Human Fertilisation and Embryology (Research Purposes) Regulations 2000
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath (Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of Health; Labour)
rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 12th December be approved [33rd Report from the Joint Committee, Session 1999-2000].
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath (Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of Health; Labour)
My Lords, I am glad of the opportunity which allows us to debate today an issue of considerable importance. It is of importance to hundreds of thousands of people in this country who suffer from distressing and long-term illnesses, to those whose diseases and conditions often deny them a basic quality of life, and to those whose only hope for a cure lies in medical research and science.
However, our debate this afternoon goes further. Inevitably, it will touch on matters which go to the very core of our individual beliefs, principles and values. We shall hear from noble Lords who believe that research on embryos should not take place under any circumstances; from those who believe that research on embryos is ethically justified in the fight against serious diseases; from noble Lords who worry about the end point of so many scientific advances; and from those who rejoice at the opportunities which new medical discoveries bring to humankind.
I believe that it is to our country's credit that over the years we have been able to strike a balance between those different viewpoints and arrive at sensible conclusions. In respect of that sensible balance, I inform the House at the beginning of our debate that it is the Government's intention to support the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Walton of Detchant, which proposes that the order be approved with government support for the appointment of a Select Committee and for the Government to review the regulations following the report of that Select Committee.
I spoke about a sensible balance. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 and the forerunner to that Act--the committee of inquiry set up under the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, to consider and make recommendations on recent and potential developments in science and medicine in relation to human fertilisation and embryology.
The noble Baroness's committee reviewed those areas comprehensively. That was followed by the enactment of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990. The 1990 Act was and is a model in its regulation of certain infertility treatments and embryo research. It reflected the need to provide a strict framework within which regulation could be conducted and to take account of the advances in medicine anticipated both by the Warnock committee and Parliament in 1990. It is surely a tribute to the noble Baroness and her committee, to the 1990 Parliament and to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, the HFEA, which conducts its work in such an effective way, that the Act continues to provide such a framework.
In 1990 Parliament debated at length whether to allow embryo research and, should it be permitted, what safeguards would be required. Parliament agreed then that embryos may be used in this way and also agreed the strict safeguards that are now found in the Act. Those include that research on embryos may be conducted only until the first signs of neural development--that is, at the very latest after 14 days. The penalty for using an embryo after that time is severe: the 1990 Act makes it an offence, punishable by imprisonment for up to 10 years, or an unlimited fine or both.
The 1990 Act provides other safeguards. Most importantly--this is crucial to our later debate--the authority must be satisfied that the use of embryos is necessary for research and that research can be conducted only for specific purposes.
The authority takes its role seriously. Over the past 10 years, it received 130 applications to conduct research, and it rejected 17 of those--more than 10 per cent. The authority is not a rubber stamp. We should be proud of its work in putting into effect Parliament's intention to safeguard the use of embryos and in protecting the interests of patients.
Those safeguards in the 1990 Act mean that the regulations would not allow embryos to develop into foetuses from which organs may be harvested, and they do not allow reproductive cloning. I must emphasise that to the House. We are emphatically against those developments and will ensure that they continue to be banned in the UK. At the moment, reproductive cloning is banned because the authority said that it will not licence such research or treatment. Anyone who undertook that work without a licence would commit an offence under the Act and would be liable to imprisonment or a fine, or both.
Your Lordships will be aware that in their response to the Donaldson report, the Government gave a commitment to bring in, when the parliamentary timetable allows, a Bill explicitly to ban reproductive cloning. I am happy to repeat that commitment today. We will not permit reproductive cloning to take place in the UK, and a Bill will be introduced to that effect as soon as possible to put the matter absolutely beyond doubt.
The principles and law that were established in the 1990 Act are clear. Embryo research may be allowed now, but only for conditions such as infertility, contraception and congenital disease, including cystic fibrosis and haemophilia. The question before the House today is whether those purposes should be extended to include serious diseases such as Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, cancer and diabetes--a provision anticipated and included as a regulating-making power in the 1990 Act.
That question arises because the late 1990s saw developments in cell nuclear replacement technology in animals and because of the announcement in the US of the extraction of stem cells from a human embryo. That was of huge potential. It suggested that it might be possible to apply the understanding gained from embryonic stem cell research to patients' own cells, so that they could be made to generate new cells and tissues. The embryonic stem cell, uniquely, has the potential to develop into almost any tissue in the body. The majority of the research work is likely to centre on the extraction of stem cells from embryos created from eggs and sperm, using spare embryos that are no longer required for infertility treatment. Such research will help techniques for extracting stem cells from embryos, growing them on in the laboratory, and learning how to make them differentiate into various types of tissue. That offers the potential to understand the way in which to treat a whole range of degenerative diseases, strokes, Parkinson's disease, diabetes, cancer, and so on.
Although much attention has focused on cell nuclear replacement, that will not necessarily be the main focus of the initial research effort. That, of course, is what research is about: to try to find out what is the best way forward, and which techniques show the greatest promise. Cell nuclear replacement is essentially the technique in which an adult cell nucleus is injected into an unfertilised egg that has had its nucleus removed. That induces the adult nucleus to act as if it had just been created, following the fertilisation of an egg. The adult nucleus retains the potential to go back to its original undifferentiated state, and the act of transferring it into the egg switches that back on.
The main aim of cell nuclear replacement research is to study the chemical process that controls that mechanism, and to learn how to turn the clock with regard to adult tissue cells. If we succeed in doing that, and learn how to make adult cells revert to the undifferentiated state, we could grow them into new forms of tissue to repair damaged organs, and so on, without having to use cell nuclear replacement. The tissue would not be rejected and would have the advantage of not involving the use of embryos at all.
The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee recognised in 1997 what it called the "profound implications" of the research conducted at the Roslin Institute into cell nuclear replacement. Those issues were taken up early in 1998 by a joint committee comprising the Human Genetics Advisory Commission and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, which conducted a public consultation on them. In their response to that joint committee's report, the Government announced in June 1999 that they were setting up an expert advisory group under the chairmanship of the Chief Medical Officer to consider the potential benefits for human health of such research.
The expert group included representatives from a range of interests, including ethicists, scientists, doctors and geneticists. They sought evidence both nationally and internationally on all of those matters.
So, the regulations that we are debating today are the result of a considerable amount of work, which was conducted for more than a year by the Chief Medical Officer's expert group. The group concluded by recommending that a further purpose should be added to the five currently allowed by the 1990 Act. That would allow research into serious disease and disorders and their cell-based treatments, but under the same strict conditions and time limits that I have already mentioned, and which apply to all embryo research under the 1990 Act.
After very careful deliberation, the group concluded that research on stem cells provides the possibility of exciting prospects for future therapies for a range of debilitating diseases. However, the group recognised that a great deal of research will be needed to realise such potential and that the answers are not going to be provided quickly. That point underlines the importance of our not delaying a decision today.
The regulations put into effect the recommendations in Professor Donaldson's report. What the regulations do not do is permit human embryos to be used in the treatment of such diseases; they do not permit the use of embryos to create stem cells to be used in treatment; and they do not permit human reproductive cloning.
I emphasise again that the regulations will not, and cannot, permit human reproductive cloning. We are talking in this context only about the basic research that is needed to find out how cells are involved in the disease and injury processes and their potential for use in treatment.
The regulations are divided into three parts, the first of which is to increase knowledge about the development of embryos. That is of critical importance. That research will tell us how embryos develop normally, and why they frequently do not. It will also tell us how stem cells may be developed and extracted, and whether embryos developed through the process of cell nuclear replacement will be able to produce viable stem cells.
The second part of the regulations provides for research to increase knowledge about serious disease. It will, of course, be a matter of judgment for the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority to decide what is meant by a "serious disease" when any particular application is made for a research licence under the new provisions. It is certainly likely to include as "serious" conditions such as juvenile and type-2 diabetes, paralysis from spinal cord injury, Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease. There are many others--the list is clearly not exclusive.
The third part of the regulations would allow the research that has been conducted under the previous two headings to be used in research to develop treatments for disease. It is, once again, important to note that that provision will not allow embryos to be used in treatments; it will only allow the research to take place.
Given the stringent controls in the 1990 Act and the overwhelming potential for life-saving and life-changing treatments for people who suffer from chronic diseases, there is a strong ethical case for supporting the recommendations in the Donaldson report. The law as it stands permits research on embryos, subject to the safeguards in the 1990 Act. I have already mentioned some of the purposes for which embryos may be used in research. The principles underpinning the use of embryos in research, on which the 1990 Act is based, are that the embryo of human species has a special status, but not the same status as a living child or adult; that the human embryo is entitled to a measure of respect beyond that accorded to an embryo of other species; and that such respect is not absolute and may be weighed against the benefits arising from proposed research.
It is a matter of the balance that I talked about at the beginning of my speech. The question is whether the benefits to be gained by the research might outweigh the objections to using embryos in that way.
The Donaldson committee took the view that the reason which led in 1990 to embryos being permitted to be used in research, subject to strict conditions and only for particular purposes, must apply equally to research for the potential treatment of serious diseases being proposed now. The expert group concluded that the embryos should be recognised as having a special status as a potential human being but that it may be justified to use early embryos for serious research purposes which may benefit others.
The ethical issues raised by creating embryos by cell nuclear replacement was also considered. Again the group considered that that research is justified in the light of the likely transitional nature of the research, the considerable potential benefits it could bring and the range of safeguards in the 1990 Act. That, of course, is very much a matter of judgment for each and every Member of your Lordships' House.
An issue which has been touched upon in debates on this matter over the past few years is the view that we do not need to use stem cells derived from embryos at all because it is said that the same research can take place by using adult stem cells. I cannot emphasise enough that all the evidence points to that being an unsubstantiated claim. That is the continuing view of members of the Donaldson expert group who considered those matters very carefully; it is also the view of the overwhelming majority of members of the research community.
The Donaldson report recognised that other sources of stem cells were important to research. Those included some adult tissues, some fetal tissue and umbilical cord blood. It discussed that at length and concluded that embryonic stem cells have the potential to develop into a greater range of tissues than adult-derived stem cells.
As I mentioned, the Donaldson committee has continued to monitor the evidence about that. Its conclusion is firmly that while research involving adult-derived stem cells shows much potential, research involving embryo-derived stem cells remains by far the most promising if significant advances and greater benefits are to be made. That view is supported by the Association of Medical Research Charities, the Wellcome Trust and the Royal Society, following a comprehensive review of the papers and by many researchers and scientists around the world.
Part of the problem of using adult-derived stem cells is that they are few in number and hard to find. We are not even sure whether there are specific stem cells for every type of cell in the body. The main difference is that embryonic stem cells are able to renew themselves and form many different cell types whereas the potential of adult stem cells is uncertain with research suggesting that they may be much more limited in the ability to form other cell types.
Those issues underline the importance of taking forward work on both embryo-derived and adult stem cells in order to provide the maximum benefit of this research. Without that knowledge, we are unlikely ever to be able to learn how to reprogramme our own cells, with the potential for treatments with compatible tissue for a wide range of diseases and injuries.
I turn to the process by which these regulations have reached this House. I shall pick up some of the issues implicit in the three amendments tabled on the Order Paper. There can be no question that the matters before us have not had extensive debate in the public domain. The House of Commons Select Committee examined cloning in 1997. It considered that discussions of the science today have been overly concerned with potential risks and have not considered properly the potential benefits. It recognised the potential uses of cell nuclear replacement in research into human diseases.
The Human Genetics Advisory Commission and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority undertook extensive public consultation before reporting in December 1998 on cloning issues in reproduction, science and medicine. They concluded that the safeguards in relation to human productive cloning in the UK were wholly adequate. The report also drew specific attention to the potential beneficial therapeutic consequences from research using cell nuclear replacement. Indeed, they recommended the regulations with purposes we are currently debating.
The Donaldson expert committee discussed those issues, as I said, extensively over a year and sought views from experts worldwide. That report--it is on its recommendations that these regulations are based--is well-focused and authoritative.
The Royal Society, in its submission to Donaldson in February 2000, stressed the wide range of diseases and injuries which may be treatable through stem cell therapies. It stressed that research on human embryonic stem cells will be required because other cell types, such as adult stem cells, may not have the same breadth of application.
The Nuffield Council on Bioethics spent months weighing the ethical implications. It concluded, as did Donaldson, that this research raised no new fundamental ethical issues.
As well as those reports, the Wellcome Trust, the British Heart Foundation, the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation and the Parkinson's Disease Society have all stressed the potential of that research. Certainly, the other place was impressed by that and on a free vote, by a very large majority, agreed to the regulations.
This, then, has not been a rushed process. It has been a long and thorough process. It is difficult to see on what basis it may be felt that there is insufficient evidence for your Lordships to make a judgment today on the regulations. It is certainly difficult to see a justification for rejecting the regulations and delaying a decision for many months while a Select Committee sits to consider the matter, thereby delaying for many months any possibility that applications to start research programmes in relation to serious diseases could be put forward.
Of course, Select Committees of the House undertake immensely valuable work and are listened to very carefully by the Government. It is in that regard that I suggest that the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Walton of Detchant, provides us with an appropriate way forward. It allows for the regulations to be passed this evening but it also establishes a Select Committee. I assure the House that the Government will listen to the Select Committee's views and review the regulations in the light of its report.
In any case, any research proposal put to the authority would take some months to complete the process--perhaps nine months. But by agreeing the regulations today, your Lordships can ensure that the process of making research applications is not delayed.
The longer-term aim of the proposed research is to be able to apply the understanding gained to patients' own cells so that they can be made to generate new cells and tissues. It is hoped that we shall learn how adult cells may be reprogrammed. That is the really exciting potential of that research. If, by using embryos, we can learn how cells develop and work, we can look forward to a time when embryos are not needed at all for that research. We shall learn how to manipulate the cells from our own bodies to produce the tissues that we need, whether for our heart should we develop heart failure, or brain tissue for Parkinson's, or nervous tissue for our spines should we become paralysed in an accident. That is the ultimate aim for which the proposed embryo research is one temporary step along the journey.
I hope that your Lordships will agree with the report that the proposed extension to the current five purposes for which embryos may be used in research is justified, given the potential benefits in terms of alleviating and curing serious illnesses in so many people.
I doubt that there is a single person or family who has not been touched at some time by the distress that some of those diseases bring. It is said that more than half of the world's diseases have no effective treatment and that we are unable to develop drugs or other treatments to cure or alleviate many of those conditions. In any case, drugs are not always the answer, and never will be. In these cases, the only treatment that is likely to offer chance of a real cure is one based on the person's own body, a treatment which is cell-based and individual.
In reaching conclusions on the Donaldson report, we must consider the importance to those people who shoulder the burden of these terrible diseases, their families and friends as well as the wider community. In addition to research into effective contraception and in addition to research into congenital diseases, your Lordships are asked to agree that embryos may be used in order to find treatments for serious and debilitating illnesses that affect literally millions of people.
We must decide on such a balance. It is clear that this research has the potential to provide the answers to these diseases. The human embryo has a special status and we owe a measure of respect to the embryo. We also owe a measure of respect to the millions of people living with such devastating illnesses and the millions who have yet to show signs of them. This matter is not taken lightly but such research provides the one real hope for those who wait on our decision today. I beg to move.
Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 12th December be approved [33rd Report from the Joint Committee, Session 1999-2000].--(Lord Hunt of Kings Heath.)
Lord Alton of Liverpool (Crossbench)
rose to move, as an amendment to the Motion to approve the draft regulations, to leave out all the words after "That" and insert "this House declines to approve the draft regulations laid before the House on 12th December until a Select Committee of the House of Lords has reported on the issues connected with human cloning and stem cell research".
Baroness Blatch (Conservative)
My Lords, I have much pleasure in following the excellent and well argued case for the amendment put by the noble Lord, Lord Alton. I declare an interest at the outset. I am a vice-president of the Alzheimer's Society but I speak today in a personal capacity and not as a representative of that body. We lost a son one month before his 15th birthday. He died from a relatively minor illness which was complicated by his diabetes. I am as anxious as anyone here to see progress made in relieving the symptoms of, and/or finding cures for, Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease and many others. However, in the interests of all who share those hopes it is essential that those who have the responsibility for making a decision to extend this area of science have the benefit of a report by a Select Committee.
The Minister said that the only hope for a cure was through medical research and science. That is true. But there is a great deal of scientific research being carried out, and much progress is being made. There are some recent exciting breakthroughs for those who suffer from Alzheimer's disease. But all we ask today is that more thought is given to an extension into stem cell research.
The Minister went on to tell the House--with what authority I know not--that the science was clear. Having listened to the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and many experts over the past couple of weeks, I can only tell the Minister that the science is anything but clear.Although we are being invited by the Government to approve, without amendment, the draft regulations before the House today, the amendments in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Alton of Liverpool and Lord Walton of Detchant, and the one which I shall not move, at least give the House the opportunity to consider an alternative way forward.
It is essential that the scientific, moral and ethical issues which arise from the proposals to allow cloning with the use of embryos should be considered more fully. The proposal that a Select Committee should consider the issues surrounding the extension of this science to include therapeutic cloning unites many people who hold different views about human cloning. There are those like the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, who believe that the science should be allowed to advance and see many benefits in its application; others are genuinely open-minded about the proposals but are in a real dilemma and believe that it would be helpful to be informed before taking a decision. There are those who on moral and ethical grounds have grave reservations about what is proposed in the regulations but nevertheless would like to see the matter referred to a Select Committee. This degree of anxiety and the desire for greater debate and exploration of the issues should be addressed. Therefore, the case for setting up a Select Committee with an obligation to report to Parliament is overwhelming.
Why are the Government in such a hurry, and why is a matter of such importance not being dealt with through primary legislation? The Government promised that a Bill would be brought forward to prohibit human reproductive cloning, but there was no mention of it in the recent gracious Speech. In the lengthy briefing letter from the Minister which advocated--perhaps it went further than that--support for the regulations, he wrote:
"These regulations will not permit reproductive cloning. That is illegal. It will stay illegal".
If that is the case, what is the purpose of the proposed new Bill? Whatever the answer to my question, if there is to be a new Bill dealing with human cloning why could it not wait for the Select Committee report and the outcome of the judicial review and subsume, if appropriate, the regulations before us today? That way we should all be better informed about the issues and public confidence in the parliamentary process would be restored. There are so many questions to be addressed before Parliament should be asked to decide the matter. First, for example, there is a need to explore the balance of arguments between eminent scientists, some of whom believe that continued research using adult stem cells from both animals and humans should be pursued, and others, equally respected in the science field, who believe that the way forward is therapeutic cloning using human embryos. Secondly, there should be fuller consideration given to the limitations of such research. Thirdly, fuller consideration should be given to the moral and ethical dimensions of such a radical scientific advance.
There is much disquiet about the considerable financial and commercial interests of individuals and organisations in the passing of the regulations. Much of the mail that we have received recently is from people who have considerable vested interests. There is the vexed question of parliamentary process. To deal with all these issues in unamendable regulations is an affront to the democratic process.
The House of Lords has a distinguished record of Select Committee work on issues of major importance to the British people and, in the case of research on human embryos, to the whole of mankind. I cannot support the noble Lord, Lord Walton of Detchant, who invites the House to agree the order and then set up a Select Committee. That would be locking the stable door after the horse has bolted. There would be no urgency or focus for the Select Committee once the science has been approved.
Moreover, from the intense lobbying that we have experienced from the Government pressing us all not to refer this matter to a Select Committee, I would have little confidence that the work of a Select Committee would be given any priority at all. Such is the pressure to approve the draft regulations that the Government would be anxious, if Parliament were to approve the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, to appoint the committee members and to see its work completed without delay.
The Government argue that the 1990 Act pre-empted such a change and that, therefore, a mere statutory instrument, which cannot be amended, would suffice. I was present on the Front Bench in this House for the debate on the 1990 Act when changes were made to allow for research using human embryos in the context of fertility. But for the Minister to suggest that the issue of human cloning and the ethics surrounding cell nuclear replacement for the purposes of research and treatment was fully discussed is simply not true. We were assured by the then Secretary of State that the 1990 Act specifically excluded cloning. He declared that this, along with "other science fiction", would be outlawed.
"There are some activities which I am sure we would all find unacceptable. The Bill prohibits the creation of hybrids using human gametes, the cloning of embryos by nucleus substitution to produce genetically identical individuals and genetic engineering to change the structure of the embryos".
There is sufficient doubt about what was or was not understood by the 1990 Act and about the legal interpretation by the Government of what was agreed by the Act, that to await the outcome of both the judicial review and the work of the Select Committee makes common sense.
As the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said, even Professor Donaldson in his report stated that:
"The use of cell nucleus replacement to produce human embryos may be said to create a new form of early embryo which is genetically identical to the donor of the cell nucleus. This prospect goes further than that contemplated by either the Warnock Committee or Parliament when it debated these issues".
That is unequivocal: Professor Donaldson said that this "goes further".
There is widespread concern about the Government's handling of what is a fundamental proposal on an issue of immense importance. In addition to hearing from experts on both sides of this issue, we have been lobbied by Ministers and the Chief Medical Officer to support the regulations. Yet this is supposed to be a free vote. At this point I must put on the record that there was no such pressure put on Members of this House, even those of us on the Front Bench, by the then government when the 1990 Act was passed. It was truly a free vote. Not for the first time are the Government abusing the procedures of the House. At last members of the public are taking notice.
We are told that we should not take a different view from the other place. Yet the Government have made available very little time for this issue. We are faced with unamendable regulations which come into force next week, whereas primary legislation would have given us time for proper parliamentary scrutiny through both Houses. This is being done in great haste and the wrong parliamentary procedure has been chosen for it.
Good science must always be carried out within moral and ethnical boundaries and, as far as possible, it should be underpinned by public confidence. This is a task for the wise counsel of a Select Committee with the power to interrogate experts and to explore the relevant issues. We should defer consideration of this matter until Parliament has considered its report.
I take great pleasure in supporting the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Alton.
Baroness Northover (Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, this is not a party political issue and I welcome the fact that we have a free vote on the matter. Nevertheless, in supporting the regulations and the amendment which stands in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Walton of Detchant, I understand that I am in the majority on these Benches.
There are those in our party, as across the House, for whom no experimentation on embryonic cells is acceptable. Thus, they would not approve of the current legislation, nor of adding a further area of research under it. I understand and respect their position although I do not share it. There are others among us who, although they support the 1990 Act, nevertheless feel uneasy at the proposed new areas of research. Therefore, I welcome the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Walton of Detchant.
A Select Committee reporting on the issues connected with human cloning and stem cell research and undertaking a review of the regulations in the light of that report will enable us to look further at the issues that cause disquiet.
Decisions in the Lords are always important, but today this is unusually so. Quite simply, the future of stem cell research and its therapeutic potential is in our hands. As The Times in its leader today puts it, our decision is,
"literally, a matter of life and death".
And The Times leader-writer has no doubt that we should vote for immediate change,
"so that lives can be saved and the scourge of disease lightened".
So what are the issues that we are debating today; and what questions stand out? The issues are threefold--scientific, ethical and supervisory. I turn first to the scientific issues. Does the science show potential? Is this research worth pursuing? Can it be done in some other way? Is it fundamentally new and different or is it essentially the same as that covered in the 1990 Act? Full investigation of this has already been made by the Donaldson report, the Royal Society, the British Medical Association and many others. They conclude that the potential is indeed there and that the benefits could be massive for all kinds of disorders. Few scientists doubt--and the Royal Society, the Medical Research Council and the Wellcome Trust all concur--that embryonic stem cells have far greater potential at the moment than do adult stem cells for helping to understand how tissues develop. As Sir Robert May, President of the Royal Society, put it in a letter to The Times today, Members of the House of Lords,
"should not be misled into believing that adult cells at present offer anything like the same prospects as embryonic stem cells for treating serious degenerative diseases".
The potential application of stem cell research is quite extraordinary, and, if that potential is realised, would represent a seismic shift such as was the case with the development of antisepsis or antibiotics. I have spent enough years as a historian of medicine to doubt many medical scientific claims and to know that research does not always proceed in the expected direction, but I am sufficiently convinced by the research that has already been done that this is an avenue with immense possibilities. It ranks with anything that has been developed in the lifetime of the NHS. But in terms of the research itself, it is not different from that already allowed under the 1990 Act. The point is that this type of research could be given wider application.
