HL Deb 06 February 1990 vol 515 cc711-26

3.27 p.m.

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Mackay of Clashfern)

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on the Bill.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee. —(The Lord Chancellor.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.


Clause 1 [Meaning of "embryo", "gamete" and associated expressions]:

Lord Kilbracken moved Amendment No. 1:

Page 1, line 7, after ("stated") insert ("or implied").

The noble Lord said: It may be for the convenience of the Committee if I speak also to Amendment No. 4 concerning the same point. I consider both amendments to be purely drafting amendments, although sometimes it turns out that they amount to more than drafting when it comes to the crunch.

It is stated in Clause 1(a): References in this Act to an embryo, except where otherwise stated, are to a live human embryo".

However, Clause 3(2) states: No person shall place in a woman … a live embryo other than a human embryo".

It is perfectly clear from the context that the live embryo there mentioned is meant to be a non-human embryo. That is the only way in which the sentence can make sense. But under Clause 1(1) it can refer only to a human embryo because it is not otherwise stated. Therefore, at present the subsection provides that no person shall place in a woman a live human embryo other than a human embryo. That, of course, is nonsense.

That situation would be avoided if my amendment were accepted. It inserts the words "or implied" after the word "stated" in Clause 1(1). Mutatis mutandis, the same applies with regard to Amendment No. 4 if Clause 1(3) is read in conjunction with Clause 3(2)(b). I hope that I have expressed the position clearly. It is rather confusing, but I believe that both amendments need to be made. I beg to move.

3.30 p.m.

Baroness Phillips

Perhaps I am foolish, but I am not quite clear what else could be implanted into a woman except a human embryo. While I find this whole matter totally repellent, this is absolutely ridiculous. What are we talking about? The noble Lord, Lord Kilbracken, did not explain what is the alternative.

Lord Ennals

Since this is the first intervention which I make in this debate, I should say that I shall be speaking in a personal capacity. That saves me repeating myself on every intervention which I make. Speaking from this Front Bench, I am speaking for myself.

In relation to this amendment, I find it very difficult to conceive of legislation which deals with implications. Implications are always very difficult to define. An implication is like a nod and a wink. I know what is stated but I do not know what is implied. I hope that my noble friend will not proceed to a Division on this amendment. I do not believe that it is suitable to legislate for a matter of judgment rather than of fact.

The Lord Chancellor

The noble Lord, Lord Kilbracken, has kindly drawn attention to this question in order to focus on, for example, the provision in Clause 3(2). The noble Baroness, Lady Phillips, asked what is involved. I cannot make it plainer than to say that what is involved is "a live embryo other than a human embryo"; for example, some form of animal embryo. This makes it quite clear that no person shall place in a woman a live embryo other than a human embryo. That is the purpose involved here. The noble Baroness may feel that that is so extraordinary that it should not be prohibited but extraordinary things can happen and, therefore, it is wise to make the prohibition.

As regards the amendment, the advice which I have been given is that the meaning of Clause 3(2) is absolutely plain and that no further clarification is necessary. It would seem to me that the statement in Clause 3(2)(a) as a whole is a statement that the first word "embryo" there appearing is not a human embryo but an embryo other than a human embryo. I should have thought that that is reasonably plain. Accordingly, the advice that I have received, which I pass on to the Committee, is that this amendment is unnecessary.

Lord Kilbracken

I am glad to know that the noble and learned Lord does not believe that the amendment is necessary. I know that if any Member of the Committee other than a Minister tables an amendment he is often told that it is deficient because, although it is clear what he means, it is not absolutely exact down to the last sentence and syllable. It seems to me that the wording on this occasion is not exact because in Clause 3(2) it simply is not stated, as it has to be in Clause 1(3), that the embryo is a non-human embryo. However, in view of what the noble and learned Lord said, I do not press the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

The Chairman of Committees

If Amendment No. 2 is agreed to, I cannot call Amendment No. 3.

Lord Kilbracken moved Amendment No. 2: Page 1, line 7, leave out from ("embryo") to ("the") in line 8 and insert ("after").

The noble Lord said: Again, this is a matter of drafting. If we now continue with Clause 1(1) we read that: References in this Act to an embryo, except where otherwise stated, are to a live human embryo where fertilisation is complete and, for this purpose, fertilisation is not complete until the appearance of a two cell zygote".

