HC Deb 31 October 2000 vol 355 cc626-32 4.33 pm
Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 to allow the use of early embryonic tissue for the purposes of research into the development of regenerative therapies. I welcome the opportunity to bring before the House the recommendations of the Donaldson report on stem cell research. The report of the chief medical officer, published in August, made a series of careful recommendations that the Government have fully supported. It is to the Government's credit that they have stated their support for those proposals—some of which are contained in the Bill—despite media hype on the issue and despite some of the misinformation put out by some opponents of even carefully regulated progress on the matter.

Many hon. Members will have received letters opposing the Bill from their constituents; some—if not most—of those people were organised to lobby on the subject by so-called pro-life organisations, as is their legitimate right. However, I urge the House to remember that—on the other side of the argument—people feel equally strongly that ethical, scientific progress be allowed.

On such matters of conscience, people with similar political views can hold different opinions based on what each person feels to be right ethically and morally. In such circumstances, parliamentarians are generally allowed a free vote on the matter and it is non-party political.

Many of my constituents will feel very strongly in favour of extending the existing law on embryo research and others will feel very strongly against such a change and may wish to repeal the laws that already allow research to take place. In cases such as this, Members of Parliament will not be able to satisfy both sides, and they must come to a considered view. However, those constituents who take a different view to mine have a right to expect three things when I vote on such an issue of conscience: first, that I respect their viewpoint; secondly, that I give a straight answer; and, thirdly, that I have carefully thought about the issues.

I ask the House to support moves to allow stem cell research on early embryos and to support moves to reaffirm the existing prohibition on reproductive cloning where such embryos would otherwise be allowed to developed well beyond the legal 14-day limit. It is understood that the Government will introduce regulations to implement those recommendations. That will not be before time, because Parliament has not had the chance to consider this matter since the issue of so-called cloning hit the headlines more than three years ago, since when seven expert ethical and scientific bodies have called for those changes in the law. Today's short exchange is a long overdue start of public and parliamentary discussion of the proposals.

I wish to discuss the benefits of stem cell research. It is hoped that this research can find ways of allowing patients with cancer, organ failure, degenerative diseases—such as Parkinson's disease and arthritis—or spinal cord injury to have a so-called transplant of some of their own cells that have been reprogrammed to replace the missing, failing or cancerous cells. In that case, there is a real prospect of finding cures—without the problem of rejection or drug toxicity—for debilitating, painful and/or fatal diseases that affect hundreds of thousands of patients every year. Groups representing patients with those diseases, such as the Parkinson's Disease Society, leading medical authorities, such as the Royal Society, campaigning and research charities, led by the co-ordinating Association of Medical Research Charities, and major funding bodies, such as the Wellcome Trust and the Medical Research Council, all support my view of the enormous value of the research.

There is confusion about the legal situation and I wish to clarify that. Under the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990, which was introduced by the previous Government, the use of the test-tube baby, or in vitro fertilisation, technique inevitably leads to the creation of more embryos than can be safely implanted back into the mother's womb. Under the Act, the spare embryos must be frozen for future use or be destroyed within 14 days. In the interval, the Act allows research to be carried for five—and only five—medical purposes: infertility, miscarriage, congenital disease, contraception and genetic abnormalities.

Three separate authorities, all of which have had both medical and theological input, have considered the question of whether stem cell research should be added to that limited list. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, the Human Genetics Advisory Commission and the chief medical officer's inquiry—the Donaldson report—have all come to the conclusion that there is no moral or ethical barrier to extending the list of purposes to cover stem cell research, but that the existing ban on reproductive cloning should continue. Leading ethical bodies, such as the Nuffield Council on Bioethics and the British Medical Association, have also considered the matter and agree.

Clearly, there is much mainstream support for an extension of the research purposes permitted and it is impossible to ignore that body of opinion. That may indeed by why the Government have supported the proposals and said that they plan to recommend this law change to Parliament.

However, there are several things that my Bill and the proposals are not about. They are not about undermining the special status accorded to the embryo. Embryos of up to 14 days are much smaller than the head of a pin and the 14-day cut-off is chosen because that is the earliest time at which the first beginnings of the structure—the primitive streak—that would eventually turn into the central nervous system can appear. Research on the cells involves microscopic techniques and there is no question of experimenting on anything that remotely resembles a foetus or of there being sentient life involved. The Donaldson report points out that the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority must ensure that the research proposals are the only way to achieve progress on this matter.

Many people—although not I believe a majority—sincerely and consistently believe that life begins at conception and that the fertilised egg and early embryo have exactly the same rights to life and integrity as a viable foetus, baby or adult. That appears to be the view of some here, and I respect it. However, it is not a view that I share, and nor is it held by most religious and ethical authorities in this country.

