HC Deb 12 April 1994 vol 241 cc157-68

'(1) The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 shall be amended as follows.

(2) After section 3 there shall be inserted the following section—

"Prohibition in connection with germ cells. 3A.—(1) No person shall, for the purpose of providing fertility services for any woman, use female germ cells taken or derived from an embryo or a foetus or use embryos created by using such cells.

(2) In this section— 'female germ cells' means cells of the female germ line and includes such cells at any stage of maturity and accordingly include eggs; and 'fertility services' means medical, surgical or obstetric services provided for the purpose of assisting women to carry children.

(3) In section 41(1)(a) (offences under the Act) after the words "section 3(2)" there shall be inserted ", 3A".'.— [Dame Jill Knight.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Dame Jill Knight

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Let me cheer my right hon. and hon. Friends with the news that I do not propose to weary the House with a lengthy speech. On 22 February, I was given leave to introduce a Bill to prohibit the use of eggs from aborted girl babies, eggs which would be fertilised in a test tube and inserted into women who wished to become pregnant. Neither my Bill nor the new clause does more than that.

The new clause would not in any way affect the research that is presently carried out using aborted babies. It has nothing to do with the treatment of Alzheimer's disease, mental handicap or anything else of that nature. It would not affect the usage of organs from cadavers. It is specific, narrow and necessary.

I hasten to explain that the eggs for fertilisation procedure is not yet possible, although I understand that eggs drawn from aborted mice have been used, and that within a reasonable time the process will become possible with human beings.

The very suggestion has profoundly shocked hundreds of thousands of people all over Britain. Probably all hon. Members have had letters from their constituents expressing abhorrence. I have had enough to fill a filing cabinet. The unanimous view is that it is wrong to get rid of an unwanted baby to make a wanted one, and to have to admit to a child that his mother was never allowed even to be born, and that he can never know the first thing about her—how she looked, what her attributes were or what her medical history might have been had she been allowed to live. As a life continues, those factors can become important.

Such activities could herald the start of a lucrative market in aborted foetuses. Becoming pregnant so that the aborted foetus could be used in that way could be a brand new way of making money. All those possibilities are appalling, especially when there are millions of women of childbearing age walking around with perfectly normal, fully formed mature eggs that could be donated.

I want to send a message out—

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Dame Jill Knight

I promised to be awfully quick. I shall take only one intervention.

Mr. Dalyell

Has the hon. Lady had any discussions with the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority? Some people believe that research would be affected. Is the hon. Lady absolutely sure that it would not?

Dame Jill Knight

Absolutely sure. I have had discussions with the authority. It knows what my intention is, and why.

I want to send a message to scientists that there is no point in spending any more time on research in that area, or in messing about with aborted mouse eggs, rat eggs or anything similar. The end product from using aborted human eggs for fertilisation purposes will simply not be allowed to be used. There are occasions when the House must assert its authority and make it clear that scientists sometimes go too far.

The new clause would insert after section 3 of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 a new section that would prohibit the use of female germ cells"— that definition includes immature foetal eggs— taken or derived from an embryo or a foetus or the use of embryos created by using such cells", to achieve a pregnancy.

The wording is most carefully drawn and the prohibition would apply to all current and all expected future techniques for treating infertility, such as in vitro fertilisation and transplants of foetal ovarian tissue—just that narrow point—or the use of early female germ cells from an embryo before the ovaries have developed.

The new clause is a catch-all, intended to stop what I have described as an abhorrent practice, and I am assured that it will do what it is intended to do. I am extremely grateful to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health, with whom I have talked at length on the subject. She and the officers from her Department have helped and guided me through a river of procedural rocks and currents to reach the shore of my intention, and only that narrow shore. I can assure the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) that there is no intention to do anything more than that. I am glad to have the support of the Government and many hon. Members on the Opposition Benches. I commend new clause 69 to the House.

The Secretary of State for Health (Mrs. Virginia Bottomley)

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Dame J. Knight) has spoken about her new clause with characteristic flair and commitment. I pay a warm tribute to her for the strength of feeling with which she addressed the House and her persistence in bringing forward the new clause. My hon. Friend has spoken for a great number of people both inside and outside the House. She expressed with clarity and sensitivity her repugnance at the notion of creating a life from an aborted foetus. Her speech hit a nerve. Like me, many people will recognise and share the feeling of revulsion that she described.

The House must face this important and emotionally charged issue today on a free vote. I shall vote in favour of the new clause. However, I shall take this opportunity briefly to set out some of the background and in particular to give a strong commendation to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority for its consultation document on donated ovarian tissue in embryo research and assisted conception. The Government acknowledge the sorrow and sadness that infertility can cause. Medical science has made great progress, and we can now bring hope to many couples through in vitro fertilisation treatment.