I have tried on other occasions to cut down on the number of words used in legislation and I do not see why on this occasion we have to say: A live human embryo where fertilisation is complete", and then go on to say when it is to be considered that fertilisation is complete. Therefore, I propose that a whole line should be cut out of the subsection and that it should read: are to a live human embryo after the appearance of a two cell zygote". That says exactly the same thing but cuts out a dozen words. I beg to move.

The Lord Chancellor

While I believe that if this amendment were passed, it would not affect the definition in the sense of altering its meaning, what is proposed to be cut out contains words of explanation which are important for ordinary people —and that includes myself—understanding exactly what is involved here.

We shall come to deal in some more detail with this matter when my noble friend Lady Elles proposes her Amendment No. 3. However, for the time being, I simply suggest to the Committee that it is as well to state in the definition clause the steps by which that definition is arrived at. The appearance of a two cell zygote might not be completely self-explanatory to everyone who takes up this Bill. On the other hand, I believe that the idea of completion of fertilisation is something which is more readily understood. The steps by which the definition is arrived at is helpful in enabling people to grasp what the definition seeks to do.

I hope that the noble Lord will feel that although he has raised a point of considerable interest it may be wise judgment —and I revert to what the noble Lord, Lord Ennals, said, that this is a matter of judgment —to leave this matter as it is.

Lord Kilbracken

I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord. I shall also be very interested to here what the noble Baroness, Lady Elles, will say on the next amendment. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Elles moved Amendment No. 3:

Page 1, line 7, leave out from ("embryo") to end of line 9 and insert ("and, for this purpose, an embryo shall be taken to exist from the time that a single sperm has completed penetration of an egg.").

The noble Baroness said: Before I propose this amendment I should like to make a few general remarks which I think are important in regard to the way in which we debate this issue. It must be made clear at the outset that the main objective, which I think is shared by us all, is to provide a legal framework related to human fertilisation and embryology against the background of far-reaching and fast moving medical and scientific development. Inevitably there will be disagreements throughout this stage of the Bill, but no one should be falsely accused of tabling wrecking amendments unless those making the accusations, having listened carefully to the arguments, will state clearly and definitely what wrecking has been made or what it was intended to wreck.

History has, regrettably, shown that religious wars are always the most serious and bitter. However, I fervently hope that this Chamber will not become a battleground. In that connection, I should state that I am not a Roman Catholic. If you are a Catholic, you tend to be attacked. That is not the reason I am not a Catholic; I just happen not to be one. I am a very ordinary member of the Church of England.

I should now like to speak to the purpose of this amendment. I make it perfectly clear at the outset that it is not to prejudice the issue which we shall debate on Clause 11. I do not intend to open that debate now. That issue remains completely open. It follows the purpose of the Bill to make provision, in connection with human embryos and arty subsequent development of such embryos, to prohibit certain practices in connection with embryos or gametes. That is in line with the Warnock Report which recommended that the embryo of the human species should be afforded some protection in law. That recommendation is found at paragraph 11.17 of the report. As legislators therefore we have to consider the best and most effective way of fulfilling that recommendation.

The amendment also seeks to ensure that the commitment given by Her Majesty's Government, that both Houses will have the opportunity of voting on whether research should be allowed on the human embryo, is fully honoured and on identical terms with Clause 11, subsections (1) and (2). To ask the legislators to vote on anything which is not clear would be like asking them to vote on a false prospectus.

As legislators, therefore, we have to consider these points. If the embryo is to be protected it should be assumed that it must be protected at all stages of its existence, from its initial development right through its various stages. What help do we get from the Bill itself? In Clause 3(4), referring to the primitive streak, the calculation of when 14 days are to run begins with the day when the gametes are mixed. If the vote goes in favour of research under Clause 11, the 14 days will start to run from the time when the gametes are mixed. That, as I understand it, is the meaning of the Bill. I do not argue with that; that is as it is drafted. It is, if I may use an analogy, the time when the clock starts to tick.

