Second Reading debate resumed.
My Lords, I have said previously in your Lordships’ House that the severance of law from morality and religion has gone too far. Religion, morality and law were once intermingled, which helped to shape both the common law and the statutes of this land, and greatly influenced the way in which judges interpreted them. However, the law is now regarded purely as an instrument for regulating our personal affairs and as being completely severed from morality and religion. Provisions in the Bill demonstrate just how far the severance has gone and its unintended consequences.
The Government’s proposal to remove the need-for-a-father provision from Section 13 of the 1990 Act creates a false dichotomy at the heart of the Bill which places the welfare and needs of the child against their need for a father. Since when did they become competing requirements? Is it not self-evident that the welfare and needs of a child are enhanced and met when there is a father present, as against there being no father at all? Such a view is surely not controversial and would be shared by many who find themselves, through bereavement or relationship breakdown, as the single parents of children. However, there is all the difference in the world between children who find themselves in a single-parent family through bereavement or breakdown of parental relationship, and those who find themselves in that situation by design. That is precisely what the Government propose in the Bill: the removal, by design, of the father of the child.
We know already that there are men who have been moved by legal circumstances to form Fathers 4 Justice. When one overlooks the movement’s pranks and purported attempts to kidnap Leo Blair, one discovers that its founder was forced into campaigning because he was denied access overnight to a child whom he dearly loved and whom he believed loved and needed him. It took a long time for access to be restored. We now have a Bill whereby the Government are set to remove, as a statement of public policy, the requirement for the need of a father. How much stronger then might the campaign of Fathers 4 Justice become?
There seems to be some confusion in the mind of the Government over the importance of fathers. First, in 2004, they made regulations to encourage parental responsibility and visibility by removing donor anonymity and allowing donor-conceived children to access the identity of donors involved in their conception. Secondly, they have rightly emphasised in their policies the need for male role models for social cohesion, to reduce underachievement, and to avoid increasing violent crime and gang culture. We are now faced with a Bill which seeks formally to remove in its entirety the need for the ultimate male role model, that of the father. Set out in paragraph 54 of the Government’s response to the Joint Committee’s report is a bizarre proposal to replace a child’s need for a father with a delegated system of substitutes, based on HFEA licence-holders’ assessment of whether prospective mothers know anyone who may be a good role model. Such is the value placed on a father by this legislation: it is reduced to a role where any substitute will do.
The Government posit their argument on the view of the Science and Technology Committee, expressed in its report of 2005, that the need for a father is “unjustifiably offensive”. To whom is it unjustifiably offensive? Is it unjustifiably offensive to the child who will be dependent upon the love and care of the father? Are the Government really saying that they are basing their response on whether the need for a father gives offence?
The same report concluded that we cannot expect consensus on this issue because, on the one hand, we are a multi-faith society and, on the other, we are largely secular. The previous population census indicated that 85 per cent of the population described themselves as people of faith. However, statistics aside, it is far from clear to me that my brothers and sisters of faith, and indeed of no faith, feel less keenly than me about the importance of a father’s role in the life of a growing child. The Joint Committee called for an ethical framework to be established at the heart of this Bill so that decisions are based not on the potential offence rendered but on the highest ethical standards in conjunction with considerations of the welfare of the child. Such a framework is sadly missing. I support the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans in calling for an ethics committee to be set up as a matter of urgency. What we have in the Bill, rather than those high ethical standards, is, on the contrary, a signal being sent that everyone has a right to a child and that this right overrules consideration of the child’s welfare. The rationale given in the White Paper for removing the need of a child for a father was so as to appear not to discriminate against same-sex couples or single mothers who wanted to have a child through IVF. The Government’s response is based not on the welfare of the child but on the desire of those who feel that they should have a child as of right, without the need of a father.
The right of a prospective parent to have a child by any means necessary must not triumph over the welfare of children brought into the world as a result of the treatment authorised under the current legislation. The Government are bowing to the argument that, if single people and gay and lesbian couples can legally adopt, the same permission must therefore be given if they wish to commission a child using IVF. That is a non-sequitur, because the situations are markedly different; in adoption, the hospitality of a home is being offered to already existing children who have had the misfortune, through circumstances or necessity, to lose or be removed from the constant love of their own parents. Bringing the care of an adoptive home to a needy child is a wholly different circumstance to deciding in advance to use IVF technology to bring into the world a child who will, by design, never have a father. If discrimination is indeed the issue here, surely the greater discrimination is in ensuring that a child will never have any chance of knowing its natural father—a question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin. While I have sympathy with the evidence given by the chair of the Infertility Network UK for those who feel that they are denied access to childbirth under these treatments through a lack of a father, if we are to be serious about the paramount place of child welfare in this Bill, that means such welfare taking precedence over the desires of those who want a child as of right. The child’s right not to be deliberately deprived of a father is greater than any right to commission a child by IVF.
As the Government have previously acknowledged,
“the welfare of children cannot always be adequately protected by concern for the interests of the adults involved”.
The Government have often championed the slogan of “rights and responsibility” and the need to recognise the duty and responsibility that goes alongside any talk of rights. How does such talk fit with the proposals before us? What responsibility are we encouraging in the sperm or egg donor? While there is recognition of the need to treat embryos with due responsibility elsewhere in this legislation, do we absolve those who created the embryo of all responsibility for their child? There is an unhealthy theme of rampant indifference at the heart of this Bill, rooted in a consumerist mentality in which the science that allows something to happen is transformed into the right to have it. The “cogito ergo sum” of Descartes—“I think therefore I am”—becomes the consumerist mantra, “I shop therefore I am” or “Tesco ergo sum”. The competing individualist arias of “I, I, I” and “me, me, me” provide the mood music for an individualism that posits the right of a wannabe parent over the welfare of a child. This virus of individualistic consumerism which informs a rights-based mentality is alien to those of us who come from another place—Africa—where they say, “I am because we are: I belong therefore I am”.
The laws that are passed in this your Lordships’ House are more than mere regulation. The law is a statement of public policy. This is not about messages which are sent out about what is or is not acceptable in terms of family arrangements, but more fundamentally about the roles of parents, and in particular the need for a father where possible. In Clause 14 of this Bill, the Government run the risk of fundamentally altering the paramount importance of the welfare of the child, as set out in legislative terms almost 20 years ago in the Children Act 1989, and placing the interests of adults, in the form of prospective parents, above those of the child. Together with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, the noble Lords, Lord Alton, Lord Jenkin and Lord Hastings, and the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, I urge the Government to drop Clause 14 of this Bill. The rest is very good but I do not think that this is. We shall not be content with this clause.
My Lords, I declare an interest as the patron of a considerable number of neurological charities and as someone who is the life president of the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign. I shall confine my remarks to new Section 4A in this Bill. However, I wholly agree that for anyone to try to introduce amendments to the Abortion Act would be a mistake, as they would inevitably cloud the important revisions of an extremely vital Bill.
My baptism of fire, when I first became a Member of your Lordships' House in 1989, was the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, later to become an Act, which allowed experiments on the human embryo up to 14 days after fertilisation under licence from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. That was something with which I wholly agreed because individuation of the human embryo did not, in my opinion, begin until the primitive streak appeared at 14 days. I spoke about my interest in Duchenne muscular dystrophy, an X-linked recessive disease passed on by female carriers to their sons, and said that we would be likely in due course to be able to take an ovum from a carrier woman, to fertilise it in vitro, to allow it to develop into an embryo and to remove a single cell to determine whether the gene for muscular dystrophy was present—then, if it was, to allow the embryo to degenerate or, if it was not, to implant it, thus allowing these women to have normal, non-carrier daughters and non-dystrophic boys. In fact, that hope has now become a reality. This morning I chaired a meeting at the Royal Society of Medicine on muscular dystrophy research to learn that pre-implantation diagnosis of that dreadful disease has now become really feasible and is preventing the birth of children with the disease.