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority was set up under the Act—the first statutory authority in the world—to control and regulate embryo research and new fertility techniques. It has already established an excellent record. Its two annual reports and the consultation documents already under way have led to further improvements and safeguards, which means that public opinion and the concerns widely expressed are properly addressed.

Earlier this year, as a result of media reports of the developments in infertility research using eggs from aborted foetuses, the authority, with the Government's support, brought forward the consultation exercise that was promised in its 1993 annual report.

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge)

Can the Secretary of State tell the House what would be the effect of the new clause, if it is passed tonight, on the consultation process that is being carried out by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority?

Mrs. Bottomley

If I may put tonight's debate in precisely that context, that was exactly the point that I was making when the hon. Lady intervened. Of course, there is a consultation process under way and I shall address that point in a moment.

It was a result of the concern on this matter that led the authority to bring forward its document entitled "Donated Ovarian Tissue in Embryo Research and Assisted Conception". I urge those—as the hon. Lady has obviously done—who are concerned with the moral and ethical questions raised by the medical and scientific advances to seek a copy of that document if they have not already done so and to let the authority have their views. Copies are available in the Vote Office.

When the document was published, I announced that the Government looked forward to receiving advice from the authority on those matters, after which we would consider what further action, if any, was required. As the procedures that the new clause seeks to ban are not yet possible, there are authoritative arguments—I imagine that that is the point that the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) was seeking to make—for waiting until the consultation exercise ends before considering legislative controls.

So far, the authority has issued 19,000 copies of the consultation document and received in excess of 3,600 representations. The level of response led the authority to extend the consultation period until mid-July. The House will wish to consider whether we are justified in considering taking action on this issue before the general public and organisations have taken full advantage of the invitation to make their views known. Hon. Members will wish to consider this matter when they are deciding whether to support my hon. Friend's new clause.

The authority's document does, of course, go much wider than the subject of the new clause. For instance, in addition to those aspects relating to eggs from foetuses, the authority is seeking comments on whether ovarian tissue or eggs from live donors or from cadavers should be used in infertility research or treatment. The document also pays special attention to the important area of consent. Informed consent is an essential part of existing egg and sperm donation programmes. However, consent in relation to the donation of ovarian tissue from foetuses or from girls who die in childhood raise altogether different considerations.

12.15 am
Mr. Cash

My right hon. Friend may recall that some years ago she and I discussed this matter in the context of the whole question of embryology. Does she not, while supporting the aim of my hon. Friend's new clause, agree that it would have been far better had we set out a programme to ensure that research of this sort was not continued? Surely it would be better to impose greater restrictions.

Mrs. Bottomley

On the contrary, I think that the work of the authority has demonstrated precisely why that legislation was so important. In several areas—for example, sex selection and some aspects of cloning—the authority has issued consultation documents and, as a result, has decided not to license centres taking forward work of that sort. I believe that it has been a model of socially enlightened research and legislation, and one that many countries in other parts of the world wish to follow.

Mr. Peter Thurnham (Bolton, North-East)

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Dame J. Knight), in her closing remarks, said that her new clause was supported by the Government. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that we shall have a free vote and that the Government have supported the consultation exercise being carried out by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority?

Mrs. Bottomley

I should like to clarify that point My hon. Friend received assistance from my Department to ensure that her new clause would achieve the purpose that she intended. So far as the Government are concerned, however, there will be a free vote.

I hope that I have set out clearly the matters that must be considered. Many people feel strongly about this issue, and the authority has a consultation exercise under way. Whatever the outcome of our debate tonight, the other issues to which I have referred need to be considered b:y the Government. We shall undertake this consideration when we have the benefit of the authority's full advice.

We may recoil at the thought of a life being created in the circumstances that my hon Friend has described. As I said, some people may consider that the right course is to await the outcome of the HFEA's consultation exercise so that the issues can be considered in a wider context. All, I believe, will agree that there are serious ethical, legal and social issues involved. It is entirely appropriate that today's debate will be concluded with a free vote. The Government will abide by the will of Parliament.

Mr. David Blunkett (Sheffield, Brightside)

I—like all other hon. Members, I imagine—share the concerns that have been expressed by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Dame J. Knight). The Secretary of State has just made an admirable case for awaiting completion of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority's consultation process. We should not be debating such an important and sensitive issue in the context of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill and at this time of night. It is now 20 minutes past midnight, and hon. Members are not in a position to express the genuine concerns of all sides.