Turning back to Clause 1, the definition in the Bill states that: fertilisation is not complete until the appearance of a two cell zygote". I am sure that many of us —those of us who are not scientists —have been fed with an enormous amount of literature to try to decide what happens when, how and why. From what I have read —and I shall obviously listen with great respect to those who disagree, particularly those who have scientific experience —it is clear that the definition is seriously flawed. Nothing that I have read on this subject shows that the human embryo is only complete when a two-cell zygote is formed. If you follow through the process the formation of the single cell zygote seems to be the point when fertilisation is completed, but that does not consider the fact of when it starts.

The consequence therefore of the way in which Clause 1 is drafted is that the time from the stage that the gametes are mixed, as in Clause 3(4), to the stage of the two-cell zygote —and I understand there is no disagreement about this by the scientists —is about 30 hours. That is therefore about 30 hours after what I would refer to, as I did in relation to Clause 3(4), as the time when the clock starts ticking.

There are several consequences because of the way in which this definition is drafted. If research should be allowed, that is no problem for Clause 11 as far as the 14-day period is concerned; that is clear. If research should not be allowed —I do not go into the merits —it would not be allowed from the stage of a two-cell zygote; that is, the embryo would be available for research, if so desired, or experimentation up to that stage of its development. It is therefore incumbent on all who do not agree with my amendment, or some similar amendment with the same significance, to state the purpose for which they would use that 30 hours.

Apart from the research issue, because that is only one part of this very important and difficult Bill, throughout the Bill protection is given for storage, keeping or using the embryo, as in Clause 3; and the same protection is given for gametes, under Clause 4, and for other related purposes. However, there would be no protection under the Bill as it is now drafted for that period which could legitimately be called the "conceptus", between the periods of the entry of the sperm into the ovum and the time that the two-cell zygote is formed. That is a period of about 30 hours altogether when there would be no protection for the single-cell zygote which, as I understand it, is formed approximately 20 hours after the penetration of the sperm into the egg.

Having explained the purpose of my amendment, with the permission of the Committee I will briefly explain why I propose this specific amendment. Many distinguished scientists have written on this subject. Fertilisation is the start of the process of growth and development which through childhood produces an adult human being. As the Warnock Report states, no particular part of the development and process is more important than any other; all are part of a continuous process.

The definition in the Warnock Report, paragraph 1.4, takes as a starting point the meeting of egg and sperm at fertilisation. It is 20 to 24 hours after that time that the fertilisation is complete; when two nuclei have fused and a single-cell zygote is formed which contains, as I understand it, 46 chromosomes of which 23 are from the sperm and 23 from the egg. The chromosomes identify the genetic structure of a new individual human being, which structure, of course, lasts the whole lifetime of that individual.

The definition in the Bill, therefore, is in my view defective even with reference to the term "completion", because it is clear from the definition that I have read that completion is before the formation of the two-cell zygote. Perhaps I may quote two very distinguished professors. One is Professor Moore of the University of Toronto, an acknowledged expert. He explains in The Developing Human: Fertilisation is a sequence of events that begins with contact between a sperm and a secondary oocyte and ends with the fusion of the nuclei of the sperm and ovum and the intermingling of maternal and paternal chromosomes. This process lasts about 24 hours ending with the formation of a single cell zygote".

That particular definition explains why it is so difficult in law to fix the time at which one is prepared to say that the human embryo begins at a certain time or whether, as in the Bill, it is not only after it is formed, but even six hours after that. Progress, an organisation in favour of research, states in its booklet Freedom to Choose: The first earliest visible evidence of fertilisation is the appearance of the two pro-nuclei approximately 12 hours before the pre-embryo undergoes division to the two cell stage. Second, it is possible that an unfertilised egg may divide into two cells without fertilisation having taken place".

It continues: Fertilisation is a sequence of events which begins with contact between a sperm and a secondary oocyte and ends with the fusion of the nuclei of the sperm and the ovum".

Finally, I refer to an excellent report written by Professor Short of Monash University on reproduction in mammals. Writing on the enormous diversity of reproductive mechanisms across mammalian species, he states: About the only common factor is somewhere along the line a spermatozoa meets an egg and so a new individual is formed". In my submission it is that individual who should be protected under the law of this country.

