§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Lennox-Boyd.]
§ Mr. Speaker
In view of the late start of this Adjournment debate on a very important matter in which a large number of right hon. and hon. Members wish to take part, I ask for brief contributions, please.
§ The Minister for Health (Mr. Tony Newton)
Although modestly cloaked as a debate on the Adjournment, the issues involved in our discussion today are of very great significance, I hope, if I may express at least one personal opinion, that this will prove to be one of the best occasions in the House, when we have the opportunity to debate a major subject without the pressure of reaching an immediate set of conclusions, but in a way that helps to influence and strengthen the standing of whatever conclusions are eventually reached.
I assure the House that that is the spirit in which the Government approach the debate. On a number of issues, the White Paper sets out considered Government proposals for legislation, on which we remain anxious to take full account of the views of the House in shaping the precise form of the Bill which in due course will follow. The Government have neither expressed, nor seek to express, a collective view on the issue of research. They seek to provide, by discussion of the White Paper and by proposals for alternative draft clauses in the subsequent Bill, a basis for the House to reach a properly considered conclusion.
Despite the size of the subject, I see my task in quite limited terms — principally to set the scene for the expression of views by hon. Members on both sides of the House. I shall seek — my aim has been reinforced by what you, Mr. Speaker, said a few moments ago—to be correspondingly brief, thereby maximising the opportunties for those views to be expressed. I am conscious—as I observed recently in another context — that being Minister for Health gives me no special status to advise on matters of conscience or morality, such as those involved in our discussion.
In the 10 years since the birth of the first test-tube baby, subjects of embryo research and in-vitro fertilisation—to give test-tube babies the proper terminology — have rarely been out of the news. That is not surprising, in view of the revolutionary developments that they signify. These are very difficult, new topics and touch on issues on which most people hold strong personal views. I have no doubt that today's debate will reflect the various strands of opinion.
Perhaps I should observe that, alongside those who hold particular views about embryo research, our debate will obviously be followed closely by the many thousands of couples who suffer from infertility. Despite the increased independence of women, and the more general acceptance—at least in some quarters—of the other life styles, the ideal of the nuclear family — father, mother and children — is still the ambition of many, indeed most, people in our western society. It pervades our everyday lives in countless ways, and it comes home strongly to those couples who cannot, for whatever reason, have children as a particularly painful issue. Their 1199 emotions and desires are not matters that any hon. Member would wish to dismiss or ignore, whatever conclusions may ultimately be drawn from the debate.
Medical treatments are constantly being improved. For some, a course of drugs may be all that is required to enable them to conceive naturally. However, for most infertile couples the problem is less easy to treat, and for many there may as yet be no answer at all. The treatments for infertility covered by the White Paper "Human Fertilisation and Embryology: A Framework for Legislation" include some of the most advanced treatments yet available. They bring hope to couples who have tried all else to no avail, and to some they have undoubtedly brought great joy and happiness. However, as we are all aware, at the same time they raise questions for society as a whole—questions of an ethical, social and legal nature. It is those difficult issues that we all have to face, particularly all of us in this place, to whom it falls to determine the legal framework.
The wider public debate on the subject began in earnest with the publication in 1984 of the report of the inquiry into human fertilisation and embryology set up by the Health Ministers, the Lord Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Education and Science, and chaired by Dame Mary — now Baroness—Warnock. That report still stands as the prime document in the debate. It would be an understatement to say that not everyone agrees with all its conclusions, but there is fairly general acknowledgement of the acclaim that it has received, in this country and internationally, as a survey of some of the problems and issues. It has certainly provoked deep thought and a good deal of response from many individuals and organisations, and it remains the foundation of the discussions that have subsequently taken place.
The publication of that report was followed by debate both in this House and in the other place. Many responses were received, the chief focus of debate being embryo research and surrogacy. A clear consensus emerged at an early stage on commercial surrogacy, and the Government felt in a position to make a suitably quick response in the form of the Surrogacy Arrangements Act 1985, which banned commercial surrogacy agencies and advertising of, or for, surrogacy arrangements. Parliament has also had a number of opportunities to consider embryo research as a result of a series of private Members' Bills.
Surrogacy and human embryo research remain important topics. However, the Warnock report covered a far wider range of issues which also deserve detailed consideration, and which were somewhat overlooked in the aftermath of the report. To try to redress the balance, the Government published a consultation document in December 1986 specifically inviting views on matters such as the nature of the licensing authority, storage and access by children to information about donors.
Many responses were received — again revealing a wide variety of views. But despite that wide variety of views, on the strength of the responses received—taking the consultation process as a whole—the Government felt able to make proposals on the direction that legislation should take. My right hon. Friend announced the publication of the White Paper in November last year.
It could be seen as a rather leisurely process—overleisurely, some might think. I believe, however, that we shall find that this steady, even slow, progress towards legislation, which has been open at all stages to debate, will prove invaluable in the face of fast-developing and 1200 extremely sensitive and difficult issues. I expect it to result in the ultimate formulation of legislation that is clear and effective on matters on which sufficient consensus can be found, but does not go too far, too fast, on those on which society is still forming its view.
§ Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)
I may be anticipating what my right hon. Friend is going to say. However, in view of the concerned letters that I have received, will he assure the House that he would see the licensing authority as a totally impartial body, not weighted in favour of embryonic research or, necessarily, against it?
§ Mr. Newton
I can give my hon. Friend an absolute assurance that that is our aim. It is possible that. in the course of the debate, hon. Members will wish to express views about how that can best be achieved, and those are precisely the sort of views that we would wish to take into account in any further thinking.
I should like to outline some of the basic principles underlying the White Paper's proposals. On one matter there is well-nigh universal agreement— indeed, I hope that it is universal—that due respect must be given in law to the presence of human life. That means, unequivocally, that the early embryo must be protected in law. However, it must be acknowledged that there are significant differences of opinion on the extent of protection that should be afforded to the embryo. Tension still remains between the need to protect the early embryo and the need to offer as much help as possible to infertile couples, or couples at risk of passing on severe hereditary diseases to their children. I-low that tension is to be resolved is for Parliament to decide.
As I have already said, the Government have decided that their role is to provide the House with alternative clauses, and to encourage as informed a debate as possible on the issues at stake—which they have done through their consultation document, their White Paper, and which they hope to advance further through today's debate.
A second principle underlying the White Paper is the desire not to cut off hope unnecessarily from infertile couples and others who may be helped by the new developments. The procedures exist; we must recognise that they will continue to exist; and desperate couples will continue to find help somewhere. The general view emerging from consultation was that treatments like in-vitro fertilisation and artificial insemination by donor should be allowed to continue in this country, but under strict regulation to ensure that there are proper safeguards.
A further guiding principle is that the welfare of children born as a result of such treatments must be of paramount importance. They, as much as every other child, have a right to a sense of identity and a secure family life. Society as a whole, in permitting the treatments to be developed, has a responsibility to the children born as a result of those treatments, and must ensure that they have the best chance possible of achieving that sense of identity and secure family life. That is why the White Paper proposes that counselling should be statutorily available to all couples considering these treatments, and to children who subsequently wish to find out some information regarding their genetic background. For the time being, we propose that the donors should remain anonymous, but we must recognise that public attitudes may change, as they did with adoption. In the future, it may seem right to allow the child access to the donor's name.
1201 That brings me to another point, which I hope the House will keep in mind, if it agrees with me. This is a fast-moving issue, and it would be wise to avoid legislation that is completely inflexible and cannot assimilate developments as they occur. That is why the White Paper suggests that, while the basic remit of the proposed statutory licensing authority should be set out in the primary legislation, it should be adjustable by regulations. In addition, a number of finer points of detail should be left to the authority to determine in its code of practice, which will be laid before Parliament.
We must aim to provide the licensing authority with a clear legal framework within which to work, and, while providing a line of accountability to Parliament, we must not try to do the authority's work for it. In the decisions that it makes, and the advice and guidelines that it gives to both Government and clinicians, it must be genuinely independent, and seen to be independent. I reiterate what I said a moment ago to my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) about the need for genuinely balanced advice from a balanced and representative membership.
§ Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton)
Can my right hon. Friend reassure me that the ultimate responsibility for the work of the statutory licensing body will be his and that he will be answerable to the House?
§ Mr. Newton
I think it is clear that the framework that we propose would provide a proper line of accountability to Parliament. If my hon. Friend feels that that is not sufficiently clear in the White Paper, we shall wish to take account of any views that she expresses in the debate. However, if she is asking me whether Ministers could, on their own responsibility, overrule decisions of the statutory licensing authority within that framework, I do not think that that is appropriate, or indeed that Parliament would want it.
§ Sir Bernard Braine (Castle Point)
My right hon. Friend is, of course, aware of the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986, for the enforcement of which the Home Secretary is responsible. Ultimately, the responsibility rests here. Is the Minister going to tell us that less responsibility will be vested in Parliament—as my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton) suggested—in respect of the human embryo, a human being, than for animals used in scientific experiments?
§ Mr. Newton
We all deeply respect my right hon. Friend's feelings on these matters. We shall listen with great care to the points that he will no doubt make in the debate.
Ultimately, anything which happens under statute and which, in the broadest sense, falls within his remit, a Minister must be prepared to account for to the House —but that is a different matter—if only to explain why he feels it right not to change the legislation or to undertake some other action urged upon him. There is a clear distinction between that and the suggestion—I am not sure whether my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton) was making it and whether my right hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine) was picking it up—that Ministers should have the right, on their own responsibility, to overrule decisions 1202 of a statutory licensing authority of the kind proposed in the White Paper. But if it is the view of my hon. Friends that that should be the case, I shall, at the very least, undertake to consider what they say in the course of the debate.
I am conscious of the desire of the House that I should be reasonably brief, so let me deal now with some of the key points in the White Paper. First, its proposals for statutory regulation concentrate on procedures or treatments which require regulation primarily because of the ethical as well as the social and legal problems that they raise. Thus, the proposals would apply to embryos fertilised or maintained outside the body; also to donated gametes, that is, sperm and eggs, and any treatments involving them, such as artificial insemination by donor, or gamete intra-fallopian transfer, using donated gametes.
The proposed regulatory mechanism that we have just discussed briefly is the independent statutory licensing authority. That is really the keystone of this aspect of the White Paper and is one subject on which there was a wide measure of agreement among those who responded to the consultation document. Seventy per cent. of respondents were in favour of a statutory authority, which included the existing Voluntary Licensing Authority set up two and a half years ago by the Medical Research Council and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists to provide voluntary professional self-regulation of IVF and embryo research.
I say again that the statutory licensing authority would be entirely independent in that it would have the power to grant and revoke licences for all of the regulated procedures without reference to Parliament or Ministers. However—I hope this will give some reassurance to my right hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point —Ministers will retain certain important powers, including the appointment and termination of membership. At least half the members of the authority will be lay members and at least one third will be doctors or scientists expert in this area. Licences would be required for all clinics offering any of the regulated treatments or procedures and, if Parliament permits research at all, for all research projects. It would be a criminal offence to undertake any of these procedures without a licence.
§ Mrs. Ann Winterton
Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that those medical and research-based members of the statutory licensing authority would not all be 100 per cent. in favour of embryo experimentation, and that there should be a balance among the scientific members as well as the lay members of the authority?
§ Mr. Newton
I can assure my hon. Friend that careful consideration will be given to membership issues within the powers granted by the House. Today's debate is precisely to enable my hon. Friend and other hon. Members to make their points on these issues which we can then take into account as we develop the legislation and in the course of any action which would subsequently take place.
Let me deal now with the proposal in the White Paper to which most attention has been and no doubt will continue to be paid—embryo research. There is some important measure of agreement here. There are some, mainly speculative, areas of possible research which most agree should be prohibited. Those include the creation of embryos with certain predetermined characteristics by 1203 cloning, and the creation of hybrid creatures, half man, half beast. Such experimentation, if it ever took place, would be regarded as ethically unacceptable and the Government—this will be welcomed by nearly all hon. Members—are committed to making such procedures a criminal offence, even if Parliament were to accept research in general.
However, there are other areas of research which, while recognising the need for controls, some, but by no means all, consider to be ethically acceptable in view of the benefits they could bring. Those include research to develop infertility treatments, to prevent certain congenital disorders or to improve contraceptive techniques. I do not need and I shall not seek to rehearse the arguments of those who believe such research should be permitted, nor of those who wish all research to be a criminal offence. To assist the House, they are set out in annex B of the White Paper and I am sure that many speakers will address that issue.
The Government's position is clear, and I make no apology for reiterating it. On a matter such as this, where hon. Members are likely to hold strong personal beliefs of a moral or religious nature, the Government do not take a collective view. In order that in this instance Parliament may be completely free to decide on the future of embryo research, the White Paper proposes that the draft legislation will include alternative clauses on embryo research—one banning all research, the other permitting it under strict controls. Our aim throughout has been to assist the choice which each and every individual hon. Member will have to make.
§ Mr. W. Benyon (Milton Keynes)
I have listened carefully to my right hon. Friend. Does he accept that the position is moving so fast that there really is a need to put these proposals into law at the earliest possible moment? Can he assure me that such legislaton will be introduced in the next Session of Parliament?
§ Mr. Newton
If I remember rightly, my hon. Friend has some experience as part of the usual channels, so he will know that the Government have clearly stated their intention to legislate in the present Parliament. He will equally know that all the conventions, apart from anything else, would preclude me from making a statement as definite as the one that he is seeking from me about what or might not be in the Queen's Speech for any particular Session. I hope that he will acknowledge that.
The White Paper, like the Warnock report before it, deals with far more than just embryo research. It includes important proposals covering the donation and storage of gametes and embryos, further clarification of the law on surrogacy, counselling and the legal status of children born following donation of gametes — the last being additional to the provisions already made, with regard to children born following sperm donation, in the Family Law Reform Act 1987, which is due to come into force later this year in England and Wales. While less attention is usually paid to these matters than to those on which I touched a few moments ago, they are none the less vital to the people that they will affect, and I hope that today's debate will give our proposals in these areas due consideration.
Today's debate is an important stage in our progress towards legislation. As I have just said, we are committed to introducing legislation during this Parliament. We owe 1204 it to the infertile couples of Britain, and to all interested in the matter, to conduct our debate in an informed and responsible manner, recognising that the ideal, if it can be achieved, is a framework which will allow the proper use of the knowledge that we have, or can gain, to assist people to a sense of fulfilment in their lives, while clearly protecting the fundamental values on which our society is based, not least the respect due to human life itself.
The House needs no further reminder from me of the size and difficulty of the task ahead of us in legislating in this area, but I am sure that we should make that attempt and then translate the work that underlies the White Paper into a well-considered statute. I hope that today's debate will help to achieve just that.
§ 6.8 pm
§ Ms. Jo Richardson (Barking)
I am glad that we are now having a debate on the White Paper on human fertilisation and embryo research which has arisen, as the Minister has said, from the consultation conducted by the Government on the proposals in the Warnock committee's report.
I pay tribute to the work done by the noble Baroness Warnock and the members of her committee. They were facing, in a disciplined and responsible way, complex issues raised by advances in medical science. Their report has aroused considerable controversy, as it would do, in deciding how best, and with what guidelines, society should tackle new concepts which up to now have been beyond our comprehension. They were divided in some of their views but they gave us a lot to think about.
It was unfortunate that some hon. Members decided, following the publication of the Warnock report in 1984, to isolate their particular objection to one aspect of it—research on pre-embryos — and thereby give the impression that that was all that the report was about. To use private Members' Bills to legislate on one aspect—however crucial or controversial—is not the right way to deal with this matter. It is for the Government to draft much more comprehensive legislation — as they now intend to do—with all the resources and advice that they have available. Parliament should not be required o make important choices with lasting effects on women and their partners, families and future children, in isolation, in an ill-considered way based largely on prejudice and with badly drafted proposals. That was true of the Powell Bill a year or two ago and it is true of the Abortion (Amendment) Bill.
Many other issues arise from the Warnock report and the White Paper. On the assumption that the Government will legislate on all of them later, I shall touch on some of them now. I support the setting up of a statutory licensing authority and I have taken that view since the Warnock report was published. Clearly, the establishment of such an authority is the only way to ensure good practice. I welcomed the setting up of the voluntary licensing authority, because it showed a sense of responsibility on the part of doctors. However, its performance has shown that the medical profession is, frankly, unable to impose objective controls on some of its members with respect to in-vitro fertilisation.
In theory, the decision not to enshrine too many fine details in law but to leave them to guidance on good practice is a good one. In practice it would depend on the composition of the statutory licensing authority at any one time and on whether changes in composition are allowed to result in sudden changes in recommendations. As the 1205 Minister acknowledged, there must be a range of experience on the statutory licensing authority — the White Paper proposes that —and it should include lay representatives. However, those lay representatives must not end up as separate factions with irreconcilable views, as happened on some aspects in the Warnock committee. The interventions that we have heard seem to suggest that some hon. Members want differing views to be represented on the statutory licensing authority. If the House has taken a view about that licensing authority's functions, its members should reflect that view. How do the Government propose to tackle the possibility that there might be separate factions on the statutory licensing authority — even among non-lay and non-medical members? Presumably, the authority will include professional sociologists and some high-profile professional sociologists today oppose such treatments in any form that is practised. It would be a pity if the authority became polarised.
The Government propose that there should be a reasonable balance between men and women. I hope that the Minister recognises that the appointment of a handful of lay and professional women will be regarded as nothing more than a token gesture if there is a preponderance of men on the statutory licensing authority. We have to reflect the society in which we live, and there is a wealth of talent, experience and sound common sense among the majority of the population — women — from which to draw. After all, because of their child-bearing function, women are the ones who are principally affected. They should, therefore, form a strong part of the statutory licensing authority.
Let me pick out one of the functions of the authority for comment. I hope that the guidelines will ensure that counsellors are independent and trained in non-directive counselling. It is not the function of a counsellor to push the patient in one direction or another but to ensure that she understands what is in prospect. The woman—and her family, if they are with her when the consultation takes place—must be informed that there may be delays and disappointments but that it is to be hoped that there will be rewards as well. The counsellor's job is to ensure that the woman and her partner make an informed choice.