Then there are the ethical issues. Does this research open up new areas which we should consider? As we have heard, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 allows for the use, under licence and after case-by-case approval, of embryonic cells up to 14 days old, before the cells have differentiated into particular tissue types. These can be used for research into five areas relating to reproduction and congenital disorders. The proposal here is that the same type of research should be permitted for the investigation of the treatment of disease more generally. Stem cell research and cell nuclear transfer are allowed under the 1990 Act, within a strictly regulated framework. This proposal is in keeping with the current Act, that research on embryos should be permitted before cell differentiation--that is, up to 14 days. Implantation of such embryos remains a criminal offence.
Wide consideration has been given to whether the expected increase in the use of cell nuclear transfer makes this a step change from the provisions of the 1990 Act. Particular investigation of this, has, for example, been made by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, which concluded that there are,
"no grounds for making a moral distinction between research into diagnostic methods or reproduction"--
that is, that allowed by the 1990 Act--
"and research into potential therapies".
So is the key question the enforcement of the regulations? Is it a matter of policing? Yet our regulatory authority is widely admired. The HFEA held fast to the letter of the law in the Diane Blood case, in which she was refused permission, in the most desperate of circumstances, for IVF treatment, because her husband had been unable to give permission for his sperm to be used. The HFEA itself asked that consideration should be given to the application of existing research techniques beyond reproductive technologies to disease in general. That was followed by the thorough investigation by the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Liam Donaldson, and his expert committee, which included ethicists. Its recommendation and its re-emphasis on the regulatory framework under which additional research might be permitted were very clear.
We certainly do not want a two-tier system, as they have in the United States. It is all very well the US Government refusing to fund any research on embryonic cell clusters while turning a blind eye to research funded privately which can go much further than is the case in Britain. Surely it is far better for all research, as in Britain, to come under the umbrella of a tightly regulated system.
So if the science, ethics and supervision remain as they were, and this is a logical continuum of the provisions of the 1990 Act, and that Act commands wide public support, what issues remain? I would suggest here that it is not those raised by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, who would not, presumably, be a supporter of the 1990 Act, but those of public awareness, trust and information. That is where the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Walton, is to be welcomed. If it would help the public debate to have the issues that have already been thoroughly explored gone over once again, perhaps in a more public forum, then here is the opportunity for that. But it can be done without delaying vital research and casting back into gloom those many patients who suffer from degenerative disorders.
For my part, these new regulations are in keeping with the HFE Act. In fact not only are they a logical extension of it; they offer far wider promise to many more people than did the original five areas of research. If it was ethically and morally acceptable to pass the 1990 Act, then to see that research potentially benefit a wider section of society is surely to be welcomed. We have well-developed mechanisms for scientific scrutiny, ethical review and supervision and a very recent and comprehensive expert report on this from Professor Donaldson. Delaying the decision as suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, and others is a layer of review too far. I for one shall vote to pass the regulations, and to promote public debate, I shall also support the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Walton of Detchant.
The Bishop of Oxford (Bishop)
My Lords, I wish to consider two issues before us today: first, the moral status of the pre-implantation embryo; and, secondly, the question as to whether research on stem cells derived from the pre-implantation embryo is the only way of understanding the process of cell development or whether it would be possible to carry out that research on adult cells.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception and that, from the first moment of existence, a human being must be recognised as having the rights of a person. I deeply respect that position and it is one which is certainly held by a number of your Lordships. However, I should like to suggest that it was only in the 19th century that that position became firmed up. Earlier Christian thought on this subject indicates an awareness of a developing reality, with developing rights as we would put it. According to Aristotle, or at least the view attributed to him, there is first a vegetable soul, then an animal soul and finally an intellectual soul, and it is only at the last point that there is, properly speaking, a human being. In the Aristotelian view, this animation, from the Latin word anima, meaning soul, occurs--some noble Lords will be sorry to hear this--40 days after conception in the case of a male and up to 90 days after conception for a female.
Taking up this approach, the Church's tradition acknowledged a similar process. Abortion, for example, was always regarded as gravely sinful. But there was a distinction in the gravity of the offence depending on whether it occurred before or after the foetus was "formed". The distinction arose on the basis of the Septuagint translation of Exodus 21:22. That refers to a fight between two men, as a result of which a pregnant woman loses her child. If the child is in the early stages of embryonic development, then the penalty is a financial one. If it is in the later stages of pregnancy, then the penalty is death. The Greek word there literally means "not yet so formed as to be a copy or portrayal of the human form". The Septuagint version was most commonly used by the early fathers as well as by the New Testament writers, and this translation was followed in the old Latin versions.
A similar awareness of a developing reality, with different rights according to whether it is in the early or later stages of development, is maintained through the Christian tradition. St Gregory of Nyssa, for example, followed this distinction, maintaining about the unformed embryo that,
"so long as it is in this unformed state it is something other than a human being".
Similarly, St Augustine wrote:
"If what is brought forth is unformed but at this stage some sort of living, shapeless thing, then the law of homicide would not apply, for it could not be said that there was a living soul in that body, for it lacks all sense, if it be such as is not yet formed and therefore not yet endowed with its senses".
The Celtic penitential suggested extremely severe penalties for abortion, but once again it makes a distinction between,
"the liquid matter of the infant matter in the womb"--
the usual term then for the forming embryo--and,
"if the soul has entered it".
A similar distinction remained entrenched in canon law and the moral discipline of the Catholic west. It is also there in St Thomas Aquinas, who follows Aristotle closely, as well as the distinction in the Septuagint version of Exodus 21:22.
All this began to change in the 19th century when advances in medicine made abortion more possible and safer for women. As a result, the incidence of abortion rose, which was seen as a moral threat calling for dramatic and drastic remedies. Pius IX, therefore, in his Bull of 1869, declared excommunicate all who procured abortion, without any distinction as to whether the foetus was formed, animate or inanimate.
I suggest that there is an alternative western tradition. But this does not mean to say that the pre-implantation embryo has no moral status. On the contrary, it has a moral status. It has a special status, even if it is not an absolute one. This was the view put forward by the committee of the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, in 1984, and it was enshrined in law in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990. That Act states, as we know, that research may only be undertaken--and, at the moment, research only for issues connected with reproduction and fertility--if there is no other way of achieving what is required. The HFEA will license research only on this basis.
Although the early embryo does not have an absolute status according to this understanding of the western tradition, it has nevertheless a special status. Research on it to produce stem cells could be justified morally only if this was the only way of obtaining the desired knowledge and if the knowledge was of such benefit that it outweighed that special status. I think all noble Lords agree on the importance of research on stem cells generally. That has been made quite clear today. The question is whether it is really necessary to do it on cells derived from embryos or whether the same results could not be achieved by work on adult cells.
The evidence so far presented--the research that has been printed and the weight of scientific evidence--suggests that research on stem cells derived from embryos is essential. Certainly, this was the answer that Professor Donaldson gave at the helpful briefing last week. Nevertheless, as we have heard today, there is a contrary argument. There is the work of Dr Ilham Abuljadayel, who claims to have created stem cells from adult cells in what she calls a process of retrodifferentiation. There were articles in Scientist at the end of last year which apparently point to the same possibility, and we have heard further evidence from the noble Lord, Lord Alton, today.
It was for this reason that I was willing to sign with the noble Lord, Lord Alton, a letter supporting the setting up of a Select Committee. Select Committees have a good reputation. They provide a context in which these complex scientific arguments, put forward on both sides by expert witnesses, can be dispassionately assessed. It is very good that we have these two amendments before us today.
As to the amendment put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Walton, I should like to know the meaning of,
"undertake to review the regulations".
If a Select Committee came to the conclusion, contrary to the present weight of scientific evidence, that research on adult cells was as good as, if not better than, research on stem cells derived from embryos, would the Government refuse to authorise the latter?
I know that the HFEA, which would be charged with licensing research on embryos, is to do so only if it is shown that it is necessary. But it is under a great deal of pressure from research establishments and clear guidance from the Government would be necessary.
If we take a developmental view of the human person, as I believe the western tradition did until the 19th century, the early embryo has a special, though not an absolute, status. That special status needs to be protected by law. This means that research should be done on it if it only is truly necessary and that research cannot be done any other way. That is why I shall certainly be supporting one of the two amendments now before us. Which one will depend on the kind of assurances the Government may give about the strength of their resolve to reconsider that regulation if a Select Committee concluded that research on stem cells derived from embryos is not strictly necessary for the desired processes to be better understood.
Lord Dubs (Labour)
My Lords, every half-century or so there are major medical breakthroughs--blood transfusion, antibiotics, anaesthesia--and those breakthroughs have made an enormous difference to the lives and well-being of thousands, if not millions, of people. I believe that the potential benefit of stem cell research is at least on a par with the benefits that have developed through the other medical breakthroughs I have mentioned.
The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, asked why the Government are in such a hurry. On Thursday evening, in a meeting room in this House, I put that question to someone suffering from Parkinson's. Her answer was: "Because we have not got time to wait. Every day matters to us". For that reason she said, "Please, for Heaven's sake, pass these regulations when you debate them on Monday".
I would ask this question: if we do not pass these regulations today--if we delay them as suggested in the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Alton--how do we say to sufferers of Parkinson's, cancer, diabetes, spinal cord injury, severe burns, Alzheimer's, MS and so on, "No. We did not have enough information. Despite the many reports and investigations that have taken place, we did not want to make a decision because we wanted more information"?
The search for more information can be either a genuine attempt to deal with sincerely held doubts or it can be an excuse to delay action. I fear that some of the voices that say, "Let us not do anything before the appointment of a Select Committee" are looking for an excuse to delay the decision.
Perhaps I may turn now to the question of a Select Committee. The House of Commons has had three debates; we have had the 1990 Act; we have had several significant reports, culminating in the one of the Donaldson committee. I find it hard to believe that a Select Committee established by this House would come to a different conclusion from that of Donaldson. Surely the witnesses will be the same. I do not believe that somehow the judgment of the Donaldson committee was flawed to the extent that a Select Committee of ours would come to a different conclusion. Yes, there is a need for assurances; yes, it is right and proper to keep this controversial process under review. That is why I am supportive of the amendment to be moved by the noble Lord, Lord Walton. But I do not believe that there is a case for saying that we should do nothing until we have more information.
I understand that the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority will take nine to 12 months before it is able to approve the first research from the date when the regulations are approved by Parliament--which I hope will be today so that the first research can be approved on 1st January next year. That period would surely give the Select Committee that would be set up under the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Walton, a chance to consider the matter and to report. If its report suggests modification of the Government's approach, I am sure that the Government will follow the committee's advice. After today's debate, I am sure that they could not do otherwise. But surely, given how long it will take for the HFEA to get this process under way, there is no argument for saying that we should take no action at all until we have had another Select Committee report. With an election coming, that could take quite a long time.
I respect Select Committees; I have served on many of them. I have never seen them as the holy writ that some speakers in this debate have described them to be. But I do not believe that a committee could properly work so quickly. If it rushed the matter, it would be accused of not having done a good job. My argument is that the time-scale of the HFEA is sufficient to encompass the approach of the noble Lord, Lord Walton, and still provide the assurances that we need.
There is an obvious conflict between biology and theology. It has been mentioned by every speaker. I understand the views of Members of this House who are opposed to in vitro fertilisation. But Parliament has approved in vitro fertilisation with many safeguards. I totally respect the sincerity of the noble Lord, Lord Alton; however, I ask him this. Were a Select Committee to endorse the Donaldson report, would he then vote for the regulations?
Lord Alton of Liverpool (Crossbench)
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. He is right in saying that I have consistently argued in favour of protection for the human embryo. However, as he will appreciate, I am not putting forward the proposals today. The regulations have been placed before the House by the Government. My case is that they have not been properly tested. We have not heard from the witnesses who say that another means of doing these things is available to us. If that solution, suggested by many in this House, is available, it will provide relief from the moral dilemma that I face, and which I suspect the noble Lord faces too.
Lord Dubs (Labour)
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord. I believe that if the Select Committee were to endorse the Donaldson report fully, the noble Lord would have difficulty in supporting the resulting regulations, given the consistency of the principled stand that he has taken. Therefore, in a way, the Select Committee is not the issue. Nevertheless, I respect the noble Lord's sincerity. I have known him for a long time. My point is simply that there is a real dilemma, a conflict between biology and theology, in the minds of some. It is a sincerely held dilemma. I hope that we can resolve the matter today and not ask a Select Committee to help us resolve it later.
We have heard a great deal about the word "cloning". It is most unfortunate that the word has been used precisely in this context. My understanding is that embryos can be obtained for this process either through IVF or through cell nuclear replacement--which involves putting a microscopic nucleus into another cell and developing it in that way. Given the safeguards and controls that exist, I do not believe that that is anything like cloning. Of course the science of cloning is known; we cannot undo that knowledge. What we must do is ensure that we control it and use it only in the very limited way in which it is sensible for the benefit of human beings. The Minister has given the House an assurance regarding measures that the Government will take shortly giving legislative effect to the banning of some of these other measures.
Much mention has been made of adult cells. It has been said that they represent an alternative. I have had discussions recently with a number of scientists on this precise point. Every one of them assures me that, although adult cells may have some positive benefits, their use and application are much more limited, and that one of the arguments for doing the research that the regulations will permit is to enable us to test whether adult cells can be used further. But the general view is that it will not be done, although I know that there are other scientific voices. I do not think that a Select Committee would resolve that conflict. It would have to come to a view, as Donaldson did. However, I am assured that, although the use of adult cells may be helpful at the margin, they are simply not the way out.
This country is a world leader in this process. We have a noble and important scientific tradition. Yet, in recent months, an anti-scientific mood has crept into the debate. We see it in relation to a number of other issues which there is no time to develop now. I regret that mood. Scientists play an important part in economic development and, above all, in relation to the health and well-being of people in this country. They have an excellent reputation. I welcome the fact that in the recent past scientists have become involved in discussing the ethics of scientific developments, not merely the science itself. Perhaps I may say how grateful I am to the many scientists who have taken the trouble and who have had the patience to explain to me how these procedures work and to point out their strengths and weaknesses--and for doing so in such a way as to enable me to develop some understanding of what is going on.
This debate relates to the quality of life of sufferers from many dreadful diseases. It is not just a matter of quality of life; for some, we are talking about a question of life or death if a decision is delayed. When we vote, it will be on one of the crucial decisions that comes every so often before a House of Parliament. We are talking about the well-being, the health and the lives of the many sufferers who are paying great attention to this debate. Surely, in the scheme of things those people must matter. I believe that the best way forward is to support the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Walton, and to move forward, so that there is no undue delay in helping these people.
Lord Rawlinson of Ewell (Conservative)
My Lords, despite all the rhetoric and fine words, it is a sad reflection on the Parliament of the United Kingdom--of which we should all be justly proud--that we are forced to consider matters of supreme importance in the context of a statutory instrument, which is unamendable. It is a sad reflection when we read, as we have recently, other debates on trivialities and party-political matters. My noble friend Lord Alton mentioned the Bill on fox-hunting. Plenty of time has been allowed for the different stages of that Bill. But on a matter of such great importance as this, time is allowed only for debate on an order.
Whether one approves of, or opposes, the position on human embryos, none can underestimate its importance. Why is there such haste? Why not delay three months? The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, spoke about the sufferers from various diseases. I understand their feelings. But why is a matter of such importance, nationally and worldwide, being rushed through on this occasion? Why does the decision have to be taken at the end of the month? This hurry gives the impression that there is some power motoring behind it--perhaps the multi-million pound pharmaceutical or biotechnological industries and those interested in them. That may or may not be the case. I hope it is not.
However, it may be said that the reason behind the urgency is to relieve the sufferers. Many promises were made 10 years ago in 1990 when the Act was first debated. Some, but not a great many, advances have been made since then. As the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, said, I suppose that it depends upon which scientists you consult. Others believe that more resources should be devoted to the adult stem cell process where ethical concerns about the use of human embryos do not come into the equation.
There is another bombshell which I am not sure whether the Government have taken on board. They have decided to have this statutory instrument decided here today when, in four days' time, a case will be heard before the High Court of Justice--a judicial review concerning the Act. If that appears before the High Court and it decides as it could--I do not say that it will--it might mean that the Secretary of State will be unable to make orders, such as the regulations now before the House. He will not have the power; they will be ultra vires. That case is due to be heard in the High Court later this week, yet we are asked to make this decision today even before the court has heard the argument.
I know that the House finds it tedious when matters of law are discussed by a lawyer. But perhaps I may explain to your Lordships a little of what this judicial review is about. It relates to Sections 1 and 3 of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990. It is for the court to interpret--indeed, it is not a matter for this House, the Secretary of Secretary, the department's lawyers, or anyone else--whether the definition of "embryo" under Section 1 of the Act is correct. It states that,
"a live human embryo where fertilisation is complete and ... [includes] an egg in the process of fertilisation".
"Fertilisation", as the argument goes, and according to the Encyclopaedia of Reproduction, is a precise scientific term that culminates in the union of one, and only one, sperm nucleus with the egg nucleus within the activated egg cytoplasm.
But, as we have heard, cell nuclear replacement involves placing an adult somatic cell into a female egg cell, which has had its nuclear material removed. Shortly, the submission of the applicants in this case is that that cannot possibly be a process of fertilisation. If so, then cell nuclear reproduction, cloned embryos, have not been--nor are being--fertilised. Therefore, they do not fall within Section 1 of the Act.
Further, the applicants go on to cite Section 3, where reference is made to the limit of time. There was a great debate about 10 years ago about the limits of time that one is entitled to retain an embryo--indeed, there was much debate--after what is called "the primitive streak" has been formed. "The primitive streak" is defined as being taken to be formed in an embryo not later than 14 days beginning on the day,
"when the gametes are mixed".
However, in cell nuclear reproduction there is present, at most, one gamete. Therefore, say the applicants, there cannot be a mixing of gametes because there is only one. So Section 3 seems to confirm what the applicants are asserting over Section 1; namely, that the cloning of embryos is not controlled by the Act itself. In other words, the Act is defective. If that is so, it is a very serious situation. It is not for me to say, but in the old days in another place one would send for a Law Officer and ask him to explain the law. One would demand his opinion because a Law Officer was, first, responsible to Parliament, then to the Crown and finally to the administration. He would be asked to say whether or not the argument was valid. But even if the Law Officer gave some advice, the first stages of a judicial review have been approved by the court and the High Court will hear the case on the 31st January. I give way.
Lord Winston (Labour)
My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble and learned Lord for giving way. I am increasingly puzzled by his argument and should like clarification in that respect. He said that "fertilisation" is defined as when one sperm enters the egg. Can the noble and learned Lord explain to me whether fertilisation has occurred if two sperms enter the egg and an embryo is formed? What happens in that case? Is that still an embryo? It is an important question. My point is that fertilisation is not necessarily a normal process and does not necessarily lead to the formation of human life.
Lord Rawlinson of Ewell (Conservative)
My Lords, the noble Lord can make his speech later. I was explaining the argument being made by applicants who will appear before the High Court on Friday for a decision to be made on the matter. They say that there was no fertilisation and that, therefore, Section 1 of the 1990 does not apply. If that is right--some noble Lords may say that it is not; but I may say that it is--the court will decide. If it does so, I am afraid that it will put a bombshell under these regulations; namely, that the Secretary of State does not have the power to lay them.
Everyone wants the embryos to be controlled by the Act; indeed, everyone says that that must be so. This means that the Government will have to introduce primary legislation in order to deal with the point that the High Court will decide. Clearly the advisers of the Secretary of State have told him that the court will decide the matter and take a broad interpretation of the narrow application suggested by the applicants. But department lawyers have been wrong. As we all know, they have been wrong many times. We have all sat on either side of the Chamber and heard wretched Ministers having thrown at them the fact that the court has decided that what they have done is illegal. That can happen. All I am saying is that it is remarkable behaviour to bring forward regulations when, in four days' time, the High Court may decide that the Secretary of State had no power to lay them.
That is one reason why it seems so strange for us to be proceeding today in this way. This is a matter of vital and enormous importance. I shall make my personal position on the matter clear. I support the suggestion made by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, but I would go further than him and the noble Lord, Lord Dubs. Even if a Select Committee decided that Donaldson was correct, I would not support it.
Baroness Warnock (Crossbench)
My Lords, I am most grateful for the kind words spoken by the Minister at the beginning of the debate. I shall speak briefly. I personally--this is just my opinion--have been entirely convinced by the arguments put forward to justify the use of embryonic stem cells, at least in the first instance, as a part of research that will, as we have heard, probably lead to a revolution in medicine. Even if later the use of embryonic cells may become unnecessary, at present I am persuaded that it is essential.
Nevertheless, I have great sympathy with the amendment tabled by my noble friend Lord Alton. It is true that the issues have been discussed in another place. It is also true to say that there has been a great deal of discussion and consultation among both scientists and ethicists over the past year. Yet I am acutely aware of the anxieties that remain among people who are neither scientists nor specialists in ethics or theology, as well as, as we have heard, among many Church leaders. The anxiety, partly at any rate, is that they suspect that the regulations have been introduced because of pressure brought to bear on government and on Parliament by scientists, by doctors and even by the pharmaceutical industry.
There is a belief among the general public that a huge moral step is being taken without the benefit of the normal parliamentary procedures. Once that first step has been taken, they fear that nameless horrors will follow. This is the well-known slippery slope argument which I believe has great power among many people.
I believe that my next point is perhaps not widely enough understood, although it has been mentioned several times today, particularly by the noble Baroness, Lady Northover. There is an enormous degree of suspicion among the public--I fear that that suspicion grows every year--as regards politicians and scientists which is reaching dangerous proportions. We are becoming a nation of cynics who cannot believe anything that they are told and who suspect the evidence and the motivation of the people who produce it. That is a situation that we ought to fear. We ought to take every step within our power to increase trust--which at the moment is at an extremely low ebb--between the non-scientific public and scientists and between the non-political public and politicians. That is the background against which the setting up of a Select Committee, whose evidence could be heard largely, perhaps entirely, in public, the membership of which would be known and the members of which therefore could be written to, lobbied and annoyed in every possible way by the general public, is an important consideration. It would do something to increase the trust of which I have spoken, which at the moment does not exist.
As we have heard, the suspicions with regard to the matter we are discussing are largely derived from the use of the expression "therapeutic cloning". If some other way of describing the procedure could honestly have been used, I believe that many of the difficulties in which we find ourselves would go away. Even with the qualification of the word "therapeutic", the word "cloning" sends shivers of horror down the spines of the British public and has done so ever since the days of Mary Shelley. That is understandable.
In 1990 a number of the issues that we are discussing had not been raised. The possibility of these kind of procedures was thought of by the forward looking scientific members of the committee that I had the honour to chair but the detailed work was not under discussion, neither was the sense that there was an imminent breakthrough and that some of the most dreaded diseases from which people suffer might in the foreseeable future be capable of being reversed. As we have heard, it is not just a case of treating diseases but of helping people who suffer from horrendous burns or spinal injuries as a result of accidents. They are equally likely--I think that one can now use the word "likely"--to benefit.
In 1990, as now, some people were wholly against embryonic research of any kind. It has to be said that the breach between those people and those of us who believe that embryonic research is necessary and entirely justifiable will probably never be healed, nor will the gap be bridged, unless a different theology and a different doctrine about the encellment of the embryo is introduced on either side. What is being discussed now makes no difference to that huge divide, which I take seriously. However, I am firmly on the development side that the right reverend Prelate explained to us.
As I say, that breach will not be healed but the other breach that can be healed if we really work at it is the fear that there will be no serious regulation or serious monitoring of the research that goes forward and that we shall rush down the slope to the cloning of whole human beings. I believe that those who have any influence in this matter have a duty to try to allay at least some of those fears. Some of those fears were allayed in 1990 during the passage of the Act. That was partly because six years passed between the publication of my report and the passing of the legislation, which began in 1989 and was completed in 1990. Six years passed during which a number of us who had been members of the committee spent a great deal of time involved in journalism and in talking to people. I wrote a weekly column in a women's magazine and monthly columns in other women's magazines to try to explain the issues. I believe that to some extent--but only to some extent--we succeeded. However, the issues have changed. An enormous amount has happened since 1990. People are beginning--if they are not already there--to be in an even worse state of panic than they were when they did not understand about in vitro fertilisation.
