had plenty of quotes—called it a poorly motivated experiment, and said that the
“growth and development of the human-cow hybrid clone would say very little about the potential of a human only clone to develop in the same fashion.”
The hon. Member for Bolton, South-East said that he could not place reliance on some of the current technology and research; I am afraid that I do not place reliance on hybrid research, as there is no guarantee that it will mirror a purely human embryo.
May I say through you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I am extremely inclusive of my hon. Friend? I just do not think that the Bill should be driven by his particular views. He says that one of his objections to the admixed embryos is that they represent a slippery slope. May I put it to him that of all the arguments that he can deploy, the so-called slippery slope thesis is the least persuasive? If he believes in parliamentary sovereignty, such matters can and will be determined by this House. If I may say so, it is a lazy argument.
It was one of the arguments that I put forward. I simply do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. The slippery-slope point is that once such research is done, we know not where it will lead us. Parliament is not aware of everything that is done in this community and country every single day.
The creation of induced pluripotent cells—I must confess that I do not really know what they are—or adult cells with embryonic stem cell properties, now, it seems, provides a credible alternative to embryonic stem cells. Human eggs are not needed in the creation of those IP cells, as they are created using adult human cells, such as skin tissue. They are already proving better at disease modelling, drug testing and investigating cell reprogramming. Dr. Robb MacLellan, a researcher at the Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at the University of California, said on 1 May 2008:
“I believe iPS cells address many of the shortcomings of human embryonic stem cells and are the future of regenerative medicine”.
The world is moving forward with these new technologies: they are the technologies that are internationally recognised as the future. The Bill enables British scientists to move further away from the cutting edge of their field—it promotes research into gas lamps when electricity has already been invented.
I have already given way a couple of times, and would therefore be breaking into my own time. I know that the House wants to hear my pearls of wisdom.
Most European countries—France, the Netherlands and Germany, to name but a few—have banned the process of somatic cell nuclear transfer, which is used in the creation of human admixed hybrids. I have just mentioned Europe, so perhaps I should have given way to my hon. Friend, but I will not. Professor Sir Ian Wilmut was a great hero to the social liberals in our midst when he created Dolly the sheep, but now that he has moved from embryonic stem cell research lesser emphasis is given to his point of view. I wonder why. If we pass the Bill, Britain will not lead in this area, but start to fall behind.
Let me turn to the troubling issue of saviour siblings. The fact that we can select our children to generate a source of material to help sick relatives does not mean that we should. Of course we all have deep sympathy for those who suffer from genetic disorders. In the past three years, I have watched my much-loved father-in-law slowly transform from one of the nicest, most wonderful people on the planet into a person who, because of his extreme Alzheimer’s disease, is completely unrecognisable. If I could wave a magic wand and find a way of treating that disease I would, but the fact that a complaint is very serious does not mean that we should continue with a research process that is wrong. I do not believe that that is an answer to the ethical and moral problems.
If a child has leukaemia and needs a bone marrow transplant, I expect any parent to do all that he or she can, but we must consider the psychological implications for the second child. We should not solve one problem by creating another. Saviour siblings may be loved, cared for and wanted—indeed, only families who care desperately about their first child will have them, so of course they will be cared for—but they will always have a secondary purpose. They are a means to an end, and they will come to know that.
I am sure we all remember the existential angst of our teenage years. We have probably seen it in our children as well, and in some cases even in our grandchildren. If to that turbulence is added the knowledge that one was created for the secondary purpose of providing tissue for an older sibling, the identity crisis suffered by many young people today can only be made worse. We already have a huge problem with depression and many other types of mental disorder.
I will not, if my hon. Friend does not mind.
I think Members will accept from their constituency experience that those are some of the hardest disorders and complaints to treat. I do not think we are doing particularly well at looking after people with mental health needs up and down the country, but many suffer from such psychological challenges because of their own upbringing. They may, for instance, have experienced extreme behaviour during their childhood. We should not seek a physical cure for one child at the expense of possible additional mental challenges for others. As Immanuel Kant said, humans should be an end in themselves, never a means.
I will not, if my hon. Friend does not mind. I have given way twice, and if I did so again I would be breaking into my own time.
The third part of the Bill that I wish to discuss is the removal of the “need for a father” clause. The House may have guessed that I am not necessarily in favour of that. Although the practical implications of the clause are slight—we must accept that—its symbolic magnitude should not be underestimated. It is fundamentally a question of the hierarchy of rights. Should the sensibilities of those who may be bringing up children after they are born be put before the interests of the child? Lord Darzi recently said in another place that the removal of the “need for a father” clause should be seen in the context of the wider Government policy of promoting equality, but what about the wider Government policy of ensuring that the child’s welfare is the paramount consideration, as seen in the Adoption and Children Act 2002? Surely that should come first.
If society desires responsible fatherhood—which we do—the most detrimental act would be to send the male population the message that they do not matter. As we all know, family structures are an interdependent triad of relationships between father and child, between mother and child and between father and mother, each performing separate and complementary roles in the socialisation and normalisation of each party. We need to start affirming the position of fathers in parenting, families and society in general, and the Bill tugs us in the wrong direction. In this hierarchy of rights, it should be the child who triumphs.
Of course the Bill has some good features, but I believe that overall it is a step in the wrong direction, and I hope that—unless it amends the Bill significantly—the House will ultimately reject it. When it returns to us in Committee, I shall support amendments seeking to reduce the time limits for abortion. I consider it a matter of national shame that this country remains the abortion capital of western Europe.
I believe that this is a skirmish in comparison with what will happen next Monday and Tuesday, when we deal with the nitty-gritty of some of these issues. We shall be able to have a real argy-bargy. I am sure that many of us have argued about the issues for 100 years and more, in cold flats, in universities and in schools. They have not gone away, and many of them are not new. All these questions—what is life, when is an embryo a gamete, what is the role of our maker—have been around for a long time.
I should declare a couple of interests. As was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon), I chaired the Select Committee. We had epic discussions, and we split, not amicably. I earned a reputation as Dr. Frankenstein, according to my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith), and I have loved and lived that reputation ever since.
I am also a member of the Stem Cell Foundation, which is part of a Medical Research Council unit. It contains some distinguished individuals who are interested in promoting the foundation, which was established in 2005 to support the advance of pioneering stem cell research into medical practice. We receive many private donations. So far we have received some £90 million, and we hope that when stem cell work starts to break through we shall be able to develop it in this country. Many of us remember what happened when monoclonal antibodies were discovered at Cambridge. The work was taken to the United States, and millions of people, as well as industries, benefited from our discoveries.
I am very pleased to be continuing the stem cell work. As with everything in science, we live in hope that something will happen, but it is never possible to swear to it. I am 99.9 per cent. sure that the sun will rise tomorrow morning, but who knows? Something just might happen. We live in a world in which interesting things turn up in science, and that is why we become involved. We want an environment in which we can research and find things out.
