HL Deb 16 March 1999 vol 598 cc606-8

2.52 p.m.

Lord Alton of Liverpool asked Her Majesty's Government:

What consideration they are giving to the ethical issues which originate from the creation of human embryos for the purpose of cloning.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Baroness Hayman)

My Lords, the Government have already made it absolutely clear that the deliberate cloning of human individuals is ethically unacceptable and cannot take place in the United Kingdom. The Government are currently considering their response to the report, Cloning issues in reproduction, science and medicine, prepared by the Human Genetics Advisory Commission and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority.

Lord Alton of Liverpool

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply and for re-stating the Government's position. However, is she aware that in the past nine years more than half a million human embryos have been destroyed or experimented upon? Is she further aware that the report to which the Government intend to reply in April recommends that in therapeutic circumstances human cloning should be permissible? Does she agree that before such a momentous decision is taken there needs to be a much more broadly based and widespread debate than has so far taken place? The committee of four established by the HFEA and HGAC consisted of individuals all of whom had previously expressed support for therapeutic cloning. One had significant holdings in the pharmaceutical industry. Does the Minister agree that before the science marches ahead we need to ponder more carefully the ethical considerations?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I agree that we need to consider seriously views on the ethical issues. I have made clear the Government's commitment. The cloning of human individuals is ethically unacceptable. It cannot take place in the United Kingdom. The HGAC/HFEA report recognises that. The report is not that of the four members of the working group; it is the report of both authorities jointly to government. It is right that there should be considered debate on the way forward. The Government will publish their response in due course. As the noble Lord is well aware, any research that uses human embryos is subject to the very strict controls laid down in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990.

The Earl of Lauderdale

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that the treatment of human embryos as products is utterly wrong?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, the terminology used by the noble Earl is clearly offensive to him and to most right-minded people. However, the benefits from strictly controlled research on embryos in some circumstances have been felt by many couples in this country who now have children as a result of in vitro fertilisation techniques made possible by the research. That makes us recognise that a balance has to be struck. The balance is limited and controlled research where that is ethically justified. It does not extend to the cloning of human individuals.

The Lord Bishop of Norwich

My Lords, is the Minister aware that not only the Church but a large proportion of the general public are increasingly concerned about the way in which the boundaries of embryo research are constantly being pushed outwards? I was encouraged to hear the Minister's remarks about the possibility of debate. Does she acknowledge that the boundaries have been extended far beyond what was envisaged in the Warnock Report without the benefit of the kind of public debate recommended as an essential part of the report?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, it is absolutely right that we have revisited the debate. The HGAC/HFEA consultation exercise which took place before the report was drawn up was a proper way forward, taking a wide range of responses from a wide range of interests. In an area where it is important that we do not allow the science to outpace the ethics, the Government are considering very carefully the recommendations contained in the report.

Lord Walton of Detchant

My Lords, will the Minister accept that the control of embryo research in this country is very closely monitored by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority? Does she agree that informed public, scientific and medical opinion is totally opposed to any suggestion of reproductive cloning of identical human individuals? However, does she further agree that, under regulation, there are huge potential benefits to be gained by the cloning of human tissues for transplantation purposes? Is it not the case that, if regulations allowed, the prospect of the prevention of devastating mitochondrial disease by cytoplasmic transfer could bring enormous benefits to human health?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, the noble Lord has expressed in more eloquent and technical terms the concept I was trying to explain to the House; namely, that there is very strict control on research in these areas. It is right to have that control, and it is right to scrutinise very carefully any proposals for extension. Research and diagnostic procedures using cloning techniques which do not include the cloning of individual humans have been established in medicine for many years and have great potential benefits for health.

Baroness Young

My Lords, while we accept the Minister's statement about current practice and the Government's view, will she accept that any discussion on the published report should take account of the ethical issues? They are of great concern to many people. Will she bear in mind particularly the point made by the right reverend Prelate that this area is expanding all the time and we are not at all clear just where it is leading us?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I agree totally with the noble Baroness that we must ensure that the ethical considerations are fully taken account of in any government response to the report.

Lord Elton

My Lords, following on that reply, will the noble Baroness take note of the great concern in this House and outside with regard to the decision that the Government are reportedly to take in April and, since the usual channels are all represented in the Chamber at the moment, will she make certain that time is found for Members of this House to discuss the matter before the Government announce their view? It would be most unfortunate if the Government were to announce their view without first hearing the views of noble Lords.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I am grateful for the formulation used by the noble Lord. I shall certainly take account of that consideration. I know that these issues are of great concern in your Lordships' House, and I am sure that the usual channels will have heard what the noble Lord said.