It is important at this stage of the Bill to know what we are talking about and what will be the consequences if we get it wrong. This amendment, if accepted, or indeed similar wording which would meet the objections I have made, will close the gap of 30 hours which, as the Bill is presently drafted exists between the mixing of the gametes, as in Clause 3(4), and the present defective definition of the human embryo in Clause 1(1). I beg to move.

3.45 p.m.

The Lord Chancellor

It might perhaps be convenient if I indicate a view upon this matter, not seeking in any way to restrict discussion on it, but in order to indicate the position which I shall take with regard to it.

First, I congratulate my noble friend on the very clear way in which she introduced this highly technical amendment. Secondly, I join with her most emphatically in the spirit which she sought to set before the Committee as the way in which the debates on this Bill should be conducted. I and Members of the Committee know that there are many very strongly held views on these matters which are utterly fundamental to human life and to our individual views on it. I believe that we shall be able to conduct our debates in Committee with a mutual respect for the differing views which each of us holds, in the hope that ultimately we shall be able to get a Bill which is effective for the regulation of these very important matters in our country.

Subject to the very unwelcome possibility of the Parliament Act, but leaving that out of account, in order to get a Bill it will be necessary to secure sufficient agreement to its provisions in both Houses for the Bill to pass into law.

With that introduction I now turn to this amendment. As my noble friend has explained, the purpose of it is to change the definition of "embryo" in Clause 1(1). The effect of the amendment is to define the term "human embryo" in a way that goes back to the moment when the process of fertilisation begins. As my noble friend has made clear, precisely which definition is taken does not affect the main question concerning Clause 11, because whatever one's view is about that clause, one can give effect to it in one way or another whatever the definition may be. My noble friend has chosen to raise this particular matter. Therefore, it is important to consider it, leaving for later consideration the important questions that arise as regards Clause 11 of the Bill.

As drafted, Clause 1(1) defines an embryo at the point where the process of fertilisation began, when the sperm head penetrates the egg, and as being completed with the appearance of a two cell zygote. This aspect of the Bill has caused considerable interest since the Bill was published. However, I point out to the Committee that it is derived directly from what is said in paragraphs 7 and 8 of the White Paper, as also amplified in the footnote to paragraph 7.

The White Paper says at paragraph 7: … there are difficulties in pinpointing particular events, since most stages of development occur over a period of several hours or days. For example, fertilisation is not an instant event but a continuous process which takes about 24 hours, ending as the fertilised egg begins to divide(1)". There then follows the footnote, which states: The process of fertilisation is generally regarded as beginning with the passage of sperm throught the corona radiata, a layer of cells surrounding the egg, and ending with the intermingling of maternal and paternal chromosomes immediately prior to the first cell division of the fertilised egg". That leads to paragraph 8, which states: The Government proposes that legislation should apply to embryos created in vitro (ie by mixing sperm and eggs together in a dish), from the point at which fertilisation is completed. The start of cell division would be taken to be proof that the process of fertilisation has ended". I have read that out at length for two reasons. The first is to stress that what is in Clause 1(1) has been stated policy for over two years and until recently without particular dissent. The second reason is to make it clear that the purpose of the subsection is to provide a certain and clearly discernible meaning to the term "embryo". In this difficult and often controversial field, certainty and clarity are qualities which are very desirable.

As I understand it, my noble friend's chief concern is that this definition would leave the embryo, as defined by my noble friend as existing from the completion of penetration of an egg by a sperm, unprotected for a period of around 24 hours. I recognise the concern she feels about this matter. It may therefore be helpful if I do two things.

First, to set out in my own words what I understand to be the scientific position in this period. Of course, I am subject to correction by Members of the Committee who know a great deal more about the matter than I do. I shall set out my understanding in order that the generality of us can follow. Secondly, I shall set out the effects of the Bill as it stands over this period of time while fertilisation is taking place.

On the scientific position, when human sperm and ova are mixed in a glass dish, there follows a variable period until the sperm head passes through the outer layer of the ovum. This stage can be noted by careful observation but, when it has taken place and the membrane of the sperm head and egg have fused, I understand that it is not possible to detect from the outward appearance that sperm entry has occurred.