Some have argued that embryos should not be used as spare parts for surgery or treatment, but it is not the intention to use embryos as the source of cells to cure degenerative diseases, organ failure or cancer. If such research is successful, it will be possible to derive all the stem cells needed from the patient's own cells, without the need to use embryos. However, as the only source of appropriate stem cells at present is from early embryos, some limited research on embryonic tissue is essential if our medical researchers are to achieve an understanding of the conditions under which adult stem cells can be derived.

Even if it were desirable to use embryo-derived stem cells to cure disease, the very short supply of donated eggs or embryos would prevent that. Such a donation is a very significant step for a woman to take. Hon. Members can therefore be reassured on that point. It has been suggested that adult stem cells can already be used and that there is therefore no need to undertake research on embryonic stem cells. That is not the case according to the overwhelming majority of medical and scientific opinion that I have cited.

Adult stem cells hold real promise, but there are some significant limitations to what can be accomplished with them. However, if the research is successful, it is hoped that it will be possible to derive all the stem cells needed from a patient's own cells. Embryonic stem cell research would be a temporary step necessary to develop ways of using adult stem cells. Some have claimed that that would be a step on the road to reproductive cloning. On the contrary, I support the proposal that the existing ban on reproductive cloning should be reinforced with a new law against it, as recommended by Donaldson and supported by the Government.

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990, under which such matters are regulated in the United Kingdom, is widely recognised as the most comprehensive legislation in the world and as being effective at preventing abuses of the technology. Donaldson and the Government are right to follow the path of a further ban on reproductive cloning.

Some point out that the European Parliament has voted in favour of a ban on stem cell research. However, the European Union does not have precedence over the United Kingdom's laws on such scientific research. The EU motion opposes not only stem cell research but abortion, which has been legal in this country for 33 years, IVF techniques and our own 1990 Act. That Act provides among the strongest safeguards against illegality in such matters to be found anywhere in the world. The vote was narrowly won by a majority of seven, and expressed an opinion of politicians from the mainly Catholic countries of southern Europe. Almost all Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat Members of the European Parliament voted against it.

The proposals in my Bill would not suddenly allow what is called therapeutic cloning. That is already legal under the 1990 Act. They would simply allow that technique to be extended to research into regenerative therapies. I believe that the Donaldson report is a serious one and that the Government are right to support it, and I commend the Bill to the House.

4.42 pm
Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough)

I appreciate that this is a very difficult issue for the House; we are now entering a moral maze. I also appreciate the great knowledge and commitment brought to such matters by the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris). Many hon. Members will be desperately concerned about the appalling diseases, especially in children, that could be dealt with by such research. The hon. Gentleman has done the House a service in bringing the matter forward. However, I shall oppose the Bill for three reasons.

First, I believe that it is unethical. I shall deal with that in a moment. Secondly, contrary to what the hon. Gentleman says, I believe that it could pave the way to human cloning. Lastly, also contrary to what he says, I believe that it is unnecessary; the use of adult stem cells represents an alternative.

The House will agree that the ethical issues are probably the most important. Every hon. Member was once an embryo, and we are talking about people who could develop into full human beings. I, and many others, believe that the use of early embryonic tissue—or unborn children, for that is what they are—purely for their cells is morally and ethically repugnant. The process proposed involves taking the stem cells of young embryos, growing them into other body tissues and experimenting on them to develop new body parts for the sufferers of some diseases. However, that will involve the artificial creation of thousands of human embryos purely to use them and then kill them. I believe that that is wrong.

If, like me, the House believes that one cannot draw a line during the development of an unborn child and say that one day it is a human being and the next it is not, or that one minute it is a human being and the next it is not, the only logical and ethical conclusion is that life begins at conception.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the cut-off point of 14 days. Photographs recently taken by a Swedish photographer clearly show the development of the brain and an obvious distinction between the two lobes in a 14-day-old foetus. The hon. Gentleman is talking about research into an embryo in which brain cells are growing at the rate of 100,000 neurons a minute. Surely it cannot be said that such growth is not that of an unborn child. We were all at that stage once, and we developed into fully grown people. It surely cannot be argued that it is ethical to perform experiments on such unborn children and to harvest them purely for their stem cells. To allow the creation of life purely for commercial ends and research would take away the inherent value of individuals and their right to life. It would be to treat them purely as a means to an end; as something to be used and then discarded.

As long ago as 1956, the World Medical Association argued that the interests of society should never take precedence in research over those of the individual. It clearly included in its definition of the individual "identifiable human material". That, therefore, included embryos. All of us in this House totally reject the claim by past totalitarian societies that medical research could put the interests of society over those of the individual. To pass the Bill and to argue that embryos—each of which is capable of developing into a full, sentient human being—should be so used would be very dangerous indeed.