I remember when, in the 1970s, we discussed genetic recombinant DNA. There were huge fights and marches in Boston to protest against the insertion of animal DNA into human cells and vice versa. It was the scientists themselves who regulated the position and determined the category into which the work should fall. They have now established the principle, and people carry out such work all the time. For example, human insulin and bacteria are made in animal cells, to the benefit of many people who suffer from diabetes.
Science was what motivated us to examine the issue in 2004, but we knew that there was a public out there who had been involved in the debates about in vitro fertilisation, and much of what is being said now was said about it then. All the same words and phrases were used, such as “unnatural” and “playing God”. Now in vitro fertilisation is standard practice, and we are talking of improvements that ought to be made. We should be pressurising the system to ensure that it is available to people, because having a child is very much part of being a human being, and wanting a healthy child is particularly so.
There will be much more in medicine that will—I hope—really tax this place, feeding the need for Committees and debates. It is estimated that by 2012 everyone will be able to have their DNA examined for $10 and be told whether they are likely to suffer from diseases such as Alzheimer’s, if they want to know. Such information could be seen as intrusive by those who prefer to accept that life is a hazard and not to know what will happen, but it will be available. Jim Watson, the Nobel prize winner, has just had his DNA examined, but he refused to allow the part that might predict Alzheimer’s to be examined, because he has reached the age at which it might happen and he was not sure whether he could handle the knowledge emotionally.
Very interesting developments are in prospect, and as has been said before, we must be ahead of the curve and ensure we have the necessary legislation. Members have referred to the work in Japan. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East mentioned the oncogene, which might be involved in the development of cancers—Nobel prize-winning stuff again—and might be carried by retroviruses when they are put into a particular cell. That is the problem with gene therapy—trying to change genetic problems by inserting DNA. We do not yet have a foolproof mechanism for the use of retrovirusues, although scientists are trying to find other ways of getting genes into adult cells while preventing the development of cancers.
Not all scientists agree with this type of work. For example, in an article entitled, “The Production of Admixed Animal-Human Embryos: Is it Necessary, or Merely Desirable?” Professor Michael Balls—a familiar name in this place—from FRAME, an organisation that tries to stop animals being used in medical research, questions the partial arrogance of science in wanting to do such things. Therefore, scientists do argue about whether this is a valid procedure in conference centres and debating halls—as I said, we have managed to hammer out the issue of recombinant DNA. My bet is that the scientific community, including the medics, and the public—when they are engaged—will be able to say what they think about these embryos.
Admixed embryos are not new. Indeed, I remember merging mouse cells and human cells and getting chromosomes—genetic material—from mice and humans. A competition went on between them, and the cells and chromosomes that developed were mainly human. As a result, we found out about matters such as which DNA genes and chromosomes were next to each other. That has now developed into the human genome field, which has so much potential in developing our attitudes on, and knowledge of, health. As there were admixed embryos in the past, I think there will continue to be such embryos.
We need the potential for making stem cells. Some stem cells at certain layers in the blastocyst are better at developing than others. Some people say, “Embryonic stem cells haven’t done anything.” That is not quite true. We have to go through very strong safety conditions and procedures, and we use mice and rats. People might be against that experimentation, too, but it is the law and it has to be followed. Certain situations, such as where there are model mental health problems in mice or rats, can be corrected by injecting embryonic stem cells.
The hon. Gentleman has much wisdom about these matters, so I listen to him speak on them with the greatest respect. Is it not worth underlining that admixed embryos will be subject to the same regulatory procedure that applies to embryos at present, namely the requirement for destruction at 14 days, or upon the emergence of the primitive streak? Therefore, the idea conjured up by some of the more lurid speculation in the tabloids that there will be some persistent ongoing consequence is nonsense.
Yes, that is true; it is the stuff of science fiction, and people see it on the television so they are persuaded to believe that it will happen and that evil people in white coats are running around trying to do that and thinking, “Who cares about a Nobel prize when we can produce a three-headed monster; that’s a real achievement.” None of the scientists I know ever talks about that; they may do so in a jocular way after a couple of pints, but as far as I know no one wants to do that. There is no gain or benefit; there are merely problems, and it is unlikely to happen.
It is unlikely that these admixtures can reach the 14-day stage at present in any case, but it is possible to get very good stem cells at different stages. We know that there are pre-stem cells in certain cancers, and if they are in somebody with a leukaemia, that can develop at later stages into full-blown leukaemia. So the development of drugs against pre-stem cells—we do not have to go into the detail—is much more effective than doing that at later stem-cell stages. We have only managed to do that by being able to do the kind of test I mentioned.
I said that I was 99.9 per cent. sure that the sun would rise tomorrow morning. The same percentage is often cited in respect of mitochondria and hybrid admixed embryos. The mitochondrial DNA is the contribution from the animals; that is the 0.1 per cent. We should not dismiss mitochondrial DNA by saying that as it is only 0.1 per cent. it does not matter. Importantly, there are many mitochondrial diseases in human beings. We should look at the evidence. Work is still being done on this; such embryonic research is difficult, because when we try to make embryos by this method we have to look at the mitochondria. It must be asked whether there is a possibility that material from the nucleus—the DNA—also adds things to the mitochondria, and whether the mitochondrial DNA does, too. Is there an interaction between them, and what actually happens? It appears that in certain cases with such hybrids, human mitochondria starts to appear. It can be assessed by its DNA. Therefore, there is still a lot to learn in that area, even though it is only 0.1 per cent. of DNA. However, there is no evidence that this affects the stem cells produced, and the way they grow, and how they look. Their morphology is one thing, but their biochemistry is another thing, and there is no evidence of any changes in that.
It must be pointed out that this is all being done in a very regulated work environment. That regulation is done not only by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, but by local ethical committees. It is necessary to get permission from them to do this kind of research. Lord Winston in the other place complains, of course, saying there is too much regulation; but we have a lot of regulation that makes this work.
Let me end by making the following point. There are people in this House—one or two I know of—who have parts of a pig attached to their heart. That keeps them alive. We do not need hypocrisy in this matter. We can have combined pigs and human beings to keep people in this House—and elsewhere—alive. There are combinations from different sources, and we should welcome that.
My constituents have a range of views on this issue, and for the avoidance of doubt I have posted details of my views on the matters under discussion on my website. Therefore, I will not have to repeat a lot of the arguments we have heard this afternoon, and I can concentrate on broadening the debate a little.
The most important thing to say is that I fundamentally believe in respecting other people’s views. I happen to come at this matter from a Christian viewpoint. I know that there are as many different views within, for example, the Muslim faith as within the Christian faith, and we should not start sniping at each other along those lines. Respect is crucial, not least, as my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) pointed out, for the scientific community. I know of no scientists—GPs, clinicians, or the people working in the fertility clinic or the genetics unit in Salisbury district hospital—who do not have an in-built sense of responsibility for the ethics of what they are doing. It is fundamental to everything they undertake, so I have huge respect for the scientific community in all of this.