The Bill at that time—and the Act that followed—was designed to improve the treatment of infertility and to prevent the birth of children with serious genetic disease. It did not allow embryos to be used to generate cells for the treatment of human disease. At that time there were those who said that to discard embryos carrying abnormal genes was tantamount to killing a human being. However, I remind the House that in the course of normal human fertilisation some four or five ova are fertilised in the uterus and float free in the uterus before one implants in the wall to produce a foetus and subsequently a child. If two are implanted, that produces non-identical twins. All the rest of those fertilised ova are flushed down the toilet. So millions and millions of human embryos are lost every day in life.
The Government introduced regulations in 2001 to amend the Act to allow embryos and stem cells derived from them to be available for the treatment of human disease, legalising therapeutic but not reproductive cloning. Stem cells have a purely potential ability, meaning that they are produced from embryos which, for instance, become spare in the course of in vitro fertilisation programmes. As my noble friend Lord Alton said, adult stem cells have become increasingly important in research and so, too, have stem cells derived from the umbilical cord. Indeed, the Anthony Nolan Trust has, in collaboration with the Medical Research Council and the Wellcome Trust, established a national cord blood bank so as to be able to collect specimens of umbilical cord blood for the creation of such stem cells. All such cells, if they are used for implantation to the tissue of another individual, are donor cells which produce an immunological response, which inevitably requires suppression of that immune response.
This new technique of cloning using the interspecies embryo does not need that to occur because the cell is taken from the skin, perhaps, of an individual suffering from Parkinson's disease, diabetes, Alzheimer's disease or one of the other serious neurological disorders with which we are concerned. It could be implanted into a donor ovum from which the nucleus has been removed. However, as the noble Baroness said earlier today, it is not easy to obtain ova from even the most public-spirited of women. Now, if one can use animal cells to produce the type of capsule or framework in which the nucleus from that cell can be implanted, stem cells derived from that cell will be immunologically compatible with the host into whom the subsequent stem cells will be implanted. That overcomes the difficulties arising as a result of some use of other cells such as the adult stem cells to which the noble Lord, Lord Alton, referred.
I must mention in passing the crucial importance of mitochondrial disease. Some 99.9 per cent of human DNA resides in the nucleus of the cell. About 0.1 per cent of DNA resides in the mitochondria, which are tiny structures in the cytoplasm of the cell outside the nucleus but within the cell membrane. These structures are concerned with energy production and metabolism within the cell. Fifty-four genes have been isolated within mitochondria and a large number of mitochondrial diseases have been described. I have seen these in the course of my professional career—diseases that cause epilepsy, paralysis, dementia and a whole variety of devastating conditions.
Since mitochondria exist only in the ovum and not in the sperm, mitochondrial diseases are inevitably transmitted by every affected woman to all her children. Now, it is becoming feasible to take an ovum from a woman carrying abnormal mitochondrial genes. One can take a donor ovum from which you have removed the nucleus and put the nucleus into that donor ovum, which has normal mitochondria in the cytoplasm, and then allow that to be fertilised by the partner’s sperm, thus allowing these women to have normal children. That is not yet feasible, but licences are already being awarded for the animal research and one of my former colleagues, Professor Doug Turnbull at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, is already doing that crucial animal research, just as others are doing work on the interspecies embryo in that particular centre.
I commend to you an article by Julian Savulescu, director of the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics that was published in the Parliamentary Monitor in October. He said that creating these interspecies embryos as a,
“source of disease-specific stem cells has enormous significance … First, it is a leap toward self-transplantation … one day we may be able to take a skin cell from a patient with leukaemia, clone it, derive embryonic stem cells, produce blood stem cells, and transfer the blood cells back as a transplant after chemotherapy”.
They could also,
“be used to study any disease in a culture dish in a radically new way to create ‘cellular models of disease’. Cloning a single skin cell from a patient with a disease could be used to produce inexhaustible amounts of cells and tissue with that disease”,
which could be used not only for research but could help later in transplantation and the treatment of disease.
This is a crucial Bill. It carries enormous potential benefits for human health. This field of embryo research is one in which the United Kingdom leads the world. The Bill maintains and indeed greatly enhances that position. It is our duty to generations in the future to see this Bill enter into law.
My Lords, I first apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Walton, for being so rapidly out of the stocks. Secondly, I declare an interest as a fellow of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, a fellow of the College of Surgeons of Edinburgh and as someone who has held and still holds a licence to do stem cell work under British legislation and regulation.
My noble friend is introducing an extremely good Bill. It is a very courageous Bill in many ways. But it is wrong to suggest for a moment, as a number of noble Lords have done, including the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans and the noble Lord, Lord Hastings, who is not in his place, that this has been a rapid discussion. That is far from true. We have discussed this issue over many years, really since 1989. Indeed, I doubt whether there is a single scientific paradigm that has been more discussed in the general press, on television, radio and in the media. It is important to see that in context. The public has a pretty good idea about what is going on and in general it is fairly clear where people stand on most of these issues.
I have always had problems with regulation. I find it difficult to justify why a single medical practice should be singled out in this way for regulation. Although embryos become babies, we do not single out obstetric practice for regulation. We do not single out paediatric care for neonates, which raise much greater ethical problems than in vitro fertilisation in a practical way. We do not regulate intensive care, where people are dying in this kind of way. Therefore, for a regulatory authority to regulate clinical practice is questionable given that other aspects of infertility such as tubal surgery, the admission of drugs and other treatments that are routinely given are not subject in any way to this kind of regulation.
Having said that, I add that the same applies to research practice. What is the purpose of having research committees at the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority if we, as researchers, must first apply to local and national ethics committees to get ethical approval for the work? Is it suggested that the Government’s own ethics committees are not adequate for the purpose? That does not seem right. Indeed, they have often been much more skilful in looking at these issues than the HFEA, which has sometimes arrived at conclusions that seem to many people to be somewhat odd. I accept, as a practitioner, that it is reasonable to have regulation, but I plead with the Government that, during the Committee stage of this Bill, we ensure that the regulation is done with a light touch. The real things that need to be regulated are not regulated, and I will come to that later.
We have heard a great deal from many speakers about how Britain leads the world in this research and how we lead in regulation. However, given that, it is surprising that so few countries have adopted our model in their regulatory framework. It is simply not true: they have not done so. Britain does not lead in this research any longer. It may have done originally, but at the moment, the United States, where there is a complete ban on embryo research involving human stem cells, publishes far more papers than we do—something like four or five times the number of papers in the highest impact journals.
Israel, a country with a population two-thirds the size of London, publishes more papers than we do. Scandinavia publishes an equal number—I mean Scandinavian countries individually not collectively—so do Belgium, Singapore and Australia. Indeed, science in this country is suffering in some ways because it has been very difficult to get through a prolonged and protracted regulatory framework, which I hope the Government will take note of during the course of the Bill.