For a time then, on looking at the ovum, one cannot tell whether a sperm has entered it or not. A later stage, which is also detectable, is the appearance of the formation of two pronuclei some 16 or more hours after the start of the fertilisation process. After about six to eight hours more, the pronuclei disappear and again the outward appearance of the ovum does not indicate whether it has been penetrated by a sperm. Members of the Committee will observe that during this time there are two periods during which, through observation, one can tell that penetration of the ovum by a sperm has occurred, interspersed with periods when no visible sign of this is observable.

It is after the further period of uncertainty that one can observe division into two cells which later undergo further cell division. The important point is that, from the initial cell division stage, it will always be apparent that fertilisation has been completed. There are no subsequent periods of uncertainty after this stage. That completes my attempt to state the position as regards development.

I turn now to the effects of the amendment on the Bill as it stands. We are talking in practice about the protection offered to an embryo which is being developed in vitro or in a dish. The Committee will note that Clause 3(1) makes it clear that: No person shall … bring about the creation of an embryo … except in pursuance of a licence". That applies to the period before the embryo comes into existence as defined. It is therefore clear that the one cell zygote stage can be within the ambit of the Bill. I move now to Schedule 2 to the Bill, as regards treatment services. Paragraph 1(1) makes it clear that such a licence may authorise, bringing about the creation of embryos in vitro. Paragraph 1(3) goes on to specify that a licence for treatment, cannot authorise any activity unless it appears to the Authority to be necessary or desirable for the purpose of providing treatment services". Even before the existence of an embryo as defined in Clause 1(1), it is apparent that the statutory licensing authority will have powers of control over what is done in the course of providing treatment services before the two cell zygote stage.

I turn now to the question of research and Clause 11. Here I emphasise once again that the Bill offers the Committee a choice in that clause of whether to accept limited research on embryos or whether to ban it altogether. I suggest to the Committee that we should not, before we reach Clause 11, seek to anticipate what the decision of the Committee will be on this very difficult issue.

Noble Lords

Hear! hear!

4 p.m.

The Lord Chancellor

In saying that, I recognise the fear of many Members of the Committee that the definition of "embryo" in Clause 1(1) may, if the vote on Clause 11 goes against research, leave uncontrolled any research on in vitro fertilisation up to the two-cell stage, for a period of around 24 hours. But I point out to the Committee that Clause 3(1) provides that no one can bring about the creation of an embryo except in pursuance of a licence while paragraph 1(1) of Schedule 2 says that a licence for treatment may authorise bringing about the creation of embryos in vitro for use in treatment services. It is apparent therefore that if research is rejected, the Bill will prevent research projects in which it is intended to create a two cell zygote.

The question is whether the Bill will sufficiently apply to all relevant research projects in the United Kingdom, especially those where the intention is that they shall be completed before the two cell stage. On this I have listened closely to what my noble friend has said, and of course I shall listen carefully to what noble Lords who will participate in the debate may say. The Government will consider, before Report stage, and in the light of the Committee's decision on Clause 11, whether the position on the Bill in relation to control in the period before the two cell zygote stage is reached is satisfactory. Depending on the results of this consideration the Government will decide whether they should introduce an amendment at Report to enable the House to consider this matter again.

There may be more than one way to achieve the result that my noble friend might have in mind in that event. Her amendment represents one way of dealing with it. It may well be that there are other ways of doing it which can be based on precisely determined events. That is an important aspect. We wish to have in this difficult area a clearly enforceable regime. It is therefore important —it may not be possible but it is important if possible —to try to base that on precisely determined events. In saying this I accept that if we cannot find a solution which satisfies my noble friend, she will wish to press her amendment, or perhaps an updated version of it, at Report stage.

I hope that what I have said will indicate not only the difficulty of the issue we are debating but also the Government's desire, now that doubts have been expressed about what had been a reasonably unchallenged proposal in the 1987 White Paper, to consider carefully what has been and will be said in this debate. I hope also that my noble friend Lady Elles and noble Lords who may speak in support of the amendment will in their turn accept that a clearer picture is likely to emerge on this issue when we have been able to make further progress on the Bill. I thought it might be useful to state the position at this stage without in any way seeking to inhibit noble Lords who wish to express views on the matter.