I believe that there is a real need to set up a Select Committee and for its findings to be taken seriously into account in the regulation that will follow. The amendment put forward by my noble friend Lord Walton of Detchant provides a means to start to alleviate some of the fears I have mentioned. I deeply wish that there had been time to set up a Select Committee ahead of our having to agree to the regulations. That has been a mistake. We have been bullied and pushed to do things more quickly than we should, which I deplore. Nevertheless, as I have no moral scruples whatsoever about the proposed new research, and as the vote is meant to be a conscience vote, having consulted my conscience I am bound to vote for the amendment of my noble friend Lord Walton of Detchant. It follows my reading of the moral obligation we have to society to follow every path that will alleviate suffering but at the same time to ensure that people who do not understand the issues, and, even more importantly, people who fear them, are given some hope that their fears may be listened to.
I shall support that amendment subject to a reiteration of the Minister's undertaking that the regulations will be reviewed when the report is published. Today I have been called very naive to believe that that might happen. However, I have just enough trust in politicians to believe that. Therefore, as I say, I shall support the amendment of my noble friend Lord Walton.
Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws (Labour)
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, for the way in which he has clearly set out the key issues associated with the draft regulations. I, like others, welcome this important debate. Just as the 20th century was dominated by huge advances in the physical sciences, with air and space travel, the invention of the telephone and television, communication technologies, the computer and the microchip, so, I believe, the 21st century will be dominated by advances in the life sciences. As other noble Lords have said, those will be revolutionary. The impact on life expectancy, healthcare and the combat of disease will be extraordinary. But with the excitement comes huge ethical and moral challenges.
I chair the Human Genetics Commission which advises Government on how new developments in human genetics will impact on people and healthcare. I emphasise that when speaking today about the draft regulations I do not speak on behalf of the commission, but we have an interest in the matter. Our predecessor, the Human Genetics Advisory Committee, was involved in preparing the report that forms the basis of the draft regulations. Two distinguished members of the current commission, whose knowledge and judgment I respect greatly, were members of the expert group which produced its report on stem cell research last year. Other learned bodies have exhaustively debated the issues. It is as a result of careful discussions, debate and reading that I have formed a personal view against the background of my own deeply-held beliefs about the importance of respect for human life.
The Human Genetics Commission was established a year ago with a particular focus on the social and ethical issues which arise from developments in the human genetic science. A strong remit was given to us to involve and consult the public and others and to encourage debate. We want to increase public knowledge and understanding of these great advances. We strive to work in an open and transparent way. The agenda and minutes of all our meetings are on the website. The majority of our meetings take place in public. We have already held public meetings in London and Newcastle, hugely attended. We have conducted polls; and we are currently conducting wide consultation with the general public. This is all part of a trend towards greater openness, consultation and public engagement which I am sure noble Lords will agree can only be good.
Perhaps I may reiterate what other noble Lords have said. There is considerable public concern that scientific advance is moving ahead with insufficient public debate. That is why so many people welcome this debate in this Chamber today. People welcome the incredible good for society which could come from such research but they worry about regulation.
The commission's remit is to work with but not to direct other relevant advisory and regulatory bodies. We already have a fruitful relationship with the HFEA. The chair of the authority is an ex officio member of the commission. We have established good links with the HFEA on issues of reproductive choice. We are committed to maintaining an overview of the relevant work of the HFEA as part of our strategic role. The authority is also accountable to Parliament and Parliament is also able to maintain tight control over this area of research. Despite the criticisms of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, the authority has, I believe, an excellent record in its regulatory role and we should have confidence that it would seek to fulfil any extended role with the same rigour and commitment.
The question which dominates any public consultation is this: can we be confident that reproductive cloning will not take place? Will the regulations be sufficient? Can the line be drawn and held? That is what we are discussing tonight--the firmness of that line in the sand. Transgression seems so easy and perhaps tempting to the unscrupulous. I have my own deeply-held beliefs and I respect the views of those who will speak from conviction today about their concerns. We should listen carefully to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford with whom, fortunately, I have had the opportunity of discussions on several previous occasions.
We are talking about a cluster of cells. However, we are not talking about any cluster of cells but a cluster which has the potential to develop into human life. Most members of the public, whether they are religious or would describe themselves as humanist or secular, recognise the special and sacred nature of human life. They believe that there must be respect for that entity. The only circumstances in which research on this cluster of cells should be permissible is when a genuine greater good for society will be served.
It is for that reason that the general public want to see a regulatory framework put in place expeditiously. That is a regulatory framework which I believe that the HFEA has demonstrated it can monitor and maintain--that it is capable of holding the line.
If noble Lords are against these draft regulations, a decision will not stop research on stem cells from taking place elsewhere in the world. In many, if not most, overseas countries there is no effective regulatory system controlling embryonic research. I am extremely concerned that we shall be faced with pressure to import expensive stem cell therapies, possibly those developed in an ethically dubious and less well-regulated manner.
At the end of last year, the Human Genetics Commission conducted a survey of the People's Panel on matters of genetic information. That research was interesting. It showed that, while most people firmly believe in the potential benefits from genetic research, they did not have confidence that regulations everywhere were keeping pace with scientific development. They argued for precisely the measure that is before the House today. They wanted regulations which drew a distinction between therapeutic cloning and human cloning. The question is asked: why are the Government in such a hurry? From the polling exercise and the earliest returns on the consultation taking place, it became clear that people feel that science is moving fast. They are right; it is. There are concerns that frustrated geneticists in this country will move abroad. People want to see Britain maintaining its lead in this field. People want the benefits which could accrue to those who are suffering. The urgency is because people believe that this research will make a difference and save lives.
However, people want regulation. They want to be sure that that regulation will mean that any breach will involve serious repercussions. They want to hear reassurances from Government today that the regulations can be monitored in an appropriately strict way. The noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, raised this point. They want to be reassured that there will be a revisiting of the issue if further information is forthcoming which suggests that other methods might be even more advantageous and would not pose the moral problems raised by embryonic stem cell research.
Like other noble Lords, I ask that this House supports either the regulations in their original form or the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Walton. The public see an urgency. They want this area of science to be regulated in the way that the regulations provide. Therefore, I ask all my noble colleagues to support the regulations so that life can be saved and the scourge of disease can be lightened.
Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe (Labour)
My Lords, I wanted to speak in this debate because, like other noble Lords, I am disturbed that major breakthroughs in medical research may be halted because of what I believe to be unwarranted fears and concerns. There is no doubt that all kinds of apocalyptic results have been predicted to emerge from this new area of research, particularly by the media. However, if we consider the facts and the hard evidence, it is quite clear that the research has enormous potential for good for the future treatment of hitherto incurable diseases.
As much of this research is carried out in universities, at this point I should declare an interest as the chief executive of Universities UK. However, I speak for myself in this debate.
I believe that the debate has been most balanced. Many noble Lords have ensured that it is rooted in the expert investigations which have produced the proposals for change.
It is difficult to be emotion-free about embryo research. The moral and ethical issues that surround it provoke intense passions. That was true in 1990 when the report of the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, eventually resulted in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act--the Act that enabled the research into human embryos which has led to such progress in infertility treatment. And it is certainly true today. Witness the scale of media coverage, as well as the huge amount of correspondence which, like me, I am sure that most other noble Lords have received on this issue.
It is clear that we are dealing with an issue which stirs heated emotions. However, I hope that we shall not lose sight of the purpose of the changes in the regulations proposed today. Huge potential benefits are to be derived from stem cell therapy, using embryonic cells in a way that could not have been envisaged in the earlier Act. The past 10 years have seen enormous progress in this area of research, with considerable benefits in terms of infertility and congenital diseases.
That research has now opened up the possibility of breakthroughs in life-saving therapies for serious degenerative diseases. Noble Lords have already mentioned Parkinson's disease, diabetes, multiple sclerosis and osteoporosis. I believe it to be a cruel irony that such work is currently excluded from development because of legislation.
Medical charities--the Wellcome Trust has been mentioned--overwhelmingly are in favour of this change. The Association of Medical Research Charities, which represents a large number of charities, has also stressed not only its support for the change but also the importance of strict and rigorous regulation--something which many noble Lords have echoed this evening. The association has also made clear that it takes very seriously the ethical issues involved and, in particular, that it is absolutely opposed to human reproductive cloning.
In all the discussions which I have had, cloning is one issue which always comes to the fore. Therefore, it is important to be clear that it is and will stay illegal. As the Minister said, the prohibition on human reproductive cloning built into the 1990 Act will remain.
Some letters which I have received--certainly, the point has been made today--have argued that there are other ways of obtaining stem cells which do not involve embryos. I can say only that I believe that the vast majority of scientific opinion takes the view that those other sources, although valuable--and it is important that they be explored--cannot replace the use of embryonic stem cells.
The Royal Society addresses that point directly. It says that at this stage only research on embryonic stem cells will realise fully the potential of stem cell therapies. Only embryonic stem cells have the versatility to produce reliably all the new cell types required to replace seriously damaged tissues. However, I believe that it is important to say that, in any case, that research is at a very early stage. It is one step on what will be a very long road.
At some point, research on embryonic cells may no longer offer advantages over work with stem calls from sources such as adult tissue. However, much more basic research is required, and the study of embryonic cells may help to take that forward.
Noble Lords who have argued for the amendment have said that time is needed to explore the complex moral and scientific issues involved and that we are not well enough informed to take a decision now. That suggests that the debate is only starting, whereas nothing could be further from the truth. In December 1998, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority and the Human Genetics Advisory Commission recommended widening the Act to include research into the treatment of degenerative diseases. Last year, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics supported the same approach. An expert advisory group chaired by the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Donaldson, who has been much quoted this afternoon, was set up to investigate the recommendations and it fully endorsed the proposed changes to the 1990 Act.
The Medical Research Council supports the changes. It argues that, as more people live longer, ill health that is due to degenerative disease, ageing or injury will place an ever-increasing burden on the healthcare system. Finding new treatments--and eventually cures--for those conditions is therefore a priority.
Some noble Lords have expressed the concern that your Lordships' House is somehow being bounced into a decision. As many noble Lords have said, there has been a continuing debate on these issues and it difficult to see how much more information could help us to reach a decision. If we defer--this is one of the crucial issues that we must address--the issue could not be raised again for some considerable time. We face the prospect that that might not be possible for up to four years. That would be a blow to the hopes of the suffering thousands who could be helped. It would also mean that our scientists in universities and in industry would lose any hope of remaining at the cutting edge of the technology which involves a branch of science in which the UK is currently pre-eminent.
Clearly there are public concerns in this context--that has been expressed by many noble Lords today--and maximum effort should be put into allaying them. Whatever we decide to do today--I very much hope that we will agree to the proposed changes--the public will expect a clear statement of the safeguards and regulations that will circumscribe that research. It will need to be completely open and transparent, and I hope that my noble friend the Minister will make a point of stressing that when he winds up. I would argue that the regulatory regime established by the 1990 Act has been successful, and I do not doubt that it will provide a robust basis with which to cope with the new research proposals.
Tens of thousands of people with cancer, diabetes, multiple sclerosis or Parkinson's disease may be helped by stem cell research. The voices of the people who suffer from those devastating diseases must be heard.
Undertaking such research is the right thing to do. Failure to take it forward will set us back years in the UK. Of course, more work needs to be done. As I said earlier, this is one step on a long road. However, not to take it, and to defer the possibility of helping the many sufferers who are looking to this House for help, is not something that I want on my conscience.
Baroness Cox (Conservative)
My Lords, this House and, indeed, the nation, owe a debt of gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for the lead that he has given. He has provided the House with an opportunity to consider the appropriateness of referring the momentous issue before us to a forum in which it could receive the detailed scrutiny that it merits before unamendable regulations are agreed to. I wholeheartedly support the noble Lord's amendment for scientific, ethical and religious reasons.
Before offering a brief exposition of those reasons, I emphasise that I, along with every other Member of your Lordships' House, do not lack any concern or compassion for people suffering from tragic conditions, such as multiple sclerosis, parkinsonism or Alzheimer's disease. Indeed, I have nursed many of those people and know from intimate acquaintance just how horrendous those conditions are to those who are affected and their loved ones.
I have not been convinced that those people's suffering, terrible though it is, justifies the kind of research that is provided for in the regulations. If I were convinced by scientific arguments that such research would be the only--or even the best--way forward in preventing or alleviating such suffering, I would not today so unreservedly support the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Alton.
Scientific arguments have been referred to. I shall not repeat evidence that has been cited by noble Lords with greater authority than I could ever attain. However, I can summarise in lay language the arguments that have convinced me.
First, there is the availability of effective alternatives, which do not involve the complex problems of human embryonic cloning. I refer in particular to very recent advances in the use of adult stem cells, including the very exciting prospect of their use in retro-differentiation. That suggests that they may be of equivalent or even greater therapeutic potential than the cloning alternative, and they may also have very significant practical advantages. Dr Michael Antoniou, head of the nuclear biology group at Guy's Hospital, summarised the issues. He said:
"The latest papers in the international journal 'Science' (December 2000) from 2 groups in the USA, clearly show that adult bone marrow derived stem cells can contribute to all neuronal cell types in animal model studies. Whatever has been achieved to date with embryonic stem cells has also been demonstrated with adult stem cells. If anything, adult stem cells appear to be somehow better primed than embryonic stem cells to participate in adult tissue regeneration. Adult stem cells also do not suffer from potential complications such as teratoma (tumour) formation."
By contrast, there has been a failure to date to achieve significant success in research that is based on embryonic cells. A leading writer in the stem cell field, Gretchen Vogel, wrote an extensive analysis in the December issue of Science in which she argued that, in comparison with the work on adult stem cells, the human embryonic stem cells and foetal germ cells that made the headlines in 1998 have so far produced relatively modest results.
The lobby that is encouraging the Government to proceed with such haste with the regulations claims that failure to do so would mean that we would lose the biotechnology race. That point was made by the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick. That lobby also argues that delay would defer development of treatment that will alleviate suffering. That point was made very emotionally by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and by other noble Lords. However, those are non sequiturs; indeed, the opposite may result. If the regulations are agreed to, and research is allowed to proceed on human embryos, that may well be achieved at the expense of investment in adult stem cell research, which has very recently produced very exciting results of enormous potential. Britain could fall behind, rather than being one of the leaders in the biotechnology race.
In response to the real fear that delay in the regulations would mean a delay in treatment, it must be emphasised that such treatments are not imminent. Professor Neil Scolding of the Institute of Clinical Neurosciences points out that claims that stem cell research involving therapeutic cloning is justified to improve patients' lives depend upon the assertion that embryonically derived stem cells are poised to offer imminent dramatic therapeutic advances. That is a significant and, I might say, rather cruel exaggeration of the true position. That technique may have great potential, but most clinical scientists would wish to see significant amounts of further basic biological investigation before concluding that it was appropriate to begin translating the work from the laboratory to the clinic, or holding out any immediate offer of hope to patients with those sad conditions.
Whatever the strength of the scientific argument on either side of this debate--we recognise, of course, that there are strong arguments on both sides--the fact that there are deep divisions within the medical scientific community constitutes a strong reason for deferring making a definitive, irreversible decision today.
In addition to the scientific issues, profound moral and religious considerations are involved. The journal Nature pointed out, in its issue of 16th November 2000, that Britain is already at the far end of the moral spectrum, being one of the very few countries in the world to authorise the utilitarian deliberate creation of embryos for research. That practice, we should remember, violates the European Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine. As we have already heard, there is in the UK widespread public unease about the possibility of cloning human beings. The Government said that they intend to introduce a Bill to prohibit that, which we obviously welcome. However, as the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, robustly pointed out, no commitment has been given on timing. Surely this is putting the cart before the horse in a totally immoral way. Given the momentous implications of the possibility of cloning human beings, it would surely be infinitely better to bring in national and international safeguards before the research proceeds, rather than doing that retrospectively and, possibly, too late.
That brings me to my final point; namely, the religious dimension. We have already heard of the widespread opposition to these regulations from many of the nation's spiritual leaders, including the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, leaders of other Churches and the Muslim and Sikh communities. They reflect the deep spiritual concerns as regards the extension of research into matters of such ultimate significance to human life and human identity.
A Parliament which ignores the concerns of those who represent the deeply-held convictions of such a wide range of its people is surely in danger of proving itself spiritually and intellectually arrogant and deeply flawed in its commitment to the principles of democracy. That is why I support unreservedly the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Alton. It will prevent Parliament from taking this scientifically, ethically and spiritually unacceptable step today and it will help to ensure that decisions on this matter, which are of such great importance, will not be taken in this rushed, cavalier and undemocratic way. Instead, it will provide time for adequate and up-to-date assessment of the evidence, which is developing rapidly and all the time, and its implications so that a decision can be made by a well-informed Parliament responsive to the sensitivities of all its citizens.
Lord Patel (Crossbench)
My Lords, I too thank the Minister for his clear presentation of all the issues relating to stem cell research and particularly for making it clear that the regulations proposed will make certain that the research which is allowed remains confined to defined areas.
I listened carefully to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Alton. I respect his views but I do not agree with him in one or two areas, particularly those relating to the current state of stem cell research. I shall try to address that.
Those noble Lords who have already spoken have covered much of the ground and I shall ,therefore, speak briefly on two points. Before I do so, I declare an interest. Currently, I am chairman of the Medical Research Council's Genetic Advisory Committee. Its role is to look at the potential implications to healthcare of the current genetic research supported by the Medical Research Council.
I am not a geneticist or a scientist working in the field of human embryo research; nor am I a clinician involved in treating patients using in vitro fertilisation techniques. But I am a doctor and I can see the potential that stem cell research has for helping millions of patients with degenerative diseases and those with tissue damage.
We are all familiar with much successful research that has helped to treat disease and alleviate suffering. In the context of today, if research into human in vitro fertilisation and subsequent implantation of the embryo was not permitted, hundreds of thousands of couples today would not be parents. That research was carried out in this country and Parliament was subsequently able to put in place an effective regulatory mechanism to regulate not only assisted conception but also research into human embryos. Today we have the same opportunity. It is hoped that we can allow, but also regulate, research that has the potential to help many others--those suffering from degenerative disease, diabetes, cardiac disease and those with injuries.
I should briefly like to address two issues: first, whether we need the research on human embryonic stem cells; and secondly, whether research on stem cells obtained following cell nuclear replacement is necessary.
From what I know and understand, I believe that the current state of stem cell research has reached a point where research on human embryonic stem cells is now necessary. While other sources of stem cells--for example, cord blood--are an excellent source of cells for the haemopoietic (blood) system, they do not seem to be good for developing any other cell type. Despite much research and thousands of publications, the evidence is lacking.
There is also the problem of host versus graft disease, even allowing for the more tolerant immune system of cord blood cells. Huge banks of stored frozen cord blood samples are not an alternative.
Adult stem cells theoretically hold out the greater potential for removing the need for using embryonic stem cells or cells obtained following cell nuclear replacement technique. But apart from a few exceptions--notably the haemopoietic stem cells and stem cells of the skin--we know so little about adult stem cells and their ability to give rise to other cell types. They are small in number and difficult to culture in any great numbers. Much of the recent work reported on adult stem cells being able to change their fate--for example, blood stem cells giving rise to brain cells--is not yet repeated and much of the work is done in vivo in animal models where it cannot be controlled or monitored.
The likelihood, in future, of being able to use adult stem cells or even adult cells for therapeutic purposes requires, initially, research on embryonic stem cells, cells that are pluripotent and capable of being precursors to a variety of human cell types and immortal--sustainable in cultures and reproducing themselves indefinitely. They are the cell lines that hold the greatest potential for the answers we seek: how to make somatic adult cells behave like embryonic stem cells?
Much has been learnt from work on animals, particularly mouse embryonic stem cells. But scientists now need to relate that work to human embryonic stem cells under defined conditions that are reproducible and will maintain human stem cell lines in a way that could be useful for therapies. No human embryos need to be created solely to allow that research. Human embryonic stem cell research is necessary to learn how to direct the differentiations of stem cells to obtain therapeutically important cells for transplant. The first cell type so developed will probably be neural for Parkinson's disease, pancreatic islet cells for diabetes, and cardiac muscle cells for a variety of cardiac diseases.
Scientists know how to do much of that work with mouse embryonic stem cells but they do not know whether the same methods will work for those of humans. Defining the similarities and the differences will be important. Research on human embryonic cells is necessary to understand the nature of pluripotentiality and to compare that with mouse and adult human embryonic stem cells which have limited potential. That understanding holds the key to be able to direct adult cells into therapeutically useful cells without the use of embryonic cells or cells produced following the nuclear transfer technique.
The scientists working in this field in our country are at the forefront of that research. Not allowing them to do the work on human embryonic stem cells would hold them back and allow those in other countries which are less regulated and less ethically controlled to get ahead, and that would weaken our science base. Scientists to whom I have spoken would rather work in this country, in a system that is carefully regulated and concerned about ethical issues. They also believe that scientists from other countries would be attracted to work in such an environment.
I now turn to the second of my two points in relation to research on stem cells obtained following the nuclear transfer technique, which is often referred to as therapeutic cloning, and to whether such research is necessary. The points on research are the same: understanding how cell nuclear replacement into an unfertilised egg can reprogramme an adult cell nucleus and develop pluripotential stem cells. Cells can be programmed to develop into different cell types and can be used for transplant without the problems of host rejection. Again, initial work will be done in mouse models, but it will need to be confirmed in humans.
More importantly, that step is necessary if scientists are to learn how to deregulate adult cells--any adult cell--to become pluripotential stem cells. When they do, there will no longer be a need to use human embryonic stem cells or the cells obtained following nuclear transfer.
All that we know--and we know much--about the current state of research on stem cells from adult cells, cord blood, stem cells from blood, bone and so on, and from research on animals, particularly mouse embryonic stem cells, points to the need for research into understanding the behaviour of human embryonic stem cells to realise the promise that such research holds for helping millions of people who suffer from degenerative and other diseases. Nothing is to be gained by delaying putting in place the regulations to allow such research to go ahead.
Lord Rea (Labour)
My Lords, the usual channels have placed me in the speakers' list directly after my noble and professional friend Lord Patel. That means that your Lordships will have two doses of science, one after the other. I apologise. I hope that my words will be sufficiently different from those of my noble friend and that my speech is not too boring.
I fully accept that a number of noble Lords have sincere ethical objections to any extension of the use of early human embryos for research beyond what is allowed in the Human Fertility and Embryology Act. The fact that until recently the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock (on whose committee that Act was based) supported the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, indicates that this is an extremely sensitive issue where we must tread with great care. The amendment tabled by my other professional and noble friend Lord Walton has taken that concern fully into account. I am delighted that the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, will now support that amendment.
However, despite such ethical objections I believe that the ethical grounds for allowing research on stem cells derived from early human embryos to proceed are much stronger than those for disallowing it. The potential--I emphasise the word "potential"--benefits of such research to humanity are enormous and outweigh the possible risks. My noble friend Lady Kennedy spoke of "the greater good".
Perhaps it has not been made sufficiently clear that the embryos to be used will have been donated freely by the couples who will have produced them and who believe that by so doing they may indirectly contribute to the well-being of current and future generations. Embryos will not be taken from those who have any ethical or other doubts. The vast majority of the embryos will come from surplus fertilised ova from couples who have undergone IVF treatment, ova that would otherwise be destroyed. They will play a useful role instead of vanishing into thin air. Very few of them will have been specially created for research purposes.
The Association of Medical Research Charities reports in its briefing that, of the human embryos that have been used for the research that is currently permitted under the Human Fertility and Embryology Act, 48,000 have come from surplus fertilised ova from IVF treatment and only 118--that is 0.25 per cent--have been donated specifically for research purposes.
It is highly probable that after initial research the need for actual embryos will decrease as it is likely that techniques of stem cell culture will be developed so that banks of healthy living embryonic stem cells can be built up. A parallel process, but one which is more sombre, has led to the production of cultures of human cells that have undergone cancerous change. Those are now available and are vitally necessary for cancer research.
The most apparently plausible argument for opposing the order before us, mentioned by many noble Lords, is that promising developments in the use of stem cells derived from adult tissue are now taking place. Of course, that is to be welcomed. Eventually the use of an adult's own stem cells, as my noble friend Lord Patel pointed out, to repair or replace defective or damaged tissue or organs would, if it became possible, have some advantages over stem cells derived from embryos that were genetically different.
However, there are also inherent disadvantages in using adult stem cells, one being that they will age more rapidly and may replicate less predictably. Despite some successes, such as the, as yet, not fully accepted work of Dr Abuljadayel, mentioned by a number of noble Lords, which has recently been in the news, there are many difficulties to be overcome in work with adult stem cells.