This is the worst way of legislating. It is the worst use of Parliament. It is reactive and emotive, and in some ways the debate is ill-informed. That is why, during a debate on the health service on 20 January, I asked the Secretary of State to consult her colleagues about the provision of adequate Government time to enable us to address the wider issues that had arisen over Christmas and the new year, only one of which we are addressing in the debate on this new clause.

Subsequently, my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South (Ms Primarolo) and I met the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority and discussed—as the hon. Member for Edgbaston must have done—its concern that a genuine consultation process which was extended to 15 July would be pre-empted on one issue on a Bill which has nothing to do with either health or embryology or with the issues which we debated at length in 1990 simply to satisfy an understandable but nevertheless isolated issue which we are addressing this evening.

The 1990 Act—I spoke in that debate—was carefully considered by Parliament, and gave adequate powers to the embryology authority. It was explained to us that those powers would have been usable in dealing with the concerns of the hon. Member for Edgbaston. In any case, those powers would not need to be used for at least 10 years, and not in the immediate future. Scientific possibility would not make it possible for the fears and nightmares which people have expressed to come about for at least another decade.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)

On that very point, is the hon. Gentleman aware that a distinguished gathering of physicists and astronomers announced that putting a satellite into orbit would be impossible until the turn of century—just one year before sputnik was put into orbit? The hon. Gentleman is right to say that one issue is being taken in isolation here, but many Government Members feel that the issue should be addressed at the first possible moment, which this Bill provides.

Mr. Blunkett

I share the hon. Gentleman's wish that we should be able to address sensibly, carefully and non-emotively this very important issue, and those issues which were raised during Christmas and new year. Why have not the Secretary of State and her colleagues been prepared to make the time available at a rational and sensible time of day to debate the issues in that spirit?

Given that consent—as the Secretary of State described—cannot be given in this area, there are no fears regarding the issues to which the hon. Gentleman referred in terms of scientific possibility being overturned.

The matter is very simple. Those on the Opposition Front Bench will not press for a vote on the issue tonight. We regret that the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority's efforts to provide a rational and sensible discussion and a debate on the issues in a way which enables us to come to much wider conclusions following its consultation period have been simply overridden.

Even at this late stage, I ask the hon. Member for Edgbaston—with the knowledge that she has the House behind her and that the Secretary of State is giving support—to withdraw the new clause to allow the consultation period to be concluded and the embryology authority to come back with a range of recommendations following that consultation period, and to allow the House to debate the matter at a rational time of day in a rational fashion. That surely is the way in which Parliament should work—consequent on it having established the authority, consequent on asking it to deliberate on the issues and consequent on it agreeing to extend its consultation period.

The Secretary of State made a clear and, I thought, sensible case for allowing that consultation period to conclude. We do not object to the intention of the new clause, but we sincerely worry about the process of Parliament which turns a Bill into a hybrid measure by tagging on to it things which have not been debated in a way which we feel to be appropriate. We ask the hon. Member for Edgbaston to consider the issues in that light.

Mr. Thurnham

It is unfortunate that the House is being asked at this late hour to consider this issue in this Bill. It is inappropriate that we should be considering it now. It is wrong, and it would be a mistake for the House to pass new clause 69.

Many people oppose the new clause, such as PROGRESS—the Campaign for Research into Human Reproduction—and the Royal College of Nursing, which has pointed out that it would be rash and that Parliament would lack credibility if it rushed a decision through now, pre-empting the consultation process that the Government set up. It seems totally wrong for the Government to allow a decision to be taken now when they have only just set up that process.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Dame J. Knight) recently introduced a ten-minute Bill and I am sorry that I was not able to be present. She advanced a number of arguments and I shall take a few minutes of the House's time to consider them. She said that she felt that it was repugnant to use foetal tissue in such a way, but surely it cannot be worse to use a miscarried foetus to create life than to incinerate it. That is the choice.

My hon. Friend the Member for Edgbaston went on to say that there was a shortage of donors, but that millions of people could donate. They do not do so. Professor Brian Lieberman in Manchester set up the National Egg and Embryo Donation Society because of the shortage that exists. Only a handful of donors are able to provide eggs for research and treatment, which is why it is so important for us to consider any other possibilities.

My hon. Friend warned the House that women might be bribed to have late abortions. As I shall explain, there is no danger of that happening because, if it were possible to use foetal tissue, as many as 7 million eggs are available in one foetus, which would resolve all the present shortage problems. The full process is not understood, but it is known that, at the fifth month of pregnancy, about 7 million eggs are present. The number falls to 1 million at birth and 400,000 at puberty and only about 400 eggs go on to reach maturity, which is why there is the present shortage. It could be alleviated if new processes were discovered.