The key things that affect patients are not being regulated and cannot be regulated. The first is the transfer of multiple embryos leading to multiple births, which affects small babies very adversely. A premature baby in an incubator costs the National Health Service a large sum of money and runs the risk of being seriously damaged—one in 23 twins is born dead and something like one in 13 is abnormal. Triplets carry a very high risk indeed.
One has to accept that if the regulation becomes too tight, fertility tourism results. People go to Russia, Spain and other Mediterranean countries where they can get this treatment cheaper, but they face greater risk when they come back and have their babies under the National Health Service.
There is also the exploitation of patients. This is burgeoning, largely because, as my noble friend Lady Jay said, we did not have in vitro fertilisation under the health service from the start. Had we done that, I doubt whether this regulation would have been necessary. As it is, grotesquely inflated prices are being charged in some clinics. We have heard about the child’s need for a father; how about the desperation of a father’s need for a child? In the Book of Genesis, Abraham asks:
“God, what will you give me seeing I go childless?”.
He uses a Hebrew word meaning abandoned, desolated, because he does not have a genetic son. There is a notion here that he has lost his immortality, and that is something that infertile patients feel. This desperation leads patients to try all sorts of treatments which are not justified. That is one of the problems with the current regulation. The West End of London, for example, abounds with treatments which have no scientific justification, no proven success rate and simply exploit the desperate desire of these people to have children. That seems to me a crucial problem.
The HFEA has failed very critically in another area. The failure to collect adequate data is a real problem. Frankly, the data that have been collected under regulation are almost entirely useless. We need much better follow-up data on children born by in vitro fertilisation. The problem of confidentiality with regard to the Bill is very worrying and we shall need to consider that in Committee. If you have very strict confidentiality, doing research follow-up on children becomes well nigh impossible, but it is very important. We now know that it is not just a simple question of genetics but of epigenetic effects on embryos. We now know that the condition of children in utero before birth affects their subsequent health when they are 50 or 60. For example, small-for-date babies are more likely to have heart disease, hypertension and osteoporosis and are more likely to die of stroke. The environments in which embryos are placed may have epigenetic effects which subsequently affect their health. It is critical that we are able to follow up these effects and do the research. If the confidentiality clauses are too rigid, that will be impossible.
This is a good Bill, but adjustments need to be made. I hope that we can ensure above all that the Government accept the need for much more research in this country. This country has a unique research base, but the Minister will be aware of something that has happened in my own department at Hammersmith hospital, of which he has been director. I retired from my clinical chair in the health service two and a half years ago. As the Minister knows, that chair, which is a research position, is still vacant because this field of medicine is not attracting good enough applicants for one of the best universities in the country—Imperial College.
My Lords, before I deal with a particular issue in the Bill I wish to make some general points. This is a Bill fraught with ethical, moral and religious concerns and leads one to believe, as the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York noted, that law is completely separate from morality and religion.
I listened with great interest to the speech of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, who gave a brilliant analysis of the place of ethics in this Bill. We must get the ethics and other issues in the Bill in balance.
The Bill has raised concerns throughout the United Kingdom. My mailbag and Outlook box have never experienced such volume on a single Bill in my time in your Lordships’ House. A huge proportion of those who took the trouble to write to me, and to whom I have replied—other than those who communicated with me this morning—urged me to vote against the entire Bill at Second Reading. I am sure that many of your Lordships have received such letters. I have written back to them making the point that it is a convention of this House that a government Bill should be allowed normal progress through its whole parliamentary passage from First Reading to Third Reading. I said that I would neither encourage nor support a vote on Second Reading. I am firmly of the view that it is imperative that all the issues are scrutinised and debated with intellectual robustness, bearing in mind the sensitivity of the views of those who are deeply concerned.
We cannot, and must not, disregard the massive antipathy created by this Bill. I know that we are not democratically elected but the tenor of the letters and e-mails received indicates that the general public feel utterly ignored and helpless. How can they be heard? They believe that they are not listened to by this Government, who, if I may be so bold as to remind the opposite Bench, were elected by only 22 per cent of those eligible to vote.
I give notice that in the later stages of consideration of this Bill I shall pursue, tenaciously, the issues which I believe have the potential to unleash unforeseen consequences and to damage the values, standards and beliefs of this country. Having given that promise, or is it a warning, I will concentrate on only one issue in my contribution today; namely, animal/human hybrids. On 3 May 2007, I spoke on this issue. I said:
“We all know that the difference between an animal and a human in genetic terms is very small indeed, and it is not far-fetched to imagine a situation where a court could rule that an embryonic entity is actually an animal and allow it to develop past the 14 day cut-off period for human embryos”.—[Official Report, 3/5/07; col. 1182.]
That, sadly, is still my view.
The Bill proposes, for research purposes, the creation of a number of interspecies combinations involving animal and human tissue, even including the creation of an embryo using either animal eggs fertilised by human sperm, or human eggs fertilised by animal sperm; that is to say, true animal/human hybridisation. As if that was not alarming enough for the majority of us, there is also built into the Bill a level of flexibility which would permit the extension of many of the quasi-prohibitive aspects of the Bill, without the need for full parliamentary approval. Is this not opening the door to creating legislation without true limits? It would permit the regulatory authority to make decisions in the light of future technological developments in this field rather that in reference to concise decisions of Parliament as expressed in law. This is not a scenario that should be supported, particularly in an area as sensitive and potentially dangerous as interspecies creations.
One of the many letters I received enclosed an article from the magazine America. The article is entitled “Stem Cell Research—Hype and Reality”. It is a most readable article for a non-scientist. It points out that,
“embryonic stem cells defy control. When injected into animals or cultivated in petri dishes, they frequently give rise to teratomas (tumours, in which all sorts of tissue—skin, hair, teeth—are mixed together). These cells are designed to grow in the embryo, regulated by complex signals. The very plasticity that fascinates scientists makes them genetically unstable, hypertrophic and tumour-prone. They are far too dangerous for clinical use at any foreseeable time”.
Those who have known me for years know that I also look at issues from a religious perspective. I will not disappoint them today. The noble Lord, Lord Winston, is no longer in his place but he mentioned Genesis, from which I shall also quote. God created man in His own image and likeness, and, as is written in Genesis 1:28, He ordained that man should have,
“dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth”.
There is a clear definition between the species, which is how it must remain.
What other country in the world is taking the step that the Bill promotes? It is imperative that such a momentous and serious action cannot be taken by the Secretary of State without the full involvement of Parliament. However, it is providential that just two days ago I awoke to the news that Professor Wilmut, the creator of Dolly the sheep, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, described, has turned his back on therapeutic cloning and has decided not to pursue the licence to clone human embryos that he was awarded two years ago. He believes that a rival method pioneered in Japan has better potential for making human embryonic cells, which can be used to grow a patient’s own cells and tissues for a vast range of treatments.
As I have said before in your Lordships’ House—the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, mentioned this—“the likelihood of success”—in the treatment of degenerative disease—
“is greater with the use of adult stem technology than … with embryo stem technology”.—[Official Report, 22/1/01; col. 96.]
Then, we voted for a prohibition on human reproductive cloning, and it is extremely worrying to see in the current Bill a statement that the Human Reproductive Cloning Act 2001 ceases to have effect on the enactment of this new Bill. I know that the Minister stated in his opening speech that the Government have not changed their mind, but surely cloning animal and human tissue is but a step away. As the Bill gives such wide-ranging power and discretion to the Secretary of State, can we be confident that in the future, not necessarily under this Secretary of State, this step will not be taken? Let us not forget the recent Korean fraud.