I seek clarification on the provision of funds for the statutory licensing authority's operation. Paragraph 18 of the White Paper says that a contribution will be made from public funds but thatit will be expected to meet a large proportion of its expenditure from fees collected in connection with its licensing activity.How will that work? Will NHS clinics offering infertility services be required to pay fees to the licensing authority, part of whose funds will come from the public purse?
I understand that the authority will be funded partly from private funds, but part of its money will come from public funds. The Medical Research Council, which is funded from public money, supports research aimed at improving in-vitro fertilisation techniques and reducing the risk of genetic diseases. Its function is to undertake research that will improve people's lives, including the medical care available to them. Will the M RC be required to pay money to the statutory licensing authority out of 1206 the public funds allocated to it to fulfil its function? If so, that seems an unnecessary and bureaucratic way of bookkeeping, which might cost more in the end.
I am not opposed to infertility clinics in the private sector contributing to the work of the authority. They make money. However, I hope that they will not pass on the additional cost to their patients, who already pay heavily for treatment. Three of my constituents undergoing private infertility treatment have told me that they have had to remortgage their houses to do so. As far as possible, I would like the service to be available to all women, whatever their income, so I hope that we shall examine that matter.
In all this, the person to be considered is the patient. Women and their partners who seek advice and help because of infertility problems must be assured of a free service under the National Health Service. At the moment, the NHS is in crisis and we have all been arguing and pleading for more resources for patient care. I do not believe that infertility treatment should be regarded as a luxury to be paid for, because if it is, only the better-off will be able to afford it.
I have to confess to being unsure whether children who are born following artificial insemination by donorAID—or egg/embryo donation should have the absolute right to information about their origins. My instinct is that parents should be able to choose for themselves whether to tell the child, and I suspect that, in practice, that is what will happen in most cases. There has been a good deal of public debate about this issue. Some feel that the child should have the right to know his or her genetic origins and point to experience in adoption to back up that view. However, adoption is not exactly the same as AID and I believe that we need to examine the matter further before we enshrine such a right in law. In the White Paper the Government acknowledge the problem and propose to keep it under review. That is the correct step to take.
The most controversial part of the Warnock report is that concerning whether research should be carried out on pre-embryos. Every woman who is pregnant wants to produce a normal, healthy baby. Two weeks ago, when we debated the Abortion (Amendment) Bill, some of the debate centred around that theme. A great deal was said about the tests that can now be carried out, amniocentesis, ultrasound and a new technique that will be available in a few years' time, chorionic villus sampling. That technique is still in its early stages of development.
The termination of a wanted pregnancy, even if it is done at an early stage, can be distressing. During our debate on the Abortion (Amendment) Bill much was said about developing techniques to detect severe handicap at the earliest possible stage. Indeed, such techniques were discussed by some hon. Members opposed to pre-embryo research as part of their argument for abortions to be carried out at the earliest possible stage.
Some women who know that they are at risk either because they or their partners carry a disorder would like to feel that they can start a pregnancy in the sure and certain knowledge that it can be carried right through and that the baby will be born healthy. The new research that is now being undertaken could be the answer. That includes screening for genetic defects before the embryo begins to develop, which is on the 14th day. Genetic defects are a common cause of handicap and the death of babies. Genetic defects and congenital malformations occur in 2 to 5 per cent. of all live births and cause between 1207 40 to 50 per cent. of deaths in childhood. The technology has been developed in a relatively short time, but in the foreseeable future it may he possible to detect those pre-embryos that would develop specific disorders such as Down's syndrome, muscular dystrophy, cystic fibrosis, Hunter's syndrome, Hurler's syndrome and Huntington's disease.
Are those hon. Members who are opposed to research unwilling to face up to their responsibilities to help those couples who want to take advantage of the available research? Are they so prejudiced that they will deny couples the chance of the baby they so dearly want? One of the worst inherited diseases is severe combined immune deficiency. The baby is born apparently quite perfect. However, pre-programmed by the genes inherited by its parents, it has no immunity to disease. The baby appears healthy at the beginning, when protected by the antibodies of its mother, but it will suddenly die from its first infection, usually after a few months. That is a great tragedy for any family.
In December 1987 two doctors completed tests that may eventually help doctors to diagnose the presence of combined immune deficiency in a human egg only a few days after fertilisation. More research is needed on human fertilised eggs before the suffering caused by such incurable, fatal diseases can be eased. Everyone should search their hearts to decide whether they should say that research to seek solutions for such handicaps should not take place because of their prejudice against pre-embryo research.
Research using pre-embryos is still at a relatively early stage. However, many women have been helped as a result of improvements in test-tube baby treatment. As infertility affects at least one in 10 couples and pre-embryo research has been so beneficial in the development of IVF I believe that that research is essential if the present low success rate is to be improved. Such research is also likely to help those with hormone problems and women whose early embryos are not properly implanted. We must not forget that many women miscarry because the pre-embryo and the subsequent foetus are malformed. Such miscarriages occur naturally, but I am sure that none of us would want to go through one or more miscarriages with the accompanying distress. Research could enable doctors to detect the reason for some miscarriages and, I hope, to prevent them in the future.
I hope that hon. Members have had the opportunity to read a serious article written by Dr. Anne McLarendirector of the Medical Research Council's mammalian development unit — in the "New Socialist" of 10 December 1987. [HON. MEMBERS:"New Socialist"?] I apologise, I meant the "New Scientist". She might well have written an article in the "New Socialist". That article is well worth reading. It is highly technical, but it demonstrates the advances that have been made and could be made in the future.
The White Paper states that the Government are proposing to table alternative draft clauses when a Bill comes before Parliament. It is rather unusual for a Government, at the first printing of a Bill, to propose two separate concepts contained in separate clauses rather than choosing one and having an amendment put down to it. However, if that practice will make the debate clearer, so be it. When we come to vote on this matter I shall certainly vote in favour of research, with safeguards. 1208 Frankly, I find it hard to understand the moral objections to research on the pre-embryo. It is the size of a needle point and hardly visible to the human eye.
A great deal was said about the moral questions involved with pre-embryo research in the House of Lords on 15 January. That debate is well worth reading. Indeed, the Archbishop of York discussed the problem of the status of the embryo and spoke of the needto ascribe full personal value to human matter which possess none of the attributes which normally belong to persons." —[Official Report, House of Lords, 15 January 1988; Vol. 492, c. 1462.]There appeared to be consensus about that problem.
I fail to understand those hon. Members who are calling for an end to late abortions simply by lowering the present upper time limit to 18 weeks or fewer when some of their contributions to the debate a couple of weeks ago accepted that abortions should be permissible as early as possible. I know that many hon. Members are opposed to abortion as such and I respect their view. However, they are supporting the Abortion (Amendment) Bill, which allows abortions in certain restricted circumstances. I do not understand how they can adopt that position and yet oppose research at a much earlier stage of development.
§ Mr. Jerry Wiggin (Weston-super-Mare)
I agree with almost everything that the hon. Lady has said. She quoted the Archbishop of York and in that same speech he also said:I regard as totally unrealistic and indeed immoral any proposal to continue in-vitro fertilisation without a proper backing in research".—[Official Report, House of Lords 15 January 1988; Vol. 492, c. 1461.]Will the hon. Lady confirm that she believes that the opportunities for childless couples to have babies, as a result of IVF, is something that the House must support?
§ Ms. Richardson
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. Indeed, I agree with most of what was said in the House of Lords and I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has also read that debate.
There is a connection between this debate and the debate that we have had about abortion rights. I believe that it is curious that the same people who are now accepting that abortion should take place, but at an earlier stage, are not prepared to take that argument to what I believe is its logical conclusion and to try to seek the causes of genetic handicap at the earliest possible stage.
I would guess, noting the hon. Members who are waiting to speak, that we shall shortly hear how they manage to do that. It is curious that some of the early postcards that arrived in October last year in the mail mountain organised by SPUC advised voting for the Alton Bill but against medical research. That seems odd: that Bill is an 18-week Bill, so I do not know how the two ideas can be reconciled.
As well as support for controlled medical research from informed and distinguished scientists, doctors and the Upper House, support also comes from many organisations concerned with helping the handicapped. They have shown their concern by speaking out for research They include such highly respected bodies as Mencap, and last December they reconfirmed that they were in favour of continuing medical research. I am a member of an organisation called PROGRESS which has brought together a number of organisations—some of them of handicapped people, some of hospitals and some of 1209 concerned people. We have been trying to put forward the message that controlled and accountable research can help us all—and the future of this country's children.
Within and outside this House there are fundamentalists who would outlaw all research; and there are fundamentalists at the other end of the spectrum who would allow unlimited and uncontrolled research. I support neither group. I hope that Parliament will eventually take the view that research on pre-embryos should be permitted — with proper controls and accountability—to scientists and clinicians. Parliament has a role to play in protecting the public interest, and although 14 days has been proposed as the limit for such research, the White Paper rightly acknowledges that new developments might make exceptions permissible, and we may include those by affirmative resolutions in the future. I agree that we must have a certain flexibility of approach and not be hide-bound by a specific date.
§ Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent)
I wholly share the hon. Lady's view that research should be allowed and controlled. Does she agree that the clear and available publication of what is being done, and how it is being done, is of fundamental importance to the control of research?
§ Ms. Richardson
I quite agree. Parliament and public alike are entitled to know what research is being carried out and what the prognoses for that research are. That cannot be done immediately, because all research is inevitably slow, but we must have the opportunity to know what is going on and what it might lead to.
We must bear in mind the need for a properly resourced National Health Service to do the necessary work of research and treatment, and to ensure that funding of those things is not done by private, unaccountable bodies. Funding for research of this sort must not, however, be at the expense of other commitments. To judge by the way that the Government have so far failed to recognise that, whatever extra money they have put into the National Health Service, that has not been enough to stop patient treatment crumbling. I am worried about their willingness to find more money for research and treatment in this area. Couples who suffer from infertility problems will take that point to heart. They believe that they are as much patientsto-be as people undergoing other sorts of treatment in the National Health Service. Parliament must take these momentous decisions about the future of infertile couples and assess their value to women, their partners and the children of the future. We should demand that public funding be available for this research.
Like the Minister, I hope that we shall have a sensible, calm debate today on all the important points raised in the White Paper. I look forward to listening to the rest of the debate and hearing what the Government propose to include in the Bill that they will bring forward later this year.
§ Sir Bernard Braine (Castle Point)
I agree on one point with the hon. Member for Barking (Ms. Richardson): I am glad that we are having this debate.
I shall go at once to the fundamental issue before the House. In a debate on the Warnock report in 1984, I recall saying: 1210the committee performed its task without first considering the very question, on which all else depends—the nature of the human embryo".—[Official Report, 23 November 1984; Vol. 68, c. 539.]To put it mildly, the committee was uncertain about the human embryo. It did not answer the question whether the embryo is human, and, if so, deserving of special consideration from the outset, although it described it as such. It did not dare to say that the embryo was not human, because we all know that it is capable of becoming a child, an adolescent and an adult, and is incapable of becoming anything else.
Because it could not answer many of the questions that it posed, the committee jumped over them:Instead of trying to answer these questions directly we have therefore gone straight to the question of how it is right to treat the human embryo.How odd that the Warnock committee was ready to consider treating the human embryo without being clear about what it really was. So odd was it that some members of the committee could not stomach the recommendations to which they were asked to agree. Led by Professor John Marshall, the distinguished professor of clinical neurology at the Institute of Neurology, they signed a minority report saying that there should be no experimentation on the human embryo and they gave what were, to many of us, convincing reasons. They recommended thatthe embryo of the human species be afforded special protection in law".They were not opposed—neither am I; nor are those who share my views— to IVF procedures designed to overcome the distressing condition of infertility. That was made clear by my right hon. Friend, the former Member for South Down, Mr. Enoch Powell, who introduced a Bill on the subject which obtained a substantial majority on Second Reading.
Again, the Warnock committee sounded an uncertain trumpet on other matters. Yes, there could be experimentation on human embryos, but only up to 14 days. Why 14?
§ Sir Bernard Braine
Mr. Speaker enjoined upon us the duty of being as crisp as possible, because many hon. Members want to speak. If the hon. Gentleman wants to intervene, he can speak later in the debate. By holding me up, he may frustrate his own chances.
Why 14 days? Why should it be lawful to tamper with and destroy a human embryo in the first fortnight of its existence and not afterwards? The hon. Member for Barking mentioned the Abortion Act 1967. It is lawful under that Act to destroy every year thousands of perfectly normal healthy children without any protection under the law. The pro-experiment lobby—and the hon. Member for Barking — has argued that such experiments are necessary to combat a whole range of genetic disorders. It is a fallacy to believe that embryos, at such an early stage of their existence, can be of any help with such disorders as cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy and Down's syndrome. At 14 days the embryo has not developed to the point at which it can yield any helpful information. Leading specialists have made it plain that 14 days is not long enough.
§ Sir Bernard Braine
I have not finished the point. Perhaps my hon. Friend will listen to me carefully and make a more informed speech when he catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In this kind of debate, we must develop what we know and we feel, and that is what I propose to do. I shall not give way, and I serve notice to that effect. I am not frightened of my hon. Friend or of anybody else. If I am forced to give way, I shall do so—
§ Sir Bernard Braine
—but if I did so I should not have the support and encouragement of the Chair. My hon. Friend must listen.
When Lady Warnock was pressed on the issue of 14 days, she said that it would do for a start. What precisely did that mean? We are anxious to hear the Government's view about such uncertainty. We are on a downward slide with these people and we do not know where it will end.
The Warnock report is also uncertain about other fundamental issues. Paragraph 12.2 deals with public concern about trans-species fertilisation. The report states that certain experimentation in this field should be permissible, but acknowledges that the possibilitieshave caused public concern about the prospect of developing hybrid half-human creatures.What did the report mean by going on to say that some experimentation in this field would be possible? Of course, that will need strict regulation by a licensing authority. The report even referred to the possibility that human embryos could be used to test the effects of newly-developed drugs or other substances that may possibly be toxic or cause abnormalities, and it went on to point out the deep concern that this might be exploited commercially. Yet paragraph 12.5 states:We concluded however that there may be very particular circumstances where the testing of such substances on a very small scale may be justifiable.In short, the end justifies the means. The House must forgive me if I recall the defence of the murderer of that brave Polish priest, Jerzy Popieluszko:I thought that, by doing a little evil, I might prevent a larger one.Although the Government are bold and adventurous in some respects, it is no wonder that against that background they have taken over three years to come up with a White Paper. Even then they are so uncertain that they put forward two alternative courses of action—to experiment or not to experiment.
What is one to make of the White Paper? I certainly welcome the first proposal, on page 6, to prohibit research on the human embryo. I reject the second proposal, to permit research subject to licence by a statutory licensing authority. Indeed, the second proposal begs an important question. To permit research on the human embryo gives man the power to play God, and so the Government propose that God should be regulated by a statutory body. Who then will regulate that body? Currently the Medical Research Council monitors such research on a voluntary basis, without the benefit of a statutory watchdog. The work is carried out by at least one distinguished figure whose early claim to fame rested on experiments with live human foetuses, injected with steroids, which were then killed and dissected. The facts are contained in the medical literature. That is the kind of watchdog employed at present and it explains the anxiety expressed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton) to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Health.
1212 Is this the sort of policeman we can expect if experimentation is controlled by the new statutory body? Will it be directly answerable to Parliament? If not, who will ensure that that statutory body will authorise only ethical procedures? We are entitled to ask that question. Parliament is the only real safeguard against the abuse of power. The judges and the press play an important role, but this surely is a matter for Parliament—the buck stops here.
If the Government's first proposal becomes law, it will not prohibit in-vitro fertilisation. That would continue and I am in favour of that, but I cannot support much else in the White Paper. Ever since the Warnock report and the debates on the Unborn Children (Protection) Bill, which received so large a majority on Second Reading but was later frustrated by one means or another, we have been regaled with promises of cures for genetic diseases if Parliament would allow experiments on embryos to continue. I respect the views of the hon. Member for Barking, as she has been consistent over the years in hoping that Parliament will allow experimentation on the human embryo to continue. I am sorry to see the White Paper give so much credence to this point with little or no consideration of alternative methods of finding the same information. I would remind the House that no one in the scientific community supporting research has come up with any real evidence to support their claims that the human embryo will provide answers to genetic arid congenital diseases, particularly not in respect of experimentation on the human embryo in the first 14 days.
The all-party pro-life group, of which I have the honour to be chairman, is advised by a distinguished group of scientists and doctors, including Professor John Marshall — a member of the Warnock committee and former president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists — Sir John Dewhurst and Professor Erwin Chargaff who, in work on the cell in the late 1940s, discovered material that was crucial to Crick and Watson in formulating their model of DNA. The group is also advised by Professor Jerome Lejeune, one of the most distinguished geneticists in the world. Professor Lejeune's work on Down's syndrome is well known, and he has been working towards an amelioration of that disease without the use of the human embryo.
Our scientific and medical advisory committee has advised us that there is much potential for research involving gametes, ovum and sperm separately. On cures for infertility, we have been advised that there is much scope for research on the biochemistry of the reproductive system, as in-vitro fertilisation is applicable to a minority of cases of infertility and there is a great need for research to be directed to the majority. Research to enhance the future growth and development of a particular individual human embryo is also acceptable.
In evidence submitted to my right hon. Friend's Department, in response to its consultation paper, Dr. John McLean, the distinguished secretary of our scientific and medical advisory committee, outlined an alternative method to in-vitro fertilisation for the treatment of infertility. This method does not involve super-ovulation; it works with the natural reproductive cycle.