Lord Ennals

I appreciate the spirit in which the noble Baroness moved the amendment. What she said about the mood of the debate was absolutely right. If someone has used the word "wrecking" it certainly is not anyone I know. We are grateful both to the noble Baroness for raising the issue and to the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor for saying that the time for us to look at this matter will be after we have debated Clause 11, which calls for the major decision, and before we move to Report stage. Secondly, I very much appreciate the fair and balanced way in which, both at Second Reading and today, the Lord Chancellor presented the case. All sides of the Committee will appreciate the way in which he did so.

With few exceptions in this Chamber —those exceptions are notable ones —we are laymen who know what we know only because others have told us. That certainly applies to me, and I suspect that it applies to the noble Baroness, Lady Elles. We manage the terms correctly and we sound knowledgeable. But the knowledge is not that which we have gleaned for ourselves; it is knowledge which has been conveyed to us. It was because this is such a difficult subject and because so few of us know the subject as we know most things in life that the Warnock Committee was established. It was established in order that we could have before us a pattern of legislation which was comprehensible and, as the Lord Chancellor said, clearly enforceable.

It is interesting that, in terms of a definition, the kind of problem referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Elles, was not touched on by the Warnock Committee as being a way forward in legislation. In paragraph 1.4 the committee said: we have taken as our starting point the meeting of egg and sperm at fertilisation". Those words are similar to those of the noble Baroness, but at no stage that I know of has the new definition which she has suggested been put forward. It was not in the White Paper. So far as I know it has not been put forward by most of the "pro-life" organisations. It was not put forward by the noble Duke, the Duke of Norfolk, at Second Reading, or indeed by the noble Baroness in her own excellent speech at Second Reading. Therefore I think we would be unwise to be pushed into a new definition, particularly when the definition involves considerable difficulties.

I too take my brief from experts—in this case, from the Medical Research Council. It says that the definition in the Bill as drafted was chosen because a readily identifiable morphological change occurs at the first cell division. The only way to tell whether the sperm has penetrated the egg is by fixing and staining. This would involve the destruction of the pre-embryo, the word which we are not supposed to use. Presumably the intention of the amendment is to protect the inseminated egg. In fact it would have entirely the opposite effect. In order to verify the legal definition and enforce the law, embryos would have to be destroyed in order to confirm their former existence. I believe that the definition in the Bill is one which we should not seek to change at this moment. I do not disagree with the Lord Chancellor that it would be reasonable to return to it, but the amendment proposed by the noble Baroness would create the great difficulty that in order to confirm its former existence it would be necessary for the embryo to be destroyed.

I hope that with the explanation and the assurance given by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor the noble Baroness will feel that this is an issue to which we can refer later but with which we should not deal at this moment. It would in any case anticipate the crucial debate on Clause 11. I hope that the noble Baroness will feel able not to press the amendment to a vote.

Lord Swann

I am troubled by the amendment. In saying so I declare an interest of sorts. Some 40 years ago the noble Lord, Lord Rothschild, and I spent a great many hours looking at and experimenting on the process of fertilisation. This did not involve human eggs or human sperm —there was little of that in those days—but eggs and sperm which looked extremely like human eggs and human sperm though in fact they came from an invertebrate animal. Both of us spent many hours watching under the microscope and carrying out a variety of experiments. We discovered a good many things which go on in the early stages, but I shall not give the Committee a biological lecture on that.

I confirm totally what the noble Lord, Lord Ennals, has said. It is difficult to tell when a sperm has penetrated an egg. It is difficult enough with invertebrate eggs, which are clearer and easier to look at under a microscope. Moreover, it is by no means certain that, having penetrated, it will form a proper pro-nucleus, as it is called, and by no means does that always move towards the nucleus of the egg and the resulting fusion. There are in fact many things which can and sometimes do go wrong between mixing sperm and eggs. Indeed, you only know that things have gone right when the two nuclei have fused. However, that is often very difficult to see unless, as the noble Lord, Lord Ennals, said, you kill the egg and stain it. The only easy way to tell is when the egg divides for the first time into two. Then you know that the whole process of genetics and growth has been launched.

Therefore, although I respect the motives behind the amendment, I feel that it is confusing and in some degree incorrect.

The Duke of Norfolk

I should like to preface my remarks by saying that I happen to be a Catholic and that I hope that everything which happens during the course of this debate will be done in the usual pleasant and happy way in which we deal with matters in this Chamber of which I have the honour to be a Member. I am a very new Member —some noble Lords have been here for many years —but I am very proud and glad to be here. I loathe any question of our having unpleasant arguments.