Finally, I have four questions for the Minister. First, has the development of adult stem cell technology ceased in this country, and do the Government not know about the advances detailed by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams? Secondly, as the increase in the range of therapeutic remedies using adult stem cell technology has not come to a halt, will the Government inform the House of the number and details of new therapeutic treatments since January 2001? Thirdly, what is the current situation worldwide of the research into and use of animal/human hybrids? Fourthly, are we world leaders in basic research, as seems to be the aim, and in an area in which no one else is engaged? I have a very healthy respect for science, scientists and scientific research, but are there no limits to which they will go? I suggest that playing God is one limit that should not be breached.
My Lords, I speak, having heard the erudite contributions from the House this afternoon, feeling very much a novice and lacking depth of information. I have carefully read the Bill and the findings of the Joint Committee and the Select Committee, and I have listened carefully to the Minister’s excellent introduction to the Bill this afternoon, but I still have concerns which I wish to express.
The findings of the Select Committee and the Joint Committee illustrate that there is not only dissension, including a minority report, but a lack of scientific backing to some of the statements and an absence of bioethical views, which the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans very clearly expounded this afternoon, on this extremely complex and important subject, which concerns human life. The Bill requires detailed scrutiny to ensure that these core issues, which affect human life, are given the widest consideration. The draft Bill published in May 2007 allowed a consultation period of only three and a half weeks. The noble Baroness, Lady Jay, referred to the need for public consultation. I agree, because it seems that the public and patient groups have had very little opportunity to voice their views on a subject that has far-reaching consequences for society as a whole and touches the very roots of human dignity.
Many speakers have already mentioned the welfare of the child. UNICEF recently drew attention to the well-being of children, and stated that Britain’s position is very low compared with that of other developed nations. It is hard to see how the Bill can remedy this when, instead of proposing greater access for the child to the father in IVF treatment, Her Majesty’s Government show no proper regard for the child. How could a child ever be able to discover his or her genetic identity? Is it not the right of every human? This requires special scrutiny.
As I said, I in no way profess to be an expert in this subject, but I am concerned that this legislation might lead to a significant change in the Abortion Act. Although the Bill does not mention abortion, it replaces the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990, which changed the Abortion Act 1967. That could open up the Abortion Act to possible amendment. Here I declare an interest as a retired nurse and midwife. Abortion is always a contentious issue, with one lobby for further liberalisation of the law, including abortions on demand and abortions performed by nurses and midwives not solely medically but by surgical intervention. The other view is that it is time to review the Abortion Act because abortion rates in this country have rocketed to an all-time high of 200,000 a year—roughly 600 a day—which gives rise to the growing concern of the public and indeed of parliamentarians.
We live in an era of social change and medical and scientific advances in understanding the development of the unborn child. European statistics on social abortions show that we have the highest rate in Europe, where the average upper limit is 13 weeks. Ours is 24 weeks. We have greater knowledge of the medical and psychological effects of abortion on the woman and an ever increasing number of teenage pregnancies, many for the second time or more. Does this not point to the urgent need for an audit of the options presented to women going to an abortion clinic, such as whether they are ready for an abortion or will consider adoption, and whether they have had proper contraceptive advice? Surely there is an opportunity for a committee to consider the information if we move towards a review of abortion.
Nurses and midwives are regulated by the Nursing and Midwifery Council within the current legislation. Neither nurses nor midwives can carry out abortions; it is against the law. There is also the conscience clause, which allows the nurse or midwife not to take part in the process of abortion. Both nurses and midwives can progress through post-registration education and training programmes to become advanced practitioners, but there is currently no register for advanced practitioners and no formal mechanism for regulating their practice. The absence of regulation would put the public at risk. If the law changed to allow nurses or midwives to carry out abortions, this would pose a risk to the woman in these circumstances. In addition, the role of the midwife would present a conflict of interest in that the midwife is the professional with responsibility for the safe antenatal care of mother and baby, culminating in the safe delivery of a baby and a well mother, not for taking part in the abortion process.
As the Bill passes through its various stages in Parliament, there will be opportunity for noble Lords to scrutinise very thoroughly the wide range of changes that the Bill brings, and I look forward to participating in its passage.
My Lords, like other noble Lords, I begin by declaring an interest as a former member of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority and its two predecessor organisations, as a former member of the Medical Research Council, and as an honorary fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of General Practitioners. As others have declared their religious interests, I declare my interest as a rabbi and the president of Liberal Judaism in the UK. As other noble Lords have also declared, I was a member of the Joint Committee of both Houses on the draft Bill, to which this is the substantive successor. The committee was wonderfully chaired, with considerable time given to discussion of the details, by my honourable friend in another place, Mr Phil Willis. We should all also pay tribute to the Clerks of the committee. They did a stunning job in rather difficult circumstances, because we met so frequently.
I also thank the Minister for the Government’s taking so seriously our comments in the light of the evidence we heard. I am particularly grateful to the Government for recognising that it is not in the best interests of better regulation, or of the kinds of debate on these complex issues which need to take place, to merge the two authorities, the HFEA and the HTA. I am particularly grateful that they took seriously the scientific evidence we heard on the use of interspecies embryos. I believe that the Government are on the way to getting this right, although the definitions—as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, made clear and other noble Lords hinted at—can and should still be debated in considerable detail. I want to focus primarily on that issue.
Like other noble Lords, in the past 10 days or so I have been submerged beneath a huge pile of letters from many members of the public asking us not to legislate to allow hybrid embryos and, in some cases, comparing this scientific technique to Nazi Germany. As the child of a refugee from Nazi Germany and the relative of many others who perished, I find that comparison particularly odious. Be that as it may, I believe that it is right that we take this strongly expressed view very seriously even if it comes from an organised lobby, as the identical nature of the letters suggests that it does.
Some scientists would like to dismiss this opposition and are impatient with it. I would argue that that is a mistake. I think that we have to have this debate properly, as we did to some extent in one of the best debates that I have been part of in my three years in this House—that on stem cell research in May, to which the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, referred. We need to lay the issues on the table and, in the face of real concern “out there”, whether we like it or not, we need to be clear about what we think and why. Because of that concern, and unlike the noble Lord, Lord Winston, I believe that regulation is needed and I support it. I think that we are going along the right lines.
Let us try to take the concerns on board. First, there is clearly an irreconcilable difference between those who believe that ensoulment happens at the time of conception and those who believe in a more gradual acquisition of human status over the development of the foetus. Within the main religious traditions to be found in this country, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans made clear, we range from one end of the spectrum which says that this tiny embryo, or pre-embryo as we used to call them—which no one suggests should be used for scientific research beyond 14 days or the appearance of the primitive streak—is in fact a person, a human being in the making deserving of all the respect that we would give any human being, acknowledging the unique status of the human being, through all sorts of other permutations of views about the nature of the pre-embryo, embryo, foetus, newborn or premature baby and new baby. And you can arrive at the traditional Jewish view that does not really recognise the full human status even of the newborn, as evidenced by the fact that the newborn baby does not get a full funeral should it die within the first 30 days of life; it is not a person in the sense of, say, a one year-old. Suffice it to say that that particular bit of legislation could never have been framed by women, who would have felt the existence of the unborn child within them from the time of it “quickening”, kicking, pressing on the bladder, and whatever else unborn babies of six months' gestation or more do. But that was and remains to some extent the position within truly Orthodox Judaism.