Like some other Members present, I am a veteran of the 1990 legislation, and the law that we produced then—thanks to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke)—has stood the test of time and served us well. However, it is time to bring it up to date. Last year, a Joint Committee of Lords and Commons sat to examine the proposed legislation. I served on it. We made extensive recommendations to both Houses of Parliament and to the Government, as a result of which the Government have abandoned some of their proposals and changed others. I pay tribute to Ministers both in post then and now, and also to the Bill team at the Department of Health, who had an exceptionally difficult task in drawing up the Bill as it currently stands.
The Government are doing the right thing. We must have an updated Act of Parliament to make sure our scientists are working within the proper framework in terms of moral and ethical issues as well as practical, legal issues and considerations. Of course, this Bill is not being rushed through. The process has been continuous ever since the Warnock committee started its work in 1982. It has been continually on the back burner, and occasionally on the front burner as we have had to face individual issues.
I want to underline something that the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) said: the importance of having a national bioethics commission. The high court of Parliament is, de facto, our national bioethics commission. Every point of view is found and expressed in both Houses, and last year on the Joint Committee we had people of many religious views, varying from a rabbi to a bishop of the Church of England to a Wee Free Presbyterian and others, as well as people of no faith at all. That is how it should be.
Having served on the Committee, under the chairmanship of the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson), that went to Sweden and to Italy to examine their bioethics committees, I am sure that the best bioethics committee is the Houses of Parliament. I emphasise and support what he said about the need to have a standing Joint Committee of both Houses along the lines of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, so that we can consider these issues as they arise.
It is important to underline the fact that the moral framework of the law, which was devised all those years ago by Baroness Warnock, still stands today. Three moral principles—first, that all human tissue is special and uniquely demanding of respect; secondly, that embryos can only be used for up to 14 days, the point at which the primitive streak emerges; and, thirdly, that no embryo that has been used for research may ever be implanted in a woman—are pillars that are fundamental to the morality of this legislation.
I said that I come at this from a Christian point of view: I am a fully paid-up member of the Church of England. I am grateful to the Archbishops Council for the advice that it has made available to all Members of this House on the exact position of the Church of England, because that is important. On all this free-vote territory and on all these moral issues, I always seek the advice of theologians and priests whom I respect before sticking my head above the parapet. It is important to recognise, as a starting point, that a human embryo needs protection because it has the potential to develop as a person, or persons, made in the image of God. We believe that the Church is called to balance its concern for healing and saving lives with its equally strong concern to see the moral significance of all human life, including the embryo, respected for its sacred nature. That is the position of my Church, and it is my position too.
Of course, some Christians regard an embryo from the moment of conception as a person made in God’s image, and therefore they oppose all experimentation on the embryo. I fully respect that view, although I do not agree with it. I take the gradualist approach, viewing embryos as much more than just cellular material, but I support limited experimentation in the first 14 days. I am not going to dwell on the individual challenges facing the House beyond that. Perhaps when we return next week for two days in Committee on the Floor of the House and perhaps if I have the honour of serving on the Public Bill Committee later, we will go into that in more detail.
One issue has not been mentioned so far: what should be put on a birth certificate? I think that the state has a moral duty not to be party to a deliberate deception about a person’s genetic history. The evidence convinces me that everyone has the right to know the identity of their biological parents, and it also suggests that the best approach is for the social parents to inform their children at the earliest opportunity, at the most appropriate moment, of their origin. However, for the avoidance of doubt and to be fair to everyone, there is a case for printing on every birth certificate a notice of other state agencies that may hold additional information on a person’s genetic history. Therefore, no one would be discriminated against and everybody would know that it might be worth checking, if there is any doubt and one’s “parents” have not told one.
One other issue is important. When the Joint Committee took evidence from a very wide range of people, one of the things we were seeking after truth to discover was what people in this country actually thought about stem cell research and about this Bill. The answer was clear: it was that we do not know. The Committee concluded:
“We find it unhelpful that witnesses on both sides of the argument have claimed to represent the public view, where supporting evidence for this is lacking.”
It was a pleasure to serve on the Committee with my hon. Friend, to discuss issues with him and to agree with him about birth certificates. He mentioned that the view was that we did not know public opinion. As I recall it, that view came from the science editor of The Times. If one were to examine the formal consultation process, one would find that the view was very clearly that the majority of the public were against moving towards human admixed embryos.
There is a difficulty with this matter. I have produced from my copious notes the result of a poll that was produced recently in the national press. It asked:
“Should human-animal embryos be allowed?
All sorts of statistics were printed, one example being that 50 per cent. of people said yes to that. It also asked:
“Should IVF proceed without the ‘need for a father’?”
Some 40 per cent. of people said yes to that whereas 32 per cent. said no—or possibly the other way round. The poll is extraordinary, but it does not represent public opinion in the sense of social indicators as the result of basic, serious, professional, social science research into public opinion in this country in this area—we have it not. The Government have admitted that no such research has been done, which is why the Joint Committee, on which my hon. Friend and I served, has recommended that the Government should forthwith start doing that research; they should commission that serious research, so that we do not have to rely on what The Sun says its readers think or on what any other organ thinks its readers think.
My hon. Friend is making a characteristically sagacious speech. May I put it to him that much depends upon what question is asked? Moreover, there are Members who say, “My postbag says” without it perhaps having occurred to them that people of a particular view, especially those who are against a Bill, are probably, on the whole, more likely to write than those who are in favour of it. Would it not be a good idea simply for us to accept that we are not necessarily tribunes and that we cannot be sure of public opinion, but that we are here to exercise our judgment in the national interest?
We are, indeed, here to exercise our judgment, as in the famous Bristol speech, which my hon. Friend will doubtless recall.
I always add a pinch of salt to my understanding of what a colleague is saying when they say, “My postbag says” or , “I have never had such a big postbag.” I have received hardly anything at all on this issue in my postbag; I have perhaps received four or five letters, probably 20 e-mails and a postcard campaign or two, to which I have courteously replied. Nevertheless, none of us should assume that we know what all our constituents think—I do not. I always listen carefully and courteously when constituents tell me their view, but I then have to make my judgment.
I hope that I have explained one or two of the reasons why I come to my judgment that this Bill is a sensible and practical one. It has gone through the mill of the opinion of both Houses of Parliament. It strives to provide a framework that will ensure that our scientific community and our clinicians can care better for people in this country who are ill, or who will be in the future, and can relieve the problems that they suffer. As someone who observed my dear mother dying of Alzheimer’s disease, I do not need any convincing of what it would mean if only we could begin to understand how to put all those sorts of diseases right.