However, having said that, I must point out to the noble Lord, Lord Ennals, that I disagree with what he said. I mentioned this issue in my Second Reading speech; I did so most clearly. I referred to the period of 33 hours and said that it was one of the aspects which worried me. I should like to continue a little further so as to make certain that the views of the pro-life group in this country will be clearly expressed.

The group is very worried about any attempt not to say in plain English that it wants no experiments from fertilisation onwards. Further, as noble Lords will realise from what has already been said, there are variations on when life actually starts. We say that from the start, whenever that may be, there should be no experiments. The various medical journals that one can read always say that life starts from fertilisation. However, it has lately been said that it is in fact 30 or 40 hours later. The group wishes to make quite clear just what it is talking about. I hope that my noble friend Lady Elles will withdraw the amendment and that she will return to the matter on Report. Life could then be defined as being from the very beginning of fertilisation, whenever that may be.

The Bill as drafted will make experimentation on embryos permissible up to 30 hours, without a licence for experimentation being required. Such work could be undertaken to try to develop new abortifacients and contraceptives. Experimenting on drugs to prevent fertilisation would result in embryos being created when a drug failed to work. That is how it would be done.

The group recently organised a Gallup poll. It was conducted from 13th to 18th December. Gallup polls are always undertaken in a very fair way; indeed, you cannot put down leading questions and hope to receive an answer. The company decides how the questions are put and they are put in a fair and responsible way. The poll was commissioned by the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children on behalf of Life. It showed that 57 per cent. of the public oppose the use of human embryos for the development of new contraceptives and that 68 per cent. opposed their use for the development of abortifacients. It is intolerable that such experiments should be permitted in this way, without defining more accurately how life begins.

Those noble Lords who support such experimentation would like to include provision for experimentation up to 14 days in Clause 11, if they can get a majority. But I do not wish to discuss that matter now. However, they have also made clear the fact that they would like all research carefully controlled and licensed. As the Bill stands, anyone can produce embryos and perform any kind of research upon them without a licence, so long as they were destroyed before the first cleavage; that is, before the two-cell zygote started to form. I do not really think that those noble Lords would like to see this in effect. I hope therefore that we can agree to correct this drafting error.

An embryo must come into existence when separate gametes cease to exist —that is, when the 23 chromosomes of the man and the 23 of the woman have united. We are defining that as when the sperm has penetrated the egg, for want of a better definition. However, I should like to state quite clearly that the group believes that the beginning of life is the very beginning and it wants that fact to be covered in the Bill when the noble and learned Lord returns to the matter on Report.

Lord Walton of Detchant

I do not wish to prolong the debate on this issue, having heard the very well-argued speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Elles, and the comments made by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor about the prospect of this amendment being modified on Report. However, there are one or two points that I should like to draw to the Committee's attention. They relate to the definition. I do not believe that one can define an embryo until the genetic material from the gamete of the male —that is, the sperm —and the genetic material in the ovum of the female have fused.

I appreciate the reason for the noble Baroness's wish that this gap of up to 30 hours from the moment when the sperm penetrates the ovum should fall within the ambit of the Bill. I believe that at that stage it would be proper to call the combination of the sperm and the ovum the conceptus. After all, it is the product of conception, but it is not in my view yet an embryo until the fusion has taken place between the material from the sperm and that from the ovum and until it has then demonstrated its ability to divide at the two-zygote stage. That is the crux of the argument at present. However, the problem is that after the sperm has penetrated the ovum and even when two pro-nuclei have formed, one of them containing material from the sperm and the other containing material from the ovum, the process may end at that stage and the conceptus may degenerate. Moreover, even at the single-cell zygote stage, when fusion has taken place, degeneration may yet again occur spontaneously.

Of course there are other situations where there may be three pro-nuclei within the conceptus at that stage, but two of these may have come from the ovum by division of the ovum without fusion and, therefore, without fertilisation. I think that that issue makes the whole problem extremely complex. Therefore, I very much hope that a way can be found of protecting the conceptus within this early period without prejudice to the status of the embryo as defined in the Bill.

4.15 p.m.