Those two positions can never be brought closely together because they come from totally different standpoints. Whatever we do in this area is a compromise. The compromise to which we have come, rightly in my view, is to set an absolute limit of 14 days or the appearance of the primitive streak, whichever is earlier, and to forbid implantation of cloned embryos—no reproductive cloning. And that seems about right.
The real concern that has emerged from this forest of trees under which we have all been sitting for the past few days is about interspecies embryos, the use of an animal egg and a human sperm to create interspecies embryos for research purposes only, entirely for the benefit of human beings. It is here that I have to say that I simply do not understand. I think that I would understand it if we were likely to see an army of half-sheep/half-men walking across Westminster Bridge. That would be horrifying, even if it were possible, and would indeed require enormous public debate; but no one is suggesting that. Indeed, what they are suggesting should make those concerned with the unique status of the human embryo feel rather reassured. It is to take an animal egg and, as it were, scrape out its middle—its yolk, for want of a better comparison—and to insert within it human sperm to grow on for a few days to use in order to create stem cell lines for use potentially in the treatment of terrible human diseases such as Parkinson's. Researchers are working on developing a way to replace with healthy cells the dopamine-producing nerve cells that have died in Parkinson’s disease.
Although we hear much about the use of cells from cord blood—I absolutely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Alton, that we should collect cord blood as the norm—and although we hear a lot about adult stem cells, and indeed should look at the possibilities that adult cells give us, it does not mean that we do not have still to use these interspecies embryos where we can for research until new techniques are established that make that unnecessary. If we want to continue with research that is very promising, despite some of our correspondents throwing doubt on how valuable it is, we need to do it in this way for the alleviation of present human suffering. That is the point.
No one is suggesting implanting these eggs into any woman. No one wants to create hybrid creatures, half-man/half-cow. This technique of interspecies embryos is to be used to protect women from having their ovaries over-stimulated, of which there is a minor but not insignificant risk in fertility treatment, to get more eggs. The standard treatment now usually produces more eggs than are needed for fertility treatment per se, but the custom is to share eggs, which allows women with fewer financial resources to access treatment and leaves precious few human eggs for use in research. I wholly agree with the noble Baronesses, Lady Deech and Lady Jay, who have been pressing for making more in vitro fertilisation and fertility treatment available on the NHS. Part of the reason that the eggs are not available is that the treatment is not available on the NHS, so people are having to pay for it.
Those who dislike the use of human embryos for research purposes should be celebrating the fact that fewer eggs are available for such purposes. What is to be created between human sperm and an animal egg is in no sense a person. Surely it does not require that same concern about the uniqueness of the human being that a fully human embryo does. Indeed, it seems preferable, given the desire to respect the human embryo, to use such interspecies embryos for research. When we debated these issues last May, the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill of Bengarve, asked us to think differently about what it means to have these clusters of cells, what is truly human, and what is in fact animal. Do those terms still apply as we used to think that they did?
The Christian Medical Fellowship has expressed its concern, arguing that such a technique blurs,
“the boundaries between humans and animals”,
“our human dignity. It would ‘offend’ the image of God, transgress the Biblical prohibition of mixing kinds, damage concepts of historicity and lineage and fundamentally alter the nature of humanity”.
I beg to differ. The use of such eggs for research and not for cloning in no way blurs the difference between animals and humans but merely provides material on which to conduct research; material which is not fully human and therefore, according to this line of argument, less deserving of respect. The biblical prohibition on mixing would indeed be transgressed by this, but that was designed—as those who read the Bible and biblical and rabbinic literature will know all too well—to prevent the ploughing of a field with an ox and an ass yoked together and to prevent the wearing of clothes made of two fabrics, such as wool and linen. The Hebrew term for that prohibition—following the noble Lord, Lord Winston—is called shatnes. I wonder if those who cite the biblical transgression of mixing wear a mixture of wool and silk or linen and wool; and if they do, whether that gives them cause for ethical alarm.
As for damaging the concepts of historicity and lineage, that is true only of any embryos that are to be placed within a woman and lead to live births. Such arguments are simply irrelevant when discussing research and would come to the fore only if we were ever to allow, as the noble Lord, Lord Walton, said, the creation of embryos with three lots of genetic material: the father's and the mother’s with the mitochondrial material scraped out because of severe mitochondrial disease.
I do not have to time to say any more but I would like to ask the Minister two questions. First, given the concern expressed around the House, will he support the idea of a parliamentary ethics committee that can debate these issues on an ongoing basis? Secondly, will he in some way respond to the challenge thrown out by my noble friend Lady Williams of Crosby? As we are the leaders in regulation and legislation in this area and this research, how can the UK press for more global guidelines and a global ban on the implantation of cloned human embryos in the future?
My Lords, I greatly welcome the Bill. It is timely and necessary to update the 1990 Act. Like other noble Lords, I am especially pleased that the Government have decided to keep the HFEA—whose creation was the cornerstone of the 1990 Act—in being as a separate entity, thus preserving its continuity and its authority.
It is worth remembering—as many noble Lords have remembered—the history of the Bill, and the changes that have taken place since 1978 when the first IVF baby was born. I shall not bore your Lordships with the familiar details. However, it is worth remarking that when the committee of inquiry that I had the honour to chair was set up in 1982, we were concerned primarily with IVF and other remedies for infertility. It was in that context that the question of the moral status of the early embryo in the laboratory became the centre of moral controversy. Such an entity—a live human embryo outside the human body—was wholly new to the lay public, though not to the scientists who had been working for many years to make such an embryo possible. It was because of that novelty that regulation seemed necessary at that time and has continued to seem necessary to many people. I share the view of the noble Lord, Lord Winston, that it should not be heavy-handed but, as a result of the history of the legislation, we are in a position where regulation will continue. It is futile to suggest that we now go back and have no regulation, nor would I advocate that.
The centre of our report was the regulation of remedies for infertility, but we ventured to put in a single chapter listing the possible future uses of the new embryology in the wider context of genetic disease. In those days, we had no concept of stem cell research. In the more or less six years that passed between the publication of the report and the passage of what became the 1990 Act, the emphasis shifted considerably, and during the passage of the Bill in your Lordships’ House many of those who voted in favour of it did so on account of the wider applications of the benefits. Although they are perhaps more distant now than seemed probable then, they have so vastly increased that they constitute a positive moral imperative upon government to allow research to continue, to be properly funded and to be regulated with not too heavy a touch. The passionate commitment to the research shown by the noble Lord, Lord Walton, did a lot to change the minds of many Members of Parliament at that time.
It is often remarked that since 1990 there have been huge changes not only in knowledge and technology but in social and moral attitudes among people at large. The passage of the Human Rights Act may be taken as symbolic of those changes. There has certainly been a change in the readiness of society and government to countenance a variety of different forms of family, including same-sex partnerships. It seems consistent with such attitudes to remove from the Bill the requirement that, for assisted conception to be offered, account must be taken of the need of the child for a father. However, this is already highly controversial. It is a clause that is capable of being interpreted as discriminatory, and with that I have a certain, rather mild, sympathy. However, judging by the huge piles of correspondence that I, like other noble Lords, have received, it has been taken to be a statement that the old forms of family are no longer necessary and, particularly, that men have no use in the procreation of children. That does not seem the intention of the Government, but if that is how it is widely interpreted it ought to stay in the Bill, partly because it has always been a pretty ineffective bit of legislation. That and the reference to the welfare of the child seemed pretty wishy-washy in 1990 and still do now, and I doubt whether that consideration has ever caused a change in a decision on whether to offer in vitro fertilisation. On the committee, we used to spend many happy hours inventing cases where we would think it wrong to allow a couple who wanted IVF to have it—known child abusers or people who were more interested in their own careers for whom the child would be an accessory—so we put the stuff about the welfare of the child in the report. It has done no harm. I do not think the bit about the need for a father has done any harm either, but I very much doubt it has made any difference. Therefore, I would be quite happy to see it still there.