In this respect, it is worth quoting the words of Professor Sir Robert May, who is currently president of the Royal Society, in his first letter to The Times last week regarding the experiments by Dr Abuljadayel:
"As the Royal Society has emphasised in other contexts, until the work of researchers, such as Dr Abuljadayel and those individuals who claim to have replicated her results, have been published in a reputable peer-reviewed journal, rumours about its significance should be treated with the same healthy scepticism as, say, reports of successful cold fusion experiments".
I take the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, that the scientific establishment may have taken a rather rigid position; we certainly need to watch this space.
Work on embryonic stem cells will assist in developing parallel work with adult stem cells. The mechanisms by which a pluripotential embryonic cell gradually develops, while undergoing a series of cell divisions, into a more and more differentiated, specialised cell is still very imperfectly understood. That is one of the exciting avenues of discovery that embryonic stem cell research will allow. Knowledge of that process is much easier to acquire using early, undifferentiated embryonic stem cells than adult stem cells which have already acquired a degree of differentiation, as mentioned by a number of noble Lords.
However, acquisition of that knowledge--how cells are influenced to develop in different directions--may lead to methods by which adult stem cells from the bone marrow, for example, could be induced to regress to a more undifferentiated state. From that a different tissue could be formed, such as nervous tissue or cardiac muscle where stem cells are scarce or absent. Embryonic cell research is part and parcel of all such research. Without it, research on adult stem cells will move more slowly and may even grind to a halt.
I should like to quote from another distinguished scientist, Professor Richard Hynes, president of the American Society for Cell Biology. He said:
"We are dismayed that our research [into adult stem cells] is being used as a justification to hinder or prohibit research using embryonic stem cells. It is simply incorrect to use the future promise of adult stem cell research as an argument that embryonic stem cell research is not critical and essential".
This area of research is particularly important today, particularly in the developed world, because our main health problems are due to chronic disease in middle to late life. That is mainly due to the degeneration or malfunctioning of particular organ systems--although that can also, but less commonly, occur at a young age; for instance, diabetes. The functioning of some of these damaged parts of our bodies can be assisted or replaced by pharmacological means or by replacement (spare part) surgery. But that is expensive and incomplete and the "cure" of conditions such as diabetes, Parkinson's disease or cardiovascular disease is not possible. Hence our proper concern with the prevention of such diseases. Here I will put in a plug for the Government in reintroducing standards for school meals and the school fruit scheme as well as the forthcoming Bill to ban the advertising of tobacco products. The Government are putting a new and welcome emphasis on preventive medicine.
I suggest that stem cell research--I am talking about embryonic and adult together--promises a possible way of replacing or strengthening worn out or defective organs with healthy tissue. However, I, too, emphasise that there is still a long way to go. There will be no instant solution. But we must not reject this opportunity. The sooner this research, using human cells for the benefit of human beings, gets the go ahead, the better. So I shall be voting to support the regulations. I shall also support the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Walton, and I recommend all noble Lords to do likewise.
The Bishop of St Albans (Bishop)
My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for the clarity of his opening speech. In this debate I find myself pushed to the very limits. I refer not to the limits of my understanding of science, but to the limits of my capacity to understand and comprehend the enormous ethical implications of the proposals. I suspect I am not alone in that.
As a contribution to this important debate, I want to draw a distinction between information and wisdom. I have read a number of the background papers and understand what is meant by, for example, "cell nuclear replacement". But there is a world of difference between understanding that discrete package of information and knowing, imaginatively, what its implications might be. I do not necessarily need more information; what I need, and what I believe the public needs, is more wisdom.
The problem is that wisdom is not a commodity nor is it easily or rapidly achieved. If I look at people I believe to be wise I think that they share certain salient characteristics: they seem to be able to integrate at a deep level experience, learning and reason; they are open-minded but bring to that open-mindedness a shrewd wit; their thinking is marked by an inherent and self-authenticated elegance; they are forgetful of self; they are measured. If you see yourself in that picture I should be glad to meet you afterwards!
If you observe people in an art gallery, you will see that they, too, move at a measured pace. An appreciation of beauty cannot be hurried; it requires humility, eyes cleansed by love and a willingness to be seriously patient. Therefore I am making a plea for wisdom to be given as much room as the excitement, verve and pace of scientific discovery.
I want to make two further brief points. I want to draw attention to the ways in which human beings learn. As human beings, we are changed by the choices we make and the actions we undertake. That is true of everything from going to the theatre, say, to being married. I believe that our collective and individual human self-understanding is bound to be significantly reshaped by the proposed developments in embryology. However, I see no mention in any of the supporting papers of what that shift in self-understanding might lead to either for good or ill.
The noble Baroness, Lady Northover, rightly and precisely questioned whether the proposed regulations are a step-change. She came to the conclusion that they were not. However, I respectfully suggest that the change is a step-change because of its implications for our understanding of our human selves and our place and purpose in the universe.
Secondly, philosophically, the entire proposal seems to be predicated upon utilitarianism. There seems to be no room within it for a philosophical stance which might embrace, for example, any concept of truth which has "revelation" as one of its constituent parts; nor any concept of truth which sees human life as in some sense deriving from, or accountable to, the Almighty.
I fully recognise the exhilaration of the science and I am deeply sympathetic to those groups who believe that their devastating illnesses might be eased by research in this field. Nevertheless, I believe that other components need to be brought into the picture before we can arrive at a safe and just legislative conclusion. And legislation is a place where wisdom and information meet and are given a new and productive shape.
I believe that we need wisdom, which is a product not of speed but of patient attention, as when visiting an art gallery. I believe that we need an awareness of the fact that if we proceed down this route a radical reshaping of human self-understanding and purpose, for good and ill, will necessarily follow. I believe that the underlying philosophy needs to be carefully scrutinised. In my view, the philosophy implicit in the proposals is gravely deficient. In an issue of such moral profundity, I am sure that wisdom is of far greater importance than trying to meet the importunate demands of a parliamentary timetable.
I therefore support the amendment standing in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, because I believe that it would be the wisest step for us all to take.
Lord Taverne (Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, I too want to address the ethical issues. Like the noble Lord, Lord Rea, I accept the scientific conclusions of the Donaldson Committee, which appear to be supported by the weight of scientific evidence. The noble Lord referred to all the supporters of that committee's report. It is not unusual in important scientific matters to hear dissenting voices. Sometimes we must make up our minds on the balance of the scientific evidence before us. For example, there are many who dispute that there is climate change, but on balance scientific opinion accepts that there is a danger from greenhouse gases. At a certain stage we must act on the basis of the best opinion that we can form.
I address the ethical issues with some humility because I am not a theologian or philosopher. I may do so on a less lofty and spiritual plane than the speech just delivered by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans. In my youth I studied philosophy. When I was a student on a debating tour of the United States I took part in a radio programme at Iowa State College in the Mid-West. When I was asked in what I had majored I thought that perhaps neither "literae humaniores" nor its popular version "Greats" was right for Iowa, so I oversimplified and said "classics" and was introduced as "Dick Taverne, who majored in plastics". Perhaps that would have been more practically useful.
The context of today's debate was set by the Warnock Committee. On its advice the law as it is adopts the so-called middle position. That was eloquently supported by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford in his fascinating historical review. It means that for the purposes of this debate we start with the principle that the early embryo is a potential human being to be treated with respect, and that respect must increase as the embryo develops. We must strike a balance between that respect and the potential benefit of research.
One of the central questions is whether we shall cross new moral boundaries if we add to the purposes of research for which embryos can now be used; in particular, if we allow the creation of human embryonic cells using cell nuclear replacement techniques. I should like to take two issues separately. The first is: what is the new ethical problem if, as proposed, we allow embryonic cells to be used for research into non-congenital diseases?
I believe that the Donaldson Committee's case for allowing this is unanswerable. While we have to treat embryos with respect, in what way would we no longer be doing so? Some suggest that if the research is no longer concerned with fertility, for which the embryos were created, we are using them instrumentally as a convenient source of research material. That happens already. If embryos created by in vitro fertilisation are used for fertility research, as they are now, they cannot receive benefits themselves. Others--live human beings, not the cells--will potentially benefit. As the committee points out, in all types of embryo research the embryo is used instrumentally. This is inevitable for spare embryos which are no longer required for treatment.
In the test which the present law applies the respect due to the embryos is outweighed by the potential benefit and the balance is in favour of research. But if the Motion is passed as it stands the balance would be even more clearly in favour of research, because the potential benefits from the research which would be permitted would be even greater. Non-congenital diseases, which are far more widespread than congenital diseases, include a number of terrible conditions that affect tens of thousands of people.
I turn to the second issue: cell nuclear replacement techniques or (as it is sometimes called) therapeutic cloning. What new moral boundary is being crossed here? At present, new embryos are created by fusing the nucleus from a sperm with an egg. It is now proposed that we should allow the creation of new embryonic cells by transferring a nucleus from another donor cell to the egg. In both cases new embryonic cells are created. To say one is moral and the other immoral is really an argument about angels dancing on the head of a pin. If the embryo was allowed to develop beyond the blastocyst stage it would create moral problems, but that is not permitted and will be strictly controlled. That would require primary legislation to change the law.
With the greatest respect, we do not have to be theologians, the Archbishop of Canterbury or professional moral philosophers to make a judgment on moral issues. It is, as it were, a question, not for the judge, but the jury--legislators and the public.
I put the issues as I see them in simple terms. Some people object because we are creating embryos. That is already done and accepted. I believe that to call those cells which are not to be implanted and come to term "embryos" is misleading. They will not become foetuses or human beings. It would be wiser to call them what they are, which is embryonic cells. Some object that we are using embryonic cells for research. That is already done and accepted. We now ask that they can be used for research into disease with much wider benefits. Why should it be accepted that unwanted cells for in vitro fertilisation can be disposed of and wasted, but not that they should be used to benefit people who suffer from terrible diseases? Why is the second regarded as creating a new moral issue? Indeed, what questions have to be resolved that the Donaldson Committee in its meticulously argued report has not considered?
The "slippery slope" argument does not hold because of the strict regulations that are in place. In any case, this is an argument that is often trotted out. It was trotted out when the first steps were taken in genetic engineering. It is applicable to research at any stage, and in different contexts it can be used to oppose every relaxation of the criminal law.
I believe that there is one overwhelming argument against the delay. That argument was put very well in the leader in The Times today by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and many others. It will be many years before the proposed research will lead to actual treatment. This means that, tragically, many tens of thousands who today suffer from Parkinson's disease and other terrible neurological conditions such as Alzheimer's disease will never benefit. But it is likely that in the future many other tens of thousands will. If we delay by setting up a new Select Committee, as the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, suggests, there is likely to be a delay of at least a year. That means that huge numbers of sufferers who could benefit will not. I realise that the supporters of the amendment moved by the noble Lord are as concerned about suffering as those who oppose it, but the likely result of delay remains that tens of thousands will be deprived of the possible help that research will ultimately provide. I believe that that is the real moral issue.
Lord Clarke of Hampstead (Labour)
My Lords, my contribution to this debate will be very brief. The issues before the House today are momentous and touch on the very question of what is a human life. In this House we are fortunate in having heard the timely words of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, who introduced another dimension into the debate: the need for wisdom in dealing with this matter. Like many noble Lords, I have examined the draft regulations. It would be dishonest to pretend that a lay person such as myself can debate this subject with the eminent scientists and distinguished medical experts to be found in your Lordships' House.
My consideration of the proposal takes a very simplistic approach. Do I as an individual want to do all that is possible to relieve human suffering? The answer from all Members of this House would be, "Of course I do".
Anyone who has witnessed loved ones suffering from some of the diseases that have been mentioned in this House today and in the debate in the other place, will pray sincerely that the scientists and medical researchers are successful in their endeavours. Such a desire for success must be balanced against the need for the fullest possible examination of the proposals contained in the draft regulations before us today. A Select Committee of this House can provide that comprehensive examination. Away from the hothouse, the emotion and the sometimes misleading language, experts could, given the benefit of a report from a Select Committee, weigh up the possible benefits that may be obtained by the research currently being carried out using adult human stem cells.
I have already said that as a lay person I am not in a position to debate the issue from any depth of scientific knowledge. However, I am prepared to listen to those who have expertise in this field. Last Thursday evening, in company with other Members of your Lordships' House, I had the opportunity of listening to the views of Professor Neil Scolding, who was referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, in moving the amendment. He is actively engaged in medical research. Professor Scolding from the Institute of Clinical Neurosciences at the Frenchay Hospital in Bristol described, as he has done on a number of occasions, the current research into adult human cells. He said:
"Even more exciting is that it is now clear that stem cells capable of yielding neural progeny can also be obtained from adult human bone marrow samples".
In Professor Scolding's view this undermines the published comments of the Royal Society that it will take at least a decade and possibly a lot longer, if ever, before scientists are able to overcome the hurdles blocking therapeutic use of adult as opposed to embryonic stem cells.
The noble Baroness, Lady Williams, dealt in some depth with the alternative that is available. We have heard that there is some difficulty with that research. That does not mean that scientists should not continue to press to get that research under way and developed.
It is the hope that there is an alternative to what is proposed in these regulations that leads me to conclude that the House should support the amendment that calls for a Select Committee to be set up to report to this House on the issues concerned.
Finally, I thank my noble friend Lord Sainsbury for taking the time to discuss this matter with me. I am grateful to him for his patience. I have had several conversations with him. I am indebted to him for the way he has helped me through my problems. I wish I had the wisdom mentioned a few moments ago so that I could add more to the debate. But I urge the House to support the amendment.
Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior (Conservative)
My Lords, today we have heard many erudite, scientific and philosophical arguments. I shall not test your Lordships' patience by repeating them. I shall centre on the debate around the issue of expanding the purposes for which human embryos can be used for research under the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990. Your Lordships will be aware that there are five purposes laid down in that Act. Today we are debating whether a sixth can be added, the purpose of which is to increase the understanding of human disease and disorders, and their treatment.
The list of appalling diseases which this research could benefit is long and impressive. We are aware that the extension of the Act is supported by many distinguished scientists in this country and many distinguished organisations such as the Royal Society, the Medical Research Council, the Wellcome Trust, the Nuffield Foundation and others, all of which have delved deeply into the scientific aspects and indeed into the ethical aspects of this issue.
The most impressive support comes from the Association of Medical Research Charities which represents organisations and foundations concerned with many disorders and for which research with stem cells is likely to lead to important developments to improve the quality of life of those suffering from these chronic diseases--diabetes, cancer, stroke and Parkinson's disease, to mention but a few.
Anyone who has a friend or relative or who himself is suffering from, say, Parkinsonism, will be aware of the overwhelming case for this research to be permitted on human embryos, within, of course, all the constraints that would apply, and for the research to be commenced without delay.
In some of the speeches made today there was a suspicion that not much is known about embryonic stem cells of human origin. Much of the preliminary work on stem cells has already been done on mice, as was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Patel. But, clearly, one must transfer that knowledge to man. The availability of pluripotential stem cells of the target human species will provide important additional safeguards to their use, especially with regard to the additional therapeutic molecules that may be required in the treatment of chronic disorders.
Yet it is clear there is genuine concern that research may be moving too fast and going too far and that adequate attention has not been given to the use of other sources of stem cells, such as adult stem cells, and that any relaxation of the present regulations will lead to the cloning of humans. The latter can be dismissed since not only does the Act prohibit this, but in order further to develop stem cells into any human form the uterus of a surrogate mother would be required.
The amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Walton, provides many of the requirements on both sides of the debate: a start on much needed and wanted research and the facility of a Select Committee to examine the issue further. It is an acceptable compromise which I hope that noble Lords will support.
Mention has been made of respect for human life in regard to the use of embryos. I should like to note that there is respect also for those in need of medical help by research such as this. I believe that it would question our ethical stand if we were not to use our best endeavours to advance research for the benefits of those who suffer such debilitating and terrible diseases. I hope that noble Lords will support the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Walton. I certainly shall.
Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve (Crossbench)
My Lords, I believe it is clear that this is not a debate about science versus ethics; this is a debate about ethics. I have learnt a great deal from many noble Lords, in particular from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford in his reminders about the gradual development of the conception of the human individual. It is important for us to remember that we are not talking about research on human individuals. We are obliged to use the term embryo. If we did not I think we would be perhaps accused of verbal trickery.
But let us remember that the very early embryo about which we are talking in the debate is a group of undifferentiated cells. It lacks all internal structure. Indeed, if it had developed an internal structure, it would be inappropriate for this kind of research. It is precisely because there is no structure, because there is not even the beginnings of a glimmer of the human form, that the embryonic stem cell is important for this kind of research. It is because differentiation lies ahead.
In the normal course of events the cells of which this early stage embryo is composed have an open future. They may become part of a human foetus and thence possibly, if all goes well, at a later stage of a human individual; or, again, if much goes well, they become part of a human placenta; or they may--this is often the case--be shed. So I believe that we are not talking about a human individual or a human foetus.
There are many who believe that any use of any cell which has the possibility of becoming part of a human individual is unacceptable and they will, I imagine, in all consistency wish to put a stop not only to embryo research but also to all IVF treatment, since that treatment unavoidably leads to the destruction of far more early embryos than have ever been used in research. I personally believe that the lives of the children born by IVF are not a morally trivial achievement and they are not ones that I would wish to put at risk. More generally, it does seem to me that we are engaged in a utilitarian calculus of benefit. That is certainly not my view of the matter. But I do believe that we have to heed our obligation to do what we can, often with imperfect knowledge, to work towards the relief of human suffering. That is a profound purpose and I agree with other noble Lords who have stressed its importance.
I do not think that we could take that purpose forward if we did not have in this country an effective system for regulating fertility and embryo research; but we do. Thanks to the report in the 1980s of the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock--my friend and teacher in matters formal and informal--and thanks to the legislation passed by Parliament in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990, we have the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. We should congratulate Mrs Ruth Deech, who chairs it, and the authority on their effectiveness in regulating these difficult areas and on their firmness in preventing unacceptable or marginal uses of new reproductive technologies. The UK is remarkably fortunate in having a tried and tested institution that has done so much to prevent, for example, sex selection for social reasons and human reproduction by cloning.
I have been interested to hear noble Lords compare the situation here with the situation in the US. The situation in the US is not better; it is much worse. What is forbidden is federal funds put to the purpose of this kind of research. The research itself goes on untrammelled by any serious regulation. That is why I would so much sooner see the research done in this country, where we know that both the scientific and the medical establishments accept the authority of the HFEA. We have good regulatory structures. Let us not undervalue them.
We come to the question of whether this extension of the purposes of the Act is a permissible one. As we have been reminded, Schedule 2 to the 1990 Act already allows the HFEA to permit research use of embryos for the purpose of investigating fertility problems, contraception and congenital diseases. Now we are being asked to consider the possibility of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority being allowed to give licences for comparable research use of embryos in investigating therapies for severe diseases, in particular degenerative diseases, that afflict many hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people in the UK. It is hard to explain why the investigation of acquired disease should be viewed as morally less obligatory than the investigation of congenital disease. For those who suffer the diseases, their families and their carers, their disease and their suffering are no less serious.
It is suggested, nevertheless, that we should be careful and that we should delay. I have learnt from the many noble Lords who have pointed to some of the constitutional and legislative points. This is an area in which we have to think both about time and about trust. In this area I disagree in certain respects with the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, but I hope not very much. The amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, suggests that we are moving too fast, that we should pause for reflection and that we should establish a Select Committee and postpone decision. I believe that we should not delay decision.
We have already had three public reports on the use of embryonic stem cells for research. The first was a joint report from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority and the Human Genetics Advisory Commission, based on extensive public consultation. I declare an interest as I was at the time a member of the HGAC. The third was the report from the Chief Medical Officer's committee. In between them there was the report from the Nuffield Council on Bioethics. But--and this is ultimately more important--we have also had unprecedented levels of public discussion. I am enormously impressed by the energy and concentration brought to bear by thousands of sufferers from degenerative diseases, their families and carers, their support groups and the medical research charities. We cannot regard this as a topic that has been sprung on the public when so many people for whom the concentration that is needed for these topics is a difficult matter have concentrated, have fought and have spoken.
There are many situations in which delay is a good idea, is the path of wisdom and has no costs. The morally responsible course is then to delay. But I do not believe that this is one of them. Paradoxically, small numbers are sometimes more impressive than large ones. I shall illustrate. Every day 27 more people are diagnosed as suffering from Parkinson's. Some of them are young. If one multiplies that number by a year and multiplies it for other degenerative diseases, one sees the true magnitude of the problem. Every day lives grow worse. If research is postponed, the fruits of research will be postponed, and it will be too late for many. Delay has moral costs in this case.
I have benefited over recent months from conversations with many sufferers. They are not naive; they know that research is not instantaneous and that it is not guaranteed to deliver results in time for them. Through their organisations, and with great personal effort, they are asking for the research to begin now, whether it benefits them or future sufferers.
It would be nice to think that there is an alternative. We have had a great deal of discussion about the possibility of research on adult stem cells. There are clearly diseases for which research on adult stem cells is full of hope and importance and should go on. But we have also had a great deal of evidence--there is a great deal of evidence in the relevant reports--that that is not generally the case. We cannot assume that because in some cases adult stem cells and research on them may be a better prospect, that will be the case across the board. In fact, there is very good evidence that it is not the case. However, we do not need to worry that if we accept the proposed change in the regulations research on embryonic stem cells will go ahead when the same results could have been achieved by research on adult stem cells.
I say that for the straightforward reason that the 1990 Act forbids the HFEA from issuing a research licence forresearch on human embryos when research can be done without using human embryos. It follows that if it is the case that adult stem cell research can deliver what is needed, there will be no human embryonic stem cell research. That is a strong safeguard against the possibility of unnecessary use of human embryos.
Lord Ahmed (Labour)
My Lords, I had prepared a long speech for the debate. However, your Lordships have already heard many speeches tonight and just as many noble Lords wish to speak later, so I shall be extremely brief.
I should like to make only three brief points. I speak as a diabetic who is desperate for a cure for my illness, but I am forced to oppose these regulations today on the basis of moral, ethical and spiritual values. Although my noble friend the Minister has given assurances that human reproductive cloning will not be allowed, I am not convinced. As a Muslim, I feel that this is a violation of human life and could lead to "designer" babies. No scientist should be given permission to play God. There is only one creator of life, and that is God Almighty.
As has been mentioned already, I understand that there are alternatives to using human embryos for therapeutic use--adult stem cells, for example. In any issue as important as this, there has to be a proper debate and a proper examination of the issues and the concerns that many members of the public and noble Lords have expressed. I believe that these regulations should not be rushed through at a nod. That is why I shall be supporting the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Alton.
I have received many letters from individuals and religious groups actively opposing these proposals. Therefore, I should like to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they would be prepared to withdraw these regulations today until a Select Committee has properly investigated the consequences of therapeutic cloning; otherwise I shall be forced to vote against the regulations.
Baroness Hooper (Conservative)
My Lords, at this stage of a debate--even one as important as this--most of the arguments have been made. Indeed, they have been made more eloquently and persuasively than I could hope to do. I put down my name to speak in the debate because in 1990, when the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill was before your Lordships' House, I was the health Minister who stood in the place now occupied by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath. I was, of course, not alone. My noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern, then the Lord Chancellor, led the arguments on the ethical issues.
The reason that that Bill became an Act and proceeded with comparative smoothness was in part due to my noble and learned friend's clear methods of dealing with the ethical issues. But also, from the date that the Warnock report was published to the production of the draft legislation that we considered, there had been an enormous amount of consideration and consultation; in other words, the process had not been rushed. Although there were arguments on both sides put very forcefully, it was generally agreed that the debate had been adequate. It is an example that I have frequently quoted in terms of getting legislation right. The argument applies just as much to secondary legislation as it does to primary legislation.
As others have said, we are in the hands of the experts and the scientists. The problem for a lay person is that there is no total consensus among the experts and scientists. I support very much the words of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans in his plea for more time to seek the wisdom to make the right decision.
Like others, I, too, have received many very sad and appealing letters on this subject. What worries me about those who write as sufferers from some of the diseases for which cures are being sought by this research is that their expectations may have been raised too high. On reading some of the opinions of the experts and the scientists, it seems to me that there is no guarantee of an instant, or even short-term, solution to the problems of these sufferers. Therefore, it seems reasonable to me to allow a little more time.
The international aspect of this issue was referred to in opening by the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool--indeed, it has been mentioned by others--and I feel that as it has been adequately covered, there is no need for me to go into detail. I believe that the Council of Europe's convention for the protection of the human rights and dignity of the human being and the European Parliament's resolutions should be taken fully into account in our consideration of this issue.