The use of early embryonic tissue is thus ethically reprehensible because it allows the creation and destruction of human life on a vast scale. No fewer than 277 embryos were used and destroyed in the creation of Dolly the sheep alone. That takes away the inherent value of the human being and raises the spectre of abuse of the individual in the name of the good of society. That is not acceptable.

My second argument, with which I hope some will agree, is that to allow research into early embryonic tissue would be to allow the development of human cloning, which would inevitably lead to full reproductive human cloning. The process is the same; the difference is only a matter of degrees. The cell nuclear replacement process involves the insertion of a cell from someone into the emptied egg cell, which then divides and multiplies, just as any embryo would. The development of therapeutic research requires the extraction and use of the stem cells that are formed by the egg as it multiplies. It would be only one stage further to allow the egg to develop, implant it into a foster mother and allow it to be born. Thus, we would have the full clone of a human being. Many scientists believe that that is inevitable. Surely, in this of all places, we would want to draw a line to prevent human cloning.

Finally, contrary to the hon. Gentleman's comments, the greatest tragedy of this debate is that research with early embryonic tissue is not inevitable. It is not even essential to development of the life-saving cures of which we hear so much. There is an alternative that is far less ethically controversial: the use of adult stem cells. Such cells are similar to embryonic stem cells, but in some ways better suited to the job. They are more stable and it is easier for scientists to control them.

Recent research has shown that adult stem cells can be just as effective at developing into new tissue. Scientists in Florida have shown that bone marrow stem cells taken from adults can be turned into immature nerve cells and so could be used to help combat diseases such as Parkinson's. As more research has been conducted, adult stem cells have proved to be far more effective than scientists believed. The beauty of the alternative is that it deals with consenting adults; people give permission. The danger of the hon. Gentleman's Bill is that it would deal with people who, by definition, have no control.

I ask the House to reject the Bill on three grounds: it is unethical and morally repugnant, it could lead to full human cloning and, above all, it is not necessary. I appreciate all the vigour and concern that the hon. Gentleman brings to the debate, but as C.S. Lewis said: The softest road to hell is the gradual one, the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without sign posts. I believe that the Bill is a gradual, soft and inevitable road to hell, and I urge the House to reject it.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 23 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of public business):—

The House divided: Ayes 83, Noes 175.