One of the papers submitted in response to the consultation paper by Professor Lejeune, professor of fundamental genetics at the Universite René Descartes in Paris, stated: 1213My prediction concerning effective research without the use of human embryos has been amply demonstrated by numerous investigators in several countries. Vitamin supplementation in early pregnancy has been shown to protect the embryo from neural tube defects in spina bifida. The new developments in molecular biology applied to cells taken from adult patients with cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy, Huntington's disease and retinoblastoma have also generated a much greater understanding of the genetic factors responsible for these diseases as well as their location within the human genome. In addition, there is now the possibility of treating and curing certain genetic blood diseases with bone marrow transplantation. None of these achievements have involved the use of human embryos.At the end of his paper, he added:The proponents of the use of the human embryo as a guinea pig were mistaken when they put forward to the public this cruel suggestion: either you accept our philosophy that embryos may be used or else you condemn families affected by genetic diseases and you wash your hands of their sorrows … Medicine is not forced to choose between playing Herod and Pontius Pilate. There are possible lines of research in full accordance with medical norms and already they are being demonstrated as fruitful.In short, those who share my view of this grave matter are not opposed to research, but we reject that which lessens human dignity and reduces the weakest and most vulnerable form of human life to the level of a laboratory rat. The House should know—I made a recent inquiry about this and my hon. Friend the Member for Bedfordshire, North (Sir T. Skeet), who knows about scientific procedures, will no doubt bear me out—that, under the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986, an animal that is used for scientific investigation is granted more protection than we give to our own species. I am referring here to the aborted human foetus which is not protected by the Infant Life Preservation Act 1929. That is disgraceful.
It is about time that people faced fundamental facts. I believe that by proceeding in this way the Government are putting the cart before the horse. We want to know what sort of horse it will be. We want to know who will constitute it—who will be the front legs and who will be the back legs. We want to know which alternative of the two before them the Government will choose.
§ Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)
The right hon. Member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine) will not be surprised to hear that I do not share his comments, save possibly on one point—that the Government could have been more positive on this matter. However, I suspect that the right hon. Gentleman and I want them to be positive in different ways.
I take up the right hon. Gentleman's point about the slow progress that has been made in overcoming genetic diseases. Yes, that progress is slow, but it is equally slow by the alternative methods that the right hon. Gentleman advocates. Both methods take time but I suspect that both are showing ways forward. We who favour research want to make sure that no stone is left unturned in overcoming the crippling disabilities which have been referred to.
I should like to pick up the right hon. Gentleman's point about IVF techniques. He stressed that he supports the continuing availability of those techniques. However, those techniques, as currently used, would not have been available if there had not been research. The clause that is one alternative — the restrictive alternative — in the 1214 White Paper could close the doors to research that could improve IVF techniques. Had it been on the statute book 20 years ago, who knows whether we would be in a position today to rejoice at some of the progress that has been made:
If and when the proposals in the White Paper become legislation, they will have a significant effect on many individuals and families. I thank the Minister for the way in which he presented the White Paper. I noticed his concluding remarks and the way in which he referred to using knowledge in a constructive and responsible manner. That should be the guideline as we seek our way forward.
I am mainly concerned with the implications of the White Paper for research, both in terms of improving the IVF technique to help women who desperately want children, and in terms of the prevention of congenital handicap. Such legislation can be very intrusive into the most sensitive areas of personal and family life and has a particular implication for women, who are often the most directly affected. In some areas, there may well be a case for new frameworks. However, if they are to be imposed by legislation, I suggest that it must be by general consent. That should be a guideline also.
I have a deep personal and family interest in this matter, from the point of view of research into congenital abnormalities and profound mental handicap. I want to concentrate on that aspect. Hon. Members may know that, as a family, we lost two boys arising from such a genetic condition. Alun was 13 when he died in December 1984, and Geraint was 12 when he died three months later. Their condition was the San Philippo type of mucopoly saccharide group of disorders. It caused profound mental and physical handicap and a short life expectation. It was necessary for both my wife and myself to be carriers, which we were, and as any other hon. Member may be but be unaware of that fact. Even then, when both of us were carriers, there was a 1: 4 chance that the children would be affected. Unfortunately, of our two elder boys, two out of two were affected. Mercifully, our third and fourth children are not affected. Thankfully, the risk of their children being affected with the San Philippo condition is very However, whereas we are lucky other parents with children suffering other varieties of condition must suffer the terrible anguish of knowing that their children's children may be afflicted by profound handicap.
I give my personal background so that hon. Members can appreciate the background against which I speak, and the reasons for my passionate advocacy that research into such types of disability must not be prevented, as would be the case if the House refused to accept the Warnock report recommendations and passed into law the restrictive clause outlined in the White Paper. Such a decision would close the shutters on the faint ray of hope for many families suffering genetic disorders. It would be an act of callous and calculated brutality against thousands of parents and potential parents who have to travel through life with the enormous and depressing responsibility of knowing that their offspring may be afflicted by a crippling condition. Further, those children, even if they are not disabled, have to go through their early adult life with the same uncertainty in regard to their offspring.
The relevance of the White Paper for such families is that medical research is moving ahead rapidly and holds the key to the possibility of overcoming at least some forms of such genetic disorders. It is still early days, and 1215 it would be wrong to say that there is a panacea round the corner. However, it is equally wrong to deny that for a number of conditions, such as the Lesch Nyhan, which occurs fairly rarely, and Duchene muscular dystrophy, which is more commonplace, there is not a glimmer of hope that the frontiers of medical science are moving forward.
Medical science now holds out the possibility, at the pre-embryo stage, of identifying the pre-embryos which carry faulty genes and implanting into the uterus only those pre-embryos which appear not to be carrying the congenital disorder. Those pre-embryos are, in fact, a cluster of identical cells a few days old. That state is before the cells begin to differentiate; before implantation; before the primitive streak appears; before it is known whether the pre-embryo is to become a single foetus or twins and before individual identity. In the ordinary processes of life, such pre-embryos may develop in several ways. The majority will not become embryos, but will form the placenta. Some may develop into a malignant tumour. Some may be lost in the menstrual cycle and some may develop to become embryos. However, those pre-embryos carry the genetic information that cano help to identify potential congenital abnormality.
The technique now being developed involves the extraction of a few cells from the pre-embryo and their analysis by chromosome, gene-mapping and DNA identifying techniques to recognise possible genetic abnormalities. The technique has been shown to be effective in research on mice at the 8-cell stage. However, before using the technique on human beings, on a pre-embryo that is intended to be grown into a foetus and a baby, clearly careful research is needed on the human pre-embryo to make sure that we k now what we are doing.
The restrictive alternative in the White Paper would prevent such research from being undertaken and close the door on avoiding profound abnormalities such as the Lesch Nyhan syndrome. That is the syndrome for which we appear to be nearest to developing diagnostic techniques. The disease is caused by a lack of enzyme production associated with the X chromosome. It is possible to establish whether an embryo is deficient by looking at a single cell. Children with the Lesch Nyhan syndrome are normal at birth, but deteriorate rapidly, becoming mentally handicapped and self-mutilating and do not usually live beyond the teenage years. There is an application with an ethical committee waiting for the go-ahead to diagnose the Lesch Nyhan disease in pre-embryos. The outcome of the work could be the key to certain forms of cerebral palsy that are genetic, although not all cerebral palsy is genetic.
Another important disease which depends on enzyme tests is the Tay Sachs disease, which causes babies to die within two years of birth. It should be possible to develop a similar single cell test to establish whether Tay Sachs disease is present in an embryo. Two other major diseases where similar advances are likely are Duchenne muscular dystrophy and cystic fibrosis. Cystic fibrosis is carried by one in 20 people and is therefore a particularly serious problem. Many babies with cystic fibrosis die in infancy.
At a recent joint meeting of the all-party group for children and the all-party disablement group in the House, we were told by Professor Robert Winston of Hammersmith hospital of a case of a woman with Duchenne muscular dystrophy who had seen her brother die at the age of 15 and had two nephews with the disease. 1216 She was determined not to have a child with Duchenne muscular dystrophy. She had two terminations of pregnancy and the stress on her and her husband caused her marriage to break up. She subsquently remarried and had three terminations. She decided that she could no longer try to have a child. However, if an embryo diagnosis were possible she would wish to try to establish a pregnancy using in-vitro fertilisation.
These techniques will enable couples, who would otherwise be too fearful of having a child suffering from a chronic disability, to have children. It will avoid abortions at a late stage — something which we must surely all agree is desirable. It is worth stressing the enormous strain which profound disability places on a family, particularly multiple profound disability. It leads to marriage break-ups and suicides, places tremendous strain on other siblings and has a massive financial, social and psychological effect on the family. I know this from my own personal experience.
People who are insensitive to such experience sometimes suggest that we who advocate such research to avoid profound disability somehow place a lesser value on disabled children. I find the suggestion deeply offensive. I hope that we loved our two boys as they were and for what they were. Our wish was not that Alun and Geraint had not been born but they could have been born without such heart-rending handicaps; that they could have lived full lives without suffering what they endured. After all, how many other hon. Members who have been lucky enough to have had normal children would have chosen for their children to be so severely handicapped?
The miracles of medical science now hold out the chance of a choice for families afflicted by profound genetic disorders. They may be able, very soon in some cases, to have a pre-embryo selected which is free from disability. Does the House in all seriousness believe that such a choice should be denied to them?
In earlier debates on the matter some hon. Members have opposed such research and have asserted that they are taking the Christian view on the issue. The implication is that those of us who support research are in some way unChristian. I find that allegation offensive, arrogant and ignorant. I quote from the Archbishop of York, to whom reference has been made, in a debate on this subject in another place, when he said:First, let me say that I believe research must continue if in vitro fertilisation is to continue. One cannot separate them, and I regard as totally unrealistic and indeed immoral any proposal to continue in vitro Fertilisation without a proper backing in research.This is for the simple and basic reason that imperfect techniques without a backing in research are bad practice medically and, I believe, wrong morally. There is a duty to patients to do the best which can be done, and any technique which involves the present traumas and uncertainties and wastage of embryos must be capable of improvement and therefore open to research.He went on:I believe that in the very early stage when personal attributes are non-existent and when identity is yet to be established there is room to allow experiment. But it has to be hedged round by safeguards which make it publicly obvious that respect for our human origins is being properly observed. I see this as the tenor of the Government's proposals, including the tentative proposal to allow embryo research, and I hope that we shall see legislation along these lines in the very near future." —[Official Report, House of Lords, 15 January 1988; Vol. 492, c. 1461–63.]1217 I refer also to a comment from the Spastics Society—we heard a moment ago the comment from Mencap—of which I am the president in Wales:The Spastics Society has been concerned with the prevention of handicap and has promoted research and information to ensure that avoidable handicap is reduced. We would therefore be seriously concerned at any move which limited the possibility of detecting the causes of congenital handicap, or knowledge about factors leading to congenital disease …. The Spastics Society would be appalled at any move which led to such vital and important work being stopped. The alternative if this happens is that many preventable handicap births will continue. The Spastics Society will always fight for a better quality of life and for the dignity of disabled people. But we also want to see all preventable forms of handicap avoided.I believe that doctors have been blessed with an enormous talent which, if it can be carefully developed, can avoid the pain, anguish and suffering of many profound congenital handicaps. The choice posed by the White Paper is whether those talents should be allowed to develop under strict control to the benefit of thousands of families or whether those talents, as in the parable of the talents, should be buried in the ground. The decision is critical for many vulnerable families, and the House should ponder long and deep before closing the door on their glimmer of hope.
§ 7.7 pm
§ Mr. Robert Rhodes James (Cambridge)
It is a profound honour to follow the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley), just as it is a profound honour to be a Member of the same House of Commons as him. I remember several years ago — no doubt he does — a speech made on a Friday morning by our former colleague, Keith Wickenden, on the subject of Down's syndrome, related to one of his children who was afflicted with that disease. In a debate of such seriousness and high quality, I cannot speak in the same personal terms as the hon. Gentleman. In reference to the quality of the debate, I refer particularly to the speech of the Minister, which I felt met the objections and concerns of the House with remarkable sensitivity. I speak with humility. I emphasise that the fact that a considerable amount of pre-embryo and in-vitro fertilisation research is done in Cambridge does not affect my view of the matter, because I am not making a constituency speech; my reasons are more personal.
First, I am in favour of the general principle of research, particularly into such subjects. I do not see that there is much of a role for Parliament or the Government to stop research which is positive. Secondly, the research has created life and has brought hope to the one in 10 families who are infertile—and in many cases not only hope but realisation. A friend of my family has recently given birth to a healthy daughter, after years of infertility and frustration, entirely as a result of the research and IVF. They are inseparable. I must disagree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine), because they are inseparable.
Of the many letters that I have received, I shall quote one from a constituent, whose name I shall not give:When we first wrote to you in October 1986, we were a couple among many others in this country. Frustrated and extremely desperate, as the result of not being able to have children naturally.1218In less than three months from now, we expect the birth of our first long awaited child whom we totally owe to those whose work is now being threatened …Pre-embryo research, which is carefully controlled and licensed, provides early indications of serious abnormalities, prevents miscarriages and avoids the need for late .abortions. I am slightly puzzled by the illogicality of some hon. Members who support the Abortion (Amendment) Bill, but at the same time try to deny the research that will prevent the necessity for late abortions.
The Bill is strongly supported by organisations closely involved in these matters. In that regard, Mencap has been particularly mentioned. For some couples this research is a lifeline. At Bourn Hall, which is just outside my constituency, we have just celebrated the birth of the 1,000th baby to be born through IVF and this research. I should emphasise that we are talking about research for life.
Fewer than one in 10 IVF insertions are successful. Unless research continues, the possibility of misfortune and tragedy will continue. This research makes it possible to discover the causes of diseases such as cystic fibrosis, spina bifida and other genetic diseases that have hitherto baffled us and caused such misery.
I join the hon. Member for Caernarfon in imploring the House to give its support to this research. We are the world leaders in it. For the sake of future generations, why should we throw it away?
§ Mr. Doug Henderson (Newcastle upon Tyne, North)
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak so early in the debate. Many people in this country, like myself, doubt the need for any extensive or restrictive legislation. Whatever the nature of the legislation, it would be wrong to introduce it too quickly. I welcome the opportunity that is afforded by the publication of the White Paper to have a debate on the main issues involved in embryo research. These issues involve morality, and the appropriateness and practicalities involved.
Some people in this country — hon. Members will have been deluged with correspondence on this subject —argue that there is no moral justification, under any circumstances, for the premature termination by a scientist of the life of an embryo. They oppose all research that must inevitably lead to the disposal of an embryo by a scientist. I do not agree with that view, but I concede that there is an internal logic in it. If one takes that view, one cannot have option 1 in the White Paper, which has already been referred to.
I must say to the right hon. Member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine) that there is a contradiction in his position. If one takes the view that there should be no interference in the normal course of events with an embryo, one cannot have option 1. Option 1 would legalise procedures that are aimed at preparing the embryo for transfer to the uterus. As the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) said, if there had not been research in the past, it would not be possible today for thousands of couples to have the benefit of it. Option 1 is ridiculous, because it legitimises past research but outlaws current research. One cannot have one's cake and eat it.
Other arguments have been put forward by opponents to research that are less moralistic, and I think that they have less validity. One argument is that we should not have research because we cannot guarantee that there would be 1219 any beneficial results. That is a ridiculous argument. Would those opponents hold the same view on research into AIDS, cancer, arthritis or any of the other terrible diseases that affect our society and for which there is no known cure at the moment?
Another argument advanced by those who fundamentally oppose research is that it would be better to have research into animals, and that the results can be just as good. That cannot be argued consistently. It is accepted medical opinion that there is a significant difference between species, and that sensible results cannot be obtained on how human cells might react when compared with those of animals.
I do not concede that the fundamentalists have all the moral arguments on their side. I would be the first to defend their right to a philosophical belief, and I am sure that the House would also want to defend that belief, but they must judge the value of their ideology against the potential value that can accrue to society from research. They must judge whether their straitjacketed ideological thinking should outweigh the potential to relieve the problem of infertility, which affects more than one in 10 couples of child-bearing age in this country. They should remember the anguish, loneliness and insecurity, the sense of inadequacy and the mental pain of childlessness. I know a little about that, because I was married for 12 years before we had a child.
The right hon. Member for Castle Point mentioned humanity. The human test of opinion on ideological purity is whether the right hon. Gentleman could square it with the anguish, soul-searching and sense of inadequacy of hundreds of thousands of couples not only in this country but worldwide.
Currently, IVF has only a 15 per cent. success rate. If opponents want to test their morality they should do so on the people who have suffered and on the small percentage who have been lucky enough to have the chance of treatment.
I am not making a party political point, but the chances of receiving that treatment depend on the part of the country in which one lives. The facilities in this country are completely inadequate. Even where that treatment is available, the success rate is only 15 per cent. Some people find it necessary to spend any additional resources on private facilities. I know of people who have had to sell their houses and cars, and sometimes change their job, just to be able to have the chance of having a child.
I challenge opponents outside and inside the House to spend time with those people who have suffered, to live their experience and then say that their moral position stands the test. Surely we have enough resources in one of the wealthiest countries of the world to make that provision. Surely we can make provision for all those who suffer and so badly need the treatment.
Those who oppose this must judge their ideological position against the case for embryo research to prevent genetic disease. I do not want to refer to that aspect in great detail, because the case was made clearly and with great compassion by the hon. Member for Caernarfon. I am sure that others will further the arguments on that point later. It would be a scandal and a condemnation of the lack of liberalism in this country if we prevented research when scientists were telling society that they were almost ready to develop treatment for people with single-gene defects to overcome the problems of cystic fibrosis and other diseases.
1220 Having accepted the case for research in future, is there a case for regulation? On balance, I believe that there is. A body is required to review developments, to encourage the best practice and to consider the need for resources. This is a party political point. It galls me a little that we can apparently trust the City of London to self-regulate, but we cannot trust medical scientists to regulate their own affairs.
Having said that, I must concede certain aspects. I would certainly support the establishment of a licensing authority, although we must be clear in establishing the rules for it that we are not imposing the scientific priorities on medical researchers. It is Parliament's job to impose the financial rules, but scientists must use their intelligence, initiative and adaptability to investigate areas that they believe might be important.
§ Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead)
Surely we need to go further than that. We cannot say that we can completely trust the scientific community. I know that this is an extreme example, but surely no one would trust the scientific community in Nazi Germany.
§ Mr. Henderson
I accept my hon. Friend's point. Society must have some control over the actions of scientists.
One of the reasons why I am hesitant about the efficacy of a statutory body is that I am not sure that it would exercise proper control. I would rather see a legal requirement laid down by Parliament that scientists should notify Parliament about the purpose of research work. That would be the proper control and a way of ensuring that there was no abuse by the scientific community.
I agree with those who argue that at the moment the 14-day limit is acceptable. We know from the literature that an embryo has not been kept alive so far for more than eight or nine days. However, we must look to the future. Researchers such as R. E. Edwards of the physiological college at Cambridge have said that research into hereditary diseases cannot prove wholly useful and diseases cannot be detected until the 14th day. However, if scientists believed that it was possible to detect a disease on the 15th or 16th day, what view would Parliament take? We might have to face that question in the very near future. I would say that scientists must have the right to go beyond the 14-day limit, but I concede that there must be some regulation.
Miscarriages are a major problem which affects many women many times in their lives. Again, scientific evidence shows that examination into miscarriages cannot be conducted adequately this side of the 14-day limit. Scientists may say that the limit must be extended to 15 or 16 days and we may have to face that problem soon.
There are many reasons for supporting the need for research. The Medical Research Council, the British Medical Association, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the Warnock committee and many others have supported legitimising research on the embryo. Public opinion is also in favour. A Marplan poll in 1985 showed that 63 per cent. were in favour of research. However, I believe that a more telling poll was conducted by the Medical Research Council. It questioned 1,000 women attending a family planning clinic; 78 per cent. of them thought that research should be permitted on pre-embryos in an effort to prevent genetic disease and that women should be free to donate eggs for that purpose.
1221 All those authorities are good reasons for supporting research. However, I still believe that the best reasons for supporting research are to give life to babies who would otherwise not be born; to give a better life to babies who would otherwise have been physically and mentally handicapped; to give hope to and alleviate the pain and misery of the millions of childless couples; to assure the many women who suffer from miscarriages; and, finally and importantly, to give the extraordinary talent and diligence of our scientists and medical researchers the chance to help ordinary people.
§ Sir Trevor Skeet (Bedfordshire, North)
I am glad to have the opportunity to follow the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson). He asked whether we could trust our scientists. I would ask "Can we trust this House and the bureaucracy?"
I have read the Warnock report from cover to cover. When I looked at those people who had drawn up the report, I discovered that there was not a clergyman among them, even though this is a moral issue. Indeed, I read all the speeches in another place on 15 January and I found that only one clergyman spoke, the Archbishop of York.
§ Mr. Frank Field
Does the hon. Gentleman believe that perhaps morality is too important to be left to the clergy?
§ Sir Trevor Skeet
That is a very fair observation, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman will make his contribution later.
I want to consider where this whole matter will lead us. The prohibited areas are probably the most interesting. Ectogenesis involves maintaining the embryo in vitro for progressively longer periods. Why have a limit of 14 days? Why should it not be extended to 20, 30 or 40 days? The ultimate goal may be to produce a child entirely in vitro or to produce genetically identical individuals by cloning. In other words, the goal may be to mimic the natural process leading to selective breeding or the creation of human beings with predetermined characteristics. Those of us of my generation will recognise exactly what Hitler did and we remember his domination and his concept of the master race. One can see that coming, not in a lifetime but in two lifetimes. All those matters are hypothetical, but they may come about. As we are aware, we slide from one piece of legislation to another piece of primary legislation and so on.
I want to consider sex selection next. That is of benefit where it is learned that either of the couple is a carrier of a sex-linked hereditary disease, for example, haemophilia, or Duchenne muscular dystrophy. However, it may be detrimental if it is allowed to affect the ratio of males and females in society. It is of vital interest to Indians in my constituency who welcome the birth of sons, but it is disturbing for the role of women in our society.
I now want to consider trans-species investigations. We are all aware that in agriculture they have combined a sheep and a goat and a rather remarkable beast was formed. It would not take a great leap of imagination to imagine what might happen. Each cell has its DNA. It is possible through genetic engineering and manipulation of cells to remove or to splice in a link and that might have catastrophic consequences.
1222 Lady Warnock puts her case this way: "We can stop our descent down the slippery slope at any point we wish, and the way to stop ourselves descending to unknown horrors is by legislation." But in many countries in the world there have been absolute monarchies or dictatorships, and we know what they have done with legislation in the course of time.
The White Paper, Cm. 259, at paragraph 27, says that we must have a system of mandatory licensing. That system, of course, would create a criminal offence. But I must ask the Minister how one can ever enforce a conviction to fortify the prohibition. There will be a problem of evidence. Most of the activities in breach of the law could be compiled clandestinely. Therefore, while one might get the respect of those who have respect for the law, those who thirst for knowledge, regardless of restraints, will work unceasingly for what they term their own aspirations.
We were advised by Lord Skelmersdale, the Leader of the Upper House on 15 January 1988, at column 1505, that the 14-day limit after fertilisation could be extended through primary legislation. Of course it could. I mentioned a moment ago that any length of time might be allowed. Once we get on that slope, the time can be extended further. On the other hand, a list of prohibitions that I have been talking about could be detailed. Paragraph 36 of the White Paper says:legislation should clearly prohibit all such activities, but with a power for Parliament itself, by affirmative resolution, to make exceptions to these prohibitions if new developments make that appropriate.Everybody in the Chamber will know how often we have debated affirmative resolutions in a one-and-a-half-hour debate. This is a process of change by stealth. After a short debate such resolutions are sanctioned by the House. The ratchet turns only one way.
AID has grown in its operation without any official encouragement. Abuse of the Abortion Act 1967 has proceeded apace, regardless of the law. Euthanasia is practised to some extent throughout the United Kingdom.
I was very impressed by the minority report of Carrilene, Marshall and Walker. Their words impressed me:because embryos have the potential to become human persons neither the relief of infertility, nor the advancement of knowledge justifies their deliberate destruction.The Select Committee of the Australian Senate has said that genetically new human life, organised as a distinct entity, is oriented towards future development. I will not quote Professor Thomas Torrance, nor Professor Lejeune, whose words were referred to by my right hon. Friend. He was denigrated by Professor Bobrow in a letter to The Times of 19 March 1985. I have looked at that letter. He said, finally, that research on very early post-fertilisation stages will be of medical value. He put it no higher and no lower than that. Later, he argued that, due to the parlous state of NHS finances, he doubted whether resources would be available to fund such research.
This is a solemn occasion. The dignity of man must remain inviolate. His status is degraded as soon as the legislature permits us to interfere, to man's detriment, with any part of his being, whether in the time of growth or synthesis. Infertility is a serious deprivation, but not fatal. It can cause no greater anguish than the lot of a very plain girl who fails to marry. It is ironic that the world may sympathise with infertility, but shows little interest in the plight of the latter. In abortion, as in experiments on 1223 human embryos, allegedly for his benefit, scant regard is paid to the fate of man, who may already have begun his pilgrimage course towards birth.
I shall put a few points now to the Minister. I am naturally concerned, because I am perplexed in my own mind, that there are benefits here, of course, which we have noted, but where does this legislation take us? Will we be able to find out the course that is absolutely important to us?
The Medical Research Council has indicated that it is not possible to extrapolate the research results from experiments on animals into man. I accept that. It further claims that certain genetic abnormalities occur only in humans, as in cancers of the outer placenta and in cystic fibrosis.
I received a letter recently from the department of biochemistry and molecular genetics, St. Mary's hospital, which makes an important point. It says:Advances toward any of these objectives, particularly the latter two"—and it indicates them—would require a very small number of early embryo experiments carefully regulated and only using material which would otherwise be discarded.It continues:Animal experiments cannot suffice, since there is no animal model for cystic fibrosis.Will the Minister give the House a complete list, when she winds up or perhaps at a later date if she cannot do so now, of the diseases that are likely to affect infertile people, apart from those such as cancers of the placenta and cystic fibrosis, which we are advised can be studied only in human pre-embryos? Will she tell the House whether the understanding of certain diseases can be enhanced, first, by the study of animals, and, secondly, by the study of adult patients, and, thirdly, by study of the sperm and ovum rather than the embryo? Fourthly is there any other method such as micro-surgery of the fallopian tubes that might be used? I have the following diseases in mind: Down's syndrome, or mongolism, Tay Sachs, muscular dystrophy in various forms, Huntington's chorea, Lesch Nyhan syndrome, Friedrich's ataxia, and brittle bone disease. These are some of the important diseases to research, and there are many more as well. If we could get to the true facts, research into human embryos could he limited to a very narrow field. This list could be included in the Bill, and added to if necessary by regulations.
Techniques cannot be disinvented. The work that has been achieved in the United Kingdom cannot be undone, and nobody would wish that to happen. The Medical Research Council has laboratories at Carshalton and there are others at Edinburgh, and at the Cromwell hospital in London. I understand that there are 15 research centres in the United Kingdom. There have been great achievements throughout British medicine and I pay tribute to the work that has been done. Having said all that, surely we in the House can see, down the labyrinth of years, the dangers to which we are exposed, and the dangers to which we are exposing the nation. While acknowledging the remarkable work that we have done, can we remove some of the hard edges beyond infertility? I ask the Minister to consider such questions carefully. I will be satisfied with the answers.
If I am the son of a mother who received AID, I am entitled to my name and I am entitled to know who my father is. The Minister said that a child would not be 1224 entitled to the name of his lather and that therefore the child would have no link with his father. The child might have a passport but would have no link with identity. [Interruption.] The Minister said in his opening remarks that the child produced by AID would not be given the name of his father. The White Paper proposes that the name will not be disclosed. However, the Minister said that this might change. It might be wise to follow the policy in Sweden where the name is revealed. The child is entitled at the ages of 16 to 13 to know who his father was, what he was, what he did and everything about him in the same way as is obvious to the average individual.
§ Ms. Harriet Harman (Peckham)
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the policy of allowing children born by artificial insemination by donor to find out the name of the father is being reconsidered because the supply of sperm for donation has begun to dry up?
§ Sir Trevor Skeet
I would not have thought that there was any shortage of that material. I will not pursue the point. There are students everywhere; there are students at universities. I am talking about the basic right of the child; I am not putting any emphasis on the parent. The child has a right to know his identity. He has the right to know who his parents were. He has the right to know whether there was any moral problem in his line of descent.
I could say more but it would be unfair to other hon. Members who want to speak. I am not against AID provided it does not lead to destruction. Once a human is conceived, it is on the slow course which will lead it to birth. It is open to science to prevent it, but in that case we are all culpable for the result which follows.
§ Mr. Ronnie Fearn (Southport)
The White Paper is only a framework, but its drafting can be commended. Although the Warnock report was a study into which a great deal of work and research went, not all of us agreed with all its findings. Therefore, I am pleased that the White Paper is a significant improvement on the original report. The wide consultations with many organisations provided significant ground work for further consultation. I believe that almost 200 detailed responses were received.
The great support for the Unborn Children (Protection) Bill had a significant effect upon opinion. I trust that the statutory licensing authority will keep all the representations in mind when it makes decisions. The body will be completely independent in its decisions. I am glad that half of its members will be lay persons. I hope that there will be one member from the nursing profession and perhaps one from the Royal College of Midwives. The Minister should consider the composition carefully.
Research is the key word in the White Paper. One's views of research are personal. The recommendations which permit research and those which prohibit research will allow embryo experimentation to take place. Research is essential, but opinion on whether embryonic research is necessary is divided.
Professor Martin Bowbrow, professor of paediatric research at Guy's hospital medical school, believes that human research of this type is essential in the search for a cure for Down's syndrome and other chromosonal defects, including muscular dystrophy, cystic fibrosis and haemophilia, because cures are unlikely to be found purely through animal research. This is disputed forcibly.
1225 One of the world's leading geneticists, Professor Jerome Lejeune, who discovered the cause of Down's syndrome, and Mr. Rex Brinkworth, the founder of the Down's Children's Association, have both categorically denied that the use of human embryos is necessary for research into genetic disorders. They maintain that there is no genetic information which could not be provided by a study of adult patients. Researchers who do not use the human embryo have achieved major breakthroughs in understanding and tackling cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy and Huntington's disease, using the techniques of molecular biology. There has been great progress in the treatment of genetic blood disease through bone marrow transplants and of spina bifida through vitamin supplementation for pregnant mothers.
The word "pre-embryo" is bandied about, but I maintain that there is no such being. Let us just talk about the embryo. Is the embryo a child? This is perhaps the most difficult question of all and one on which any decision will probably be based. The Warnock committee wants a ban on research after 14 days because that coincides with the feature known as the primitive streak, which is described in the report asthe heaping-up of cells at one end of the embryonic disc on the fourteenth or fifteenth day after fertilisation. Two primitive streaks may form in a single embryonic disc. This is the latest stage at which identical twins can occur. The primitive streak is the first of several identifiable features which develop in and from the embryonic disc".Those who say that it is not a child point out that the early embryo is a mass of cells, nearly all of which are destined during normal development to form part of the afterbirth. It is morally defensible to give absolute legal protection to this early embryo. From the moment of conception the embryo is a genetically unique, living, individual human being. At conception everything about the new human is established—the colour of hair and eyes, the sex, the eventual height and the complete genetic make-up of the individual with all his or her gifts and talents. At conception the human embryo simply has to grow and develop, as at any other stage of life.
I will quote what the Royal College of Nursing has said about experimentation on human embryos:We have little to add to the debate surrounding this issue. Our own view, and the view of the college, is that experimentation on human embryos is unacceptable save for therapeutic purposes which directly benefit the embryo. As practitioners whose daily work is taken up with close personal contact with prospective parents and real live children, we cannot but view embryos as something special.The White Paper has another flaw in that there appears to be a lack of training initiative. Persons working in gynaecology, family planning and genetic counselling may be involved in limited assessment and follow-up work. One problem that seems to be identified is the lack of training for those undertaking this counselling of parents and the resultant supportive role. The Royal College of Nursing has said that as long as counselling is seen as a secondary objective it believes that the client is receiving an inferior service. It would therefore welcome comments on the need for properly organised counselling services for couples receiving infertility services, with adequate preparation of staff and regulation of the service in terms of resourcing and recording of information.
In closing, because I know that other hon. Members want to speak, I quote what my hon. Friend the Member 1226 for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) said in the debate on the Unborn Children (Protection) Bill. He echoed my sentiments when he said:We should get away from and dispense with the charges and counter-charges about motive and who has what reason for taking which point of view.It is not part of my case in favour of the Bill to question the motives of the scientists and doctors who carry out work in the disciplines which may be in some way restricted by the Bill, some of whom approve of the Bill and others of whom are opposed to it. Their motive is the advancement of humanity and the advancement of knowledge, and they pursue those objectives with a determination and single-mindedness which from time to time inevitably brings them up against the test of what the law should tolerate and where the boundaries should be drawn. But I do not question or challenge the motives of their work, for which I have the highest regard.It does not follow from saying that everything which anyone working in any of these fields might feel should be done should be sanctioned. Our experience over the years is that there will always come a point where the researcher wants to do something which society thinks should not be done, and the argument is about where those boundary lines should fall."—[Official Report, 15 February 1985; Vol. 73, c. 693.]The human embryo is my boundary line, and I will not cross it, although I respect the views of others in this Chamber. I am interested to hear the information that is coming out in the debate tonight.
§ Mr. Peter Thurnham (Bolton, North-East)
I am sure that all hon. Members will have been deeply moved by the speeches of those hon. Members who have had personal experience of the tragedies of infertility and genetic handicap. It is worth remembering that it is estimated that each one of us carries on average six defective genes in our make-up, and it is purely a matter of chance whether our partner has the same genes so that we carry the risk of passing on this handicap in the form of a child who is born with a dreadful disorder.
The most common of these handicaps is cystic fibrosis and one in 20 of the population carries this gene. I take the strongest exception to the remark made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine) that cystic fibrosis research does not require the use of human embryos. I have had a letter today from Professor Williamson of St. Mary's hospital, who is leading the team in this country which is doing the most work in this respect, and he confirms that every member of his team accepts that human embryo research is necessary for that work.
I should like to start by congratulating the Government on bringing forward this challenging White Paper with a view to legislation on these issues, it is hoped, later this year. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mr. Rhodes James) has said, there is no doubt that we in this country are leading the world in this science. As we heard from the Minister, it is now 10 years since the birth of Louise Brown, the world's first test-tube baby. Since then, well over 1,000 IVF babies—I believe nearly 2,000 now —have been born in this country, and worldwide the total is now over 4,000. So approximately one third of all the IVF babies in the world have been born in this country.
I think it is worth asking why this country is in the lead in this pioneering work. I believe that it is because we not only have outstanding medical skills but also the rarest of all virtues—British common sense—so that we can come to terms with the ethical, moral and social implications of these new developments.
1227 The report of Baroness Warnock's committee has been admired by people all over the world who look to this country to establish a legal framework in which our doctors and scientists can continue to do this work while society as a whole can be assured of both the continuing benefits of this work and the establishment of strict controls to regulate future research.
The Medical Research Council and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists are to be congratulated on setting up the Voluntary Licensing Authority in 1985, which has an excellent lay chairman in Dame Mary Donaldson and a committee with a balance of lay and medical members. There is no such body in any other country, and it sets the basis for establishing a statutory licensing authority, as recommended by Baroness Warnock in her report.
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has commended the work of the Voluntary Licensing Authority and I would remind Members of her reply to me on 24 April 1986, when she said:I noted that the authority's first report had been published, and I hope that it will be widely studied, because the organisation's work is excellent."—[Official Report, 24 April 1986; Vol. 96, c. 422.]One can hardly approve of the work of the Voluntary Licensing Authority if one does not approve of the research that it carries out.