I believe that the Bill is a great force for good and a step in the right direction, rather than the wrong one. It is a natural evolution of the current position. As a Parliament, we must always be careful not to go too far. We must accept that it is our responsibility to say to the scientific community, “Just because you can do something, that does not mean you should.” We should come back to this matter in far less than another 20 years, and I am sure that we will do so. Indeed, I recall saying on Third Reading of the 1990 Bill that the scientific community will be back within 10 years. It took less than 10 years for us to take a view on certain limited aspects of the matter, but here we are again looking at this very important Bill.
It is a comment on how far we have progressed that there are perhaps 50 hon. Members on both sides of the House this afternoon and that people are speaking passionately about the subject. That was nothing compared with the situation in 1990, when people were sitting in the gangways, standing at the doors and standing behind the Bar of the House with enthusiasm. I suspect that that will happen again next week, when we deal with some of the more controversial issues, but we have moved on and there is a much greater public understanding, as well as acceptance, of what our medical clinicians and researchers are trying to do. I support the Bill on Second Reading. I will not be supporting every move all the way through that the Government wish to make, but, on the whole, this is a Bill worth having.
I am delighted to be able to speak in this debate on a Bill that I very much welcome. I believe that the Bill will strengthen regulation in important areas of scientific research, including embryo and stem cell research. That is a very grey area at the moment. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) said, a lengthy process of review has taken place since the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990. It has included White Papers, consultations and Committee reports, so this Bill has not been entered into lightly. In the other place, they did an extremely thorough job of debating and scrutinising the Bill. Judging by today’s contributions so far, the debates in this House will be equally stimulating. I listened with great pleasure to the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), who spoke with elegance, knowledge and humour on these important issues and managed to poke fun at the Government at the same time. It was an impressive masterclass.
I am pleased that the Bill sets out a clear regulatory framework for scientific research, although the HFEA already requires researchers to demonstrate that the research is necessary and it is permitted only if it fits within the research purposes set out in the 1990 Act and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology (Research Purposes) Regulations 2001.
Although embryonic cell research is still in its early stages, it is already advancing scientific understanding of early human development and the processes involved in particular diseases, such as Parkinson’s and motor neurone disease. In the future, it could lead to the development of new cell-based therapies for these conditions. Like other colleagues, I have been contacted by a number of national and local organisations, as well as individual constituents whose friends or relatives suffer from degenerative diseases, who have all asked me to support the Bill. However, every letter, e-mail and phone call also stressed the need for adequate regulation of this important research.
I believe that the Bill strikes the right balance between scientific discovery and statutory controls and I fully support it.
No. I have only 10 minutes.
In particular, I support the retention of the requirement for medical practitioners to consider the welfare of the child before treatment is offered.
There has been a great deal of debate about the replacement of the reference to the child’s need for a father with one to the child’s need for supportive parenting. My personal view is that a child benefits from having a mother and a father and that fathers are intrinsically valuable. However, I also believe that the most important aspect of the upbringing of any child is a loving and supportive environment where their welfare is paramount. Whether that is provided by a conventional family, a single-parent family or any other type of family should not be a matter for Parliament to decide by statute. Early research into the welfare of children born to single women or lesbian couples who choose to start a family by assisted conception shows that those children fare just as well as those born by assisted conception to heterosexual parents.
The Bill also sets out the circumstances in which embryos can be tested in a lab. A wonderful procedure with a dreadful name, pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, enables couples who know they are at significant risk of having a child with a specific genetic condition such as cystic fibrosis or Duchenne muscular dystrophy to avoid the transfer of embryos affected by that condition. What a wonderful gift that would be to such a family. I support the use of embryo testing for this purpose, but I agree with the Government that it should be available only in cases where there is a significant risk of serious disease.
I also support pre-implantation tissue-typing, which is referred to as saviour sibling treatment and allows the selection of an embryo that is a tissue match with a sibling suffering a life-threatening or serious medical condition. In fact, the licensing authority has carried out a number of policy reviews on embryo testing, including on tissue-typing. Each application is considered on its own merits and a licence is granted only when the authority is convinced that the child will be a valued member of the family and that tissue from that child is the only means of treating the older sibling.
In practice, tissue-typing is only carried out for life-threatening blood conditions and has happened in only a small number of cases. Six families have benefited from such a procedure, but the technology has resulted in children being cured of serious medical conditions. The courts have already confirmed the authority’s power to license tissue-typing, and so one of the Bill’s most important aims must be to make that power explicit in law.
It has been widely reported—indeed, a number of hon. Members have already alluded to it—that some Members of the House will seek to amend the Bill in order to reduce the upper time limit for abortion. As I stated when I opposed a ten-minute Bill in 2006, I believe that any attempt to reduce the time limit, blatantly disregarding the views of the scientific and medical communities, would be irresponsible and ill-informed.
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way and I entirely agree with her. It is a pity that the Bill is being used for that purpose although, to be fair, it is in parliamentary order. Does she agree that if people who want to reduce the upper time limit are determined to go ahead with their amendments, as they are perfectly privileged to do in parliamentary terms, those of us who favour a different modernisation and improvement of the law will take our opportunity, too? We can obtain a genuinely progressive reform, rather than the antediluvian reform that some favour.
The hon. Gentleman makes a valuable contribution to the debate. I sincerely hope that we get our opportunity to improve the legislation on behalf of women.
When the 24-week limit was approved in Parliament in 1990, the key argument was that that was the stage at which the foetus was considered viable. It is the considered view of the British Medical Association, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the Royal College of Nursing and the British Association of Perinatal Medicine that there is no evidence of a significant improvement in the survival of pre-term infants below 24 weeks’ gestation in the UK in the past 18 years. The recent EPICure and Trent studies that were referred to earlier both state clearly that there is no statistical significant improvement in survival under 24 weeks’ gestation.
As I have said many times in the House, the best way of reducing the number of unintended pregnancies and abortions is to improve women’s access to contraception as well as educating women and men about sexual health. It is not rocket science. Sexual health education should be compulsory for young people in school. In contrast, any reduction in the time limit would force a small number of vulnerable women to continue a pregnancy against their will. Proposals to reduce the time limit do not even appear to take into consideration the terrible plight of women who have a wanted pregnancy but discover a foetal abnormality at a later stage.
I, too, want to see a reduction in the number of women seeking abortion and a reduction in the gestation period after which such abortions take place. In fact, late-term abortions are extremely rare. In 2006, less than 1.5 per cent. of all abortions took place after 20 weeks and of those, 0.7 per cent.—a tiny fraction—were carried out at 22 weeks or later.
I wholeheartedly welcome the Bill and urge hon. Members to support it in its entirety and to resist amendments that are not supported by the medical and scientific fraternity or that are not evidence based.
The House is at its best when it is debating a Bill of this nature. The contributions from right hon. and hon. Members this afternoon demonstrate why it is such a privilege to be here and why I shall be sorry to retire at the next election. [Hon. Members: “Oh!”] I say that just for sympathy.
It was not a plea for more time.