It is for those reasons that I support the amendment brought forward by the noble Lord, Lord Alton.
Lord Turnberg (Labour)
My Lords, I, too, shall attempt to curtail what I might have said, having heard so many eloquent speeches today.
In speaking against the amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, I should perhaps express my interests. First, I have spent much of my life as an active physician, faced, day to day, with patients suffering from chronic diseases which might be cured, possibly, by the fruits of this research. Perhaps more relevantly, I act as scientific adviser to the Association of Medical Research Charities. In that role, I hear first hand from many of our 100 or so medical research charities, the members and supporters of which are intensely interested in research which could alleviate the conditions which so many suffer, from diabetes to Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's to heart attacks, strokes to spinal cord injuries.
One could say that these charities have a vested interest--after all, they have been set up largely to support patients and their carers and to make every effort to search for cures for their suffering--but this is not a small minority of the population about which we are talking. We have heard mention of thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands. In fact, when you add them all up, millions of people suffer from these diseases for which the charities have some concern.
I know that no one anywhere, let alone in your Lordships' House, argues against the need for research which has the potential to help these unfortunate patients. But the arguments here, as we have heard, rest not simply on the potential benefits but on the balance between those benefits and the anxieties expressed about the use of human embryos to achieve them.
Two kinds of disquiet seem to have been expressed. The first disquiet--which I fully respect--is that of those who feel strongly, for religious or moral convictions, that research with human embryos, at any stage, is morally wrong under any circumstance. I respect their views, but I cannot accept that black and white position for reasons that I will explain in a moment or two.
The other anxiety, which many of your Lordships have expressed, is the fear that the proposals being made will open Pandora's box and lead inevitably down the slippery slope to all kinds of repugnant outcomes; and, furthermore, that it is all being rushed through without adequate debate and discussion.
I believe that those fears are unfounded for several reasons. First, the idea that the natural progression of this research will lead to cloning of human beings is difficult to sustain because currently a licence to do so would not be granted by the HFEA; it would be a criminal act likely to lead to imprisonment and, furthermore, as we have heard, the Government are intent on putting this crime into primary legislation. The idea that some aberrant scientist in a basement laboratory or some multi-national industry would be able to take this on secretly outside the law seems intrinsically unlikely. If there were such people around intent on such villainy, they would not be waiting for your Lordships to decide whether to pass this legislation--they would be doing it now.
The fact that no one is doing such research now--nor would do in the future--is because research with human embryos is so circumscribed and regulated. The number of in vitro fertilisation laboratories in the UK that are capable of this type of stem cell research is unlikely to be more than five or six. The work requires teams of doctors, scientists and technicians, as well as consenting women and men to donate eggs and sperm. It is not the kind of thing that can be done in secret. Furthermore, it is not in anyone's interest to carry out such activity in secret.
The question of whether adult stem cells could be used instead is clearly an important one. If stem cells derived from adults could be used, it would offer enormous advantages. It is an approach that is attracting a great deal of interest from scientists around the world. Others have spoken at length about the relative advantages of adult and embryonic stem cells and I shall avoid repeating those arguments. However, I should like to make the point that these are not mutually exclusive types of research; they are complementary. Embryonic stem cell research is an essential part of the wider stem cell research programme. It is clear, despite reports to the contrary, that adult stem cell research alone is a long way off from the holy grail.
Finally, I should like to say a few words about the question of whether adequate time has been allowed for full debate of the issues. First, it has been 10 years since the HFE Act was passed which allowed research on human embryos. Then, two years ago, the HGAC and the HFEA published the results of their public consultation exercise on cloning. Over 1,000 bodies and individuals were approached directly by those groups and the questionnaire was sent out on their websites. They received a large number of responses from across a broad spectrum of people, and their measured resume was based on a thorough analysis of the responses and on their own views.
It is worth remembering that the membership of the HFEA included three lawyers, three broadcasters, a bishop, a professor of theology and a psychologist. I am not sure why the psychologist was there--probably for the members! The authority was not, and is not, loaded with scientists; and it is chaired by Ruth Deech, who commands such respect.
Then, last summer, the Donaldson report was published. That committee also sought views widely in formulating its report. It received over 1,000 responses to its consultation. Again, I remind the House, that it had among its membership a lawyer, an ethicist and a reverend gentleman. The Wellcome Trust commissioned a public consultation exercise; the Nuffield Council on Bioethics has produced some considered views; and, finally, the wide press coverage given to the Donaldson report was generally very supportive. It is difficult to know what further information or facts could emerge from yet another committee, even one as distinguished as a Select Committee of this House is likely to be.
Meanwhile, the patients who are suffering--the 27 new cases of Parkinson's disease diagnosed every day, the diabetics, the stroke patients and those with spinal cord injuries--are simply waiting for help. They know as much as anyone that there are no quick fixes and that the results of research done today may take years to produce practical benefits for them or for those who come after them. No one is under any illusion about that. But they feel that a delay of a year or two is intolerable. I heard a patient with cystic fibrosis say recently that what research with this type of future potential gave him was hope, and hope now. I am sure that your Lordships would not wish to deny him that hope, and that you will agree to the amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Walton, which would at least allow that precious time to be saved.
Lord Dahrendorf (Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, like other noble Lords, I come to this debate with deeply held convictions, but above all troubled and uncertain about the mix of science, ethics and politics involved in the decision that is before us. It is that mix, rather than the need for any specific information, which leads me to support quite strongly the setting up of a Select Committee. I belong to those who are basically in favour of trying every avenue of research which promises results that might help to improve the human condition. More than that, I believe that the presumption should always be in favour of promoting, rather than curbing, human inquiry.
At the same time, two issues give me pause. If and when research gives rise to grave doubts, because it involves pain--including pain to animals--or raises major ethical questions, I want to be sure that it is unavoidable for the declared purpose and that it is beyond the wits of scientists to devise alternative methods of reaching the same end. Secondly, if and when research might violate the most fundamental value of the dignity and integrity of human beings, I draw a line which should not be crossed.
That said, I am still not certain about the ramifications of the statutory instrument before us. On the substance of cell nuclear replacement research, there remains a question mark over the availability of viable alternative methods to therapeutic cloning of embryos.
On the ethical issues, there is still uncertainty about how the boundary between research into genetic disabilities and the use of human beings as commodities can be unambiguously drawn.
On the political aspects, there are not just the constitutional questions raised by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, but also the questions about what will happen if we do not go along the route that is proposed, and how we can make sure that public trust in science and its necessary framework of rules can be maintained.
None of the earlier reports deals with all three aspects--notably not the Donaldson report, despite the fact that it had, as the Minister put it in his letter to us, some "ethicists" on it. I hope that I shall not be regarded as presumptuous if I say that this House is uniquely placed to deal with all dimensions of the question.
As I listened to the debate earlier, this kind of reasoning led me to believe that the amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, was the answer. Now that it is clear that there will be a Select Committee, the option is a retrospective or a prospective one--and thus, one of time and of the commitment of government. Apropos time, this is in part an issue because the Government have chosen this particular instrument--the statutory instrument--which, if not affirmed, will fall. I share the view of those who regret that choice.
More importantly, we should try to avoid introducing the suffering of humans as an argument in this debate. Those who vote for the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, will no more cast into gloom patients with degenerative disorders than those who vote for the Minister's Motion will mysteriously and instantaneously heal the sick.
I am more worried than the noble Lord, Lord Turnberg, about premature promises. Some scientists have become like politicians; they are spinning their wares before they actually exist. It seems to me to be quite important that no false promises should be made about the success of research and, indeed, of the development process that follows--and thus the application in medication. It will take a long time. Therefore, setting back a particular research strategy by a limited number of months will not make much difference.
At this point in the debate when I know that I have to make up my mind on the issue, I find myself in much the same position as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford. Which way we come down will depend as much on whether we trust the assurances of government, as on anything else. The "Walton Select Committee" may be acceptable if it is established soon; if it is given the kind of remit at which I have hinted, together with a clear timetable; and if it is quite clearly understood that the findings of the committee will be fed into the process of decision making, including the possibility that there will have to be a revision of the regulations that may or may not be voted in the affirmative this evening. I shall listen carefully to the remainder of the debate, but, like the right reverend Prelate, I am right on the fence at this particular moment.
Lord Tombs (Crossbench)
My Lords, today's debate is partly about a conflict between science and ethics, which is compounded by differences in language and values between the protagonists, as well as by the fact that there are dissenters in both camps. The draft regulations before us come down firmly on the side of the scientists, as does the amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Walton of Detchant, which seeks to open the stable door before considering the desirability of doing so.
On the scientific side there is some playing with words--or "spin" in the current jargon. Phrases such as "cell nuclear replacement", or "therapeutic cloning", cannot disguise the fact that we are really discussing regulations that would permit human cloning, in the manner of Dolly the sheep. That difficult technique would be further developed, but the final step to reproduction by implantation in the womb would be forbidden. Just how such a prohibition could be effectively enforced is not clear to me, and the ethical considerations trouble many.
I much regret that some of the scientific protagonists have made claims for early therapeutic benefits of human embryonic research which are at best speculative and, even if successful, would require some decades to come to fruition. In doing so, they have sought to enlist the support of caring people for the humanitarian promise of their proposals. Some of your Lordships--perhaps all--will have received a letter from COED (the Campaign Opposing Exploitation of the Disabled), which I found a moving, dignified and thought-provoking rebuttal of many of those claims.
The letter addressed to your Lordships from 11 religious leaders in this country raises further ethical doubts and pleads for careful examination of the issues involved by a Select Committee of your Lordships' House. This, together with the different attitudes of other European nations, must be taken very seriously.
As a number of speakers have said, science is moving very rapidly and the versatility of adult stem cells offers promise that would not have been predicted a year ago. Further progress in this field, together with work on mouse embryos, could obviate the need for the human cloning route.
Like all caring people, I want to see the benefits of stem cell technology developed as quickly as possible to relieve the suffering of many with a wide range of presently incurable conditions, or at least to give them hope. The prospect is real; the means are available. But the crucial questions are: first, whether human embryonic research is essential to that end--and, secondly, whether such a course could be ethically acceptable.
These are weighty considerations, which have not been properly addressed. Their resolution is of great importance not only to those afflicted people anxious for deliverance, but also to the questions of human dignity and morals which distinguish man from the animal kingdom and which lie at the very heart of society. I cannot see how it could be responsible to approve these regulations without careful consideration of those issues.
With some experience of Select Committees of this House, I have confidence in their ability to examine such complex topics in a thorough and balanced way. It is indeed a pity that the need for such an examination is only now being addressed, but the need is surely undeniable before the merits of the proposed regulation can be judged. For those reasons, I shall support the amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Alton.
The Earl of Longford (Labour)
My Lords, like the previous speaker, who addressed the House most ably, I shall support the amendment. I would be inclined to support any amendment moved on this subject by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, because I regard him as the future hope of Christianity in this House. However, putting aside that personal bias, like other noble Lords I have to try to make up my own mind. When we say that we have to make up our own minds, surely most of us feel the need for some kind of guidance. Most of us, although this is not true of everyone, do not regard ourselves as expert in such matters. Therefore, we look for some guidance while trying to reach the ultimate decision on how to cast our vote.
Many people here--and, indeed, elsewhere--will look to medical science to provide the ultimate guidance. In the end, they will say that whatever is right for medical research must be right for all of us. I do not agree with that conclusion. Some things are impermissible. That seems to be the view of the Government, of which I always remain a loyal and obsequious supporter. As I say, some people cannot believe that medical science could ever be mistaken. I do not agree; I believe that it can be. It can do things which are cruel and which can interfere with the sacredness of human life. The Government seem to take that view up to a point, because they have ruled out the cloning of human beings.
So where do I look for my own guidance? Those who know that I am a Roman Catholic will think that I automatically follow the teaching of the nearest priest. That is not quite true, although there is an element of truth there. I was a University of Oxford don before I became a Catholic and after I was a Catholic. I have never ceased to aim for what I like to think is an academic outlook--the search for the truth. But, when all is said and done, I draw great inspiration from my Church. If I may say so--and this is slight irrelevant--I cannot help saying how delighted I am that the head of my Church in this country, Archbishop Murphy-O'Connor, has become a cardinal. No one ever deserved it more! As I said, that is slightly irrelevant to today's topic.
However, it is not only the Catholic Church whose guidance I am following in this respect. The Churches of the world have come together in a most extraordinary way--that is, not only the Christian Churches but also many other Churches and religious bodies are all lined up in the same way. I cannot think of anything like it ever happening in my lifetime. So many religious bodies, each starting from different premises, have reached the same conclusion in this respect. I find it almost impossible to disagree, though I have disagreed with my own Church; for example, I did so continually through the debate about women priests. I am not just a slave of my Church, or even of religious bodies. Nevertheless, in the last resort, I would find it unbelievable that all these Churches could have got it wrong and the scientists had got it right. No, I am afraid that I shall not swallow that argument.
I have two further points to make. No one can fail to be moved by the appeal from one gentleman--I can think of a number of them--about Parkinson's disease. Of course, one would want to do anything in the world if one could, provided that it was morally legitimate, to help him. I shall leave others to discuss whether the suggestions embodied in the Government's plan are necessary. But, leaving that aside, whatever help can be given, there are limits to what is permissible. As some poet once wrote:
"I trod the road to Hell
But there were things I could have sold and did not sell". That may apply to the matter we are discussing. There are some impermissible steps as regards helping human sufferers.
The sacredness of human life does not always provide a simple answer. I refer to the case of the two twins, one of whom had to die to enable the other to live. I am not sure what line my Church took on that matter but I rather think that I disagreed with the official line that was taken.
Dilemmas will arise but I do not find one here. I find it easy to go along as a foot soldier in the Christian army led by great religious leaders, including my own Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor.
Lord Rix (Crossbench)
My Lords, it is impossible to spend most of a lifetime working with and for people with disabilities without having views on this issue. Those like myself who have views but do not have scientific expertise harbour the perhaps unrealistic hope that science will enable us to do good to people without undermining their dignity or the dignity of humanity in general and without falling foul of major ethical dilemmas.
To take a specific example, those who are parents of a son or daughter with Down's Syndrome, as I am, may well not want to see Down's Syndrome eliminated. But I guess that most of us would be very pleased if our children could be spared heart defects which make them breathless on the least exertion and spared the early onset of dementia just when new doors seemed to be opening for them.
Again as a non-scientist, I would be happier if the raw material for doing good to a human being were the product of a totally acceptable natural process and did not involve the action which gives rise to the emotive term "therapeutic cloning". But I am not saying "Leave it to nature". Had we been left to nature, most of us would be dead: certainly I would. While death may in its own way be a good thing, I, for one, am very much in favour of what medical science has done in co-operation with nature to help us live longer and live healthier. At the frontiers of science it is good that we pause and think carefully before we press forward. The dilemma--I do not pretend to be able to resolve it--is that if we do not do what we can to relieve the pain of, for example, dementia, we devalue those who suffer the disorder and perhaps suffer unnecessarily. But if we are too cavalier in how we seek to secure relief, we may devalue life itself.
Despite my reservations, I fear that I shall be unable to support the amendment of my noble friend Lord Alton of Liverpool. Why is that? I have a daughter for whom the ageing process came depressingly early, including the loss of her sight; two dear friends who have Parkinson's Disease; yet a third with all the concomitant disabilities associated with diabetes and a fourth with inoperable familial cancer. Research may be too late for all these good folk but for millions of mankind yet to come I shall support my noble friend Lord Walton of Detchant, whose amendment seems to encompass both progress and regulation. If I may echo my noble friend Lord Patel and other noble Lords, delay is simply not an option.
Lord MacKenzie of Culkein (Labour)
My Lords, I speak in favour of giving approval to the regulations, to support the amendment standing in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Walton of Detchant, and to oppose the amendment standing in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool.
I do not come to the debate with any of the great scientific, medical or perhaps philosophical expertise of so many noble Lords who have spoken or will speak today. Such knowledge as I have in these matters is derived from my days in nursing practice as well as the interest of any concerned citizen in medical advance and research.
One cannot separate medical research from ethical issues any more than one can separate the practice of medicine or nursing from ethics. So I say straight away that I fully appreciate and understand the worries of many who are concerned about the pushing out of scientific boundaries in stem cell research, particularly where the use of embryos is concerned. I understand why it is argued from an ethical standpoint that research should be confined solely to the use of the adult stem cell. I understand that but I have given the matter most careful consideration and I cannot agree with it.
I recall two memories from a long time ago which help me in making up my mind on how to vote this evening. First, like most people of the world, as a young man I was fascinated by the work of the pioneering transplant surgeons, perhaps in particular that of the South African surgeon, Dr Christiaan Barnard. Most of us will remember the publicity--indeed, the furore--that surrounded the first cardiac transplants. But that research and eventual surgery were not universally applauded. Understandably in such a groundbreaking area there was a great deal of uneasiness. Of course there was a valid ethical issue to be discussed. For some, including one or two ministers of religion of my acquaintance, the concept of putting the heart of a deceased person into a living human being was contrary to the will of God. There was a tabloid view, as it were, that Professor Barnard was a charlatan and that he and other pioneers were doing the work of the Devil. Only a few would hold that view today. Cardiac transplantation is relatively commonplace and not too technically difficult although, as we know, it is expensive. The transplantation of other organs and tissues is similarly almost routine.
But there are never enough organs and tissues available to meet the needs of the population. For that reason, and for the many other diseases where organ transplantation is not, and never can be, a solution, we need to look to a new agenda. It is necessary to do that because most specialised cells in the human body cannot be replicated or repaired if diseased or traumatised. It is clear that research in the past decade has at least opened a window of opportunity which may allow at some time in the future the treatment of a range of genetic diseases as well as, possibly, of certain traumas and cancers.
The second matter from my younger days upon which I draw this evening does not arise from my work as a nurse specialising in operating theatres or trauma intensive care. While I never practised in the field after qualification, I also trained as a psychiatric nurse. It was during that period that I nursed patients who had Huntingdon's Disease, a particularly nasty single gene disease.
Most of us come across something in life's experiences that leaves an indelible impression. Few things have seared my memory as much--I try not to overstate this, but I think that it is right to mention it--as the sheer unremitting horror of the physical and mental deterioration of patients with Huntingdon's syndrome. If that is the effect on a nurse who has come across most illnesses and injuries affecting perhaps every age group, what is the effect on the patient with Huntingdon's, on their loved ones and on their friends?
So I cannot readily recall these images tonight on the one hand and not go into the Lobby in support of research which may give prospects for the treatment of many of these genetic disorders, even if that prospect may be some distance away.
Given the large number of voluntarily donated embryos already unused in research, the safeguards in this country against mischief in the laboratory and the absolute promise of primary legislation to reinforce the criminality of any attempt to implant a cloned embryo into a uterus, there is no way that I can regard it as unethical to extend the parameters of research as set out in the draft regulations.
How can it be right to use embryos for research into better contraception but to deny research using embryos into Huntington's and other genetic diseases? If today we do not support the regulations, or vote for delay, we shall put scientific and medical advance into the metaphoric long grass where proper respect for the embryo--that embryo being a blastocyst before the development of any neural tissue--is held to be on a higher ethical plane than proper, authorised regulated research into the possibilities of treatment which may alleviate huge suffering for present and future human beings, their families and their carers.
The Duke of Montrose (Conservative)
My Lords, it is a daunting prospect to seek to add to the arguments heard today. I speak as someone who operates very much at the blunt end of propagation and procreation after 40 years as a livestock farmer. We have heard from a number of noble Lords who work at the sharp end--no one more so than the noble Lord, Lord MacKenzie of Culkein--attending the sick, isolating genes, dissecting embryos and unravelling the science that underlies the issue.
We have all received many learned briefing papers. Men who are experts at seeing and understanding scientific proof are asked to put aside their normal caution and speculate as to where their science will take us. We need these men to speculate. However, all too recently we have seen the difficulty we present to them when we ask for an opinion that goes beyond current scientific knowledge. This is where my worry begins.
I refer to the statements made in the early days of the BSE outbreak. The statements were coloured by what everyone, but in particular those involved, wished to be the outcome. The effect on the public's perception of science and scientific opinions was put clearly by the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock. Once again we are moving into the realm of scientific prediction and one cannot help noticing the frequency of phrases such as "scientist believe that", or "we expect that" the other thing will happen.
I listened with great interest to the explanation of the thinking behind the proposed legislation given by the Government Chief Medical Officer last Thursday. Perhaps I gained some inkling of the anticipation of scientists involved in this work. It appeared that under the present legislation they can already isolate embryonic stem cells from a pre-14 day embryo, multiply them in the laboratory and keep them for many months as isolated stem cells. They can even obtain them from abroad. But at present they can apply them only to research in the limited categories licensed under the Act.
If there are cases where scientists have gone beyond this boundary, as seemed to be suggested when referring to Parkinson's Disease in The Times today, that would surely be important evidence for the Minister to put before us both to give us an idea of the effectiveness of the enforcement of the current legislation and a clear picture of how far down the road of effective cures we have reached.
Many tales of experiment and potential are being bandied about. In an effort to find the surest way of treating numerous horrifying diseases two routes seem to have opened up. They were explained in vivid detail by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby. One route is using embryo stem cells to develop repairing tissues. The cells are readily available. But it seems that officially no one knows whether the science required--to make them compatible with the patient or to programme them to produce only the tissue that would be appropriate in the case for which they are being used--might impair their ability to reproduce at the speed necessary for them to be effective. The other route is the use of adult stem cells. The problem is how to extract them successfully. Unless we know that one of those routes is currently effective, it must come into the realm of the bookmaker's art to guess which will produce the earliest results.
I have listened with respect to those noble Lords who participated in the drafting of the 1990 Act. The aspect that interests me is that a line was drawn limiting scientific research on embryos to areas specifically to do with procreation. We are left to tease out the import of the phrase from the Warnock Committee's report that,
"an embryo has a special status and is deserving of respect".
At that time the cells were described as a pre-embryo. If that meant that the subject was less than a being and that the limits for research laid down in that legislation were acceptable only because of that status, why was the legislative framework not phrased to include all types of research? If scientists are merely being asked to investigate a cell structure, it does not matter too much what they do with it: they have investigated and dissected numerous cell structures. However, these strict limits were set as though this type of research required special consideration.
It seems strange that as we push at the frontiers of this science, all we are asked to do is to pass a vote on a statutory instrument. It is an area that required a great deal of careful thought when the Act was drawn up. It would seem worthy of further thought in the light of where we find ourselves today.
The puzzle for me is that the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Walton, can call only for the setting up of a committee by the Government and (if I understood the phraseology of the Minister) it does not seem possible for the Government to give that commitment at this time. For that reason I support the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Alton.
Lord Brennan (Labour)
My Lords, the recent history of genetic science and biotechnology is truly astounding. An American author has said of this history that it puts us on the brink of the eighth day of creation. For those present who treat stem cell research as a means to cure terrible illness such a description is apposite. To those who find through religious and ethical belief that this is a step too far, it is also apposite. However, the debate illustrates the vitally important stage we are at in the history of biotechnology.
The noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, was entirely right: the public will treat this as a huge moral step. In debating whether that step should be taken now everyone involved in the debate must acknowledge the important, vital medical need to cure serious illness. Equally, we should surely acknowledge that we are here debating the very form of human beings. What will we become with this technology? I must say that as a very young parliamentarian of this House I was taken aback to find that matters of such immense moment would be dealt with by such a slight legislative vehicle as an amendment to a statutory instrument. But so be it.
If that is the vehicle, I ask four questions about embryonic stem cell research. First, does the science require or justify immediate legislative action? Secondly, how will we control the technology that might subsequently be created? Thirdly, is there a clear legal framework within which this science can be shown to be lawful and over which control can be exercised? Lastly, and not the least important, while we debate the nature of humankind in this era of biotechnology, those outside will expect us to reflect their concerns, not just ours.
I shall deal with those four questions in turn. I have five points to make about science. First, there is no imminent cure for any serious illness likely to arise from embryonic stem cell research. In the words of the Donaldson report, such work will require,
"many years of basic research",
and before any use of stem cell research can be made,
"fundamental problems will need to be resolved".
Those suffering from serious illness, many of whom have written to us before the debate, are understandably concerned. They are enthusiastic for immediate action and deserve our sympathy, but in view of the conclusions of the Donaldson report, such action is neither justified nor necessary. In my humble view, it would be wrong--I underline that word--for the House, by this debate, to lead such people to think that a cure was imminent, either as to its nature or as to its timing.