However, some sections of the public have expressed their reservations about these new developments, with massive petitions and letters to Members of the House. Some of our religious leaders have found it difficult to come to terms with these new dilemmas. The Church of England Synod voted narrowly in favour of continuing research, but the Catholic Church, with some notable dissenters, has been opposed. I was much heartened by the speeches in the other House, where I think there was a balance of 17 speakers in favour of research against four who did not want it, and particularly by the speech of the Archbishop of York, which has already been referred to. He gave a lead to those who look for the religious argument in favour of research.
The Catholic Father John Mahoney, first president of the Catholic Theological Association, has put the divided views of the Catholic Church excellently in his book "Bioethics and Belief".
The House has recently had a passionate debate on abortion, and the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) pointed out to us all the dilemma of late abortions. IVF research holds out the promise of fewer abortions through the possible new technique of pre-implantation diagnosis for couples who are at risk of carrying genetic disorders, as well as of improved contraception, which in itself would reduce the number of abortions.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point referred to Professor Lejeune. I would remind him that 95 per cent. of the experts in this area in this country would endorse the statement made by Professor Bobrow of Guy's hospital:Sadly, Professor Lejeune has, over recent years, become an isolated figure in the world of human genetics.Professor Bobrow said that the letter which he wrote to The Times was signed by eight senior colleagues, and that the editor of The Times limited the signatories to that number, as otherwise the massive preponderance of his profession would have signed the letter.
1228 One of the most moving experiences of my life was a meeting held here last month in the Grand Committee Room for parents of handicapped children, when mother after mother expressed her fear of giving birth to another child carrying dreadful inherited disorders. At present the only option, if any, is late termination of affected foetuses, with all the attendant stress. Who here would deny them this new pre-implantation diagnosis possibility and hence the opportunity of carrying a healthy child without the fear of a late abortion?
The former right hon. Member for South Down, Mr. Enoch Powell, spoke about the dignity of man, but where is this dignity for the many hundreds of severely handicapped children in institutions and psychiatric wards whose parents cannot cope? Must we deny research that could reduce the incidence of severe congenital handicap?
I speak also for that other silent minority, the one in 10 couples who have difficulty in becoming parents. Those of us fortunate enough to have children should not be so selfish as to deny to others, usually too embarrassed and unhappy to speak out for themselves, the right to found a family. Is this not one of the fundamental rights in the European convention? It certainly is in the United Nations body of rights declarations in 1968, article 16 of which states:Parents have a basic human right to determine freely and responsibly the number and spacing of their children.If people suffering from infertility have a right to IVF treatment, how can we deny them the benefits of research to improve this technique, for, however beneficial, it is still in an early stage of development?
The Voluntary Licensing Authority has given me these figures for the United Kingdom in 1985 — the latest available figures, because gestation takes nine months. The number of patients treated in 1985 was 3,717. The number of treatment cycles in 1985 was 4,308—because some patients had more than one treatment. The number of clinical pregnancies arising from those treatments was 481, and the number of live births was 364. That is a success rate of only 8–5 per cent. for each treatment cycle. Surely that is evidence of the need to improve the efficiency of this technique.
To outlaw that research would not stop it—it would drive it abroad. It would be no solution to the ethical problems posed, because surely we in Britain would want to benefit from any advances. It is far better to give the Voluntary Licensing Authority legal backing and sanctioning power so that the public know that research is properly conducted, monitored and controlled.
The VLA has shown that limits can be agreed and adhered to without the danger of the "slippery slope" that concerns many people. I would remind hon. Members that no embryo has been kept alive beyond nine days of development, and that the fourteenth day indicates a point at which the embryo cannot exist without attachment to the mother's womb. Before the fourteenth day, many contraceptives, such as the IUD coil, prevent the embryo from implanting and so it is lost. Are we questioning the morality of those commonly-used methods?
The pre-14-day embryo has the potential to divide and form twins, and also to join together again to form only a single individual. That phenomenon shows the absurdity of trying to give the status of a human individual to a pre-14-day embryo.
Perhaps later this year hon. Members will have the novel opportunity to choose, on a free vote, between two 1229 clauses, one forbidding research and one allowing research, subject to the regulations of the statutory licensing authority. I hope that hon. Members will bear in mind the benefits of research within strict guidelines, and decide to vote in favour of the Government's proposal for a statutory licensing authority, and allow that authority the freedom to decide the criteria for embryo research within the balance of overriding limits laid down by Parliament.
§ 8.1 pm
§ Mrs. Rosie Barnes (Greenwich)
The main suggestions in the White Paper seem eminently sensible and clearly command a broad level of support. In my opinion, an independent statutory licensing authority is the right body to make those sensitive decisions. It is not an area for direct Government intervention, but more than professional self-regulation is needed.
We have not discussed the controls over surrogacy that are referred to in the White Paper, but again the balance is right. It proposes the sensible and compassionate withdrawal of any facility for any party to take another to law over money that may have changed hands. However, it pays due regard to any child who may be born in that way. The White Paper contains no Government sanction. The suggested regulations about the storage of gametes and embryos again hold the right balance.
I shall concentrate my remarks on research on embryos. That clearly is the most heated point of the debate. I speak with some humility, having listened to the speeches of those hon. Members who spoke from personal experience. I was extremely moved and convinced by what they said. In many ways, they made their case completely.
What are the reasons for such research? It is not a question of scientists getting carried away by their ability to research cloning and the fanciful subjects which seem to have stolen the headlines in the debate, but which are irrelevant to what happens in clinics that do such invaluable work to solve the problems of infertility.
We have heard today that one in 10 couples face the problem of infertility. Having gone for treatment, fewer than one in 10 couples go home with babies in their arms. The problem is huge. It is a problem which those of us who are lucky enough to have children will never experience, but we can imagine the inadequacy and emptiness of life when children are very much wanted and are not forthcoming. Who are we to deny those people something that comes so easily to so many of us?
Without a certain amount of research, even those one in 10 mothers would not be taking home their babies. There would be no babies as a result of in-vitro fertilisation if there had been no research. It is impossible to separate the two. Without further pre-embryo research, the success rate in helping infertile couples can be increased only by a greater number of re-implantations, thereby risking multiple pregnancies, miscarriages, premature delivery and infant mortality.
Pre-embryo replacement must not be done on a random basis, but only where there is a clear family history of genetic disease. The opportunities that modern science provides to detect those pre-embryos which carry disorders must and should be screened out. Pre-embryo research is the crux of the matter. It helps infertile couples and helps to eliminate genetic disorders.
1230 Yesterday, I went to a fertility clinic to look at a pre-embryo. There has been so much talk about experimentation on embryos following the debate on abortion that there is a public misconception that we are discussing experimentation on microscopic babies. It may sound silly to say it in the House, where hon. Members are so well informed, but in the country there is such an illusion.
We are talking about a small cluster of cells no bigger than a pinhead, which cannot be seen by the naked eye. For up to 14 days following fertilisation, pre-embryos exist with no nervous system and no recognisable foetal characteristics. Indeed, 90 per cent. of the cells formed in that way go on to form the placenta and not the embryo itself.
After fertilisation under normal circumstances, most of those pre-embryos fail to attach themselves to the wall of the uterus and are lost as part of the next menstrual cycle. The hon. Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham) has already said that forms of contraception such as the coil prevent the pre-embryo from attaching to the side of the uterus and developing into embryos.
There has been much discussion about the nature of life and when life starts. We must be realistic about it. We must recognise that it does not start with an instantaneous, star-studded explosion. Fertilisation is a continuous process taking up to 24 hours and ends when the fertilised egg begins to divide.
If we allow our scientists and medical advisers to continue with careful and strictly controlled research, it will be possible to screen out genetic disorders, not only to stop one child carrying those disorders but eventually to screen out those disorders altogether from our population. It can be done.
In most instances, the chromosomes — the genetic make-up of a potential future embryo—are identifiable in that pre-embryo cell. It is simply a matter of removing one cell from an embryo, freezing the embryo, which may be only four or eight cells—they do not increase one at a time, they double — removing one cell and checking for genetic disorders. If that disorder is present, the pre-embryo will be allowed to perish naturally. If it is healthy, it can be implanted in the mother's uterus. We have heard today, only too convincingly, about the tragedy that can befall not only the children concerned, but their families, when such genetic disorders are allowed to continue while we have the means to prevent them.
Pre-embryo research will also help to establish the causes of infertility, and to tackle the problems of contraception. I have lived through an era in which we thought that we had the contraception problem cracked. In the sixties, the pill appeared. Everyone thought that was fine, and we could forget about the problem. As time has gone on, however, we have heard about risk after risk attached to different forms of contraception. Clearly we do not have the answer. There is a great deal of work to be done, and embryo research can add considerably to our knowledge.
Research must, of course, be carefully controlled. No one is advocating a completely free rein for scientists to become involved in work that is not possible, and not likely in the foreseeable future. We must, however, be clear as a Parliament that we cannot endorse some of the more fanciful elements of pre-embryo research. Continuing embryo research must be very strictly controlled. However, in my view, the benefit to mankind far 1231 outweighs any disadvantage. While it has become clear that research of this kind cannot be performed on animals, I emphasise that it is being performed not on microscopic babies, but on human material which is not an inherent human being.
Let me add a specific point to what I have made the main thrust of my argument: the need to allow research to continue. That is my anxiety about children who are the offspring of artificial insemination by donor being allowed to know their natural fathers. We have already heard that, in Sweden, the number of people coming forward to donate sperm for this cause has plummeted as a result of such a measure. Most young men would be very reluctant to indulge in such an exercise in the knowledge that, in 20 or 30 years, someone could knock on their door and say, "Hallo, Dad." That is a frightening prospect. However, more mature men have come forward, who may have had experience of infertility themselves, and may know the problem. Perhaps that is no bad thing, but the number of couples seeking such help has declined. There is evidence that some of them may be going abroad to seek help, where they will avoid the problem of a possible future revelation for the child which may be to the detriment of the whole family.
Most children know their true father only by courtesy of their mother. There is considerable evidence that up to 20 per cent. of children could not be the natural offspring of the person they have been brought up to think of as their father. We are giving those children rights that the rest of the population do not have.
We must allow controlled research. There must be regulations on this vital matter, but we must also recognise that what can be achieved will alleviate human misery substantially. For us to turn our backs on that potential achievement would surely be very wrong.
§ Dr. Charles Goodson-Wickes (Wimbledon)
Less than a fortnight ago, we debated another issue that centred on moral and medical issues. The hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) presented a Bill that caused much heart-searching on both sides of the House, and I would be very surprised if similar reactions did not occur this evening.
The issues of abortion and in-vitro fertilisation are clearly, to an extent, related. Many of us opposed the Abortion (Amendment) Bill on the basis of our scientific knowledge. I, for one, could not reconcile an 18-week gestation period with the knowledge that, even with today's highly sophisticated medical techniques, no baby born before 24 weeks' gestation had survived.
I very much doubt whether legislation should pre-empt medical advances to the extent that mothers carrying undetected abnormal foetuses should be denied abortions. The House may find it significant that the three practising medical men elected to the House last year—the hon. Members for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Galbraith) and for Kirkcaldy (Dr. Moonie), and myself—all voted against the Abortion (Amendment) Bill. I trust that those hon. Members who voted for a period of 18 weeks on the understanding that it would subsequently be amended to 24 weeks — a date that I would endorse—will not be disillusioned.
If we believe, as do so many Roman Catholics and, indeed, Christians of all denominations, that life begins at conception, the whole principle of IVF is presumably 1232 unacceptable. I understand the pure logic of their argument, and I admire the consistency of deeply held views. However, from my previous remarks, the House will understand that I cannot, as a physician, accept them. I understand that the new technique of gamete intra-fallopian transfer—referred to by the acronym GIFT— may overcome theological arguments, in that ova and sperm are introduced into the fallopian tubes, where fertilisation usually takes place, as opposed to the uterus, separated by a pocket of air.
For me, the overriding issue in both the Abortion (Amendment) Bill and the subject of tonight's debate—-other than the mother's well-being—is her opportunity to decide whether to bear children with varying degrees of handicap, within the context of the whole family. Surely it cannot but lead to fewer abortions if abnormalities can be detected not in the 18th, 24th or 28th week, but in the first 14 days. At this stage, the term "pre-embryo" is utterly appropriate — before cell differentiation has occurred, and before any neurological tissue has been laid down. We should never forget that the cells in the pre-embryo, roughly the size of the point of a pin, can develop either into the embryo itself or into the placenta.
Apart from the avoidance of congenital defects such as Down's syndrome, muscular dystrophy, Huntington's chorea and cystic fibrosis— I shall spare the House a litany of diagnoses—which are just a few of about 50 serious genetic abnormalities which affect 15,000 babies annually, I cannot see that the techniques of IVF should be denied in efforts to produce normal children for previously infertile couples. Much happiness has been brought to childless marriages, and the pleasure of knowing that their own genes have produced the baby enhances the parents' joy. That does not apply to the practice of artificial insemination by donor, about which I have many reservations. How much more desirable is pre-embryo diagnosis, as opposed to late abortions, which I suspect no hon. Member views without the deepest concern.
In-vitro fertilisation is a technique developed in Great Britain after 20 or more years of research. Parallel research in the United States was held back owing to antagonistic state legislation, which may be a lesson in itself. In contrast, Australia has taken the lead unencumbered by overbearing legislation and assisted by ample funds.
The success rate of implantation in Britain 10 years ago was about 1.5 per cent. It has now risen to around 25 per cent. However, the "take-home baby rate", which, Madam Deputy Speaker, I am sure you will agree is an inelegant phrase, is only 8 to 9 per cent.—in other words, less than one in 10 succeed. That is a disappointing figure. A plateau has now been reached, but I am led to believe by my medical colleagues that a major breakthrough is likely in the next five to 10 years if two conditions are satisfied —first, that legislation does not stand in the way, and, secondly, that adequate funds are available.
This week I visited an IVF unit in London—I was glad to see the hon. Member for Greenwich (Mrs. Barnes) following in my footsteps — which has the unique distinction of being a joint project between the National Health Service—at Barts—and the private sector. Some hon. Members know of my keenness to encourage such co-operation and this is an excellent example. Of the other 36 units, one third are in the NHS, one third in the private sector and one third are attached to academic institutions.
1233 The Voluntary Licensing Authority, set up on the initiative of the Medical Research Council and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, has done admirable work, under the chairmanship of Dame Mary Donaldson, in regulating the work done in this area and has worked closely with local ethical committees. It has licensed 25 units and another 12 are under assessment.
It is no reflection on the VLA that I now support the setting up of a statutory licensing authority with advisory and executive powers, in cases of prima facie unethical practices. It should consist of professional and lay members, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said in his introductory remarks.
I would go further than the Warnock report in proposing the inclusion of a religious leader of any faith. That representative need not necessarily be ordained. For example, a doctor who has been a lay preacher might be an admirable choice. Indeed, such a person might find more favour in the House than the sociologist suggested by the hon. Member for Barking (Ms. Richardson).
I fully support the introduction of a new criminal offence, backed up by severe penalties, for the unauthorised use of embryos, trans-species fertilisation and genetic manipulation. The sale of embryos should in no circumstances be tolerated.
Above all, I urge the House to keep the whole issue in proportion, untainted by exaggerated and emotive propaganda. Assisted reproduction, necessarily dependent on successful and integrated research, is already of vast benefit to those 10 per cent. of couples who are infertile. We want to see more than the 2,000 healthy babies already born in this country by that means.
In conclusion, assisted reproduction is an important, worthy and humane venture and our responsible medical profession would not hazard the technique's great potential by abusing ethical standards in its country of origin. The case is compelling and I trust that the House will not stand in the way of further properly supervised research.
§ Mr. William Cash (Stafford)
I am glad to follow the hon. Member for Greenwich (Mrs. Barnes) and my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Dr. Goodson-Wickes) because, in their own respective ways, they summarised clearly the position that I generally oppose.
We have had what on any account has been a good-tempered and well-balanced debate, and an enormous amount of time has been given to White Papers, to the Unborn Children (Protection) Bill which was introduced by Mr. Enoch Powell — I was a member of the Committee which considered it—and to discussions in the media over the past four years or so.
I gave evidence indirectly to the Warnock committee, and I have been involved with this subject for about six years now. I have done my best to grapple with the difficult problems that it represents, but I find the issue extremely difficult. I have a clear idea of what I think should be done, but at the same time I have to acknowledge—in the hope that I am a compassionate person and also aware of the grave concern of those people who are infertile or who suffer from potential genetic defects — that there is a serious problem that we must address.
1234 My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mr. Rhodes James) asked whether we should sacrifice this research for the sake of future generations. The issue that has concerned me in particular has been whether we might be sacrificing future generations for the purposes of research. I say that seriously and gravely, because major questions relating to potential political control lie at the root of this important subject.
Some years ago, in the debate on the Warnock report, I said that I thought that the matter should be referred to a Select Committee. I also said that if a private Member's Bill were to be introduced, there was a strong case for such a Bill being referred to a Special Standing Committee. I add as a rider to that that we could ad hoc change our Standing Orders to enable the usual three days allowed for a Special Standing Committee to be extended to, say, 10 days.
I had many discussions with Senator Brian Harradine of the Australian Parliament. As a result of his efforts, a Select Committee was set up in Australia. I kept in touch with him throughout the whole of its proceedings, and I have the volumes of evidence that were given to it which anybody could fairly say represents an enormous amount of work. If we were to have a Special Standing Committee to consider the crucial questions which arise from the White Paper, its members would have the opportunity to look at the evidence that had already been provided in Australia, sieve it, and come up with an interesting and important contribution. That Committee could cross-examine the experts concerned who so far have not been subjected to sceptical, or even cynical, cross-examination, which it is our job to provide.
I have heard much talk from hon. Members who take an opposite view to me about the relative unimportance of the pre-embryo. The Australian Select Committee considered voluminous evidence, carefully and seriously, in a balanced way and came to a number of important conclusions. After the most thorough inquiry into the status of the human embryo undertaken by any Government body anywhere, the Committee found:
I would say "unless"—
- "1. that the human embryo from conception is 'a genetically new human life organised as a distinct entity oriented towards further development' ….