I want to start by echoing the hon. Members for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) and for Salisbury (Robert Key) in their plea for a bioethics committee. The issue was raised by the hon. Member for Norwich, North when he chaired the Science and Technology Committee during its inquiry into human reproductive technologies and the law. It was raised in the Joint Committee and the Science and Technology Committee when they considered the legislation. It is nonsense that there is no mechanism to bring together people from both Houses to debate ethics and advise the Government on issues of such importance, and that the Government have to look elsewhere for such advice.
I begin my brief comments by congratulating the Government on their measured and deliberative approach to the Bill. It is rare but extremely welcome for significant policy changes to be based not on media hype or dogma but on research evidence, and to be subject to careful parliamentary scrutiny. However, I have to tell the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), that the programming is giving all Members real cause for concern. To allocate only three hours’ debate for the whole of schedule 2 is unrealistic. I think Ministers believe that the schedule is about saviour siblings, but it is significantly more than that; it is also about embryo testing, sex selection, storage limits, the licensing of therapies, the Lord Hunt test and, most important, the use of hybrid embryos. That is what the hamster test is—a hybrid embryo—and it has never been regulated in law, yet it will come under schedule 2.
The Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Bristol, South (Dawn Primarolo), who will take the Bill through the House, has now returned to the Chamber. It is important that she argues for far more time for discussion of those matters; otherwise people will feel cheated and pressure groups will say that the Government simply railroaded the Bill through Parliament, which will undermine all the work the Government have done.
I commend the hon. Gentleman on chairing the Joint Committee with such dexterity and on dealing with issues of great complexity and depth in a fairly short time. I commend him, too, for his point about the lack of parliamentary time. I offer him an example relating to human admixed embryos, where there is a lack of definition, which exercised the minds of our Committee and the other place. There is still no definition, only illustrative examples, so how can we really have a clear Bill and clear regulation?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments and for his diligent support for the Bill. Under the expert legal guidance of Lord Mackay of Clashfern, we tried hard to find an all-encompassing definition of all embryos that were not pure embryos. Indeed, the Academy of Medical Sciences tried to do so, too. Unfortunately, we failed. To return to the hon. Gentleman’s point, however, we should not give up; before the Bill becomes law, it is important that we have a much clearer definition of what we are talking about. However, I am content with the descriptions in the Bill relating to admixed hybrid embryos.
The 1990 Act has stood the test of time. We have heard many tributes to the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) and the then Conservative Administration for taking the Act through Parliament; we owe a huge debt of gratitude, too, to Baroness Warnock. They and the House showed faith in our clinicians, our scientists and our regulators, and that faith has been rewarded. The challenge for us, as the Bill goes through, is to be equally bold and trusting, always bearing in mind the wise words of Lady Warnock:
“The law must not outrage the feelings of too many people; but it cannot reflect the feelings of them all. It must therefore be drawn with a view to the common good.”
In essence, despite the opposition of some people to the Bill, the measure does little more than bring within the law and within regulation interpretations of the Act made by the HFEA, changes in society and breakthroughs in medical science since 1990.
In considering the Bill and possible amendments, I draw the attention of Members to the three Select Committee reports tagged to the measure: the “Government proposals for the regulation of hybrid and chimera embryos”, produced by the Science and Technology Committee, the Joint Committee report, and the report, “Scientific Developments Relating to the Abortion Act 1967”. I suspect there will be many amendments on abortion.
The first of those reports followed the White Paper produced by the Department of Health in December 2006, which proposed the prohibition of the creation of animal-human chimera or hybrid embryos. The White Paper coincided with applications from Newcastle and King’s to create human-animal cytoplasmic hybrid embryos, both of which were granted under the 1990 legislation but need to be brought under the Bill. The Science and Technology Committee concluded unanimously that the Government’s proposed policy was wrong. We found that there was a pressing need to clarify the law in relation to hybrid embryos, and that research allowing the creation of human-animal chimera or hybrid embryos was necessary and desirable. We concluded that such research had the potential to contribute to the development of greater understanding of the genetic basis of diseases and of stem cell technology. However, the important point is that we did not say that it was the only viable form of research to develop stem cells. We did not say that, and I cannot recall that any serious group of scientists or politicians has made such a claim.
The Committee recognised, as did the scientists and patient groups we met, that research into adult stem cells and research into cord blood stem cells were of equal importance—it was not one or the other. Earlier, the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) made that point in his usual brilliant way. The same point applies to the newly developed technology of induced pluripotent stem cells in Japan and the United States. The hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) is no longer in the Chamber. He made the telling point that if we tried to bring adult stem cells back to pluripotency, we would unleash all sorts of other things whose genetic trends are unknown. It is important that no avenue of possible scientific advancement that could bring relief to people suffering hugely debilitating conditions should be outlawed or limited. Regulated, yes—outlawed, no.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. That is a very important point. However, I want to establish the fact that it is not an either/or situation. Once the House has established that, we can start to move forward.
This afternoon, I have heard a number of claims that so far research using embryonic stem cells has not yielded results.
But research is not like that; pure research is about finding answers for which we did not even have a question. If the House legislated by saying that we had to know the answer before we could permit the research, we would end up with the most sterile research community ever.
I had not realised that the hon. Gentleman was speaking in my time. However, the whole issue of admixed hybrid embryos addresses the fundamental point raised by the hon. Member for Salisbury about the shortage of eggs.
This afternoon, we have heard that the harvesting of female eggs is an invasive process—it involves dangers and it should be avoided at all costs. In the abattoir this afternoon, hundreds of thousands of oocytes were flushed down the drain. Not only could all of them be used for research purposes but they would also allow human embryos—human oocytes—to be used sparingly and effectively, because techniques to do so would have been developed elsewhere.
My last point is on saviour siblings. There will rightly be a huge debate on the use of embryos as so-called commodities. I think that the Roman Catholic Church is right to raise that as an issue. We in this House who do not necessarily agree with that particular religious point of view should not refuse to hold that debate. However, in my mailbag—I am sorry that the hon. Member for Salisbury gets so little mail; he can have some of mine—I often get post that shows that the Catholic Church has, in many ways, traduced the argument by making claims about the research that do the Catholic Church a disservice. There is a genuine debate to be had about where life begins and the sanctity of the embryo, but rather than simply making great claims, let us have that debate in a genuine forum.
No, I will not. The issue of saviour siblings is very pertinent. If, through pre-genetic diagnosis, we can screen out of embryos debilitating conditions that will affect the life chances of a child, we should do it. If we can use saviour siblings to make sure that a child lives, rather than dies, surely that is something of which this House should be proud.
I welcome the provisions in the Bill that allow the screening of embryos for tissue matches to enable the treatment of siblings with serious medical conditions, and I agree that the right measures are in place in the Bill to safeguard the welfare of the resulting child. The Bill also provides clear, necessary guidance on the use of pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, and places limits on its use. The measures in the Bill to regulate the scientific use of embryos, including human admixed embryos, will offer vital opportunities for research on medical conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, so that we can move closer to new treatments.