Division No. 315] [4.49 pm
Ainger, Nick Begg, Miss Anne
Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy Benn, Hilary (Leeds C)
Ashton, Joe Bercow, John
Banks, Tony Beresford, Sir Paul
Barnes, Harry Blackman, Liz
Barron, Kevin Boswell, Tim
Beard, Nigel Brake, Tom
Brand, Dr Peter Lansley, Andrew
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon) McDonnell, John
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge) Mallaber, Judy
Chidgey, David Maxton, John
Clapham, Michael Michie, Bill (Shef'ld Heeley)
Clwyd, Ann Miller, Andrew
Dalyell, Tam Mountford, Kali
Davey, Valerie (Bristol W) Naysmith, Dr Doug
Davies, Quentin (Grantham) Oaten, Mark
Davis, Rt Hon Terry (B'ham Hodge H) O'Neill, Martin
Öpik, Lembit
Donohoe, Brian H Plaskitt, James
Drown, Ms Julia Prentice, Gordon (Pendle)
Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth Rendel, David
Efford, Clive Robertson, Laurence
Ellman, Mrs Louise Rogers, Allan
Etherington, Bill Russell, Bob (Colchester)
Fabricant, Michael Sarwar, Mohammad
Flynn, Paul Savidge, Malcolm
Follett, Barbara Sedgemore, Brian
Forth. Rt Hon Eric Sheerman, Barry
Foster, Don (Bath) Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert
Gapes, Mike Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)
Gidley, Sandra Smith, Sir Robert (W Ab'd'ns)
Godman, Dr Norman A Starkey, Dr Phyllis
Gorman, Mrs Teresa Taylor, Ian (Esher & Walton)
Griffiths, Jane (Reading E) Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Hall, Patrick (Bedford) Temple-Morris, Peter
Harris, Dr Evan Thomas, Simon (Ceredigion)
Henderson, Doug (Newcastle N) Todd, Mark
Iddon, Dr Brian Tredinnick, David
Illsley, Eric Turner, Dr Desmond (Kemptown)
Jackson, Robert (Wantage) Tyrie, Andrew
Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C)
Jones, Dr Lynne (Selly Oak) Tellers for the Ayes:
Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S) Mr. Crispin Blunt and
Keetch, Paul Dr. Ian Gibson.
Adams, Mrs Irene (Paisley N) Cotter, Brian
Amess, David Cox, Tom
Ancram, Rt Hon Michael Crausby, David
Atkinson, David (Bour'mth E) Cummings, John
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham) Davey, Edward (Kingston)
Baker, Norman Davis, Rt Hon David (Haltemprice)
Beggs, Roy Dawson, Hilton
Beith, Rt Hon A J Day, Stephen
Bell, Martin (Tatton) Dismore, Andrew
Benton, Joe Duncan, Alan
Best, Harold Duncan Smith, Iain
Bottomley, Peter (Worthing W) Edwards, Huw
Brady, Graham Emery, Rt Hon Sir Peter
Brazier, Julian Evans, Nigel
Breed, Colin Faber, David
Brinton, Mrs Helen Fallon, Michael
Brown, Russell (Dumfries) Fearn, Ronnie
Browne, Desmond Flight, Howard
Bruce, Ian (S Dorset) Fowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman
Burnett, John Fox, Dr Liam
Burns, Simon Fraser, Christopher
Burstow, Paul Galloway, George
Cable, Dr Vincent Gill, Christopher
Campbell, Rt Hon Menzies (NE Fife) Gillan, Mrs Cheryl
Godsiff, Roger
Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V) Gray, James
Campbell-Savours, Dale Green, Damian
Cann, Jamie Greenway, John
Cash, William Grieve, Dominic
Chope, Christopher Hammond, Philip
Clappison. James Hancock, Mike
Clark, Dr Michael (Rayleigh) Hayes, John
Clarke, Rt Hon Tom (Coatbridge) Heald, Oliver
Collins, Tim Heath, David (Somerton & Frome)
Colman, Tony Heathcoat-Amory, Rt Hon David
Cook, Frank (Stockton N) Hepburn, Stephen
Cormack, Sir Patrick Hood, Jimmy
Horam, John Prior, David
Howarth, Gerald (Aldershot) Quinn, Lawrie
Hurst, Alan Randall, John
Jenkins, Brian Rapson, Syd
Jones, Mrs Fiona(Newark) Redwood, Rt Hon John
Jones, Helen (Warrington N) Robathan, Andrew
Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald Robinson, Geoffrey (Cov'try NW)
Kelly, Ms Ruth Ross, William (E Lond'y)
Kidney, David Rowlands, Ted
King, Andy (Rugby & Kenilworth) Roy, Frank
Laing, Mrs Eleanor St Aubyn, Nick
Lammy, David Sanders, Adrian
Lawrence, Mrs Jackie Sayeed, Jonathan
Leigh, Edward Shaw, Jonathan
Lewis, Ivan (Bury S) Shephard, Rt Hon Mrs Gillian
Lewis, Dr Julian (New Forest E) Shepherd, Richard
Lewis, Terry (Worsley) Skinner, Dennis
Lidington, David Smith, Miss Geraldine (Morecambe & Lunesdale)
Lilley, Rt Hon Peter
Lloyd, Rt Hon Sir Peter (Fareham) Smyth, Rev Martin (Belfast S)
Lloyd, Tony (Manchester C) Spelman, Mrs Caroline
Loughton, Tim Spicer, Sir Michael
Luff, Peter Spring, Richard
McCabe, Steve Steen, Anthony
Macdonald, Calum Streeter, Gary
McFall, John Stunell, Andrew
McIntosh, Miss Anne Swayne, Desmond
McKenna, Mrs Rosemary Syms, Robert
Mackinlay, Andrew Tapsell, Sir Peter
McLoughlin, Patrick Taylor, Ms Dari (Stockton S)
MacShane, Denis Taylor, David (NW Leis)
Mactaggart, Fiona Taylor, John M (Solihull)
McWalter, Tony Taylor, Sir Teddy
McWilliam, John Tonge, Dr Jenny
Malins, Humfrey Trend, Michael
Marsden, Gordon (Blackpool S) Twigg, Derek (Halton)
Marsden, Paul (Shrewsbury) Tyler, Paul
Marshall, David (Shettleston) Tynan, Bill
Martlew, Eric Vis, Dr Rudi
Maude, Rt Hon Francis Walter, Robert
Mawhinney, Rt Hon Sir Brian Ward, Ms Claire
Meale, Alan Wardle, Charles
Mudie, George Wareing, Robert N
Murphy, Denis (Wansbeck) Waterson, Nigel
Nicholls, Patrick Webb, Steve
O'Brien, Bill (Normanton) Wells, Bowen
O'Hara, Eddie Widdecombe, Rt Hon Miss Ann
Olner, Bill Wilkinson, John
Paice, James Winterton, Nicholas (Macclesfield)
Paterson, Owen Wright, Anthony D (Gt Yarmouth)
Pearson, Ian Tellers for the Noes:
Pond, Chris Mrs. Ann Winterton and
Pound, Stephen Mr. Jim Dobbin.

Question accordingly negatived.