At the centre of the moral thinking behind the 1990 Act was a broad utilitarianism. Changes may have come about, and we may all be much more rights-oriented than we were before the passage of the then Human Rights Bill, but in that moral thinking there was very little consideration of human rights. It was much more a broad utilitarian consideration, and I must say a few words in favour of utilitarianism as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans spoke rather slightingly about it. As legislators, parliamentarians have to be utilitarian in the broadest possible sense. They have to consider the consequences of any legislation they propose and carry through and, in considering the consequences, they have to weigh up the harms that may be done to society as a whole against the benefits to society as a whole. It is a morality that gives thought to the common good in so far as it can be ascertained. That is an important principle. On the committee, we thought that utilitarianism in this broad sense was the philosophy that must lie behind any legislation—weighing up harms against benefits, which in the sphere of animal experimentation is rather misleadingly called cost-benefit analysis.
The fact that there was no emphasis on human rights—there is none in the Bill—is one reason why it would be so deplorable to confuse the issues before your Lordships’ House if an amendment concerned with abortion policy were tabled. Although it is true that the Abortion Act and the Bill are concerned, in different ways, with the status of the embryo, in the case of abortion the question of rights seems inevitably about to arise. Some of your Lordships will remember that in 1990 the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, reminded the House that we were in danger of losing the Bill altogether because of the amendment referring to abortion that was tabled at a very late stage.
At this stage, I must in justice call attention to the enormous part that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, played in getting the 1990 Bill through this House and on to the statute book. When I was in Cambridge teaching about this issue, all I used to do was read aloud the speech that he made from the Woolsack when he was putting the issues before the House in the clearest possible way. Ever since, I have had the greatest admiration for that bit of parliamentary procedure.
We must resist any attempt to foul the waters now with talking about the Abortion Act, even though we may passionately feel that it needs to be revised. We must, in fact, continue to do as we did in 1990, with our admirable philosophical practice of distinguishing things that differ.
My Lords, it has been a great privilege to have heard such a group of distinguished and expert speakers in the debate so far. I am particularly grateful, if a little humbled, to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, whose words I listened to with rapt attention. I declare interests as a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, as a past chairman of its ethics committee, a fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences and a scientific adviser of the Association of Medical Research Charities.
If ever there were a listening Government then this is; at least as far as this Bill is concerned. It is a pleasure to see that they have taken on board the large majority of the recommendations of the Joint Committee, on which I have the privilege to sit for at least part of the time. There is much greater clarity and reason to the Bill, so that it is now much more fit for purpose. It strikes in general a good balance of protecting the safety and confidentiality of patients, including the children, and at the same time opening up the possibility of much valuable research which otherwise would not be possible. The increased flexibility that it envisages by allowing the Secretary of State to modify the regulations in light of new advances is, pace the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, extremely important. I am not going to expand on the positive steps taken in the Bill, but the proposal to keep separate the HFEA and the HTA is a great relief. Although I am disappointed, as is the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, that the Government do not wish to re-examine the Human Tissue Authority, I understand their reasons, and I hope that we will be able to return to it at some not-too-distant time. There are certainly some issues that need to be examined.
The inclusion in the Bill of greater clarity about the definition of what constitutes an embryo, a gamete and so on, about the regulations under which mitochondrial diseases, for example, might be researched, and under which hybrids and cybrids may be used for research are all major steps forward and are supported strongly not only by the scientific and medical community but by the patient groups that I have dealings with.
Having applauded the Government so loudly, it may seem niggardly to point out some aspects where we need to look again to see whether we have it quite right; nevertheless, I have to do so. Most of the problems that I want to focus on arise from the distinctions that are made between IVF and other forms of fertility treatment. I shall talk about the routine treatment of infertility by IVF, not the other possible uses of human embryos for research, the development of stem cells and so on. I am talking about infertility and the use of IVF. Patients who are infertile usually go through a range of treatments—drug treatments, occasionally surgery, often intrauterine sperm injections—and if they do not work they may go on to a trial of IVF. The point is that IVF is part of a continuum of a range of treatments and it is now well used and documented as a routine therapy in many places. And yet, it is treated quite differently from the other forms of therapy.
While some distinctions may be necessary, a number of gross anomalies arise. The first arises out of the need to take account of the interests of the child, which is very laudable in principle; but in practice a requirement is placed on the obstetrician to assess the suitability of potential parents for parenthood, which is difficult to fulfil. I go along very much with what the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, said about the practical outcome of having that in the Bill. Leaving aside the practical difficulty of making such an assessment in advance, it is quite illogical to single out this form of fertility treatment from the other forms that I have mentioned. Indeed, it is almost bound to be the same patients who, having gone through a range of efforts to render them fertile, suddenly find themselves having to be formally assessed for their suitability for parenthood. What would happen if they were turned down at that last step, which is highly unlikely? If you go along that route, you might in logic need to assess every couple wanting to have a child. It does not seem that we have got this quite right.
There is the issue of data collection, which some noble Lords have mentioned, which is required by the HFEA. It does not, of course, collect data on other forms of fertility treatment, but it requires that not only all successful IVF treatments are reported to it but all unsuccessful cycles of treatment. All the units that practise IVF have to be licensed and collect their own data, but the HFEA collects them as well and then squirrels them away—that is the important point—so that this important body of information is unavailable to anyone. Even fully anonymised data held by the HFEA are inaccessible to legitimate researchers; what a waste. Data collected in the future, as I understand it and if I read the Bill correctly, may now be used for research under strict conditions, but what about the data that are already held over many years? These are rich sources of information, which could provide invaluable help for future patients. I hope that we might consider a mechanism that allows research access, such as through the Patient Information Advisory Group—PIAG—which has been so helpful for research in, for example, the cancer registry field, but which has been denied the HFEA field.
Finally, there is a discrepancy between the treatment of medical practitioners who are in breach of confidentiality in relation to patients’ infertility treatments. A doctor who misbehaves in this way in relation to any other form of infertility treatment is liable to be up before the GMC disciplinary committee and is likely to be struck off and prevented from practising again. You might think that is a pretty severe sentence. However, a doctor involved in a similar misdemeanour in relation to IVF is liable to criminal proceedings against him or her and a jail sentence or a fine, or both. That anomaly seems quite unjustified.
I can understand that the Government may find it necessary to draw a line between the various uses to which IVF technology can be put and other forms of fertility treatments, but it throws up some stark illogicalities. I hope that we might be able to sort some of them out. Perhaps we should be considering ways in which we can separate out straightforward, routine IVF from the other provisions in the Bill governing research applications, which are clearly more contentious. I look forward to debates at the later stages of the Bill when we might be able to return to some of those points.
My Lords, like many others, I believe that this is an extremely important Bill on a complex subject. I also believe that it is difficult for a non-scientist such as myself to appreciate all the ramifications. My basic premise, therefore, is that of course I support the need for effective, qualitative research to alleviate illness, disease and human suffering, but with the proviso that it should be appropriately regulated.