My hon. Friend the Member for Edgbaston went on to discuss a market in other organs, but that was considered by the Polkinghorne report, which sensibly advised that hospital ethical committees could consider the issues case by case and decide what was sensible and what should be done in the best interests of patients—for instance, by using foetal tissue to treat Parkinson's disease and so forth.

My hon. Friend also said that it would be wrong for a child to be born if the genetic mother had died, but it is not uncommon for a child to be born when the father has died. There is also evidence to show that, if DNA tests were taken, they would prove that one fifth of the population do not have the father shown on the birth certificate.

My hon. Friend also said that consent would not be given in the way in which it has been laid down by Parliament and I agree. That is a valid argument, which is why very little use would be made of the treatment if it were available. She queried the legality of using foetuses, but if it were illegal the Government would not support a consultation process. Clearly, it is legal as the law stands.

She also queried whether foetal eggs could be used for fertilisation. The Royal College of Nursing has said that it thought that it would take about 10 or 20 years, and Peter Brinsden of Bourn Hall thought that it might be five or ten years. Clearly, it is a long way away and there is no need for the House to rush into any hasty legislation tonight.

My hon. Friend the Member for Edgbaston finished introducing her ten-minute Bill by asking: how can it be right that a matter of life and death … should be decided by a committee?"—[Official Report, 22 February 1994; Vol. 238, c. 152.] The right place for such matters to be considered is case by case, by the ethics committees in each hospital.

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne)

My hon. Friend will recall that I did my level best to help him to get the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 on the statute book. He says that there is time, but does he not accept that we ought to make it crystal clear that no research should be done in such a way, whether in five or 20 years? We should make it clear now that that is one step too far.

Mr. Thurnham

My hon. Friend the Member for Edgbaston said that her clause would not stop research. The House can come to a decision about what might happen in this country, but it cannot decide matters in other countries, and all that this would mean is that the United Kingdom would lose its current lead. Louise Brown was the first test tube baby in the world to be born because this country has the lead; it would be very wrong of the House to approve legislation which would mean that our lead passed to other countries and, in extreme cases, people might have to go abroad for treatment that is unobtainable in this country.

For these reasons I urge my hon. Friend to withdraw the new clause and not put it before the House at this late hour. If she persists in putting it before the House, I urge hon. Members to oppose it.

12.30 am
Mrs. Anne Campbell

I would like to take up a little of the House's time tonight in flying the flag for that excellent organisation the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. It was established in 1990 to look into the regulation of all treatment and research centres involved in infertility treatment with donated eggs or sperm, storage of eggs, sperm or embryos and research on human embryos up to the limit of 14 days. The authority is doing an excellent job, and should be allowed to continue with the work that it has been asked to do.

Over the years, a great deal of work has been done on in vitro fertilisation, and we have seen a great improvement in the techniques being used. In 1987, fewer than one in 10 IVF attempts led to a live birth; today, the figure is nearer one in seven. Over 10,000 children have been born through IVF in the United Kingdom. That is 10,000 children who are wanted and loved, and who are growing into healthy and happy individuals. The problem is that IVF has proved so popular that there is a great shortage of eggs relative to the demand, and the HFEA has issued a consultation paper with three possible sources of ovarian tissue to keep up with the demand. [Interruption.] One of them is the possibility which has sparked such a chorus of indignation: to use foetal ovaries from abortions, stillbirths or miscarriages. [Interruption.]

The Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (Dame Janet Fookes)

Order. Too many private conversations are going on. Nobody is obliged to be in the Chamber. If hon. Members are here, I expect them to listen to the hon. Member who has the floor.

Mrs. Campbell

I have had a great many letters on this, and many of the people who have written to me appear to believe, mistakenly, that it is a treatment which is available and which is being carried out now. We have heard already tonight that nothing could be further from the truth.

It is true that foetal ovaries have been transplanted to restore the fertility of sterile mice, but this technique is not remotely possible in human beings at present. The research required to solve all the potential problems would take at least 10 years to produce a technique which was both effective and acceptable in human beings. So even if research started today, another 10 years would elapse before we could use such a technique. No research is currently going on in the United Kingdom on this issue.

So I must ask: why the hurry? Why the rush to make new legislation now, immediately, about something which is at least 10 years away? Why not wait until the excellent HFEA has finished its public consultation in mid-July and published its report a month later? When we set up a body to consider the issues, why do we find it necessary to rush in and prevent it from completing its job?