I will resist the temptation to discuss abortion today, but if any misguided attempts are made to limit women’s access to abortion, I will certainly attempt to speak again, because I have a great deal to say on that issue. I speak as the representative of Islington, South and Finsbury, where there are 3,640 single parents. If there were a league table of single parents with dependent children, Islington would be in the top 20. In Islington, there are a great many gay marriages; there is at least one gay marriage a day, and a very large number of gay people in my constituency now live together in legally recognised, loving relationships. It is the experience of my constituents that heterosexual couples do not have a monopoly on good parenting.
I should like to compliment my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor) on her passionate speech, which showed her at her absolute best. She is completely right to ask why, if gay people are appropriate adoptive parents, they cannot have children of their own. I accept that single parents have a difficult, demanding job, but they are fed up with being demonised by some Conservative Members. Children need consistent parenting, clear boundaries and, most importantly, a loving home. My late mother brought up three children on her own, and she coped by making sure that she had friends who supported not only her but us, and who provided male role models, where necessary, for my brothers and me.
It is claimed that if, through clause 14(2), we replaced
“the need…for a father”
with a need for “supportive parenting”, it would fundamentally undermine fatherhood. “Supportive parenting” and “fatherhood” are hardly mutually exclusive—well, not in the majority of cases, anyway. Hon. Members should look at the other side of the coin: allowing the phrase,
“the need…for a father”
to remain would expressly discriminate against single women and lesbian couples. Frankly, that will not do. It is discriminatory and unfair. Essentially, that is my point, and I could sit down now, but I will not, because I also want to discuss the issue of birth certificates, which has not really been touched on.
Schedule 2 will change birth certificates. There has been a great deal of heat and not much light in some debates on the subject. Let us take the example of three couples who become parents with the help of a sperm donor. In the case of the first couple, a heterosexual married couple, both people will be on the birth certificate, even if the father is not the biological father. If the second couple, a heterosexual unmarried couple, have a child through sperm donation, both people can be on the birth certificate, even if the father is not the biological father, as long as he goes to register the birth. In time, the children could go to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority register, where they could find out the name and last known address of their biological father, and any important biological data—such data will, of course, become increasingly important for children who are born now.
If the third couple were lesbians, they could be refused a donor if they did not bring along an Uncle Ben, or some other man, to prove that they understood
“the need…for a father”.
If they were refused a donor, they might enter into informal arrangements, which would mean that only one of them—the biological mother—would be on the birth certificate. The child would then be unlikely ever to know their father or find out any details about them. In addition, the lesbian partner would have absolutely no rights, even though she was, in practice, a parent. That is not fair or right, and it is not 21st century.
Let us say that that third couple managed to get a donor, perhaps by bringing along a male friend. As the law currently stands, only the biological mother would be on the birth certificate, although the biological father would be on the register held by the authority. Again, that is not fair; it is discriminatory and it has negative effects on the child. Until the non-biological mother adopts, she has absolutely no rights as a parent, even though the child was born into a stable, loving relationship that had been legally endorsed through a civil partnership. That is not right. If the non-biological mother’s partner dies when the child is 18 months old, the second parent will have absolutely no rights over the child. In fact, the biological mother’s parents could take away the child and not give the other parent any access at all to the toddler. Is that fair? No, it is not.
What I am saying is not political correctness, or if it is, I do not care. It is just correctness. It is basic justice; it is what is right. If we maintain
“the need…for a father”,
we continue to discriminate against single women and lesbians who want to be mothers. Hon. Members should not misunderstand: those women will still become mothers. We will not be able to stop them. However, holding back the legislation will not supply their children with a single additional parent. If the legislation is not passed, hundreds of children of lesbian parents will be denied the opportunity to have a second loving parent at the heart of their family. We should do the right thing.
I make no apology for speaking as a born-again Christian. I represent the voice of those who look to a higher authority—one to whom we will all one day answer for the decisions that we make in the House. Each one of us is an individual of amazing worth. I approach the Bill through the central fact that we are all created in the image of God. Much science will be discussed and debated, but I want to remind us all that we need to consider the case fully—both biologically, through the logical argument of our God-given minds, and with respect to the mind of God.
We are told in the book of Genesis that we are created
“in the image of God”.
Mankind is not made in any one person’s image, but in the image of God—the height of holiness and purity—and that gives man a sacred standing. It makes man fundamentally different from the rest of creation, including animals. We are not just another animal. We are created special, and that fact must be treated with respect. That tenet is central to human identity. The creation of hybrid embryos undermines our dignity and is fundamentally disrespectful of the boundaries of nature. It would tarnish the “image of God” present in all of us, would breach the biblical prohibition of the mixing of kinds, would confuse lineage, would fundamentally affect all human relationships, especially marriage and the family, and would cross an ethical line by creating something essentially new but unnecessary.
Indeed, 1 Corinthians 15 provides us with a clear statement of the difference between humans and animals in God’s order. Verse 39 reads:
“All flesh is not the same: Men have one kind of flesh, animals have another, birds another and fish another.”
I stand by that.
To date, human embryonic stem cell research has absorbed a huge amount of taxpayers’ money but delivered no therapies, whereas adult stem cell research, which involves no ethical hazards, has delivered around 80 therapies for patients, and some 350 clinical trials are currently under way. That is a fact, and if we had to wait 20 years before we were deemed to be elected, we would be waiting a very long time. I say that in answer to the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon).
In Northern Ireland and many parts of the UK we are facing an epidemic of suicide and self-harm in young men. I have spoken to experts in mental health who work with such individuals. They point to the fact that many of these men were unfathered. The Bill puts us in the unacceptable position of creating more unfathered children.
Clause 14(2)(b) proposes replacing the current obligation for IVF clinics to consider the child’s need for “a father” with an obligation to consider the child’s need for “supportive parenting”. The current provision relating to fathers is not absolute. It does not stop lesbian or single heterosexual women receiving IVF treatment, but it does mean that clinics should ask questions about the provision of alternative father figures, and it sends out an important signal about the crucial role played by fathers.
Clause 45 makes provision for the creation of children who will have no chance of ever having a father. The clause sets out that when the would-be parents are two women, from before the child is born
“no man is to be treated as the father of the child.”
This is very different from gay adoption, because when a child is conceived who is later adopted by a gay couple, the child at least has the chance of having a father, and may indeed have him as a father for a period. The nearest a child processed by clause 45 can get to having a father will be when they cease to be a child at 18 and acquire the right to apply to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority to find out the identity of their genetic father.
The abolition of the need for a father flies in the face of a society that invests its efforts in creating legislation against absent fathers. Why now give fathers the message that they are not needed? Children flourish when nurtured in a family with two parents of the opposite sex who work together and complement each other. That is God’s design and intention. We see from research that the pattern that God has laid down for fatherhood is necessary, because the lack of a father figure has a high cost indeed.