- 2. that the embryo's orientation to 'further development as a biologically individuated member of the human species' commands such respect as to preclude destructive non-therapeutic experimentation on it.
- 3. That any 'marker' or distinction between embryos, such as `pre-embryo', 'pre-embryonic disc', 'pre-conscious' or 'spare' which purports to distinguish between embryos which are entitled to such respect and ones which are not is arbitrary, ethically unsound and impractical … and
- 4. that 'prudence' dictates that, until"—the contrary is demonstrated 'beyond reasonable doubt … the embryo should be regarded as if it were a human subject for the purposes of biomedical ethics ….".There is much more in that report.
The importance of this subject was borne out by my visit to the United Nations some years ago with my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security. I am glad to see that she is in her place, as she may recall the discussions that took place in the Population Control Committee room. I raised the question of eugenics, which lies at the centre of gravity of the problem. I had been referred to a book called "Human Fertility — Health and Food." I remember that book vividly. In effect, it said, "There are a lot of nuts running 1235 round the world. There is absolutely nothing for anyone to worry about. The research will be undertaken anyway and we will package them up and dispatch them." The evidence that I have accumulated since then proves beyond reasonable doubt that we need to consider positive eugenics very seriously. I would recommend all hon. Members to read a book by Dr. Glover, a distinguished philosopher and fellow of New college, Oxford. It is called "What sort of people should there be?" It is not a joke book. It describes analytically, calmly and unhysterically genetic supermarkets, positive eugenics and related matters. We know of the works of Mr. Muller writing in America in the 1930s and we have evidence of the way in which the Germans behaved in the pre-war period and during the war. Anyone who does not believe that it is possible for this research to be turned to evil purposes is under a grave illusion.
That brings me to my next question. Would the proposed Bill ban all research, as many have thought? I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Health will forgive me if I misquote him, but I think that he said that it would ban all research. Writing in The Independent of 14 December, Tom Wilkie said that one of the options to be considered waswhether research should be banned altogether.If one examines the White Paper and, as it were, translates it into a Bill — I have no doubt that parliamentary counsel will be doing that with the next Session in view — one finds that research is not as prohibited as we had thought, or perhaps hoped. I shall not go into all the technicalities, but paragraph 30, relating to the alternative draft clauses, says:It will be a criminal offence to carry out any procedures on a human embryo other than those aimed ata number of purposes, and there is a similar draft dealing with the question of permitting research.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security (Mrs. Edwina Currie)
The White Paper makes it clear that it will be for the House to decide whether research should be permitted. The present proposal is to offer the House alternative clauses, one which would permit research and one which would not. It would be for the House to decide on a free vote.
§ Mr. Cash
Of course, that question will be implicit in the Second Reading debate and it will be decided then. But when we have got past that point and the scope and long title of the Bill have been conceded on Second Reading, we have to ask: what degree of research will be allowed? My hon. Friend the Minister will agree with me on that point.
I shall now deal with the question of extending the activities—or reducing the prohibition—by regulation. Effectively, that would be done by means of affirmative resolution and the so-called Henry VIII clause. For those hon. Members who do not know what that means, it means that the Act can be amended by subsequent statutory instruments subject to the affirmative procedure. The problem is that if that technique is employed, we are on the slippery slope — the phrase used by my hon. Friend the Member for Bedfordshire, North (Sir T. Skeet) in his telling speech and I believe by me in the debate on the Warnock report in 1984. I am bound to ask whether we are entitled to examine the relationship between the 1236 benefits on the one hand — I concede those benefits, because I have compassion for those affected — and grave political dangers on the other.
I shall come to my point on that straight away. I see that another distinguished Minister, the Minister for Local Government, is in the Chamber. When he was at the Department of Trade and Industry, I think I asked him whether we should have international treaties to deal with these matters. It is not just a question of what we do in this House; we may significantly affect what goes on elsewhere, just as the Australians may significantly affect what we do. That is the way that the world goes round these days. We live in a small global village. We could possibly work through the EEC. I believe that these matters would fall within the provisions of the treaty reserving our right to determine matters of public health. If that is so, we should be able to sustain the veto if we had to do so while negotiating in that context, or unilaterally, with other countries.
The implications for the world as a whole are serious enough for us to consider that. I say that because there is now much evidence of the dimensions of the problem. An article in the Spectator of 29 August 1987, referring to the physiology and genetics research station at Roslin just outside Edinburgh, says:They have plans to try to transfer a copy of a gene taken from a human being — the one responsible for the production of an essential ingredient of blood plasma—into sheep. They are using human tissue.The author of the article refers to it as being a "scary subject", and says:The need to spend money has its own momentum and few human beings need a purpose beyond insane curiosity to meddle with nature.I got 150 signatures for my early-day motion on trans-species fertilisation. The Daily Telegraph subsequently reported the creation of an ape-man hybrid in Florence. These are not scare stories. They are questions of great importance and we need to take them into account in determining how to deliberate on this matter. There are some well-intentioned people who want to produce helpful research for other people, but there are nevertheless significant problems which Parliament needs to contain and control.
I wonder, therefore, whether it would be sensible to impose a 10-year limit on the Bill on the assumption that we are dealing with experimentation and that many of the proposals may be overtaken by events. Those who take the opposite view to mine may well find that the Abortion Act 1967 had a time limit imposed on it. It may have been another Act. It does not matter which one of those seminal pieces of legislation had a time limit imposed on it, which was subsequently erased by resolution of the House, but the important part is that a time limit was imposed. It would be useful to consider that.
It might also be helpful for a Sub-Committee of the Social Services Select Committee to be given the specific task to monitor, within Parliament, the activities of the SLA. I believe that Congress follows that practice. I am concerned about what the word "therapeutic" means. I am speaking almost in shorthand because I am aware that other hon. Members wish to speak, and I apologise if I have taken too long.
At the end of the day, we must consider this subject from the point of view of the child—not children. We 1237 have to make our first priority the preservation of life, not its destruction. This subject is too important for us to play games with it.
§ Mr. John Hannam (Exeter)
This has been a quiet, well-informed debate. Anyone who listened to the moving speech of the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) detailing the tragedies within his family and also listened to the opposing but probing speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Cash) will appreciate the careful approach that has been adopted by my right hon. Friend the Minister who has tried to find the right path for this delicate subject.
I have consistently supported measures to restrict unlimited abortion and other campaigns for the protection of the unborn child. Therefore, it may be rather surprising that I now wish to speak in support of research on pre-embryos. However, in common with my hon. Friends the Members for Cambridge (Mr. Rhodes James) and for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham), I see no contradiction in adopting that position. Obviously, if we can remove the flawed cell at the beginning we shall remove the need for an abortion at a later stage. If, as a result of research, contraception methods are improved we also remove the need for abortion at a later stage.
Hon. Members will be aware that I am deeply involved in working with and for handicapped people. For some 15 years I have been an officer of the all-party disablement group and in common with other hon. Members I am an active member of many organisations such as Action Research for the Crippled Child, the Parkinson's Disease Society, Alzheimer's Disease Society, Mencap and other disability groups. Much of the work of those organisations involves preventive care, that is, helping to find ways of preventing those dreadful, disabling diseases that cause such distress not only to the sufferers, but to the parents and families concerned.
During my 17 years in Parliament much progress—medical and social—has been made for those who are unfortunate enough to be handicapped and disabled. A great deal is now being done to help them live reasonable lives. Nevertheless, I will do everything that I can to prevent such disabilities occurring. I am convinced that the harnessing of medical and scientific progress, under proper supervision, can lead to great advances in preventive care.
Earlier I mentioned Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease. With both of those dreadful afflictions, and possibly with multiple sclerosis, we are on the verge of an amazing breakthrough with brain cell transplantation. With that issue we run up against perceived moral and ethical obstacles because the transplant material comes from aborted eight to nine-week-old foetuses. The Government will have to clarify the law on that matter if that great medical breakthrough is to be put into practice in this country as it already is in Sweden and Mexico.
The key issue today is the use of pre-embryos for research into the genetic diseases or abnormalities that can be detected in the first 10 or so days of a fertilised cell's existence. As we know, when a male sperm fertilises the female egg it is one cell. That cell divides quickly into two cells, which in turn divide into four and so on. They are clustered together and at that early stage each new cell 1238 looks just like the other. During the first 14 days after fertilisation the majority of those cells separate to form the placenta. At this time they can be seen only under a powerful microscope. It is at the 14 day stage, when the process of separation is complete, that the remaining cells then form an embryo—in the case of twins two embryos are formed. If all remains well, the embryo may grow into a foetus and become a baby.
The bulk of the research that is under discussion in the White Paper concerns helping people to get pregnant or avoid losing their babies before birth and, of course, IVF. As well as improving infertility treatment, research on pre-embryos could also help to improve contraceptive methods and prevent human genetic defects. Such defects are a common cause of handicap and death of babies. Genetic defects and congenital malformations occur in 2 to 5 per cent. of all live births and are the cause of 40 to 50 per cent. of deaths in childhood. Genetic diseases account for 10 per cent. of all diseases and such diseases are untreatable. Some 12 to 15 per cent. of all paediatric admissions are due to congenital abnormalities. One person in 50 has a major congenital abnormality—that equals 14,000 births a year. One in 100 people have a single gene defect and one in 200 a major chromosomal disorder. It is estimated that 20 per cent. of pre-embryos are abnormal and certain couples are at particular risk. Screening for pre-embryos would help those couples who were known to face a substantial risk of defect. In the foreseeable future it may be possible to detect those pre-embryos that would develop specific disorders such as muscular dystrophy, Down's syndrome, cystic fibrosis, Hunter's syndrome, Hurler's syndrome and Huntington's chorea.
Mencap and the Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation believe that research on embryos under 14 days could help to reduce the genetic diseases figures and must be supported by Parliament. The advantages of such research are only now becoming apparent because of recent developments in relevant technology. In January at a joint meeting of the all-party disablement group and the all-party children's group, Professor Robert Winston, professor of fertility studies at Hammersmith hospital, pointed out that, within the next few months, it would be possible to establish guidelines for diagnosing certain genetic conditions two days after fertilisation. The first condition with which the model has been successfully developed is the Lesch Nyhan syndrome. Children with that disease are normal at birth, but deteriorate rapidly, becoming mentally handicapped and self-mutilating. Such children do not usually live beyond their teenage years. It is now possible to establish whether an embryo is deficient by looking at a single cell. The two other diseases where major advances are likely are Duchenne muscular dystrophy and cystic fibrosis. The cystic fibrosis gene is carried by one in 20 people and is a particularly serious problem. Many babies with the disease die in infancy.
At present the only way of discovering whether a woman is carrying an abnormal foetus is by amniocentesis. That test cannot be carried out, as we know from recent debates, until the 14th or 16th week of pregnancy.
An embryo up to 14 days after fertilisation is one tenth the size of a dot of newsprint and it has no organs or feelings. During this stage a woman would not normally know that the egg had been fertilised because implementation would not have taken place. In addition, at least 40 per cent. of fertilised eggs are shed before 1239 implementation and widely accepted methods of contraception such as the coil and low-dosage pills work by preventing implementation of the fertilised egg rather than preventing actual fertilisation.
It is easy to imagine the heartache that parents must endure as they consider whether to terminate a pregnancy or whether they will be able to cope with a severely mentally or physically handicapped child. All that could be saved if the presence of an abnormal gene or chromosomal defect could be detected in a pre-embryo. It would then be possible to ensure that only normal pre-embryos were transferred back to those women whose families carry serious genetic diseases.
The alternative to that handicap prevention development is our present system of identifying an abnormality at the 14th to 20th week of pregnancy. The parents are then faced with the terrible choice of either having an abortion or the birth of a severely handicapped child. Surely if such terrible abnormalities could be identified and the defective cell replaced by the mother's normal, healthy cell that must be right. Banning pre-embryo research will halt essential work being carried out to find ways of preventing chromosomal abnormalities and hereditary genetic illnesses that affect up to 14,000 children in Britain every year.
The claim that human embryonic material is not needed for dealing with genetic diseases is refuted by nearly all the experts involved with medical science. The latest claim that recent advances in understanding cystic fibrosis, which is the most common severe genetic disease affecting children, had come about without the use of embryos is vehemently denied by one of the leaders in the field, Professor Williamson of the department of biochemistry and molecular genetics at St. Mary's, whose research group has been one of the major teams studying that disease. He points out that 2 million people in Britain carry the lethal genetic defect that causes the disease. He says that tremendous progress is being made towards finding a longterm solution:Advance towards any of those objectives …would require a very small number of early embryo experiments, carefully regulated and only using material which otherwise would be discarded. Animal experiments cannot suffice since there is no animal model for cystic fibrosis.It seems, therefore, that the general White Paper approach of the development of a statutory licensing authority exercising strict controls over surrogacy and the storage of eggs and sperm and acting, if Parliament sees fit to approve—I hope that it will—as the licensing authority for the specific limited time approach on pre-embryos, is ethically and morally right. I hope that, like those in another place, hon. Members will eventually support that.
For those of us working in the area of disablement and handicap the extending of the frontiers of medical knowledge towards finding methods of eliminating and preventing severe abnormalities and curing established disablements incurred later in life represent a satisfying and rewarding future. From my personal contacts with the medical experts working on such research projects, I can say that I find them to be quiet, dedicated people who are responding to all the ethical and moral dilemmas that face us all. We must remember that they face and treat, day after day, the many thousands of sufferers from such dreadful diseases — and deal with their families. Their motivation to use the increased knowledge that they slowly acquire to help alleviate this suffering is surely 1240 understandable. It does not lead to an excess of desire to drive a coach and horses through the ethical and moral barriers to which society adheres. They are intelligent people conscious of their moral responsibilities.
This debate, like that on 15 January in the other place, has been a deliberate one, but I hope that it will help to influence hon. Members and the world outside. I am grateful for the opportunity to put forward my views, which I desperately hope will accord with those of the majority in the House.
§ Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton)
I want to follow in the footsteps of my hon. Friend the Minister by using a moderate and constructive approach similar to his. It is right that we should approach the debate's subject matter with compassion for couples who face the blow of childlessness due to infertility. As a mother of three, I want to reassure the hon. Member for Greenwich (Mrs. Barnes) —I see that she is no longer with us—that I know the father of the three children concerned, and if she saw them, she would be in no doubt who he was. My hon. Friends certainly know him. Perhaps the hon. Lady is as fond as I am of the old calypso: "Your father's not your father but your father don't know".
However, as a mother I know only too well the mixed blessings that the children can bring. Predominantly, they bring joy, happiness and fulfilment to their parents. To those unfortunate people who yearn for children but are denied that fulfilment I express my genuine concern, understanding and sympathy.
My first point is that, however greatly a couple may wish to have children, to do so is not an absolute right. If it were, we should have devalued children to little more than property to be possessed. Children are not like that; they are not a right: they are a privilege. We must ensure that our Health Service makes provision to seek to alleviate infertility when it is realistically practical to do so, but we must not lose sight of the fact that it rests with an authority higher than doctors or specialists to decide whether a woman bears a child.
Secondly, the simple fact that can all too easily be overlooked is that experimentation on the human embryo is not the best way to alleviate infertility. Nor indeed is the technique of in-vitro fertilisation an appropriate one for dealing with the majority of such cases. I shall not enter into all the details of the argument now—it would take too long—but I should point out that infertility due to tubal occlusion is avoidable in many cases, arising as it all too often does from sexually transmitted disease, the aftereffect of abortion or a complication from having used an intra-uterine device.
Furthermore, IVF is only an appropriate treatment for infertility in a minority of cases. Those who want a solution to the majority of cases of infertility would do well to heed this fact and to accept that it would be a far better use of resources, and would help a great many more women to bear children, if those resources were used to highlight the problems of promiscuous sexual activity and abortion so as to prevent the occurrence of infertility in the first place. In other words, prevention is better than cure —and it is possible in the majority of cases of infertility. I want the House to take that point to heart.
I also want to highlight the work now being done by Dr. Kevin Rees, consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist, of Stepping Hill hospital, Stockport—which is near my 1241 constituency—and of Dr. John McLean, senior lecturer in anatomy and embryology at the university of Manchester medical school. Those two doctors are working on a project to simplify the procedure of treating infertility due to tubal occlusion by transferring the ovum directly into the uterine cavity and allowing natural intercourse to provide the opportunity for in-vivo fertilisation. That new technique is particularly exciting because it could be used in many other types of infertility in addition to those for which IVF is considered appropriate.
I also draw to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Health the fact that not only is this technique more widely applicable than IVF but it is also much cheaper and could, in the near future, be available through every district general hospital. If that does not strike the fear of God into my right hon. Friend's heart at the present time, I do not know what would. It should also be noted that the technique has been introduced and is being developed with no need for experimentation on the human embryo.
As the new technique holds out much brighter hope than IVF, at lower cost, for more women, why do a small number of individuals continue to promote IVF as the only solution? Could it be because of the financial gain that is possible through that high-tech but low-effect treatment? Perhaps it presents the opportunity for scientists to get their hands on the human embryo for other purposes. We can only speculate, but it remains beyond doubt that the usefulness of IVF is extremely limited.
Dr. Rees and Dr. McLean have applied to the North-West regional health authority for financial assistance with their work. I hope—I am sure that thousands of infertile women will share the hope—that such funding will eventually be forthcoming.
If we accept that IVF has a continuing role to play in the treatment of infertility, experimentation upon the human embryo need have no part in IVF. To explore the reasons behind the poor success rate of IVF, we need a careful study of those embryos which fail to implant and die, and of the wombs of the affected women, not of other living healthy embryos. It is not logical to suggest otherwise.
I wish to deal with one other aspect during this reasonably short speech—the false promises which have been made by so many people with an interest in allowing human embryo experimentation to continue. In debate in Committee on the Unborn Children (Protection) Bill, on which I served, we were repeatedly told by many, including the Medical Research Council, that such experiments would find a cure for genetic disease. This has proved a totally unfounded hope. During the five years which have passed since the Warnock committee began to consider these matters, there have been no great discoveries from those who argued for the use of the human embryo in this way.