Like many other right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber, I very much hope that the conclusion of the HFEA will be to recommend a ban on the use of foetal eggs. The very idea causes me some revulsion, but I think that it is important that the subject is properly considered—not simply debated for one hour very late at night, with tired Members on both sides of the House, who are ill informed and perhaps have a great many other issues on their minds on that subject.

I shall consider one further and final point. What is the effect of not allowing the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority to finish its job? I know that, if I were a member of that authority, I would be very upset if, after I had been asked to consult on what is obviously a very controversial issue, and as soon as the general public were being consulted on that issue, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Dame J. Knight) had jumped in and tried to pass premature legislation.

I believe that the effect on that organisation will be that it will not in future wish to consult about anything that is remotely controversial. It will be forced to lie low, play safe and not test public opinion on those very important moral issues, as the HFEA was intended to do.

This is one of the few occasions when, through another organisation, we are asking the general public their views about what is acceptable to them. Do we not trust them to arrive at the right conclusion? Why do we want to interfere with the natural course of public consultation and debate? This is the wrong time to debate the subject, and in the Lobby tonight I shall vote against the new clause.

Mr. John Gunnell (Morley and Leeds, South)

When the Secretary of State has told us that about 3,000 people have responded to the consultation document, does my hon. Friend consider that the House is showing contempt for those 3,000 people if it takes a decision before their views are heard and analysed?

Mrs. Campbell

My hon. Friend makes an extremely valid point. We have to consider the effect on those members of the public who bothered to write down their opinions and send them to the HFEA. It means that the House is, of necessity, riding over those opinions that have been expressed, and not allowing proper consideration of those issues.

Mr. Alton

Does the hon. Lady accept that the vast majority of those people who have written to the authority have registered their opposition to those repulsive procedures, and that therefore they will be delighted with the new clause that the hon. Lady has moved and would wish us to pass it tonight, and that there is therefore no need to delay on the grounds that she is advancing? Does she also consider it strange that the HFEA needed to consult on that issue at all?

Mrs. Campbell

I do not find it strange that the HFEA found it necessary to consult. I think that there is a problem, and the HFEA has named the option as one of a number for consideration, debate and consultation. I think that the argument of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) is not valid, because it is important for us to know the result of the public consultation. In taking the step tonight, in trying to pre-empt the results of the public consultation process, we are prejudging the issue.

I have already said that my sympathies are with those people who wish the use of foetal eggs to be banned, and I have no doubts about that, but I want the issue to be properly discussed, I want it to be properly considered by an authority that has the resources, the information and the expertise to consider it, and I do not want it to be decided very late at night in the House of Commons at this point, before that consultation period is finished.

I reiterate that it will be at least 10 years before the treatment becomes even a remote possibility, so let us wait only a few more months to find out what public opinion and the HFEA advise us, instead of pushing headlong into a premature and hasty decision.

Mr. Geoffrey Dickens (Littleborough and Saddleworth)

With the indulgence of the House, this will be an extremely short contribution.

If we debate this measure, and indeed consult until the cows come home—as they say in the farming community—we should still reach the conclusion that it can never be right for a child to be born to a mother who herself was never born. It cannot be right for a child never to know what that mother looked like; for a child never to know what that mother's disposition would have been; or, in the event of medical complications later, never to know what that mother's medical condition would have been had that mother been born.

That is all we are discussing tonight. We do not need to wait for the completion of the consultation period; the broader issues can be debated and voted on at a later date. Tonight we are debating a simple narrow issue: should the House permit a child to be born to a mother who has never been born? The answer must be no. The vote must be yes in favour of the proposer, our hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Dame J. Knight). It can never be right for a foetus to produce a child. I ask the House to support our hon. Friend on this side.

Dame Jill Knight

I will speak for only one or two moments. I will not concern myself with answering the arguments which hon. Members opposite have put forward; they are easy to answer, but it would take time. If the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) imagines that we in this House are not capable of discussing anything after 10 o'clock at night, she will have to learn better, because most hon. Members are well aware that we discuss and decide many things at this time of night.

I make one most important point. It is important for us to pass this new clause and say, here and now, that those who are spending time and a great deal of money on research in this field may as well stop right now and spend the money on far more important things to do with the well-being of women and children.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham) said many things which surprised and saddened me. But he ought to be ashamed—perhaps he will be ashamed in the morning—of saying that the House is only a committee. The House of Commons is a great deal more than a committee. If we think that we are merely members of a committee, we are not worthy of being here. I do not have the slightest intention of withdrawing the new clause.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.