The Earl of Halsbury

I referred to this point on Second Reading. I said then that I thought the Government had got the Bill right: that conception is not a moment in time, but a process in time. I should like to congratulate the noble and learned Lord on the lucidity with which he described the process of fertilisation. He did so in very simple language that we could all understand. Fertilisation should be completed at the right temperature. Therefore, is inserting a thermometer into the mixture an experiment? I shall return to that point later when dealing with my definition of an experiment.

In our ordinary lives we are not accustomed to processes which have no definable or identifiable beginning. Yet, we know that if we wake up with a cold in the head and with a runny nose it could develop into bronchial pneumonia and we might die. There is an identifiable end to life, but not necessarily an identifiable beginning to one's terminal illness. Indeed, one may have picked up the bug the day before but one does not know when or from whom. The process of fertilisation is something which has no identifiable beginning. Quite apart from the process of contact between the egg and the sperm, there is a prior process of chemotaxis in which the sperm swims up, as it were, a concentration gradient towards the ovum which is emitting something which attracts it —much as moths can be attracted from very great distances by the odour of a female moth.

The process of penetration is not like sticking a drawing pin into a piece of paper; it is a process of mutual digestion between the skin of one and the skin of the other. It again is a process of time which has no identifiable beginning, and so I cannot support the amendment. If the noble Baroness chooses to divide the Committee, I shall have to go into the Lobby against her.

The Lord Bishop of London

Following what the noble Earl has said, I should like to make one general point. It is true, as he says, that there are many situations in human life where we are involved in a process. The taking of any point in that process is, to some extent, an arbitrary matter. In considering the Bill, we are not involved in making scientific definitions, extending scientific research, or anything of that kind. We are legislating. It is frequently necessary, where processes are concerned, to define a point for the purpose of legislation.

Perhaps I may take the simple example of marriage. Marriage is a continuing process. There are various elements within that process; but, nevertheless, for practical purposes, within human society it is necessary to define the moment at which people get married. All I want to suggest is that at various points in the Bill it may be necessary for us to make certain definitions. They may not be scientifically satisfactory and they may be to some extent arbitrary, but if we are legislating it is necessary to do so. I hope that we shall not shrink from that and fall back into a kind of vague process—theology, as one might say—merely to avoid making such definitions.

Lord Adrian

I shall follow along the lines taken by the right reverend Prelate. I too am concerned about the definition of terms in legislation and their meaning in the Act, as it will be. We need a term to describe the early stages of the process; that is, after the sperm has entered the egg, and the first appearance of what might, in a sense, biologically be called an embryo. The word "conceptus" has been used by the noble Baroness, Lady Elles, and by the noble Lord, Lord Walton. It is a good term. It is one used by embryologists when they wish to define the particular period while the chromosomal material from the mother and the father is being reorganised into the potentiality of a new individual. The conceptus can be thought of as a blueprint, and the embryo can be thought of as the individual growing which results from the blueprint having been achieved.

The process of achieving the blueprint (the plan) is complicated and risky and one can tell that it has come to an end at the first division into the two-cell zygote; but the point about using the word "conceptus" is that in that stage the fertilised egg is a concept of an individual and not the individual. It is only when the blueprint has been achieved and the building begins —one brick being laid on the next —that one can say that the embryo starts.

It is important —this is the point that the right reverend Prelate was making—in legislation not so to stretch the words into new definitions that there are unforeseen consequences. I entirely agree that if research is lost and is to be banned, which I believe would be a great tragedy, it is important that the 30-hour period be covered. I understood the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor to say that the Government are prepared to consider that point and will come back with appropriate amendments.

Baroness Elles

I should like to express my gratitude to all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate on the amendment to Clause 1. It is, as has been evident from noble Lords who have spoken —especially those with scientific experience —a difficult matter. I am therefore extremely grateful to my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor for the way in which he has approached it. He has undertaken that it will be looked at again. I hope that the 30 hours will be covered in some way, thus reflecting the views of some noble Lords, and that the subject will come back on Report. If the amendment is not satisfactory, it is understood that I reserve my right to table some other amendment, possibly along the lines discussed this afternoon. On that undertaking, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Blatch

This will be a convenient moment for the House to hear the Statement, and therefore I beg to move that the House do now resume.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

House resumed.