Children in father-absent homes are five times more likely to be poor. In 2002, 7.8 per cent. of children in married couple families were living in poverty, compared with 38.4 per cent. of children in female-householder families. Even after adjusting for income, youths in father-absent households still had significantly higher odds of incarceration than those in mother-father families. Youths who never had a father in the household experienced the highest odds.
Without a highly involved father, youths are more at risk of substance abuse. Each unit increase in father involvement is associated with a 1 per cent. reduction in substance use. Living in an intact family also decreases the risk of first substance use. Being raised by a single mother raises the risk of teen pregnancy. An analysis of child abuse cases in a US representative sample of 42 counties found that children from single- parent families are more likely to be victims of physical and sexual abuse than children who live with both biological parents.
Compared with their peers living with both parents, children in single parent homes had a 77 per cent. greater risk of being physically abused, an 87 per cent. greater risk of being harmed by physical neglect, a 165 per cent. greater risk of experiencing notable physical neglect, a 74 per cent. greater risk of suffering from emotional neglect, an 80 per cent. greater risk of suffering serious injury as a result of abuse, and overall, a 120 per cent. greater risk of being endangered by some type of child abuse. It is also the case, unfortunately, that fatherless children are twice as likely to drop out of school.
None of these statistics are intended as criticism, and they should not detract from the fantastic commitment shown by many single parents to giving their children the best chance in life. However, we should not run away from the facts.
Too often the House and this country have suffered from woolly liberal thinking. Unless we stand firm on certain matters, the United Kingdom will become utterly morally bankrupt. As Members of the House, we should not be engaged in bringing society to its lowest common denominator. Instead, we should seek to raise standards across society.
Let us look at some of the decisions made in the House. We have introduced the morning-after pill, yet we have the highest rate of teenage pregnancies in the whole of the European Union, with no parental input for young teenage children seeking abortion and high rates of sexually transmitted infections, all because of liberalising the laws to meet that lowest common denominator.
The House should not attempt to railroad through legislative change on moral affairs for Northern Ireland, contrary to the wishes of all the major parties there. I have a letter that has gone to all hon. Members from all four leaders of the four main parties, asking us not to impose on the people of Northern Ireland the Abortion Act 1967. Human beings are different from mere human tissue, and require separate principles and practice for regulation. Human beings need fathers: God ordains it and science declares the wisdom of his ordinance.
If we are fighting for the lives of our sons and daughters in the struggle against suicide, how can we allow such an invidious Bill to pass? It attacks the very fabric of personhood and we must resist it vigorously. We must remember that we are created in the image of God and that we are told that humans and animals are fundamentally different. We must not only protect the fatherless; we must avoid creating the environment in which those circumstances are fashioned. All life is of immense worth and we must treat it with the utmost respect. That is why my party will not support the Bill in its present state.
I am happy to be wholeheartedly behind the Bill. It builds on the 1990 Act, which has served us well. It provided a regulatory framework in which clinicians and scientific researchers have worked with confidence. The result is that the UK has been a world leader in the development of human reproductive technologies, and especially in the rapidly developing field of stem cell research. That would not have been possible without the confidence-building framework of the 1990 Act.
We have experienced a reverse brain drain in stem cell research. Top American scientists have come to work in the UK because they can work with surety, knowing that they will not be subject to legal challenge for their activities, whereas in many states in America they are actively discouraged and prevented from carrying out that research. A President who shall be nameless stops any federal funding going into embryonic stem cell research.
If we contrast our fairly happy state of affairs with that of some other countries that did not get to grips with legislating for these developments, we see what a mess they are in. When we were carrying out the first Science and Technology Committee report on human fertilisation technologies, the fruits of which are very much apparent in the Bill, we visited Italy. We had interesting discussions with the Vatican, and although there was a slight doctrinal difference, which I attribute to St. Thomas Aquinas, the monsignors in the Vatican were not putting out the same sort of ridiculous misrepresentation as certain Catholic cardinals have done in this country, which does the Catholic Church a disservice. That is not the position of the Catholic Church.
I thank the hon. Lady; I am well aware of that.
What was interesting was the Italian law: at that time, the country had only just got round to passing laws to control in vitro fertilisation. Prior to that, the issue had been completely unregulated and all manner of things had been going on. A scientist had been threatening to clone a human being; that would clearly be absolutely impossible in this country under this legislation. When it finally arrived, the law was so badly drafted that it meant that an embryo could not be frozen and that all the embryos produced at any given time had to be implanted. If there were 10 embryos, 10 embryos would be implanted. The consequence of that is excessive multiple births and all that that implies. Embryos could not be frozen, so people were stuck with thousands of frozen embryos that they did not know what to do with.
Getting this legislation right is very important. The issue has started to come under strain because of scientific progress. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority has been called on to make judgments that stretch the framework to its limits. Once that happens, there is judicial review and there are challenges in the courts. The courts, however, are not the places in which to make ethical or medical decisions. The Hashmi case was a classic example, and the Whitaker case was another. In the former case, which typifies the saviour sibling concept, the HFEA granted a licence to permit pre-implantation genetic diagnosis and tissue-typing so that a sibling who was compatible and could donate blood to his brother with beta thalassemia could be born. That was challenged in court and there were many months of wrangling from one court to another before the process was finally carried out. That situation was unacceptable from any point of view, and it tells us why we have to amend the current Act.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. We should use cord blood as a resource; the Anthony Nolan Trust is involved in setting up a cord blood bank for that very purpose, and that is wholly admirable. However, it does not detract from the need to provide for saviour siblings.
I have given one example of where we needed a change. The other controversial issue is admixed embryos. There is a problem in producing stem cells because not enough human eggs are available, so there is a desire to use oocytes, mainly from cows. The results are not even true hybrids. Technically they are cytoplasmic hybrids; it is a question of denucleating an egg and putting in a human nucleus from a skin cell. That is not an embryo as such. In any event, the DNA involved is 99 per cent. human, and all the nuclear DNA is human. The 1 per cent. that remains is the mitochondrial DNA, which does not determine the character of what might grow. In any case, it will not be allowed to grow; it will never get beyond a small ball of cells. At 14 days, it will be destroyed and there is no question of implantation.
What are people seriously worried about? People say that the issue is about the sanctity of human life and that human tissue is involved, but we routinely culture human tissue in laboratories throughout the world without people giving it a moment’s thought. Why should things be so different because there is a reproductive implication? On this issue I strongly differ from those with religious views, because human life results from the whole human being; I do not see much humanity in my fingernail, for instance. It takes a whole organism to create a human being. There has been so much misinformation.
No. I have given way twice; I shall not do so again. I do not have the time.