Secondly, the Helsinki declaration of 1964 set out the principles on which scientists and doctors should conduct medical research. One critical principle is that the purpose of the research should be to have a fruitful result for the good of society not procurable by any other means. Research is not at large. The question arises: are there other means? Adult stem cell research is an alternative, not only in the science of cell development but in its use. Adult cells have been used in many recent treatments, much of the commentary post-dating Donaldson. I am ready to be guided by science and medicine, but not directed by them. There is a reasoned balance to be assessed between this form of research and the other.
Thirdly, again referring to the Helsinki declaration, the essential means by which the safety of medical products should be determined is through animal experiment. What is the state of animal experiment in embryonic stem cell research? What is the result of the research on animals as to tissue rejection, the effect on the immune system, the tumorigenic possibilities or even the basic question of controlling the proliferation of the cells? We need to know what the science is before we turn to the investigation of human embryonic stem cells.
I have two further points about science, one of which has not yet been mentioned. Oocyte nucleus transfer, which is mentioned in Donaldson, may result in treatment of mitochondrial disease through the control of the genetic system involving DNA. That modification would be passed on to the next generation. That has not been mentioned so far in the debate, but it amounts to the genetic alteration of our species. I have chosen those words carefully.
My other point about science, which has already been mentioned, is the concern about whether we are talking about therapeutic cloning alone and treating reproductive cloning as something different. We are, but the science that produces each starts the same way. It is not without significance that last summer in the Independent a range of eminent scientists, including some noble contributors to this debate, when asked what would happen if such science came in, mostly said that it would lead to debate about the introduction of reproductive cloning. That comes from scientists.
In conclusion on science, before I quickly turn to technology and the law, surely it is reasonable to say that the science is not clear. It may persuade but it does not convince that the legislation must be passed now.
My second topic is technology, which has been ignored so far in the debate. Paragraph 3.20 of the Donaldson report says:
"The 1990 Act would not apply to subsequent research projects using cultured stem cells originally extracted from an embryo".
Who is to control the technology using stem cell research? The medical-political complex is enormous, with the pharmaceutical manufacturers, the medical profession, the Government and the consumers all vying to know what to do next. The variety and soaring cost of high-tech medicine excites--I use that word deliberately--insatiable public demand. If the doctors say it, it must be done. Are we to permit research to begin without considering the social use to which it will be put if it proves successful? Who is to own the patent? Are we to devote the product of human beings to the control of a large pharmaceutical company? Those questions deserve an answer. If we open a door to such research, let us consider the path down which it will lead us. Society expects that if the research succeeds, society will feel the benefit.
My third point relates to the law. There is an established convention that the Government do not reveal the legal advice on which they rely. Such discretion is understandable on this occasion. It would take a lawyer with the utmost confidence in the quality of his opinions to ignore the legal problems. Is it clear under the 1990 Act that cell nuclear replacement and oocyte nucleus transfer are within the regulatory control? The noble Lord, Lord Rawlinson, touched on that briefly. The Act presupposes embryonic activity as part of fertilisation. Cell nuclear replacement and oocyte nucleus transfer are not part of a fertilisation process. That is the very point which the court will consider on Friday next. If people do not conduct themselves properly within the framework of this Act, how is the research properly to be regulated as tightly as the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, expects?
Secondly, by Article 18.2, the European Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine expressly prohibits the creation of human embryos for research purposes. Article 13 prohibits research using as an objective the modification of the human genome in descendants. Surely we cannot allow that state of legal confusion within our law--and, without it, in Europe--to be left unresolved if we pass this legislation.
Lastly, I turn to the question of public trust in this legislation. That very same convention on human rights and biomedicine--there are such concepts; it is about people--states in Article 28 under the major rubric, "Public Debate":
"Parties to this convention shall see to it that the fundamental questions raised by our developments of biology and medicine are the subject of appropriate public discussion in the light, in particular, of relevant"--
"medical, social, economic, ethical and legal implications, and that their possible application is made the subject of appropriate consultation".
I am afraid that I cannot agree with the noble Baroness, Lady O'Neill, that exhaustive public consideration has been given to this subject. The noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, was right: it has not. Donaldson is the beginning, not the end, of the debate. As we sit here listening to informed scientists, lawyers, doctors and politicians speak, how can we conclude conscientiously that this debate is the end of the matter?
I conclude by making a declaration of interest. I am a practising Roman Catholic and I have strong beliefs about embryonic research. That does not deprive me of the capacity of intellectual analysis. So far, I have sought without reference to religion or ethics to answer the question: is this legislation necessary now? Science is unclear; the technology and its control unknown; the law is indefinite; and the public have yet to be informed. Policy and legislation made with inadequate consideration and undue haste become either poor policy or flawed legislation. Let this not be the occasion for that. I support the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and commend it to your Lordships' House.
Baroness Greengross (Crossbench)
My Lords, I shall speak very briefly, not as a scientist but as someone who has been involved for some time in some aspects at least of these issues. I speak also as someone who has attended several working meetings, workshops, conferences, and so on, on these issues, including one organised recently by the OECD in Japan which considered the global implications of this research, both on policy and on practice.
Together with many other noble Lords--perhaps most of us--as an individual I have known many people who have suffered from terrible degenerative diseases. Many such diseases have been mentioned: Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, and diabetes, which, through pursuing its relentless progress, often brings with it terrible complications. However, perhaps more importantly for today's debate, through my work over the past 25 years I have come to know many more people who either suffer themselves or care for people who suffer from the tragic progress, development and consequences of such afflictions. As the noble Lord, Lord Turnberg, mentioned, I also learned earlier today that in this country every day 27 people are diagnosed as suffering from Parkinson's Disease alone.
Contrary to much that has been suggested, a great deal of careful consideration--perhaps not as exhaustive as it will be in the future, as the noble Lord, Lord Brennan, suggested--has been given to these issues not only by the scientific community but also by ethicists, lawyers and others with highly relevant experience, knowledge and, perhaps I may also suggest, wisdom. I, too, believe in the importance and dignity of human life. But we must also take into consideration that out there millions of people--human beings--depend on us today not to take away something which is most important to them--that is, their hope for a more dignified, happier and healthier future.
That hope is becoming more realistic now. Dignity is important and it extends to many people who live with the results of horrific accidents, burns and acute illnesses, as well as degenerative diseases. They want to be free from the pain and suffering brought about by the diseases which have attacked them. Their dignity is important, too, and is often hard to retain when in the grip of many of those conditions.
With the greatest respect--I do respect the deeply held views of many in this House--the millions of people out there--many of them elderly with no time to lose--will not forgive us or understand us and, in my view, will be right not to do so if we delay agreement to the regulations, as amended by the noble Lord, Lord Walton of Detchant, which give them hope. Hope is the not the same as false promises--
Baroness Blatch (Conservative)
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for giving way. She may not have been in receipt of a letter from people who suffer from many of the diseases which she mentioned. In their letter they say that they are,
"disabled or have a degenerative disease. We object strongly to the propaganda that is being used to claim that virtually our only hope of cures lies in the use of human embryonic stem cells. This, of course, is not only totally untrue, but it is an extremely cruel method of gaining support. It amounts to blackmail--exploitation of the very worst kind--of disabled and sick people, some of whom are in extremely difficult situations".
That was written by people who have Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and many other similar diseases.
Baroness Greengross (Crossbench)
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that intervention. I received that letter--and many more which urged me to vote for progress with regard to the regulations so that the research might go ahead.
I was saying that hope is not the same as false promises. However, these regulations provide the opportunity for research to proceed. I want to stress that the research will proceed in this country only under closely regulated conditions which are unparalleled elsewhere in the world.
At the beginning of the debate, the Minister assured us that research which uses embryonic stem cells will continue only while it is absolutely necessary and only while adult stem cells cannot replace them according to the best evidence that we can obtain. In my view, we have a clear duty to those who suffer. We need to discharge that duty and we need to do so now.
Baroness Ashton of Upholland (Labour)
My Lords, I cannot speak with the eloquence or the knowledge of many noble Lords in this House. My reason for adding my name to the speakers' list lies in my own experience. In my late teens and early twenties I watched my mother die of Parkinson's Disease. It was not a good death. The moment when she and I felt that death was preferable has stayed with me. I know that other noble Lords have had similar experiences, some in more tragic circumstances. I claim nothing from that, other than knowing how the many thousands of families who live with this nightmare and whose faces are turned towards your Lordships' House for some hope are feeling. Listening to the Chief Medical Officer last week, the prospect that the research holds out to families of the future who will be in that position is nothing less than fantastic.
I am grateful to the men and women and scientists and doctors, some of whom are represented in your Lordships' House, who have chosen to devote their incredible talents to the search for cures and treatments for those terrible diseases and illnesses. In a world in which we sometimes value rather bizarre attributes, they are truly among the heroes and heroines of our generation. However, research at any cost would not be acceptable to them or to the sufferers and their families. That is why the scrutiny of the HFEA is so important and to be welcomed. As I understand it, it would licence research into embryos only when other methods were not appropriate. That would include adult stem cell research.
Noble Lords will take differing views about whether there is, in addition, a need for a Select Committee of your Lordships' House. Whatever the view, it is important that the decision to allow the research to go ahead is taken today. No one yet knows if or when the research will bear fruit and whether help could be given, but if we do not start now, treatment--like justice--delayed will be for some treatment denied.
Those noble Lords who have already decided to vote against extending the regulations, or perhaps to vote for a Select Committee and later to vote against them, have already made their choice, and I respect them. I just ask them, please, to be sure.
I hope that those noble Lords who will vote for the regulations will, like me, feel a sense of joy at the prospects for many people, especially children and young people, who may be helped.
I ask those noble Lords who are undecided to vote for the Select Committee but not to delay the provision of help to people for whom the words, "chance of a cure", mean the chance of a life.
The decision on such research lies with us. Those who are suffering can only stand by and watch us decide. When my mother died, I felt helpless. Tonight, I am at least not helpless. I could not save my mum but tonight I can try to help to save someone else's.
Lord Jenkin of Roding (Conservative)
My Lords, when it was first mooted that there should be an extension of the purposes for which the regulations might be used we were debating the 50th anniversary of the National Health Service. The word "cloning" was used, and my antennae immediately started wobbling. I am among those who have been rather appalled at the implications of Dolly the sheep. I find that that view is widely held by the public. Surveys, some of which were recorded in the report of the Select Committee on Science and Technology entitled Science and Society, show that of all the scientific advances in recent years the cloning of Dolly arouses the strongest apprehensions among the people.
When the joint proposals of the HFEA and the HGAC--the advisory commission--finally came forward in December, my reaction was immediately to say, "Look, hold on". As with the Warnock report, I said, "The proposal must be given enough time to allow people to understand what it is about". We have referred to the years that elapsed between the publication of the report by the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, and the introduction of the relevant legislation by the previous government. I took part in that process, as a humble Back-Bencher. In the end, I supported the proposal. I believe that we were right and that the regulatory system has worked well.
However, my immediate reaction to the proposal to extend the provisions to include the new purposes was one of caution. My colleagues on the Science and Technology Committee will remember that when we interviewed the Minister from another place, I made my view perfectly clear. I thought that the Government were absolutely right to have referred the matter for further study. The result, of course, was the Donaldson report. As several noble Lords have said, the intervening time has been used for others to weigh in.
A huge amount of material has been produced during the past 18 months or more. That is not as long as the period associated with the Warnock report. However, a huge amount of material had to be compressed into a shorter time. I thought of bringing my file with me into this debate--I have a very fat file--but I cannibalised it and brought along simply a few of the key documents.. There have been many conferences and a variety of reports.
I notice that the noble Lord, Lord Brennan, is no longer in his place. I found myself more in agreement with the noble Baroness, Lady O'Neill of Bengarve, than with the noble Lord, Lord Brennan, when she suggested that there has been an unprecedented--I believe that that is the word that she used--amount of public discussion on this issue. The correspondence that noble Lords will have received from many sources--during the past few days, an endless stream of e-mails arrived in my inbox--demonstrates that there is a wide appreciation of what is involved. One is impressed by the quality of the material and by the fact that the public have thoroughly understood what it is all about.
The question, therefore, is about whether we should delay. That was suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool. When he and I discussed this matter last week--no secrets will be disclosed--the point was made that the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, was one of those who had joined the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, in suggesting that the matter should be referred to a Select Committee. Debates such as this have the capacity to change minds. I believe that I understood the noble Baroness correctly when she said that she would settle for the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Walton of Detchant. She appeared to suggest that, provided there was a thorough and effective review by a Select Committee of the workings of the regulations, she would support that amendment. To me, that was a very important point because I wondered whether, if the noble Baroness were against doing this without the involvement of a Select Committee beforehand, it was right for me to change my mind. She has greatly reassured me.
We would be wrong to delay the proposal. We have known all along that statutory instruments would be used. When the Minister came before the Select Committee, I asked her about that. There is nothing new in the suggestion. One might feel that the proposal should have had more debate. At one point, there was a suggestion of a general debate but, as we know, time is at a premium.
Where do we go? The noble Lord, Lord Alton, referred briefly in the course of his persuasive speech--although I am not persuaded--to the report, Science and Society. That report was produced by the sub-committee of the Science and Technology Committee which I had the honour to chair. He did not refer to the paragraph over which my colleagues and I perhaps wrestled longer than with any other. That paragraph comes at the end of the substantial passage that we wrote about values. I refer to paragraph 2.65, which states:
"In our view knowledge obtained through scientific investigation does not in itself have a moral dimension; but the ways in which it is pursued, and the applications to which it may be put, inevitably engage with morality. Science is conducted and applied by individuals; as individuals and as a collection of professions, scientists must have morality and values, and must be allowed and indeed expected to apply them to their work and its applications. By declaring openly the values which underpin their work, and by engaging with the values and attitudes of the public, they are far more likely to command public support".
That is absolutely right. I am not totally convinced that it has happened in this context, because people are having to learn new ways.
The report Science and Society has had a considerable influence on the thinking of bodies such as the Royal Society, the British association, the Royal Institution and a number of others. I have been in touch with some of the work that is now going on. The only body that has not yet had an opportunity to debate the report--and I say this to the Government Front Bench--is the House of Lords. I hope that we shall have a debate on that report fairly soon.
There is now a much greater understanding on the part of scientists, not least those engaged in the biological sciences and biotechnology, that the public must be listened to. There must be a dialogue. There must be an exchange of views. In that way, some of the difficulties which have arisen in the past may be avoided. That is the central message of the report.
There is one other message which we had from Professor Worcester who gave evidence about the survey work which had been done. Talking about people's views, he said that they come in three forms. He said that they were perhaps rather too poetical for scholarly adoption but that he defined them as,
"opinions: the ripples on the surface of the public's consciousness, shallow, and easily changed; attitudes: the currents below the surface, deeper and stronger; and values: the deep tides of public mood, slow to change, but powerful".
That applies to individuals as well. Perhaps I may return to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and the question which he asked of the noble Lord, Lord Alton. If there were a Select Committee and the Select Committee then recommended that the regulations should be supported and reintroduced, would the noble Lord support them? He has given the answer once already. I found it rather fuzzy. He may like to have another go. My guess is that he has deep values which will not be changed by further argument and I believe that that is the position of a number of those who have spoken in the debate.
Lord Alton of Liverpool (Crossbench)
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, and I should not wish ever to be accused of being fuzzy on this question. He knows that I believe that we should provide protection for the human embryo. It is as simple as that. But he knows also that currently the status quo is the position which he advocates. Half a million human embryos have been used in research since the 1990 legislation was approved. They have been experimented on and destroyed in the process.
The advances for which the noble Lord has argued have not been made during that period. I have argued today, as have others in this House, that alternatives exist using adult stem cells rather than embryonic stem cells. It is that issue to which a Select Committee would have to apply its mind because as the regulations say, if alternatives exist, the human embryo should not be used. My attempt is to try to change the thinking that currently applies.
Lord Jenkin of Roding (Conservative)
My Lords, I respect entirely the views which the noble Lord holds and which he has expressed. He wants to change people's minds so that human embryos should not be used as they have been over the past 10 years under the 1990 Act. But many of those who support his amendment would not support any of this research at all. For that reason, it is a tactic. It may be a perfectly legitimate tactic, but it is a tactic and it should be recognised as such.
I find that I am greatly reassured by the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Walton of Detchant. That is the right way forward. Therefore, I hope that we shall not accept the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Alton. We should accept the regulations, subject to the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Walton.
Lord Habgood (Crossbench)
My Lords, I should declare a special interest in this debate in view of my responsibility for advising on and monitoring all matters relating to xenotransplantation, of which tissue and cell replacement is, at present, the main focus of interest.
In the light of that experience, I see stem cell technology as offering a very promising alternative. It could eliminate the two major problems inherent in using animal tissues; namely, infection and immunological rejection. Whether it would eventually be possible to grow organs rather than cells and tissues from stem cells is at present an open question for the long-term future. Meanwhile, wearing that particular hat, I welcome these developments although, having seen a little of what goes on at first hand, I must confess a certain scepticism about the optimistic views of what more embryo research may produce.
On the whole, medicine advances by rather ad hoc means, making use of fundamental research but not very often growing directly out of it. Perhaps I may give an example. At present in the United States, one of the most interesting new treatments for Parkinson's Disease has nothing whatever to do with embryo or genetic research or anything like it. It consists of simply sticking pig fetal cells into human brains and watching what happens. The answer is that there is a modest improvement.
But wearing another hat, a moral and theological hat, I am aware, as we are all aware, of very considerable problems. I do not believe that the objections to using embryos for research should outweigh all other considerations, particularly if the research is seen as an interim measure until satisfactory ways have been found to derive stem cells from adult human cells.
I agree with those who say that there is no essentially moral difference between this proposed use and that under the present legislation provided that--and it is an important proviso--the aim of embryo research is to develop techniques which will make the further use of embryos less necessary.
When the Warnock report was being debated, the main aim of the legislation, in my own mind, was the improvement which was suggested in the techniques of in vitro fertilisation. We were debating in a situation in which in vitro fertilisation was already happening. Louise Brown had been born. We were thus presented with a fait accompli and we had to decide how best to monitor and control that.
It seemed to me that there was a moral imperative to improve the techniques which were clearly working but not working very well. It seemed to me then that if one does not believe, as I do not believe, that embryos have full moral status as persons, then the respect that we owe them does not necessitate absolute protection and can be satisfied by a strictly controlled use of them.
As I see it, the particular aim of embryo research should be to learn enough so that the further need for it becomes self-limiting. What I am not happy with is the idea of embarking on a unending research programme, further and further removed from its original moral justification.
I hope that noble Lords will take very seriously the extremely important speech of the noble Lord, Lord Brennan. It seemed to me that he spoke to the heart of the moral issues. In particular I want to take up his phrase about the over-use of embryos, or almost casual use of embryos, that is beginning to change our concept of what it is to be a human person and of what is human life.
I believe that we need to be careful in defining where the limits of embryo research should lie, all the more so because the present fears surrounding it centre mainly on questions about where such research may lead us in the long-term. Therefore, I want to suggest four areas in which such limits should apply.
First, in the Donaldson report it is claimed that all necessary research could be done on spare embryos without the need for embryos to be created specifically for the purpose of research. If we take that at its face value it seems that there would be no harm in stating clearly that that would be so and that embryos should not be created specifically for such research.
Secondly, it seems to me that any further move in the direction of further embryo research should be seen strictly as an interim measure. In the first instance that could be done by setting a time limit of, say, five years. To set such a time limit would help to concentrate attention on the primary objective of using adult rather than embryonic cells.
Thirdly, I must confess that I had not seen the precise regulations suggested by the Government until I came to the House this afternoon. Quite honestly, when I read them I was shocked. They state:
"A licence may be issued for the purposes of--
(a) increasing knowledge about the development of embryos;
(b) increasing knowledge about serious disease; or
(c) enabling any such knowledge to be applied in developing treatments for serious disease".
That could legitimate almost anything. Anything one could think of could come under those headings.
I know that the HFEA is a sensible authority that will not let researchers go too far. However, the members of the HFEA are human and if they are under enormous pressure and there is no statutory backing that allows them to set limits on research, they will find themselves in an increasingly difficult situation. I am afraid that I simply cannot accept those regulations.
Fourthly, two speeches have mentioned the recommendation concerning oocyte nuclear transfer. It seems to me that, although the research may be permissible, the practical consequences of that could be highly contentious. It takes us a long way beyond the present Act. The basis of the present Act is that no embryo that has been subject to genetic manipulation should be allowed to develop beyond 14 days. The transfer of a whole nucleus entails genetic manipulation of the most radical kind, and the research envisaged under that heading must inevitably look forward to the creation of individuals who have been subject to manipulation, thus breaking the 14-day rule. That would be germ-line therapy by the backdoor and I do not believe that it should ever be allowed.
Those are four controversial points. It does not matter whether noble Lords agree with them, but I hope that noble Lords will agree that they require further discussion. I repeat, I welcome the proposals and I do not want to inhibit progress in stem cell research. However, I am convinced that this progress must be carefully and independently monitored and that further restrictions and safeguards of the kind that I have suggested should be built into the whole process.
For that reason I am minded to support the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, sorry though I am to disappoint my noble friend Lord Walton. Only a "W" separates them. In my own mind the "W" has been wobbling backwards and forwards all afternoon. I have to confess that I am mainly convinced that the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, is right by basely political considerations. It seems almost certain that there will be a general election this spring. If we pass these regulations and then have a general election, no matter what a Select Committee may say, who knows that will happen? I prefer belt and braces; I would prefer there to be a postponement, followed by a Select Committee and then a clear decision with proper safeguards built in when we know exactly what we want to do.
Lord Hunt of Chesterton (Labour)
My Lords, the regulations before us permitting stem cell research with embryonic cells concern both the vital public issue of regulation of medical research and deep beliefs about the sanctity of life, religion and the development of science. I am honoured to follow the excellent speeches of other noble Lords that, as always, were very revealing on every possible aspect. They have spoken with great authority. I speak as a physical scientist and as someone whose life was saved by pioneering medical research 50 years ago. I hope that I am sensible of the way in which religious beliefs inspire and comfort people and also guide our ethical principles.
As we have heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, the use of embryos for medical research has been the subject of ethical investigation for more than 20 years, during which time the research has moved forward. The landmark Warnock report of 1984 concluded in paragraph 5:
"that people generally want some principles or other to govern the development and use of the new techniques. There must be some barriers that are not to be crossed, some limits fixed, beyond which people must not be allowed to go. Nor is such a wish for containment a mere whim or fancy. The very existence of morality depends on it. A society which had no inhibiting limits, especially in the areas with which we have been concerned, questions of birth and death, of the setting up of families, and the valuing of human life, would be a society without moral scruples. And this nobody wants".
As the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, reminded the House, the report led to a framework Act and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, an organisation that is well trusted in the UK and admired abroad, as it was in a recent Le Monde editorial. Because of that trusted framework new legislation is not needed but simply agreement to the regulations to proceed with the new research with embryos.
The regulations are supported by the authoritative O'Neill report of the HFEA and a totally open report of the Chief Medical Officer. That report emphasises the potential medical benefits of stem cell research, some of which needs to be done with embryos and some with adult cells. The members of the committee were not only distinguished medical researchers but also those who have considered the wider ethical and social issues. The report was published in June last year. There have been two major debates in the House of Commons and several meetings in and around Westminster with different interest groups well represented. So it is hard to say that there has not been time to hear about the information and to debate the wider implications. I cannot accept such criticism of the process by my noble friend Lord Brennan.
If the delaying amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, is passed, researchers are likely to leave the UK and to continue the work abroad. All scientists know that the application of research, including medical research, is most immediate and effective when it is done alongside the fundamental research. So the expertise in the application of medical research in the UK will therefore be less than in countries where the research is taking place. Is that really the aim of those supporting the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Alton?
The noble Baroness, Lady Williams, said that international regulation might be possible. Having worked with the United Nations system as the UK representative, I understand its limitations as well as its strengths. I believe that neither the World Health Organisation nor any other body will ever be able to control completely so marketable an area as research and treatment. However, there is a chance that some international regulation will be possible if the UK adopts policies which are likely to be a compromise between the total openness of the United States and the rigid position of many, but not all, European countries.
A crucial aspect of the debate has centred on definitions of life and the discrimination between embryonic cells and embryos. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans called the proposals a great step-change, whereas the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, argued that we are discussing incremental steps. If biological research has shown us anything, it has shown us not only that life is marvellously complex but that there are several distinct steps of cell division and differentiation. That is why under the proposed regulations the 14-day rule remains inviolate and that should give us confidence in the administration of the regulations.