Yet, on the other hand, dedicated research workers have shown considerable success in dealing with the problems of handicap without the use of the human embryo. Vitamin supplementation in early pregnancy has been shown to protect the human embryo from neural tube defects, such as spina bifida. New developments in molecular biology, applied to cells taken from adult 1242 patients with, for example, cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy, Huntington's disease and retinoblastoma, have generated a much greater understanding of the genetic factors responsible for these diseases, as well as their location within the human genome. There is also the possibility of treating and curing certain genetic blood diseases with bone marrow transplantation, and progress is also being make in seeking to work with those suffering from Down's syndrome.
It is clear, therefore, that there are fruitful and practical lines of investigation into handicap which do not require the use of a human embryo. I believe that this argument for the use of the human embryo as a guinea pig is nothing more than a red herring to distract attention away from those who wish to experiment in other directions, for example, in the development of new abortifacient drugs or contraceptives and, I fear, for possibly more sinister purposes. On the latter point, millions of pounds will be made by those scientists who are successful in those experiments. The House should address that point.
As the Medical Research Council, which has campaigned so actively for experimentation on the human embryo, has failed to acknowledge the wealth of opportunity which is available without the use of embryos and, as it has so persistently misrepresented to hon. Members the possible benefits of human embryo research, the time has come to re-examine whether this body should continue to receive Government funding.
If the MRC cannot supply accurate, impartial and useful information to hon. Members, we are left with no alternative but to call into question its ability to supervise the use of funds allocated by the Government from taxpayers, with the approval of this House, for research purposes.
Finally, I should like to remind my hon. Friend the Minister of the recommendation of the Warnock committee that the status of the human embryo is a matter of fundamental principle which should be enshrined in legislation. No other principle than that of a right to life, free of experimentation, could possibly be enshrined in legislation by this House. The duty of upholding this right must rest with the Minister, to such an extent that he would be abrogating his responsibilities if he passed responsibility for such matters to any new quango, such as a statutory licensing authority.
However, I hope that, when the House finally has the opportunity to enshrine these matters in legislation, it will accept that there is no ethical or constitutional alternative but to establish in law the right of the human embryo to be protected against those who would seek to experiment upon it, and to rest responsibility for ensuring that this remains the case directly with the Secretary of State, who is answerable to the House.
§ 9.4 pm
§ Mrs. Virginia Bottomley (Surrey, South-West)
I appreciate the opportunity to contribute to the debate. I have not spoken in the previous debates on this subject. I have tended to reserve my contributions in this area to children at a later stage: child benefit, child abuse and family courts. However, I now have the privilege of being the parliamentary representative of the Medical Research Council, taking over from our former colleague, the previous Member for Canterbury, Sir David Crouch.
The Medical Research Council has been mentioned during the debate, not only by my hon. Friend the Member 1243 for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton) but by my right hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine). It is important to note that during the past 65 years the Medical Research Council has offered independent advice to Government. It was established by royal charter in 1920. Its research activities are wide ranging, covering the areas of cancer, heart disease, strokes—still the third-largest killer— mental illness, Alzheimer's disease, addiction, disorders of movement and balance, low back pain and much else.
It is important to see the Medical Research Council's involvement in embryo research in its proper context. Of a total budget of around £140 million, perhaps only 0.1 per cent. is spent in that area. However, it is important work. Together with the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the Medical Research Council has been responsible for the voluntary licensing authority. In the light of remarks that have been made about the activities of the Voluntary Licensing Authority, it is important to give credit to Dame Mary Donaldson, the chairman, who, with impeccable credentials, has carried out that important work without reproach as a lay chairman working for the best interests of research and the public.
During this thoughtful debate, mention has been made of contributions from the other place. I refer especially to the comments of the Archbishop of York who talked about the moral need to continue research. To stop research on pre-embryos at this stage, with in-vitro techniques in their present state, would be a cruelty to those receiving this treatment for infertility. The success rates are so low and the dangers of multiple births are so great that to stop now would be an inhuman option.
Similarly, important research remains to be completed in the area of contraception. With the world's population increasing at the rate of 250,000 people per day, there are further developments to be made in that area.
A similar argument applies to the prevention of handicap. Many moving accounts have been given today of people's personal experiences. Before entering Parliament, I worked with a family with Huntington's chorea, where each member of the family had a 50–50 chance of inheriting that mentally and physically degenerative disorder, leading ultimately to death. For mothers with Huntington's chorea in the family, having the option of producing a healthy child can be regarded only as a pro-life solution.
The National Federation of Women's Institutes urged caution before hastily outlawing research during our earlier debates on the Bill of our former colleague, Mr. Enoch Powell.
A report of the Conservative Women's National Committee showed a majority in favour of the establishment of a statutory licensing authority to permit supervised research on the embryo before the 14-day limit. It is broadly understood by many people that at 14 days the embryo becomes a rather more developed cell cluster. At the early stage, embryos are regularly lost by means of the intra-uterine device.
There are arguments now for moving with considerable speed towards legislation. Time and trouble has been taken in the preparation of the White Paper. There is broad agreement on many areas. Opinion has moved with the publication of the White Paper.
This is an important subject. We debated only recently the time limits for abortion. In conclusion, I can do no more than remind hon. Members of the contribution made 1244 by the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science when we last discussed the subject three years ago with which I entirely agree. He then said:Parliament has licensed the termination of the life of embryos by abortion up to the 28th week after conception.Many hon. Members would support that being reduced further now.Among the circumstances that are implicitly allowed to permit an abortion is the possibility of serious congenital abnormality in the unborn child. Parliament has thus recognised the legitimacy of terminating the prospect of human life for a defective embryo. Should it now turn its back on the emergence of technical possibilities which might enable an embryo to come to a normal and natural life with its abnormalities corrected or prevented in the womb? These technical possibilities …might make it possible to avoid procuring an abortion. In these circumstances we must surely ask, which stance is 'pro-life' a nd which stance is 'anti-life'." —[Official Report, 15 February 1985; Vol. 73, c. 681–682.]
§ Mr. Ken Hargreaves (Hyndburn)
Not least because of the Minister's well-balanced and reasonable opening speech, we have had an excellent debate. We have heard many sincerely held, if different, views. I do not think any hon. Member would do other than congratulate the Government on their initiative in 1982 in setting up the Committee of Inquiry into Human Fertilisation and Embryology. However, while their foresight is to be commended, the composition of the committee left a great deal to be desired, as every member started by being in favour of the use of the human embryo as a guinea pig. Two members afterwards changed their mind and signed a minority report opposing the use of the human embryo in that way, but it would have been a prerequisite for anybody serving on the committee to favour the experimental use of the human embryo. It was not a good start.
It says a great deal for those involved that, in the ultimate, seven of the 16 members of the committee dissented from the main report, which recommended that it should be permitted to manufacture embryonic human beings specifically for experimental use. Not surprisingly, the report was not acclaimed by the general public, albeit the media did its utmost to present it as a step in the right direction for a civilised society. The fact is that the vast majority of the British public were not having it, as many hon. Members can confirm from their post-bags or from public opinion surveys that have been carried out.
This became obvious when the Department of Health and Social Security sent out the Warnock report, calling for comments on it. Many of the comments demonstrated clearly the revulsion with which many people viewed the recommendations of the Warnock committee, despite the huge press campaign which was launched to try to convince people that if the use of the human embryo for experiments was banned we would see research into cures for genetic and chromosomal diseases brought to a halt, as well as work on infertility stopped. To my mind, this was one of the most cruel aspects of the campaign against pro-lifers, particularly as those involved must have known this to be totally untrue. They must have known the tragic effect this would have on the many thousands of couples who were unable to have children or who have handicapped children.
Every hon. Member owes a debt of gratitude to the right hon. Enoch Powell when in December 1984 — at that time he was the Member for South Down — he 1245 decided to use his place in the private Member's ballot to introduce the Unborn Children (Protection) Bill, with the aim of outlawing the experimental use of the embryonic human being. It would not have resulted in the prevention of in-vitro fertilisation if the aim was to allow an infertile woman to bear a child. However, it would have stopped the use of either spare embryos or especially manufactured embryos from being used as guinea pigs.
The House does not need to be reminded of what happened to the Powell Bill. Few of us will ever forget the manner in which it was talked out, with the result that not only were pro-lifers outraged, but many hon. Members who do not support my views on the issue were appalled, and the media became more anxious to put across the pro-life cause.
The following year I decided to reintroduce the Unborn Children (Protection) Bill. However, our antagonists were determined that it would not even be given a Second Reading. As a result, I reintroduced it as a ten-minute Bill, when we determined that we would have a vote, particularly as our opponents kept informing the press and the media at large that we had lost support since Enoch Powell attempted to change the law. The vote on my Bill showed that this was not so, as we won by 229 to 129. That indicated quite clearly that, if anything, there had been an increase in the number of hon. Members who supported it.
Since then my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Burt) and my hon. Friend the Member for Lancashire, West (Mr. Hind) have demonstrated the determination of the majority view of the House, reflecting the majority view of the people, by attempting to reintroduce the Bill.
In the meantime, we have witnessed an innovation. Like other hon. Members, I have heard of all manner of press launches for any number of marketable products. I was surprised that those in favour of experiments on embryos organised a press reception at which they launched a new word. They did not announce it as a new word, but launch it they did. The word was "pre-embryo", and we have heard it many times in the debate. They spoke as if it were the norm and as though anatomists, doctors and scientists had been using it for centuries. It appears in no book of biology, anatomy or medical dictionary published in this country or, to my knowledge, anywhere in the world.
It certainly was not used by the Warnock committee. One of its members, Dr. David Davies—who signed the main report supporting the production of embryonic human beings, especially for use in experiments—had the integrity to point that out when he wrote in the scientific journal, Nature. He said:I am reasonably sure that at least in (Warnock Committee) discussions the word 'pre-embryo' was never used …If research on embryos were an uncontentious matter, and if scientists were generally of the opinion that the new terminology helped their understanding, nobody would have any qualms at the name change. But those who are introducing the word 'pre-embryo' into the vocabulary know full well that the research is indeed contentious and that fundamental issues have yet to be resolved.In other words, a member of the Warnock committee, who quite obviously does not agree with us, was complaining at the manner in which some scientists strive to manipulate public opinion by the invention of words 1246 that have no true meaning, and which certainly do not describe the human at conception. Pre-embryo may fairly describe the sperm and ovum before fertilisation, but there is no way in which the human at conception or after conception could be so described.
I am delighted to see that the ploy has not worked. The majority inside and outside the House still want the human embryo protected. They regard it, as do I, as a member of the human family from the moment of conception. They reject words such as "pre-embryo", which are intended to suggest that it is less than human.
It is to the credit of the Government's White Paper that it does not indulge in the misuse of words. However, on reading it, it is difficult not to suspect that the decision to indulge in a second round of consultation on the Warnock report was made to delay a decision in the hope that public opinion might change. I am glad to have received an assurance from the Minister that that was not so.
There is nothing new in the White Paper. It simply reiterates what the Warnock committee said on the issue. That is made even more regrettable when we realise that evidence was submitted, which was approved by some of the most eminent scientists in Britain, America and Europe, showing that what we said in 1985 was being substantiated by developments in the scientific world. That evidence shows that the human embryo is not required to make advances in seeking the cause and cure of genetic diseases, infertility and other problems.
I note with some concern that the Government have concluded that an independent statutory licensing authority should be established. What guarantee will Parliament be given that it is independent and unbiased? If the committee of inquiry can be made up of members who all share the same views, as I have outlined, how can we be sure that the statutory licensing authority will not be manned in the same way? That remains a worry, although I was glad to hear an assurance about that from the Minister in his opening speech. Infertility treatments and services should be directly controlled by Parliament under the Secretary of State. So far-reaching will be the effects on society of the legislation that we shall shortly introduce that it will be one of the most, if not the most, important pieces of legislation to come before the House.
I hope that we shall ensure that the most defenceless of our society — unborn human beings — are at least preserved from being used as human guinea pigs. When an experiment could not possibly be for his or her benefit, it has never previously been acceptable for it to be carried out without that person's consent. That position must continue, otherwise we shall be setting out on a slippery slope.
I should like to congratulate the Government on the part of the report that promises that the House will be granted an opportunity to vote on two alternative clauses. It lays that out quite clearly and fairly. I call on the Government to ensure that that clarity is maintained when the Bill is ultimately produced. I urge that that should be done without further delay. We have waited long enough, and it is time to act to give the human embryo the legal protection that we all enjoy.
§ Mr. Kenneth Hind (Lancashire, West)
It was an honour for me to come 17th in the ballot for private Members' Bills this Session and to take on the mantle of my hon. Friends the Members for Hyndburn (Mr.
1247 Hargreaves) and for Bury, North (Mr. Burt) and the former right hon. Member for South Down, Mr. Powell, in introducing the Unborn Children (Protection) Bill which lies at the heart of the discussion this evening.
I congratulate my right hon. and hon. Friends at the Department of Health and Social Security on bringing forward the report that is the basis of this evening's debate. They have recognised that there are deep feelings inside and outside the House over the sensitive issue of embryo research. I hope that in the very near future—I stress very near future — the report will be translated into legislation. I hope, too, that the legislation will reach the statute book in Government time.
I am sure that my colleagues would agree that it is only the strength of feeling inside and outside the House that has ensured that we will be given the choice, through the White Paper, to decide whether to allow embryo research in legislation in future. That is the central point. I do not want to discuss any other details from the report now.
I speak for people who have children and for those who have struggled to have children. My wife and I, unlike many other fortunate members of the community, did not have children easily. We had to struggle. I appreciate the problems about infertility and childlessness. However, deeper issues are involved, as many of my hon. Friends have said.
I am also interested in research. As president of the charity Action Research for the Crippled Child in my constituency, I am keen to see that research to prevent child diseases is fully funded. However, setting aside my interest in those things, I must state that there is a deeper and more fundamental argument about the nature of life. Whatever view we may take about this, our view of life and its creation is fundamental to this issue.
The major division between us is that those of us who would outlaw research on embryos believe that life begins at fertilisation, inside or outside the womb. Once fertilisation begins there is the potential for life. I want to bury some of the arguments that have been put forward tonight against that view.
It has been suggested that the embryo has only the chance for life. Not only has it a chance for life; the embryo is life. We should not forget that fundamental point. It has also been said that the embryo has a chance to develop. I would argue that we should not deprive that life of the chance for development. Embryonic human beings must not be treated like laboratory rabbits. Research on embryos would bring about such treatment. Most important of all, embryos should have not just a chance for development. The issue is about human rights. It is about the right to live and the most important issue of human dignity. We must consider the fact that those embryos have the right to live. It is their human right to live, and we must protect that right.
For too long the law has ignored the rights of the unborn child. We will be able to protect those rights when legislation is introduced on this matter. We will be able to vote and correct the imbalance that has existed for many years.
Another argument that is put against it is what I would call the "not yet" fallacy—that the embryo is not yet a person, not yet a member of the human race, and for that reason it is quite all right to treat it as a spare, to be experimented on and frozen. These things are permissible, but I totally reject all of these arguments. I take the view —and I am sure that many of my hon. Friends will take 1248 the same view— that the embryo is a person with the potential for life and has human rights. We must respect those rights.
Everybody in the human race started as that little cluster of cells that has been much maligned. That cluster of cells has led to life for people throughout this country and the world. We must respect it. One of the problems in the attitude of those engaged in embryo research is the failure to accept that need for respect.
There are those who say that there is no alternative to embryo research. I was in the House when the former right hon. Member for South Down, Mr. Enoch Powell, who is unfortunately no longer a Member, introduced his Bill. We were told then that this was the only way. In the past few months, since introducing my Bill, I have considered some of the research that is going on. No one has come forward and said that he has made a major breakthrough with the use of fertilised embryos in research. It has been a case of saying, "Tomorrow, tomorrow." But, while we do nothing, these things march on.
It is time to deal with the problem. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton) put her finger on it when she said that in other areas, using different techniques, major breakthroughs are being made, especially in relation to molecular biology, in cystic fibrosis and Huntington's disease. Work is being done by Dr. John McLean at Manchester university. Let us not forget the greatest of all the researchers in this area, Professor Jerome Lejeune, who discovered the basis of Down's syndrome, and who is still working in that area. He is a tower of strength, and he says that there are alternative ways of doing this research. We must indeed follow those alternative ways.
Let us also not forget that when the Warnock committee reported a minority report was signed by Professor Marshall, professor of clinical neurology at London university, and six others. The impression given by the supporters of embryo research is that the medical profession is united and speaks with one voice. That is far from the truth, and the public ought to know that.
I welcome the opportunity to debate this matter. It is a fundamental issue that we must look at most carefully. I welcome the judgment of the Government in recognising the strength of feeling on both sides and allowing a free vote. Legislation cannot be brought forward soon enough. I look forward in the next few months to debating this most important subject yet again.
§ Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)
I welcome the opportunity to make a brief contribution to the debate, especially as tribute has been made to my colleague the former Member of Parliament for South Down. When he was introducing his Bill, he said that there comes a stage where we must put up signposts and markers. In that context, I believe that when scientists are doing their job and have a task to do, which I sympathise with and understand, it is the responsibility of Parliament to put up the markers to guide them. For, even within the scientific fraternity, as they are human, they can err like the rest of us.
It is in that context that the House can legislate. It is important to remind scientists who support embryo research and experimentation that historically some of the greatest breakthroughs have come not from the majority but from the one imaginative person who went his own 1249 way. The medical profession and others do no service to the community when they denigrate the work of Professor Lejeune because he is working on his own.
I pay tribute to the Minister for the way he introduced the debate. I welcome the acceptance by the Government in paragraph 63 of the White Paper thatthe sale or purchase of gametes or embryos should be controlled so as to avoid the risk of commercial exploitation.I am sceptical about how that will be achieved. I have put down questions in the past about the commercial use of foetuses and I have got very inadequate replies. Therefore, I ask the Government to have second thoughts on how they will control such use in future.