As soon as the admixed embryos were licensed, I remember the tabloid headlines—“Human-Cow Embryos in the UK!” I had visions of the bovine equivalents of centaurs trotting down the streets. It was absolutely absurd, because no such thing is happening or will be allowed to happen. There are serious and contentious ethical and moral issues. Like most Members, I respect that. That is fine; people have to make moral decisions on this issue. I just want to make sure that all Members make decisions based on true facts and not misrepresentation.
Amendments will be tabled on abortion, in particular to reduce the 24-week maximum for abortions. I hope that the House will strongly resist them. If Members want more information, I can tell them that tomorrow at 5 pm in Committee Room 15, one of the authors of a national study on the survival rates of pre-term babies, EPICure 2, will present the evidence that largely illuminated the Science and Technology Committee’s report on abortion. The study came to the clear conclusion that there was no evidence that, even after decades of advance in neonatal care techniques and practices, there had been a significant increase in the potential survival of foetuses of less than 24 weeks’ gestation.
No, I will not; I do not have the time.
The issue is simple; there is clearly a developmental time line. At about 24 weeks—plus or minus a day or two; such things are never fixed and there is bound to be variation on either side of the line—there is a minimum point at which a foetus is capable of independent existence. That is basic biology, and no amount of argument can get past it. Remember that nearly all late-term abortions are carried out for medical reasons because of foetal abnormalities that can be detected only very late in the pregnancy. Cutting the time limit would mean more births of deformed children. Do we want that? I think not. I hope that the Bill will go through largely unamended.
The hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner) is keen to seek evidence. As a member of the Joint Committee on the Bill, which worked for hours to scrutinise it in its draft form, my concern was to base the Bill on evidence. The other place gave the Bill careful consideration, but we will not have the same amount of time to do so. We are bringing the House into disrepute by not providing the necessary time in the Chamber to look in detail at various issues that cause such concern.
We do not wish to stand in the way of treatment for debilitating and potentially fatal illnesses, and we certainly do not wish unnecessarily to impede sound research. We wish to see Britain leading the way, but on a sound ethical basis. The Bill is by no means what it says on the tin in being a blueprint for the future in leading scientific research and producing results. It hides within its laudable exterior proposals that strike at the heart of the value of human life and commodifies a child’s life as an instrument for the benefit of another. We have heard examples of parents who have genuine concerns about their children suffering from severe genetic disorders. Our hearts go out to those people, and we want to find ways of securing treatment for their children, but there are alternatives.
To help me to understand the impact of saviour siblings, I think about the situation in my own household. Yesterday evening, I was holding my one-year-old, Toby, and thinking to myself, “What problems would be created if Toby were to be a saviour sibling for his older brother, Noah, if, for the sake of argument, he had a serious genetic defect?” If we had brought Toby into the world on the basis that he was compatible with Noah, that would, for starters, have led to the destruction of embryos who had not been a match. If we got over that ethical hurdle, the next step would perhaps be to move towards a stem cell transplant via Toby’s bone marrow—not a straightforward and trivial procedure for a baby. If, as could well happen—as the other place was warned by Lord Winston, who confirmed it in print over the weekend—that transplant did not work, the pressure would be on to find another way of helping Noah, the sibling who needs assistance.
Let us wind forwards a few months, or perhaps a few years, and Noah suddenly has an organ failure. Under the Bill, we are looking at assistance by way of umbilical cord blood, bone marrow or “other tissue”. What regenerative tissue could that mean? What next—a liver transplant from Toby? Then there is renal failure—and it goes on. However much we love Noah, Toby would be living not so much as a saviour sibling but, more accurately, as a spare parts sibling. That is unacceptable.
I am grateful for that intervention, but scrutiny in the other place showed that although whole organs are excluded, many other tissues are not.
This raises the spectre of the deep insecurity that would be bred through Toby’s continual wondering whether mummy and daddy will still love him if he cannot make his brother well. Just think of the emotional hang-up for young Toby in thinking that mummy and daddy are willing to hurt him for the benefit of Noah. The doubt that would come from a child’s knowing that they were not wanted in their own right but merely as a hope for the “truly loved” older child could be incredibly damaging.
There is no safeguard in the Bill concerning any age limit.
The Government talk a lot about “Every Child Matters”. What about the saviour—or spare parts—sibling, burdened with guilt, obligation and insecurity? Do they not matter—or do they matter, but just not as much as their older brother or sister? Does a child treated as a mere commodity really matter to the Government?
I am afraid that I have already taken two interventions and any more would be using up my time.
We need only consider the issue of fatherhood to see the flaws in Government thinking. The removal of the need for a father in licensing IVF treatment is not based on evidence of any harm caused by what is in many ways a light-touch piece of guidance. Evidence confirms, clearly and categorically, that fathers have a distinctive importance in the family parental relationship. The absence of a father has a significant impact on a child, which can be compensated for, but not replaced, by a loving mother and supportive parenting. How can it be right that the Bill will not only remove the need for a father in terms of IVF treatment but permit the deliberate creation of a child with the intention of removing from them the chance of ever having a father? Is it in the best interests of the child’s welfare to deliberately and permanently write the biological father out of their life? At a time when the Government and voluntary sector initiatives are looking at how best to encourage fatherhood, it is ironic that the Bill, in effect, authorises state fatherlessness.
We have often heard that the Government want us to lead in the field of scientific progress, and this debate is often skewed between scientific progressives and supposed religious and ethical reactionaries. Yes, the problem is one of a lack of ethics. That was recognised by Sir Liam Donaldson, who told the Joint Committee that
“a deficit in medical ethics, both in the input to some of our decisions over the years and, also, in medical ethicists”.
So we should be cautious. We should not ignore the fact that Australia, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Belgium have banned what the Bill would like us to permit. Rather than being in the lead, the UK stands out on a limb as regards proposing animal-human hybrids.
The major problem with the Bill is that the Government are marching us up to the top of the hill of embryonic research. It is as if they are saying, “We will reach the summit, where there will be treatments for Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis, cystic fibrosis and so on.” That sounds attractive—obviously, we would all want to sign up to cures for those debilitating illnesses. I need only think of my brother-in-law, who has recently been diagnosed with MS, and how much we would love him to be able to have a cure. However, this is not new—as a country we have been marched up the hill since 1990. At that time, people discounted the alternative arguments for supporting adult stem cell research. Funding was restricted, although it has now been restored to some degree of balance. The summit of treatments is still far off, as it was in 1990. The Government are saying, “We know we have been on this hill since 1990. We’ve invested millions in limited stem cell lines. We know that there have been no treatments to date and that the problems of immune rejection have yet to be conclusively overcome. Stay on this path—we will get there by a new route, through animal-human hybrids.”. Everyone agrees, though, that the prospect of treatment and clinical trials is a long way off. Faced with that long journey, with many obstacles, we naturally wanted to seek reassurance from the scientists who came to our Joint Committee, who said that they were unable to establish any scientific evidence at this stage.