I have two particular reasons for taking part in today’s Second Reading debate. First, I was in the position of the Minister today in that it was my responsibility to pilot the 1990 Bill through your Lordships’ House as the then Health Minister. My noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern, as the then Lord Chancellor, was of course the lead member of the team and he, with his usual wisdom and clarity, dealt with all the really tricky ethical issues. I was more fortunate than the Minister, who appears to be going it alone.
It has already been said that the 1990 Bill was an admirable example of how to produce legislation, from the Warnock report itself and the wide discussions that took place during its preparation, through to the wide consultation process that took place subsequent to the report and before the Bill was drafted. The process took a long time—I believe it was almost 10 years altogether—but that was right and proper. We cannot and should not rush debate and decision-making over issues affecting human existence. The fact that the Bill has survived for so long as the framework for regulation in this area is proof of the value of all that preparation and concern.
I, too, recognise from my postbag on the Bill that there are people who feel that we should not allow this type of research or treatment to take place at all, but of course that is absurd; we cannot turn back the clock. Science evolves and develops in many wonderful, life-enhancing ways, as we have heard, and these developments give some people great power for good. Our job as politicians is to ensure that guidelines, safeguards and the necessary transparency and accountability are built in so that those people are able to do good in that way. Therefore, I welcome the opportunity that the Bill gives us to review and revise the workings of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority and to look again at definitions and developments in the light of all these changes.
My second reason for participating in the debate is to support those, including my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans and the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and others, who emphasised the importance of all the ethical considerations to which the Bill gives rise. In this respect, I add my voice to support the suggestion of setting up a Standing Committee on bioethics to look at issues such as these and to give them the time and consideration required to ensure that we produce the best possible regulation of the amazing scientific developments which continue to take place and about which we have heard from some of the experts speaking in the debate.
I turn to some of the specific issues that concern me. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, and others, I intend to resist the part of Clause 14 that aims to remove the provisions of the 1990 Act relating to the need of a child for a father. We all agree that the welfare of the child must be paramount, and, in my book, that should mean him or her having a father and a mother. If the noble Baroness, with all her experience of the authority, feels that the existing provisions are adequate, then I share her views.
On stem cell therapy, if techniques and research have developed to enable adult stem cells to be used rather than creating embryos for the purpose, surely that must be the way forward.
I am doubtful about the proposals to allow for the commercialisation of surrogate motherhood on the condition that agencies run on a not-for-profit basis. It seems to me that if you allow surrogacy agencies to charge reasonable expenses and to advertise their services, that is leading in the direction of commercialisation. That will have to be watched very carefully.
The noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, raised questions on the Government’s international approach. She referred to their failure to support the United Nations call to member states to,
“prohibit all forms of human cloning inasmuch as they are incompatible with human dignity and the protection of human life”.
This was a non-binding, ethical declaration and the United Kingdom voted against it in 2005. Why? I add a further question: why have the Government not ratified the Council of Europe Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine? Many of our partners in the Council of Europe have already done so.
Finally, this is an important and complex Bill. It raises many ethical issues and issues of conscience. I believe that it is therefore appropriate that there should be a free vote in Committee and at later stages. I am glad that my party and, as I understand it, the Liberal Democrats are following that course, and I hope that the Government will reconsider their position.
My Lords, I and many people outside your Lordships’ House are concerned about some aspects of the Bill. It warrants serious scrutiny, which I am confident your Lordships will provide. We are living in a very fast-moving scientific era.
The Bill seeks to revise the regulation of embryos and makes provision to ban the selection of embryos on the ground of sex. It does not, however, offer the same safeguards for disability. What logic is there in banning sex selection on the one hand when, on the other, disabled people could be terminated because they are not perfect?
Does the Bill open doors which may cause a morally dangerous strand to life? Mixing animal and human life is disturbing as it is so against nature. Both human and animal life should be respected.
I am one of your Lordships who feel that, where possible, there should be a mother and father in the life of a child. The importance of fathers has been well illustrated by some of the children who have recently lost their fathers in the tragedies of war. The Bill does not respect the importance of fathers. For some time, when people have become paralysed by breaking their backs or necks and they may not be able to father children in the future, it has been possible for sperm to be taken, stored and used at a later date with the agreement of both partners. I welcome that and it shows the importance of fathers.
Like my noble friends Lord Alton and Lady Emerton, I am concerned about the ever-increasing use of abortion. It is not only this Bill that would allow for selection against disability; the Abortion Act 1967 already selects who will be born and who will not. As someone who has sought to defend disability rights and promote disability awareness, I can think of no greater affront to equal opportunities for those who are disabled than the denial of the right to life itself. It is a source of great shame and reproach for us all that in this country we discriminate against disability, even before birth.
A paediatric plastic surgeon told me that he needed about 29 babies with hare lip defects each year to keep his hand in practice so that he was expert at his job. He is not getting them as he used to because so many are being aborted. When I related this to my secretary, who had been born with such a defect which had been corrected, she was horrified.
Perhaps noble Lords would argue that people with disabilities should not be brought into the world. What, then, of babies aborted as late as childbirth itself for rectifiable disabilities as minor as a cleft palate or a club foot? Your Lordships may remember the case of Joanna Jepson in 2003. She began a legal challenge after police refused to prosecute doctors who carried out a late abortion on a woman who did not want a baby with a cleft palate. Mrs Jepson herself had had corrective surgery on a congenital jaw defect, and she believed that a cleft palate was not a serious handicap. She sought to change a law which said that she should not be alive.
Modern medicine can alleviate these conditions with relative ease. In my view, aborting foetuses with these minor, curable disabilities contravenes the Abortion Act in its own terms. Section 1(1)d of the 1967 Act allows the termination of a pregnancy at any time if there is significant risk of the baby being born “seriously disabled”. Many of these conditions are not serious. The law is being abused, even in its own terms.
Equal value is something we must seek to defend and promote: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights requires as much. But the law as it currently stands imposes a perfection test on life. None of us is perfect; we all have our constraints and our strengths. The Government's own disability rights watchdog, the Disability Rights Commission, as it formerly was, is opposed to abortion on the grounds of disability. In 2001, the DRC stated that the section of the Abortion Act which permits abortion on the grounds of disability is,
“offensive to many people; it reinforces negative stereotypes of disability and there is substantial support for the view that to permit terminations at any point during a pregnancy on the ground of risk of disability, while time limits apply to other grounds set out in the Abortion Act, is incompatible with valuing disability and non-disability equally”.
The commission continued:
“In common with a wide range of disability and other organisations, the DRC believes the context in which parents choose whether to have a child should be one in which disability and non-disability are valued equally”.
The Disability Rights Commission has an official policy opposing abortion on the grounds of disability which it regards as the worst form of discrimination against disabled people. They are completely supported by the Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation which, as the leading network of disabled groups, takes an absolute stand against abortion on the grounds of disability.
One of the most difficult things for people with disability to contend with is the attitude of the able bodied, who obviously think it is better to be dead than disabled. Disabled people should be accommodated, treated where possible, and, above all, valued. It is clear that the current law and the provisions contained within this Bill do not value disabled people. It instead allows them to be got rid of, in the case of the 1967 Act, right up until birth. This is why in Committee, I intend to move amendments at least to stop abortion taking place on the grounds of rectifiable disability in the hope of wider debate about the routine use of eugenics. I hope your Lordships will consider supporting this in respect of equal opportunities to life.