§ Ms. Harriet Harman (Peckham)
I welcome the fact that a broad range of views has been expressed in the debate, not because I was unclear about my position and might have been helped by listening to those views — indeed, I have a firm view on the matter—but because I might have had a sense of unease if we had not heard different views. There is something sick about a society which stops questioning itself about these issues. We have to have a creative tension. We must have constant argument, even though I might end up making a decision completely different from that of the right hon. Member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine). I can see why it is tempting for some people to say, "Let us not look over the precipice. It involves very difficult issues. If we start going down this path, who knows where we may end?" I can understand the fear that that causes some people.
We cannot turn our back on the possibilities that are opened up by research on pre-embryos, for two main reasons. The first is infertility, which has been mentioned by many hon. Members. No one knows how many men and women are affected by the inability to conceive, but we know that many who want to have children, but cannot, say nothing about it. Many suffer in silence, partly because men fear that if they admit that they cannot have children somehow it casts doubt on their manliness, and for women the admission flies in the face of the traditional assumption that it is the most natural thing for a woman to do, and the most central part of a woman's life.
Because infertility is such a sensitive issue, it remains largely hidden. I have no doubt that the inability to conceive affects many people. Estimates range from one in six to one in ten. I hope that the Government will follow up Lady Warnock's proposal that we must collect statistics and carry out more research into the true level of infertility.
The research which has been done so far suggests that about 1 million people are affected. It causes great suffering. The inability to have children can sour the most loving of relationships. It can embitter the happiest of people and can cause great distress. Just as I respect the deeply held views of hon. Members who oppose the research which has led to in-vitro fertilisation and the research which could make IVF more successful, so they should recognise the blight that infertility casts over the lives of so many.
Hon. Members such as the right hon. Member for Castle Point who has three children, the hon. Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton) who has three children and the hon. Member for Bedfordshire, North (Sir T. Skeet) 1250 who has two children should be very careful before they argue that people should accept their fate and not go down the road of trying to ensure that research leads to greater possibilities for treatment of infertility.
§ Sir Bernard Braine
The hon. Lady is making a most interesting speech and I know that she would not wish to mislead the House. I have never taken that view. I am in favour of IVF and of the research that has taken place. I am not in favour of the proposal that a free hand should be given to experimentation, not on the pre-embryo —a term which is used so loosely — but on the human embryo, which has the potential of being a human being.
§ Ms. Harman
In response, I would remind hon. Members of the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson) that one cannot have it both ways. One cannot say that one is in favour of IVF treatment as offering hope to some infertile couples and yet say that one is against the research that has led us to the situation we are in now and makes it possible to make that treatment more successful in the future.
§ Sir Bernard Braine
I gave examples to the House. There are leading scientists who tell us that there are alternative means of research that are delivering the goods.
§ Ms Harman
I shall get to that point later in my speech. I am also very concerned about the line of argument that emerged from the speech of the hon. Member for Congleton, which smacked rather of blaming the victim. Some infertility is caused by intra-uterine devices, some infertility is caused by sexually transmitted diseases, some infertility is caused by abortion; therefore, it is asked, have not those people somehow brought their infertility upon themselves? That adds insult to the suffering of all those who are not able to conceive.
There is also the suffering and misery caused by miscarriage. The fact that miscarriage is a relatively common occurrence in no way lessens the heartache for the woman and her partner. If some women are offered through IVF a chance of bearing a child, and if embryo research offers a chance of understanding the factors that can cause a miscarriage, we simply cannot turn our backs on it.
I also think that the Government ought to take very seriously Lady Warnock's proposal that we must have a proper review of infertility services. It is quite wrong that for a poor family that suffers infertility there is no chance of treatment, IVF or any other, because of the lack of availability of fertility treatment on the National Health Service. I hope that the Minister will assure us tonight that she regards fertility treatment as a part of the NHS, not as a luxury optional extra which is available only to people who can afford it by giving up their second holiday.
The second major reason why we must not turn away from embryo research is the continuing task of trying to prevent handicap. Work is being carried out to find ways of preventing chromosomal abnormalities and hereditary genetic illnesses. We heard in the most courageous and moving speech from the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) why this work simply has to go on. The work to control defects such as Down's syndrome, muscular dystrophy, cystic fibrosis and haemophilia is very important.
We are not absolutist about this problem. We are not saying that the only way to make breakthroughs is 1251 through research on embryos. We are saying that we do not want to rule out one avenue which might lead to the possibility of controlling those very serious defects.
It is easy to understand why we have to take advantage of this medical advance, and it is right that we should understand also why we should control it. I do not say that we should have a statutory licensing authority because we think that we need the research and therefore are prepared to concede that point to make it somehow more acceptable. I firmly believe that we must control this, and we must ensure that it is properly monitored and supervised.
I was talking on the telephone last night to a Dr. Rothman, in California, who is the leading expert in America on a new technique called sperm harvesting. That involves taking the sperm from somebody who has died and giving it to his relatives so that they might use it in future. Doctor Rothman gave the example of an only son dying and his bereaved parents asking for his sperm to be harvested so that at some future date they could arrange for somebody to have his child. Then they could feel that somehow their child lived on, because they could have the grandchild that otherwise would have been impossible. Doctor Rothman said that in America that was regarded as completely uncontroversial and that everyone thought that it was a good idea to extend such possibilities. In Britain we would not take that view.
We must have a statutory licensing authority which, instead of waiting for such developments and then saying that they should be stopped, will constantly keep an eye on the direction in which such developments are going, and ensure that they do not go off the rails. I support the statutory licensing authority that was suggested by Lady Warnock.
If we remember what happened last year, when the Humana hospital refused to accept the ruling of the Voluntary Licensing Authority that the number of embryos implanted should be limited to four, we can understand why, although the Voluntary Licensing Authority has done a great deal of good work, it should become a statutory authority.
I should like to say a few words about the time limit in which research should take place. There have been a number of suggestions, but any time limit is arbitrary. The Warnock committee canvassed a 14-day time limit, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists suggested 28 days, the Medical Research Council suggested two to three weeks, and some have suggested 30 days. If we are to have a statutory, fixed time limit, we should also have, if it is not a contradiction in terms, some flexibility. The Government and the House should consider the possibility of allowing the statutory licensing authority to lay down a certain maximum time limit. That would provide a legal maximum time limit of, say, 21 days, and allow the statutory licensing authority to decide where, beneath that time, the limit should be for getting a licence.
It is remarkable that there has been so little discussion of surrogacy. I am against commercial surrogacy, but the Government were right not to have chosen the option of trying to outlaw surrogacy, other than for commerical reasons. In America, where they sell sperm for 35 dollars a go and where they sell blood and other human tissues, it is not surprising that they should not jib at the idea of womb leasing. We do not want such a situation to develop here.
1252 I should like to say something about the rights of children born to mothers who have had artificial insemination by donor. In America, a real crisis occurred when a woman had had artificial insemination by donor. Her husband knew about it and the names of the husband and wife were on the birth certificate. The child did not know that it had been conceived by a donor instead of by its father until the family broke up. In the bitterness of the divorce, the mother claimed that the father should have no access or visiting rights, because he was not the real father.
We must be cautious about situations in which the whole of family life can be built on a deceit, whether it is a deceit about which only two people know or whether all the other relatives know but the child is unaware of it. We must be very careful about that. In America there is a club of children born by artificial insemination by donor who are going around the United States looking for their donor fathers and campaigning for the right to know the identity of their natural fathers. We must look for future difficulties that have not yet occurred because the children produced by artificial insemination by donor are not yet sufficiently grown up.
Medical and scientific advances present at the same time tremendous possibilities and tremendous problems. We should not disregard the problems. A statutory licensing authority with a fixed maximum time limit of 21 days on embryo research would give me sufficient reassurance. However, for the sake of those who long to have children and cannot conceive, for the sake of those who can conceive but suffer repeated miscarriages, and for the sake of those who through genetic disorders are condemned to watch their children suffer and die, we must allow research to continue.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security (Mrs. Edwina Currie)
Let me start by joining the hon. Member for Barking (Ms. Richardson) in paying tribute to the Warnock committee, to Lady Warnock herself, to the members of the Voluntary Licensing Authority and, indeed, to all who have contributed to producing the papers on which we base our debate today. The hon. Lady is right in saying that, we should not isolate any one issue, and that the Government must legislate. This is Government business. That is also part of the answer to the point made by the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms. Harman). We do not feel that we can leave the question of the time limit to an extra-Government body; it must be decided ultimately by the House.
The hon. Member for Barking raised a number of points with which I should like to deal immediately. She asked about the composition and role of the proposed statutory licensing authority. I agree with her that it would be a pity if there were polarisation in the SLA. It would also be a pity, however, if its membership did not command public respect, and that will be our aim in appointing it.
It is also worth pointing out that, whether or not research is permitted by vote of the House, the SLA will still have a substantial role, as set out in the White Paper— among other things, in licensing the clinics where IVF and other work is to be done.
I entirely take the hon. Lady's point about women members, but I suggest that we do not put a figure on it. I do not agree with her argument that women should be 1253 included because it is they who have the babies. I think that our men are involved somewhere along the line! As for the argument that women form half the population and should therefore be adequately represented, if the hon. Lady looks at recent appointments to the Health Education Authority and the breast cancer advisory committee she will find that that is exactly what has been happening.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bedfordshire, North (Sir T. Skeet) asked about alternatives to embryo research in their important speeches. No one favours the unnecessary use of embryos in research for benefits which could be obtained in other ways. The White Paper proposes that, if research is permitted, the SLA should satisfy itself, in granting a licence, that adequate consideration has been given to the possibility of achieving the aims of the project by other means.
As for the question of a list of diseases, I understand that most genetically linked diseases can be studied in the embryo form. Some can be studied in non-embryonic human material, and others in non-human material. However, our view is that if Parliament permits such work at all, the SLA should look at each proposed programme and check whether there are any ways other than using human embryo material. In other words, research using human embryos, if permitted at all, should never be the first resort. We are not sure whether we should want to insist on its being the last resort, because there may be occasions when it is the best resort in terms of potential success.
§ Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith (Wealden)
My hon. Friend has said that research should not be the last resort. Will she confirm—I speak as a supporter of the majority of the Warnock report's recommendations — that some research is essential, and that we can look forward to further research that is regarded as essential, and often as a first resort?
§ Mrs. Currie
I take my hon. Friend's point. It will be a matter for the House to decide whether, on occasions when research is the best resort—or, indeed, one of the possibilities — it wishes to allow that research to continue. The purpose of our debate tonight is simply to enable points of view to be offered, and no doubt they will all be taken into account in the drafting of the legislation. That is why the debate has been called in Government time.
I therefore feel that I need not answer in detail all the points that have been made, but should merely say to all hon. Members on both sides of the House that their views will be taken into account as the legislation and the regulations are prepared, as soon as parliamentary time will permit.
We have heard 20 speeches today. Most, we are glad to see, welcomed the White Paper in one form or another. In some areas the White Paper goes further than the Warnock report—for example, in proposing to prohibit some kinds of research, such as genetic engineering and the development of clones or hybrids, in imposing stricter controls on the storage of embryos and in banning the sale of embryos and gametes. In other areas, such as surrogacy, 1254 we have not gone as far as the Warnock report recommended, because we do not believe that criminal sanctions are the right approach.
The legislation, when it is introduced, will firm up or adjust points of detail in the White Paper, but today's debate suggests that we may have got the basic framework about right. Procedure, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Cash) referred, is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and the usual channels, but no doubt they will take note of his views.
Several hon. Members have spoken about the sanctity of life and the special nature of the human embryo. I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House will allow me simply to use the term "human embryo" and not some of the other terms that have been suggested. Feelings about the sanctity of life and the special nature of the material about which we are talking are shared by all. The debate has shown that there are strongly-held views about whether humanity commences at contraception or some point thereafter. I refer all hon. Members to the learned speech by the Archbishop of York in the other place who took us elegantly around that subject.
For those who want embryo research to continue, I notice support for the Warnock committee's view that the appearance of the primitive streak might well be a sensible point in the continuing development at which to impose the time limit. It will be entirely for the House to decide whether research should be permitted on human embryos before that date.
However, we are firm in our view that such work should be illegal after that date. It is our respect for the particular status of the human embryo that leads us to say that we cannot go on any longer without legislation in this area, with the sort of "anything goes" approach which has sometimes been urged upon us.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Bedfordshire, North said, it is not a question of starting down the slippery slope; we are on it. We must put a stop to the slide somewhere. It will be a matter entirely for Parliament to decide where the limit should be placed. It must be Parliament, not scientists or clerics, which takes that decision. That is what we have set out to do.
Subject to that, the Government are determined to see on to the statute book legislation which clearly defines the kind of work which can and cannot be carried out with human embryos, and anything outside that definition will be banned if the legislation is accepted by the House.
Our thoughts have been guided, as indeed have those of many hon. Members, by a keen concern for the sanctity of family life. That is why we have already moved to ban commercial third-party surrogacy, and that is why we propose that surrogacy contracts of all kinds should be made non-enforceable. I am concerned, as is the hon. Member for Peckham, that we should not have any development of practices which have been seen in the United States and which have been dubbed "baby farming." That is also why we believe that the law should make it clear how the child relates to the mother who bore him and to those who bring him up. That point was strongly made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bedfordshire, North.
We have already legislated, in the Family Law Reform Act 1987, which applies only to unmarried couples and which comes into force in April this year, to make it clear that the AID child is in law the child of the mother and 1255 her husband and should be registered as such. Under our proposals, that will apply to IVF and GIFT children, too, where donated gametes are used. It is also important, since that legislation applies only in England and Wales, that we achieve some consistency with Scotland, and that is also proposed in the White Paper.
We shall also make it clear that the mother who carries a baby is, in the eyes of the law, that baby's mother, even if she is not genetically related. Any other line would weaken the role of the family and those whom I would call the caring parents—those who provide a home for the child and bring it up. The words in the White Paper are clear:the donors of the gametes or embryos will have no parental rights or duties in relation to the child.That is the legal view. In other words, our thoughts in framing the proposals have always been, "What is best for the child? What will best ensure that he or she is brought up in a secure, loving and caring environment?"
Let me say a little more about the rights of the child. I feel rather sad that in all that we have heard today there has been too little discussion about the rights of the child after birth—except by my hon. Friend the Member for Bedfordshire, North and the hon. Member for Greenwich (Mrs. Barnes)—
§ Mrs. Currie
My apologies. I wrote this bit of the speech before I heard the hon. Lady's speech and that of her hon. Friend the Member for Barking. I am sure that both hon. Ladies would agree that we must legislate so that the child may know his right to a name, to inherit property, and, if he wishes, to obtain some information about his origin. We will take into account the fact that attitudes on this matter may well change in time and make provision for that. Children born as a result of treatments using donated gametes should not suffer the anxiety that they may be related to a large unknown family of half brothers and half sisters especially taking into account the dangers, outlined by the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley), that may be generated when close relatives—albeit unnamed close relatives — come together to marry and have children. We may therefore need to set a limit on the number of pregnancies that may result from one donor. We shall look to the statutory licensing authority to consider that.
As has been pointed out, most of the research done on embryos is intended to promote knowledge about conception and handicap and its prevention. There are two points to make on that. First, whatever one's view of the nature of early life, strict controls are needed on the treatment of human embryos. Those who argue that the benefits that research can bring — for example, in preventing handicap—justify the use of embryos before 14 days must recognise, nevertheless, the genuine fears of those who worry that the same techniques in different hands could lead to less laudable goals. That is why we propose that all such work — to the extent that Parliament permits it—should be strictly controlled by a statutory body, that licences should be tied to specific projects—that would cover both means and ends, both methodology and intentions—and that it should be an offence to go beyond what is expressly permitted. In that we concur entirely with the Warnock committee.
Secondly, people have a right to expect us to do our utmost to prevent disease and handicap. Parents who 1256 carry defective genes have a right to expect sound information about their chances of passing them on or avoiding such transmission. A lot of misery and anguish is potentially avoidable and may be influenced by research of the kind that has been described. I hope, therefore, that those both for and against the Warnock proposals will recognise the high degree of sincerity and motivation on both sides.
Let me deal with the point about the private and the public sectors. Clearly, it is important that there should be consistency in ethical standards and good professional standards across the divide between the public and private sectors. The statutory licensing authority will be able to achieve that consistency, which Ministers regard as a major benefit of legislation. We give notice that we will not allow the ethical framework within which the treatments are provided to differ in any way as between the private sector and the National Health Service. That is especially important now that close links are developing between the two sectors, including the Barts-AMI link which has been mentioned several times. The number of women treated there will increase from 300 a year under the Health Service to about 1,000 under the joint arrangements.
I am prepared to see some differences between the opposing Front Benches, but I would resist Opposition Members' demands that we should expand activity in the Health Service to meet all the demands placed on it now or in future. On treatments involving new technologies —particularly GIFT—some may feel that, because of their ethical difficulties, because they are expensive, because as yet the success rates are poor and because some would say that they are treatments for people who are not ill in the strict sense, they should not be part of NHS provision at all. The Government do not agree with that. We see no cause to ban such treatments from the Health Service, provided that their practice is properly regulated. There is a fully funded NHS in-vitro fertilisation clinic in Manchester, as the hon. Member for Barking may know, and many of the others are partly funded. It is for the local health authorities to decide whether that work is of sufficiently high priority to put off something else.
I hope that the House will agree with me when I say that we should not forget that all the latest techniques cannot help everyone. I do not believe that people's status is determined by whether they have children. Childless people are not, in any way, lesser people. We all have our contribution to make to society. Although for many women that contribution is by bearing and bringing up their children, for others it is by other means. To be childless is not to be less of a woman, less of a man or less of a citizen. I deeply hope that that thought may offer a little consolation to some of those who are listening tonight.
§ It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.