In the past, religions have had doubts about the development of science, perhaps because religion comes out of every-day observation as well as the teachings of great leaders. But surely those great teachers inspire us with awe about the world in which we live and fill us with the desire to help the suffering. In the past, there were religious doubts even about life insurance and weather forecasts--that is still the case in some countries--so I can only marvel at the difficulty today for religious leaders to accept and explain these new developments.
I hope that the important common beliefs of all mankind will enable religion and science to understand each other and work together in this great human endeavour. Since urgent action is needed, and since after passing the regulations explanation will be essential from a Select Committee, as proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Walton, and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, said, in popular magazines, I urge your Lordships to support the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Walton.
Baroness O'Cathain (Conservative)
My Lords, human fertilisation and embryology is an unusual subject for me, as I know it is for many participants in the debate. Usually we in this House stick to where our experience and expertise may enable us to make a contribution to debates. But this debate has been notable for the fact that so many of us are deeply concerned because we believe that we have an obligation to understand what we are being asked to do. We have had a huge amount of information, numerous meetings and passionate pleas from many in the world outside this Chamber. But all of this has been only within the past week.
My main concerns are four in number and I shall deal briefly with them in turn. First, has the Donaldson report been overtaken by developments in stem cell research since its publication? The noble Baroness, Lady Williams, dealt with that issue admirably, making the point about the development of adult stem cell research and retro-differentiation, both of which were subsequent to the Donaldson report.
Secondly, is it valid to state, as does the letter from the Department of Health dated 11th January, that embryo stem cell research is perhaps the "only hope" for a cure for sufferers of Parkinson's Disease, diabetes, Alzheimer's, strokes and so forth?
Thirdly, as there is such concern from a moral and ethical viewpoint, is it right that the issue should be dealt with by an affirmative order rather than a statutory Bill?
Fourthly, by pushing the order through are the Government raising false hopes among the current sufferers of degenerative and debilitating conditions that a cure is imminent?
I shall deal with those concerns in turn. My first concern is the Donaldson report. The meetings I have attended all concentrated on the Donaldson report, which is of some 12 months' standing. There have been many developments since then in the area of adult stem technology, which would not require the destruction of the human embryo. Not only that, it appears that the likelihood of success is greater with the use of adult stem technology than is currently being achieved--not in this country, of course--with embryo stem technology.
The confusion about all of this must be solved. The noble Baroness, Lady Northover, quoted a letter in The Times today, in effect stating that adult stem cells cannot be as good as embryonic stem cells. The Daily Telegraph takes the completely opposite view. Who and what are we to believe? We need to know. We need that Select Committee now.
I do not want to put the clock back on any research, but before the Government go headlong into permitting embryo stem cell research and human cloning we should ask the following questions. Why will the US Government not fund such research? Why is the UK the only member of the EU which wishes to permit such research? In view of the long-term nature of such research, why do the Government not want to see a Select Committee established now, to be made up of all the differing views, to allay the fears of a great number of people both in your Lordships' House and in the country at large?
My second concern relates to the letter dated 11th January from the Department of Health. That letter, signed by the Minister, states that the,
"vast majority of scientific opinion supports the Donaldson Committee's continuing view that research using stem cells derived from non-embryonic sources are not an alternative to embryo research".
Judging by the mail I have received both by post and e-mail, there appears to be a great deal of scientific opinion "out there" which would take issue with that statement. Why not give it a chance to air and discuss its views in a Select Committee? The letter signed by the Minister is, uncharacteristically, one-sided and does nothing to calm my unease that the issue could go by default.
My third concern is the decision to have an affirmative order rather than a Bill. I really cannot understand what one might charitably call the "indecent haste" epitomised by the manner in which this legislation is being introduced. Less charitably, it could be described as "railroading". There is genuine concern among many groups of people about this issue. As was said by the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, there is real suspicion about scientists and politicians, which does not help the Government's stance.
In addition, the heads of the major faiths supported in this country are deeply concerned and do not want the regulations to go through today. After church yesterday, a sad priest asked me why the Prime Minister has consistently refused to see the representatives of the major faiths on this moral, ethical and religious issue. Opponents of the proposals have been dismissed as irrelevant if they are Christians--or even more specifically Roman Catholics. That gives the impression, I hope misleading, of deep hostility towards faith communities even when they include eminent scientists.
This Government have always claimed to be in favour of multiculturalism. For the first time, leaders of all faiths joined together to appeal to the Prime Minister, but on four separate occasions he refused to see them. Does the Prime Minister not realise that there are genuine fears that the cloning of embryos will result in the production of babies to parents' specification and the discarding of those which do not match up? Which of us would have been born under such tough requirements? As one of the many people who e-mailed me asked,
"How can any but rich nations use this technology--thus leading to a super-rich 'master race'?".
The Sunday Times of 10th December 2000 reported that the noble Lord, Lord Winston, has patented a technique for genetically altering sperm to prevent children inheriting unwanted characteristics from their fathers. A co-worker of the noble Lord, Phillip Koeffler, admitted,
"This does provide the capability of making designer babies, and it will be up to society to do what it wants with it".
Parliament and Ministers have stressed their horror at the story of the Internet twins and the way that they were handled as commodities. But the other place voted for this measure, which could turn unborn children into commodities. Coming as it does hot on the heels of the Bill introduced into the other place to ban hunting with dogs, one cannot but reach the conclusion that animals get a Bill whereas humans merit an affirmative order. Is that really what the Government want?
My fourth and final concern is the emotional one of raising false hopes of immediate cures. On that issue I drew great comfort from the words of the noble Lord, Lord Dahrendorf. As the debate proceeded, I believed that those who were likely to support the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord, Alton, were regarded as being in the "uncaring" category. I regard that as utterly unacceptable. Sadly, I have 12 years' experience of people who suffer from degenerative diseases. On at least three occasions each week--usually four--I visit a medical nursing home. There are people in that home who clutch at any article published in any magazine or newspaper which holds out the slightest hope that a cure is just about to be theirs. When we had presentations last week I specifically asked about the likelihood of any current sufferer being cured if this embryonic research went ahead. The answer was that it was most unlikely that any cure would be forthcoming for about 10 years.
The Minister opened the debate with a passionate plea for hundreds of thousands of suffering people. To imply a dramatic, imminent therapeutic dividend is an unkind disservice to vulnerable patients. If we cannot expect any quick results, surely we should demand that all angles of this very difficult subject be investigated by a Select Committee, if necessary under a strict timetable. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, said that the committee could report in three months. That is not a long time to ensure that all possible knowledge can be assessed. We have already heard this evening that there may be a delay of nine to 12 months before the committee proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Walton, comes up with any suggestions.
The Government may face a major problem. If these regulations are passed today and licences are given and patents agreed, what would the Government do if the Select Committee for which the noble Lord, Lord Walton of Detchant, argues came down against research into embryonic stem cells? Would they withdraw the licences and compensate the scientists, researchers and companies for starting research and then stopping it? Surely it is better to wait. I have no hesitation in supporting the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Alton.
Lord Winston (Labour)
My Lords, this is the sixth year of my membership of this House. I have experienced boredom, interest, excitement and a whole range of other emotions. However, having heard the speech just made by the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, I believe that this is almost the first occasion on which I have been ashamed to be a Member of this House. To raise the question of an apparent financial interest in such a way is outrageous. To set the record clear, I hold four patents, at least two of which concern adult stem cells. On the assumption that this Motion is rejected today, if anything my university, not I, stand to benefit from those patents. I shall not make any money whatever the result.
Baroness O'Cathain (Conservative)
My Lords, I did not for one moment suggest or imply that the noble Lord had any financial interest. I simply quoted an article in a December 2000 issue of the Sunday Times.
Lord Winston (Labour)
My Lords, we both agree that the Sunday Times is not a completely accurate record of scientific matters.
This is probably the most important debate in which I have been involved. As I speak this evening I recognise that I have a great moral responsibility because I am the only Member of your Lordships' House who is involved in, and has an intimate understanding of, this research and is daily confronted with the issue of human experimentation. I also recognise that in truth I stand before my maker this evening in advising the House of the consequences of its vote in about an hour's time.
Essentially, the debate is about transplantation and regeneration. In order to be effective, stem cells need to be transplanted. Some noble Lords are also aware that there is a possibility that some tissues can regenerate by controlling the genetic influences. It is clear from every biological investigation that the only way to do that is to look at embryological knowledge, most of which can undoubtedly be derived from animals. Transplantation is not a new field. I believe that it was the noble Lord, Lord Habgood, who said that transplantation had gone on for some time. Blood was one of the first tissues to be transplanted in the 19th century. The problem of rejection does not much matter in the case of blood; it lasts for about three weeks and so is not rejected. Paradoxically, bone marrow is rejected very vigorously because it goes right to the heart of the immune system, hence the terrible fate of people who have bone marrow disorders.
There are some other tissues in which the rejection phenomenon is somewhat equivocal; for example, the liver and brain. The noble Lord pointed out that experiments had been conducted in which cells had been injected into the brain, to which I shall turn later. We all hope that adult stem cells may be used in this research, but they are incredibly difficult to obtain. For example, they would require the biopsy of the brain in a Parkinson sufferer, which would be unthinkable and impossible. It has been known for some time that they change to different tissues in certain circumstances, and they are impossible to maintain and harvest at the moment.
One of the risks with adult stem cells which has not been mentioned so far is that they are likely to carry the very genetic defects which are programmed to cause the original disease from which the sufferer suffers. We require tissues which are totipotent rather than pluripotent; in other words, tissues that can develop in every different direction. For that reason, embryonic stem cells are remarkably attractive. There is an almost overwhelming agreement among biologists that this has been one of the most important areas of science for the past two decades. Next, these cells do not overcome rejection except probably in a very few cases. Finally, one of the most crushing arguments against adult stem cells is that when they change--for example, work by Professor Wright in my own unit shows that blood cells, not the liver, can change--they do not function normally, which is very telling. Adult stem cells have not been shown to function properly.
By the by, we have heard in this debate about redifferentiation and cells becoming youthful again, as if it is something entirely new; it is not. Sir John Gurdon, Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, described this in 1962. Since then biologists have been aware that signals may reprogramme the nucleus of cells.
Why do we need embryonic stem cells to understand the adult cells? First, we need them because of the chemical messages. At Imperial College where I work we now know that in the mouse certain chemicals can be applied as a result of using embryonic stem cells which will differentiate a tissue into bone, cartilage or heart muscle. Those substances are, unfortunately, sometimes specific to a species and are not necessarily the same in humans as in mice or other animals.
One of the reasons that we must turn to embryonic stem cells as soon as possible is to answer the question posed by my noble friend Lord Brennan who, sadly, is not in his place at the moment. He asked whether science required immediate action. The answer is that I believe it does, for the reason that this technology has already worked. I made reference to stem cells in five out of the six parts of the television programme "Superhuman". I apologise for plugging my own programme. There was not a single public letter of objection to that. There were letters of objection about my views on evolution. There were one or two letters of objection about animal research. But none about the use of stem cells. That is the public disquiet about which we are talking this evening.
It has already worked. We saw on that programme a man who was so incapacitated he could not get out of bed. He was completely immobilised with Parkinson's disease. He was absolutely solid. After an injection of stem cells from a pig the programme shows him driving a sports car through Florida.
I have a friend who is a very distinguished author. He actually could not write. After he received an injection of foetal stem cells into his brain he recovered from his Parkinson's disease. I maintain that it would be far better to use embryonic stem cell tissue which is going to waste from IVF programmes than using aborted foetuses. I have a serious problem about using aborted foetuses. But I think that we could use embryonic stem cells. I must emphasise that we are not talking about creating embryos for research, we are talking about using material which is to be wasted. Twelve per cent of human embryos in an in vitro fertilisation programme implant. Something probably similar happens in nature. The human embryo is not actually inviolate. By nature's standards it is not sacrosanct. I say that with the grave responsibility of someone who, like so many of your Lordships, has deeply held religious principles.
What about cloning? Cloning requires a human egg. One cannot make an embryo without an egg because it is the cytoplasm, the substance of the egg itself, which re-programmes that nucleus in a way we do not understand. Whether we like it or not, there is not the slightest possibility of human clones. Why? There are all kinds of reasons. One is because human eggs are in incredibly short supply. At Hammersmith Hospital we have patients who wait for a donor egg for four or five years. That is common across the country. There is no possibility of using donor eggs. We would not only need the ethical approval from our local ethics committee and the HFEA's approval, but we would need the patient's signed consent. Patients quite rightly will not give that consent. Nor should they. There is no possibility in this country of making clones in the way that has been suggested by the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain.
One of the problems with the human embryo which remains, which is why it is so apparently unlikely to implant, is that it often carries a huge number of defects. Many of the cells in the human embryo have defects which are profound and which are chromosomal. It is very likely that this happens to a whole range of stem cells. One of the reasons for needing embryonic tissue is to understand the defects which occur during development which might give rise to these chromosomal disorders. The defects in the cells are specific to humans. They do not apply in the same way to mice; and they do not apply to other experimental animals that have been looked at. It would be unthinkable to transplant an embryonic or adult stem cell with chromosomal abnormalities and risk a patient having a tumour. That is what would happen.
Clearly there needs to be further reflection on this area. I would argue with the eloquent speech of the noble Baroness, Lady O'Neill, when she said that the need for continuing surveillance of some kind is appropriate. I understand perhaps more than the noble Lord, Lord Alton, realises where he comes from. We differ because we have a different view of the beginnings of human life. I do not think we will ever agree about that. But I do not doubt for one moment that he is not acting in absolute good faith. I hope he will accept that I am also.
Before I sit down I say this to your Lordships--and I know that I am taking a grave moral responsibility--we need to face the fact that, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford said, there is no doubt that this work is essential now; the sooner it is done the better; and whether some people in the near future get a treatment which might save them from disease, or, even worse, death, depends on your Lordships' vote.
Baroness Walmsley (Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, this has been a long and impressive debate. Therefore, your Lordships will be relieved to know that I intend briefly to add my voice to those who intend to support the regulations and the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Walton of Detchant.
I am convinced on both scientific and ethical grounds that this is the right way forward. The science is very powerful, but so is electricity and somehow we manage to control that. There are three particular groups of people looking to us today to return to the right verdict on the regulations laid before us. The first group comprises many of the infertile couples who are being helped by the current legislation and would like to be permitted by the new regulations to donate their surplus fertilised eggs to be used to help sick people.
Secondly, there are thousands of sufferers of the serious diseases for which the research permitted by this change of the law would provide hope--the diabetics, sufferers from Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's and the many others who have been listed today. Then there are the scientists, who would like to be able to widen the purposes already permitted for these delicate and difficult procedures to include not just the successful creation of human life, as now, but to improve the quality of life for thousands of people already alive and suffering.
I do not agree with my noble friend Lord Dahrendorf, who said that he thought it was inappropriate to talk about human suffering in the debate today. I think that is what this is all about. We owe it to all of these groups to make a decision on the matter now. We have been sent to this place with the duty, responsibility and privilege to decide on this and other difficult matters. We should do so now and not pass the buck to a Select Committee or anyone else.
I do not feel that I have been rushed into making up my mind on this matter. Over the past few months noble Lords have been bombarded with information, opinion and, dare I say, wisdom from all sides of the argument and scientific information and ethical standpoints. There has been enormous consultation, as listed by the noble Lord, Lord Turnberg, earlier in the debate. We have had numerous opportunities to hear from a great variety of experts. No Member of this House could possibly feel that we need to know more. Now is the time to decide. The negative consequences of not deciding now are many. Delay will mean that more people die without effective treatment. It will mean that researchers go abroad where there are fewer regulations. The system of controls we have in this country is strict and has many checks and balances. It is admired by many other countries. What is more, it is accepted by the community. If I thought this procedure was wrong, I would not support it being done here for fear of the work going abroad. However, I do not feel it is wrong. I believe the scientists who do this work will be doing a great service to humanity. But I would rather see it done here, where we have strict controls, than anywhere else in the world.
There has been talk of slippery slopes and cloning human beings. There is only one essential for cloning a human being. You need to implant a fertile modified egg into the womb of a human mother and grow it to maturity. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority has stated firmly that under no circumstances would it allow this. The Government have promised primary legislation to make it illegal. I would echo the powerful plea of my noble friend Lady Williams of Crosby to the Minister for him to reassure us on this and make a clear commitment to prompt action.
Where then is the slippery slope? Implantation is illegal and remains illegal under the regulations. There is no possibility of it being permitted.
On another point, many people feel that they would not object to stem cell research using cells from early undifferentiated embryos if it was the only way in which the therapies about which we have heard could be developed. I believe that is the case at the moment. The noble Lord, Lord Winston, has explained it very clearly. Although there are stem cells in adult tissues, they are rare and we do not yet know enough about them to be able to use them. The beauty of the procedures we are discussing today is that they have the potential to make themselves redundant in the not too distant future. When the scientists have learnt enough from the cells from an embryo source, it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that they may in future be able to use cells from the adult to be treated, which will have no likelihood of rejection. This use of adult stem cells will be an easier and cheaper alternative than using embryos. When this time comes, the authority will no longer permit work on embryos because its terms of reference say that it will grant licences only,
"when the work cannot be done any other way".
When it can be done another way, the authority will no longer grant licences. I believe that the work with adult stem cells will continue alongside the work on cells from embryo sources--the two lines of research will help each other--so that the day when embryos will no longer be needed may not be too far away.
I support the regulations and the amendment standing in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Walton of Detchant, since the appointment of a Select Committee to review these issues can only help to reassure those members of the public who still have questions about these matters. I do not intend to detain your Lordships any longer by rehearsing again the arguments in favour of the regulations so cogently explained by my noble friend Lady Northover, with which I heartily concur. But nor do I feel that it is justified to delay the regulations so that a Select Committee can go over these issues from scratch. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990, as it stands, is well understood and supported by the country and there is no majority in favour of radically changing it or revisiting the issues that it raises. But there are many thousands of people who are looking to us to extend its provisions to allow for new therapies to be developed. Compassion and common sense dictate that we support the proposed regulations without delay.
Lord Walton of Detchant (Crossbench)
My Lords, in speaking in this debate, I must first declare an interest as I am the life president of the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign and I am patron or vice-patron of many other medical charities. I have in the past given limited advice on neuro-science to a pharmaceutical company but that company is not in any way involved in stem cell research or relevant issues.
I understand totally and respect absolutely the sincerity and integrity of my noble friend Lord Alton, with whom I have had many discussions on this topic. I am grateful for the fact that in his letter, which he sent with others to all the Members of the House, he referred with approval to the report of the Select Committee on Medical Ethics, which I had the privilege of chairing in 1993. One cornerstone of that report was a belief in the sanctity of human life, a belief to which I hold very firmly. It follows that human embryos must be respected and treated with sensitivity. But, as the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, said originally in her report of 1994, that respect must be balanced against the potential huge benefit for human health that might be derived from research on such early connections of cells as we at that time in 1990 when the Bill was debated referred to as the pre-embryo or the conceptus.
Perhaps I may remind your Lordships of one or two important facts relating to human embryology. In the course of normal human conception it is common for several ova or eggs to be released from the female ovum at the time of ovulation into the uterus and often four or more of those are fertilised by the husband's or partner's sperm. Those form small collections of cells--eight or 16 cells, which are in fact early human embryos or pre-embryos--and float free in the uterus. By the fourth or fifth day after fertilisation the formation of blastocysts begins. A blastocyst is a structure that is almost impossible to see with the naked eye, but it consists of a small group of cells from which the foetus will ultimately develop and an outer rim of cells which will go on to form the membranes and the placenta. It is not until about the fifth day after fertilisation that normally one blastocyst becomes attached to the uterine wall and later goes on to develop into a foetus. The others are discarded or shed, so that millions of fertilised embryos are regularly lost and discarded in the course of normal human conception.
I fully understand the sincerity of those like the noble Lord, Lord Alton, with his deep Christian, Roman Catholic faith, who believe that life begins at the moment of fertilisation when the sperm enters the egg. However, we had a fascinating historical commentary by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford. He said that until the middle of the 19th century the teaching of St Thomas Aquinas was virtually that the foetus did not develop as an independent human being and that life did not begin until the foetus was capable of independent existence outside the womb. As the right reverend Prelate said, it was a Pope in 1869 who decreed that life began at the moment of fertilisation. I understand, though I do not share, that view.
When we debated the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill in your Lordships' House in 1990, I referred to an article by a noted Roman Catholic Australian theologian, the reverend Professor Dr Norman Hunt, who said that in his view individuation of the human embryo did not begin until the primitive streak, a line of cells ultimately to develop the nervous system, developed at about the 14th day. It was on the basis of that and similar views expressed by many embryologists that the Bill agreed that under strict licensing conditions research on the human embryo could take place up to 14 days after fertilisation but not beyond.
I confess that I am distressed when I read statements in the public press by noted Roman Catholic clerics--I have said this to the noble Lord, Lord Alton--that discarding human embryos or allowing them to degenerate is tantamount to deliberate killing. I am a practising Christian--I am a member of the Methodist church--and that is totally contrary to my own personal faith.
Lord Walton of Detchant (Crossbench)
My Lords, I was about to say that, while I read, of course, the circular from clerics of many Churches, there are still a great many noted theologians who take my view and not the view expressed in that letter.
We are not debating today the question of whether embryo research should be allowed. Parliament decided in 1990 under the Act that such research, under licence and under the very strict supervision of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, could be carried out. For that reason, I believe that it is important to consider the potentially massive benefits which could accrue from the orders and regulations we are debating today.
I do not propose to go into a great deal of detail, except to say why we wish to cultivate embryonic stem cells. May I remind the House that, under licence from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, at the moment it is possible to carry out work on human embryos, spare embryos which have been created in an in vitro fertilisation programme. More particularly, it is possible to carry out work on embryos which carry the risk of serious genetic disease. There is a technique called pre-implantation diagnosis. Under licence, it has been legal for the past 10 years to remove a single cell from such an early embryo, at the eight or 16 cell stage, and to determine whether the gene for a serious inherited disease such as cystic fibrosis or--not yet feasible but almost certainly coming--muscular dystrophy is present; and, if so, to allow that embryo to degenerate, as many do, as I have said, in the course of normal human conception; or, if it is not there, to implant the embryo and allow the mother to have a normal child.
But why is the culture and harvesting of embryonic stem cells so important? Many experiments have been carried out, with the full consent of patients, transplanting foetal nerve cells into the brains of patients with Parkinson's disease and Huntington's disease. But it takes about seven foetal brains to produce enough cells for one transplantation. It is simply not feasible. To grow cells derived from a human embryo in culture, having removed them from such an embryo at an early stage, brings up the possibility of those cells being subsequently influenced to change into brain cells, muscle cells, liver cells and kidney cells. Those cells at the embryonic stage are multi-potential; they have the potential to be influenced to develop into a whole range of different cells and tissues.
This does not mean, as many noble Lords have said today, that work on adult stem cells should not continue. There are adult stem cells in bone marrow, but they are difficult to harvest. There are some cells which can be derived from cord blood and from the placenta, but mostly the evidence is that they will be useful in the treatment of blood diseases and not of the wide range of conditions to which we have referred in the course of the debate. In some of my earlier research, I personally found it very difficult to grow adult muscle cells when I was doing research on muscular dystrophy, but embryonic muscle cells were very easy to grow, grew rapidly and were capable of being harvested in considerable quantities.
I do not believe that there is any reason to oppose research on adult cells--it is essential that it should take place--but all the scientists to whom I have spoken have made it clear that in their view it will take many years of fundamental research before those differentiated cells, which have been differentiated into adult tissue, can be persuaded to revert to an embryonic stage and therefore be used in these transplantation programmes.
I am not going to say anything in detail about nuclear replacement except in regard to--and here I part company with the noble Lords, Lord Brennan and Lord Alton, and my noble friend Lord Habgood--mitochondrial disease. I am sorry to delay your Lordships, but I must explain what this means. Every cell in the human body contains a nucleus; that nucleus is the repository of 99.5 per cent of the genetic material, the DNA; thousands of genes which convey inherited characteristics. But the nucleus is surrounded by cytoplasm, like a jelly, which in turn is confined by a nuclear membrane. Within that cytoplasm are tiny structures called mitochondria, which are responsible to a large extent for energy production in the cell. A very small proportion of the human genome, less than 0.5 per cent, resides in the mitochondria; and since mitochondria are present in the ovum (or egg) and not in the sperm, they are passed on purely through the female line.