I read with interest in yesterday's Sunday Times that the man who created Dolly the sheep is abandoning cloning in favour of a new technique that produces stem cells without an embryo. Professor Wilmut at Edinburgh University will switch to a revolutionary and less controversial technique pioneered in Japan, in which cells have been developed from fragments of skin.
Also yesterday I was dismayed to hear a statement which said that the budget for animal health might have to be cut. I could hardly believe that this had even been thought of with the state of the drains at the animal health laboratories which deal with live viruses, with the need for development of animal vaccines and with the disasters connected with foot and mouth disease, blue tongue virus, avian flu, tuberculosis in cattle and badgers, dangerous E.coli, equine flu in Australia which might come here, BSE or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, CJD or Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, the National Scrapie Plan and even the ever-increasing dangerous stings from bees and hornets. If the budget were cut at this of all times, it would be false economy in the long run, affect research and development and increase the risk of dangerous infections. The Bill before us has many different strands. We need a safe and acceptable society to live in where government departments work together for the good of mankind.
My Lords, I propose for the consideration of the House now and in Committee the creation of a national bioethics commission in this country. The great physicist Niels Bohr said that it was dangerous to make predictions, especially about the future. He was right about his own scientific world. We are now at a stage where the speed of scientific advance is very fast indeed. It is outstripping the capacity of our people to understand what is happening. It thereby impairs our ability to set an ethical framework in which those advances should be made. That is not an acceptable state of affairs in a democracy. Science must speak and explain to us what it is doing and where it might go. We are entitled to what I would call scientific social responsibility. With it we, the people, can understand better, be more aware and therefore be able to participate in the democratic processes about life sciences which so fundamentally affect us.
Regulatory control is plainly necessary in this area, but it is not enough. Control may give people confidence, but an ethical framework will give them trust. We should seek to establish a combination of the two under the bioethical reforms. We need not only confidence and trust, but some basic understanding about probability—the “mights” of life as against the “woulds”, “wills” and “surelys”. Very few people ever think about probability when examining the world in which they live. It is very important in this context. Do they think about risk in this context? Hardly at all. They need educating. We need educating. Therefore, it is appropriate, is it not, to consider a national bioethics commission? While I agree with much of what my noble friend Lord Winston says, I simply do not agree that we already know what most people think about these issues. We, educated people, ask for evidence about the public’s feelings on things, but without any proper understanding and awareness, how can they give us evidence? We have a state in which one almost patronises them.
What of the commission? Its function was proposed over 25 years ago by Sir Ian Kennedy, certainly not on any religious basis, but entirely because of the ethical framework in which science was then moving. Such commissions exist in Australia, Denmark, Germany, France and other countries, and they work. The societies there benefit from those commissions. They do not determine or decide—they inform; they make one aware; one understands better and one plays one’s democratic part more productively.
How might that apply to some of the issues arising within this Bill and without it? Human reproductive cloning must remain illegal. It was made so by a three-line clause in 2001. The clause that replaces it runs to nearly 40 lines, depends on definitions and introduces a regulation power. I am sure that the Government want to maintain the prohibition, but we need clarity; this is too much detail for such a plain point. A commission would have clarified that as part of the general debate.
The Government thought one thing about interspecies cloned embryos and then another; the debate swung one way and then the other. A commission would have played its part in informing that debate instead of watching it, as we did, lurch from one view to another. What of the prospects of future embryonic testing? Humility before hubris in science is a wise approach. A professor at UCL said yesterday that there had been gross overselling about the prospects of genetic science—first, as to the range of cures, and, secondly, as to when they might occur. I suggest that we should apply rigour. Therefore, we induce into people’s thinking that certain types of research are necessary to solve these problems—rigour not promises.
Lastly, the Bill does not deal with adult stem cell research in any particular way. The Joint Committee thought that it was unnecessary for it to consider it. As far as I am aware, no public body in this country is analysing the balance of benefit and cost between embryonic stem cell research as figures under this Bill and adult stem cell research. Is that appropriate? All those things would have benefited from a commission. There are two riders. Sir Liam Donaldson spoke, as the right reverend Prelate told us, of the medical ethics deficit in his profession. That means—does it not?—that the deficit must be rectified from within medicine and from without. The Joint Committee thought that this Bill was lacking in the ethics underpinning it should have, as was found in the Warnock committee approach. It said that that lack of underpinning finds no proper substitute in public consultation on individual issues. Both those riders illustrate the need.
What is the present state of affairs? The HFEA is a regulator. The Human Genetics Commission gives advice which is directive; it is opinion advice, not simply informative advice. The food and agricultural committees in these areas do their best. None of them has a wide public role. My noble friend Lord Winston was relatively kind to the HFEA tonight. On past occasions he has been excoriating about what it has or has not done. The fact is that it now regulates a £500 million industry with a sub-committee on ethics. Is that really the right approach? I have spoken about the other committees; what about Nuffield and the private sector? It is not a public body and it is not independent in the sense of being accountable and transparent to the nation. It has the advantage of one cleric sitting on it—he is the only cleric on the HFEA; namely, the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth. He was there apparently to fulfil the role of theology: the designation is, “(Church of England)”. That result means that we are left with the Government. They tell us in the report that the present system works fine. It tells us enough. “Us”? What about us—the people—not you? What about Parliament? A Joint Committee on ethical issues is necessary.
If we do not have such a body we are left with some government regulators with ethical committees, an unaccountable private body and the Government. In Great Britain in 2007—this new age of science—that is not enough.
What would this body therefore do? It would be set up by statute with a wide bioethics remit; it could function at reasonable cost; it would be independent; and it would be continuous. I know of no country where the participation of different views in any way detracts from the effectiveness of these commissions on the countries in which they operate. What are the benefits for us? It closes a democratic gap; it enables science to be responsive to it and thereby responsible to us; it benefits the Government; and it benefits Parliament because it compliments rather than subtracts.
The Joint Committee was reluctant to accept it. Using its phrase, I could detect “no sound point of principle” why it was reluctant, unless it thought that the recommendation was designed to avoid parliamentary decision making. Far from it; it is to add to it as the basic democratic requirement. When we talk about these things in a democracy, it is not just the letter of the law; it is a culture of democracy that involves us all.
My Lords, I wish to voice my concerns on matters arising from the Bill before us today. The current proposals threaten not only human dignity but the family. If the liberalising amendments on abortion are accepted, human life itself will also be threatened. I believe that the creation of animal/human embryos for research is not only unnecessary and undesirable but it is unethical and would undermine our human dignity and alter the very nature of humanity.
Further, this proposal totally disregards the biblical law on mixing species as laid down in Holy Scripture, and would be an offence to the Creator Himself who made man in His own image. These proposals would also unleash an untameable monster on an already morally diminished people, the end result of which is too fearsome to contemplate.
I was greatly heartened, like others who have spoken today in your Lordships’ House, by Professor Wilmut’s decision to abandon cloning because the Japanese Professor Yamanaka has found a way to create a patient’s own stem cells from fragments of skin, thus obviating the need for embryos. A warm welcome has been given to this discovery by Sir Martin Evans who sees this as a long-term solution and by Professor Robin Lovell-Badge who said that this is very likely to be the future. I believe Josephine Quintavalle’s remarks would apply to all right-thinking people. She commented:
“As a country we must follow the Wilmut lead and put behind us all meddling with human cloning and animal/human hybridisation”.
I trust your Lordships' House will take these words to heart today and reject the proposals in this iniquitous and immoral Bill—
[The Sitting was suspended from 7.36 to 8.30 pm.]