No fewer than 50 mutations causing mitochondrial disease have been described. I have seen patients with mitochondrial disease. I have tried to do my best for them. These diseases cause progressive blindness, fits, strokes, progressive muscle wasting and paralysis and are inevitably fatal. Can noble Lords imagine the distress that is felt by women who know that they have passed on these diseases to their children?
What can we do about mitochondrial disease? It is possible to take an ovum from a woman who is carrying abnormal mitochondria, to remove the nucleus containing 99.5 per cent of her DNA and then--and despite what the noble Lord, Lord Winston, says, there are women who are prepared to volunteer to be ovum donors--to take out the nucleus from a donated ovum and put in the nucleus from the woman with the mitochondrial disease, who will then have her DNA in the nucleus but normal mitochondria in her cytoplasm. And, contrary to what the noble Lord, Lord Habgood, said, this is not germline research because this is not yet an embryo. One will then take that ovum and have it fertilised in vitro by the sperm of the woman's husband or partner and then implant the embryo.
This is not merely science fiction. My former colleague and friend, Professor Douglas Turnbull, a world expert on mitochondrial disease working in the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, tells me that this technique has been used with animals and he believes that the prospect of preventing mitochondrial disease in the offspring of these women will be feasible within the next two to three years. It is not a technique that is in the distant future; whereas it is true that work on stem cells for transplantation will take substantially longer.
I agree with those noble Lords who have said that a great deal of discussion on the various reports referred to has taken place. There has been a great deal of public consultation. I believe that if we were to reject these regulations we should send an unfortunate signal to patients, their families and their carers, to people suffering from a wide variety of degenerative diseases. This type of research is a beacon of hope on the horizon. I fervently believe that we must not fail these people.
The research referred to is difficult. There are many hurdles and problems to be overcome. Approval of the regulations would enable researchers, funding organisations and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority to begin considering programmes of research and to plan for the future. But it would take nine to 12 months for the authority to be able effectively to do that. I have every faith in the ability of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority to see that the research which it in the end approves is necessary and essential; and that if embryo research is required, that is a matter that the authority will, after the most careful consideration, review.
It must be remembered that the centres involved in such work are inspected regularly by the authority. As the noble Lord, Lord Turnberg, said, there is no way in which a rogue scientist in a backroom could undertake such work and clone human beings. I agree that the whole idea of reproductive cloning is abhorrent and I am delighted that the Government propose to make any attempt to do that a criminal offence. Already, as has been said, the National Institute of Health in the United States is not allowed to put public money into such research. But there are a great many laboratories in the private sector working in this field.
Already, produced by stems cells, certain nerve cells have been transplanted into the brain of people with stroke, producing temporary benefit. This is early work, but I believe that the passage of these regulations would ultimately allow this country to be in the forefront of research into this very important field.
Why have I suggested the establishment of a Select Committee after approval of the regulations? The reason is simple. I have recognised and heard the concerns being expressed on all sides of the House suggesting that these regulations have been brought forward with indecent haste. I do not agree. There has been massive public consultation. But those concerns, sincerely held and lucidly expressed by so many Members, have persuaded me--in advance of this debate, because I have had a large number of informal discussions--that if the regulations are approved, bearing in mind the long time-scale that would result in relation to research programmes, it would be right and proper to appoint a Select Committee to review their implementation--with, I hope, full agreement over issues such as those referred to by my noble friend Lord Habgood over the use only of donated embryos. I should add that 48,000 donated embryos have been used in research since the Act was passed in 1990. Many public-spirited people will continue to donate them for this purpose. I believe that the Select Committee could define the limits and offer very much more precise advice to government--and, indeed, to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority--than exists at present. For that reason, I believe it would be right to reject the amendment of my noble friend Lord Alton. I hope that the House will approve my amendment for that purpose.
"Knowledge and wisdom, far from being one, have oft times no
In heads replete with thoughts of other men;
Wisdom in minds attentive to their own.
Knowledge is proud that he has learned so much;
Wisdom is humble that he knows no more".
I believe that this House, in its wisdom, will support my amendment.
Lord McColl of Dulwich (Conservative)
My Lords, I speak in the gap because my name was mysteriously transplanted from the Speakers' List--perhaps my colleagues were trying to tell me something. Those who do speak in the gap are obliged to do so briefly, which is just as well because most of what I planned to say has already been said.
I very much agree with the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans who spoke about the exhilaration of science and new techniques, especially in medicine. In the earlier days of transplantation, I remember, when undertaking my first kidney transplant some 30 years ago, how exciting it was, first, when connecting the vein and then the artery and, finally, seeing the cold, lifeless kidney springing to life and secreting urine immediately. It was the French kidneys that secreted urine immediately, the English ones were more sluggish. I was told that that was due to the wine, but I later discovered a rather different explanation.
Some years later we experimented with part of the human after-birth, called the amnion. We showed, first, that if we injected it into ourselves it was not rejected in the usual way. It is immunologically privileged tissue. Noble Lords will be glad to know that scientists try experiments on themselves first, before the patients. However, to be fair to the noble Lord, Lord Winston, that might prove more difficult for him. We then injected the amnion into young children who were dying of an enzyme-deficient disease. Noble Lords can imagine our joy when the children began to improve as the amnion that we had injected began to secrete the missing enzyme. Unfortunately, that improvement lasted only for a few months.
I know well the excitement of research and the eagerness to try new techniques and thereby find new treatments. But I should be most hesitant to proceed with any research that was opposed by a large section of the community, and especially opposed by the leaders of all the main religions in this country. I agree with all those who have drawn attention to the indecent haste of the Government. I especially agree with the noble Lord, Lord Brennan, who said that there is no imminent cure for diseases such as Alzheimer's disease and that, therefore, to raise false hopes among these patients and their relatives is really rather a sad deception.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans was absolutely right when he said that we need humility and wisdom in this field. Could it possibly be, by some quite unimaginable stretch of the imagination, that perhaps there are too many in this field whose motto in life seems to be, "I may not always be right but I am never in any doubt"?
The news that the Government are happy to establish a Select Committee was rather encouraging at first but to have it after these inadequate regulations are put in place is probably a waste of time because there will be no effective way of making the Government change their views. I therefore strongly support the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool.
Baroness Sharp of Guildford (Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, we have had a good and wide-ranging debate which has offered us a chance to hear a great many views from many different sides. My job is to begin the process of winding up the debate from these Benches.
We start with the fact that we are being asked to approve a regulation which would extend the current regulations on embryo research to allow research in three areas: first, to increase knowledge about the development of the embryos themselves; secondly, to increase knowledge about serious disease, and, thirdly, to enable such knowledge to be applied to the development of treatments for serious disease.
We have before us two amendments, one of which seeks to delay approval of the new regulations until after a Select Committee of the House has considered the issues involved in human cloning and stem cell research; the other seeks our immediate agreement to the regulations but promises that a Select Committee will be set up to report on these issues and then to reconsider the regulations in the light of that report. The key issue, therefore, is whether we approve the regulations now and then reflect on their appropriateness or whether we delay that decision until after a period of reflection.
There are those who have spoken who view any research on embryos as unacceptable. For these, any embryo, however young, should be viewed as a human being or a potential human life and is endowed with the sanctity of human life. It is, therefore, morally unacceptable to treat this young human being as an instrument of research, a means to an end rather than an end in itself. Such a view precludes any research that is not directed to the benefit of the embryo itself. The removal and cultivation of any cells from an embryo is, from this viewpoint, unacceptable, irrespective of the use to which those cells are put. This is, if I may say so, a "fundamentalist" point of view. Like others who have spoken, I respect it even if I do not agree with it.
The fundamentalist point of view was aired at length at the time of the debate in the 1980s and early 1990s on the Warnock report. But at that time, in passing the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act in 1990, Parliament took a different view, implicitly that an embryo up to 14 days old and before cell differentiation had begun was not a human being, and accepted that embryo research was morally acceptable for specific purposes. It limited research to 14 days after fertilisation and also laid down that no embryo subject to such research procedures was to be reimplanted in the womb. The specific purposes included improving IVF treatment methods; the treatment of congenital disease; investigating the causes of miscarriage; research into contraception and into the pre-implantation of genetic disorders but it did not include research into serious diseases and possible therapies. The debate today is about extending the regulations to cover such research.
Why should there be any hesitation? Logically if you accept that some experimentation on embryos is acceptable and that the same constraints on research are maintained--constraints which have shown themselves to have been robust and effective over a 10-year period--why hesitate about this extension, which, as many speakers in the debate have argued, has enormous potential to do good?
There are three main reasons for hesitation that we have heard. The first concerns whether we need to use embryonic stem cells. Could we instead use adult stem cells or stem cells extracted from other sources such as umbilical cords or placentas? I do not wish to repeat any of the arguments that we have heard. However, in general the conclusion of the debate is that none of those other sources of stem cells is satisfactory. It is clearly research which may in the long run enable us to develop the use of adult stem cells directly and not to have to use embryonic stem cells. But we should also bear in mind that the 1998 Act specifically prohibits the use of embryonic research if other research avenues are possible.
The second reason for hesitation is the commodification of embryos. If stem cell research proves to be, as people suggest, a fruitful line of research, would we not quickly run out of the current supply of fertilised embryos which are unused in IVF treatment and find ourselves creating embryos specifically for research? Let us note, however, that the creation of embryos is specifically allowed under the 1990 Act if the project cannot be carried out on donated embryos. But it is clear that there is an adequate supply of fertilised embryos at present; and, furthermore, we are talking not so much about experimentation on those embryos as the extraction of stem cells from those embryos and the cultivation of lines of stem cells.
Nevertheless, there may be the danger in some people's minds that that will lead to a trade, with payment for those prepared to donate eggs and sperm for research. But that is illegal. The regulatory framework of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act prevents that in this country although it does and can occur abroad. One of the reasons for this research to be carried forward here is because in other countries the issue is unregulated. It is surely better that the research is carried forward within a clearly regulated environment such as we have in this country. Ultimately we have to be prepared to trust that the regulatory framework will work. The aim to cultivate lines of stem cells in the laboratories means that the demand for embryonic stem cells may be limited.
The third and perhaps key reason for hesitation is that cell nuclear transfer involves transplanting into an unfertilised human egg the nucleus of foreign cells, the growing of a cluster of cells--what is called by some an embryo or even a pre-embryo--from the hybrid cell, the extraction of the stem cells from that cluster (as from the embryo in embryonic stem cell research) and the cultivation of that line of cells. It means that we are creating an embryo specifically for the purposes of research, with all the problems of commodification discussed previously. But it also poses the problem of cloning, because, essentially, this was the technology which has, in part at least, given us Dolly the sheep and Andi the monkey. Is it the thin edge of the wedge of human cloning? If it is, surely we need more time to think about it.
That is the crux of the arguments that we have heard. The answer given by those who support the passing of the regulations now is that the cell nuclear transfer creates, as the Donaldson report puts it,
"a new form of early embryo".
But this is far from being human reproductive cloning. First, as with embryonic stem cells, research would be allowed only for the first 14 days after fertilisation, after which the embryo is destroyed. Secondly, this research has to be undertaken under licence and closely monitored by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority--a form of regulation which is now tried and tested and generally held up worldwide as exemplary.
Thirdly, the embryo could grow into a foetus only if it were implanted into the womb, a process which is illegal and a criminal act in the UK. In other words, there is a three-fold barrier which prevents any possibility of the technique being used in this country for human reproductive cloning. I strongly echo the words of my noble friend Lady Williams of Crosby that such a regulatory framework does not exist in some other countries. We badly need to begin to talk about establishing a common regulatory framework worldwide.
The great advantage of using stem cells created by stem nuclear transfer is that growing stem cells that incorporate, for example, the DNA of an adult suffering from Parkinson's disease so that his body does not reject any therapeutic injection of the stem cells helps to overcome the rejection problem that the noble Lord, Lord Winston, talked about that might arise from using implants from other stem cells. The same is true of the use of adult stem cells. The hope is that, in the long run, research using embryonic and nuclear transfer stem cells will enable direct use to be made of adult cells, but such research is a long way down the road. For the moment, the trade-off is between the risk of abuse of the research, despite the clear and proven existing regulatory framework, and the benefits in therapy that the research would bring.
After considering the issues, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics concluded:
"We consider the proposed creation of embryos using CNT for research into the derivation of stem cells offers such significant potential medical benefits that research for such purposes should be licensed".
The report goes on to point out that research involving "early embryos" derived from cell nuclear transfer has been legally permissible under the 1990 Act, provided that it was for the purposes of that Act. It recommends that those regulations,
"be amended to permit research involving embryos for the additional purpose of developing tissue therapies from the derived embryonic stem cells. If adopted, this recommendation would permit research on embryos derived by CNT to be licensed for that purpose as well".
In other words, if we have no objection to extending the regulations to include research on embryonic stem cells, we should be prepared to allow embryos developed through cell nuclear transfer to go ahead and we should have no objection to research proceeding on stem cells from those embryos.
The case for passing the regulations now is that they hold the potential for developing therapies for many chronic diseases of our age. We cannot know whether the potential will be realised unless we do the research. The sooner we do the research, the sooner we are likely to be able to explore that potential. Many people will benefit from it. The case for delay is that, particularly by permitting experimentation with embryos developed through cell nuclear transfer, we are experimenting with a technology that may be abused. That is true of many technologies. Electricity can be used to electrocute people and gas to poison people, but we have not stopped using either of them. Moreover, in this case we already have a good regulatory framework for control that has shown itself to be effective and is regarded as exemplary worldwide. If we do not do the research here, others will do it. Without the regulatory framework that we have, the risks of abuse will be far greater.
It has been argued that we have not considered carefully enough the full ethical implications of the research, yet the recommendations come after careful consideration in 1998 by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority and the Human Genetics Advisory Commission--the two bodies that have been established as watchdogs and advisers for the Government on the subject. They suggested that their proposals be further examined by an expert group, including ethicists. That expert group was convened by the Chief Medical Officer, Sir Liam Donaldson. It considered at length the scientific and moral issues involved. Its unanimous conclusion was that the regulations should be amended to allow embryonic stem cell research for the treatment of serious illness to proceed. It was backed by an expert committee convened by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics.
Let us by all means carry out our own inquiries and satisfy ourselves that we have the relevant regulations in place. Let us reinforce the regulations with a law which explicitly prohibits human cloning. But let us now send out the right signals. We should support the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Walton, pass the regulations today and allow the thousands of people who are waiting on this research to begin know that we recognise their plight. The research will not bring quick or immediate remedies. The wait has been long enough. Let us not prolong it unnecessarily.
Earl Howe (Conservative)
My Lords, it is almost an anomaly to speak from the Front Bench at the end of a debate of this kind. The fact that I do so should not be misinterpreted. There is no Conservative Party position on the issue of stem cell research. There is nothing that even resembles a party position. That is deliberate and exactly as it should be. The issue is one for each of us to decide upon in a free vote according to our individual beliefs and consciences. Therefore, I begin by emphasising to all noble Lords, but perhaps particularly to my fellow Peers on this side of the Chamber, that the views that I am about to express are my own; they are in no sense to be taken as a signal of an official or corporately held opinion.
Indeed, if there is one attitude of mind appropriate to a topic such as this, it is surely an attitude of humility and mutual respect. The contributions to today's debate demonstrate amply what many of us must feel: that we are considering one of the most significant ethical issues to have come before the House in many years. I join other noble Lords in believing that the ethics of this issue must be our starting point.
We have all been lobbied by those who feel passionately that stem cell research should be legalised without hesitation because of the unrivalled opportunities that it offers to uncover treatments and cures for diseases which hitherto have proved untreatable and incurable. We can all understand why those individuals and patient groups are anxious for the research to be permitted without further ado. For myself, I need no convincing of its potential.
But the benefits, however big, cannot be a sufficient justification in themselves for a vote of "Content" on the affirmative order. It cannot be right to say that the end justifies the means. The means, as well as the ends, must be justified. And until we properly understand what the means amount to, we are in no position to make any kind of rounded moral assessment. Therefore, although it may sound a perverse thing to say to patients who currently suffer from serious illnesses and who regard their moral case as self-evident, I believe that there are other aspects of this question which we have a duty to confront first.
In 1990, Parliament approved the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act following many years of public debate on the issues. As we have heard today, the Act permits research to be carried out using early-stage human embryos under tightly controlled conditions and for a strictly limited number of purposes. Some Members of the House, like my noble friend Lady Blatch, feel strongly that the proposals contained in the order before us are of such novelty and significance that they should have been made the subject of primary legislation.
Although I greatly respect that argument, I confess that I cannot agree with it. I shall speak in a moment about cell nuclear replacement. However, once the principle has been accepted by Parliament--as it was--that early-stage human embryos which are surplus to an IVF procedure may be used in certain types of medical research, I see nothing intrinsically inappropriate in the proposition that other, closely allied categories of research activity should be added to the list, as the Act specifically allows for.
Yet, there is another dimension to this matter. An order of this kind may well be legally permissible, but is it premature? The noble Lord, Lord Alton, my noble friend Lady Blatch and others, such as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, have spoken eloquently of their misgivings on that score. They feel acutely that there is a need for Parliament to reflect further before it acts.
For many of us, the 1990 Act, although certainly a helpful guide to our thinking, is not enough on its own to reassure us of the moral acceptability of the proposals before us. It is certainly not enough to reassure us of the acceptability of cell nuclear replacement. It is therefore appropriate and understandable that some noble Lords should now wish to revisit what one might call the ethical underpinning of the 1990 Act. As we have heard today, there is perhaps one issue that precedes all others; it is that no stem cell research using human embryonic tissue can be acceptable if there is an alternative, non-controversial means of meeting the same objectives.
I have listened to and read a very great deal about the possible use of so-called adult stem cells as a viable substitute procedure. I feel I must say to my noble friend Lady Blatch that this is one issue on which she need not worry as much as perhaps she does. It is true that, depending on to whom one talks, one gets a different slant on the question of adult-derived stem cells. I accept the advice of the Chief Medical Officer and other authorities that such techniques do not yet offer the prospect of a useful outcome and that therefore there is indeed no practical alternative to research using stem cells derived from blastocysts. That research is needed to inform our knowledge of adult stem cells.
Even if I am wrong in accepting that suggestion, and even if the science of adult stem cells is more advanced than I have been led to believe, there is a safeguard already in place, which will forestall the unnecessary use of embryos; that is, the HFEA. There is one big difference between now and 1990; it is that since 1990 the HFEA has had the opportunity to prove itself as a scrupulously thorough and conscientious body. I note the strictures of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, but I believe that the HFEA has fulfilled its remit with the utmost professionalism. If the HFEA is presented with a proposal for a piece of research involving early stage human embryos, it has a duty to satisfy itself that there is no viable alternative. If a viable alternative exists, it must not--indeed, it cannot by law--sanction the proposal. We have a tightly regulated system.
That said, there are clearly two decisions before us: one relating to the substance of the issue, and the other to the parliamentary process. On the substance of the issue, many who contemplate the idea of medical research using early stage human embryos believe that that involves a fundamental disrespect for human life. For many of those people neither the regulations nor the 1990 Act is likely to commend itself as being ethically acceptable. That is perhaps particularly true of Roman Catholics who believe that human life in its meaningful sense begins at fertilisation.
Personally, I am not of the Roman Catholic view. I accept the Anglican Church's thesis that the ethical status of personhood is something that develops with the increasing complexity of embryo growth. It seems to me that we can quite properly draw the distinction that was articulated by the Warnock committee between a blastocyst, which is defined as a collection of human cells up to 14 days old, and an embryo, which has been allowed to develop for longer than 14 days. To be respectful of human life is, to me, to be respectful of an individual or person. I follow the noble Baroness, Lady O'Neill, in believing that a collection of a very few human cells, which are so new and so few that they have not even differentiated themselves into cells that may develop into a placenta or an embryo, and which have no neural features whatever, certainly have a special moral status, but they cannot be accorded the status of a person. While I respect those who take a different view, I cannot go along with them.
What, then, of cell nuclear transfer or so-called "cloning"? I know of nobody in your Lordships' House who does not find the idea of reproductive cloning to be repugnant and utterly unacceptable. Today's regulations do not permit reproductive cloning. The issue is whether, for research into stem cells, it is permissible to create and use a blastocyst of no more than 14 days that is genetically identical to a living person. A blastocyst that is genetically identical to a living person seems to me to warrant exactly the same protection under the law as a blastocyst that is the product of a fertilised egg; no more, no less.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, that what matters is the 14-day rule. It is difficult for me to find additional ethical difficulties in the proposition that a potential human being and a living person might share the same genetic make-up. If I were to worry myself about that, I should have to worry myself about the existence of identical twins.
The concern about cloning that I cannot fully resolve is the slippery slope argument. Reproductive cloning may remain illegal but to permit cell nuclear transfer for therapeutic ends could, it is said, pave the way for reproductive cloning.
But what does that mean? Like the noble Lord, Lord Turnberg, I cannot envisage Parliament falling victim to the slippery slope by legalising reproductive cloning. It is a million miles away from doing such a thing. That means that the risk, in so far as it exists, lies with those who might seek to break the law and in so doing, escape the watchful gaze of the HFEA. That is certainly a risk, albeit, perhaps, a remote one.
But here is one issue where, for me, moral relativism of a sort has a role. If I am asked to choose which should count for more, the chance of bringing treatment and cures to many thousands of people who are seriously ill or the risk that there may be bad men or women who, at some point in the future, took the law into their own hands, I really do not believe that there can be any contest. Indeed, I believe that I have a clear moral duty to open the way to the alleviation of human suffering. For those reasons, if the House divides on the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Walton, I feel I must vote in favour of it.
That leaves unanswered the question posed in the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, which, if carried, would defeat the order. I began my speech by emphasising the importance of mutual respect. Even though my mind may be made up on the substantive issues, I now urge my own advice on myself. When I receive, as I did, a letter signed by the leaders of this country's Churches and non-Christian faiths urging caution, when I listen to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford, a proponent, as I understand it, of stem cell research, advocating a period of further reflection through a Select Committee, when I listen to the noble Lord, Lord Habgood, speaking so powerfully, I feel bound to sit up and take note.
There are public anxieties. That is why, when we come to vote on the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, while I should not be true to myself to support him, I know that it would be equally wrong for me to stand in his way and I shall not do so.
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath (Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of Health; Labour)
My Lords, we have had a truly excellent debate--nearly seven hours, with 42 speakers--which has been of a high quality and wide ranging. We certainly explored the emotions, as my noble friend Lady Warwick said. But the debate has also been good-tempered, and I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for that, a person for whom I have great respect.
We have considered in a very sober way the complex, scientific and ethical issues involved. We have also perhaps had a little of the wisdom for which the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans called.
The question before us is whether embryonic research may be extended to serious diseases like Parkinson's disease, cancer or Alzheimer's disease.
It has been suggested that the Government are seeking to force through this research because it is being introduced by way of a statutory instrument. But in 1990, Parliament clearly recognised, as did the Warnock committee in 1984, that scientific knowledge would advance. As the noble Lord, Lord Walton, suggested, legislators in 1990 clearly anticipated that the five research purposes may be extended to cover human diseases because a regulation-making power was specifically provided for that purpose.
This is not a whim of the Government. It is the proper use of a power already provided by Parliament in primary legislation. Because of that, it means also that the regulations will be subject to the full panoply of safeguards built into that primary legislation.
Noble Lords who argue that point surely ignore two other important features. I refer first to the thoroughness of the work that has been undertaken by a number of important and reputable committees since 1997. There has been a long debate which has involved the public and I believe that it has explored all the issues.
The thought that there is a rush also ignores the robustness and vigour of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. During the time that it has been in existence it has received 130 research applications, all of which have been considered with great care. Seventeen were turned down. The authority has an international reputation. Surely we are fortunate in having a regulatory framework that is robust, that works, and that provides the safeguards required by many noble Lords.
Overriding much in this debate is what the noble Earl, Lord Howe, described as fear of the slippery slope. That is entirely understandable and should be set against the enormous potential of scientific developments. If I thought that we were embarking on a slippery slope tonight, I should not be standing at this Dispatch Box.
It is worth recalling that in the debates on the 1990 Act there was much discussion about the 14-day rule and fear that the slippery slope would lead to 18 days, 28 days and more. That has not happened. Those issues are quite properly controlled by Parliament through the 1990 Act and through the authority that regulates such activities and which is accountable to Parliament. The authority has said that it will not license reproductive cloning and the Government have announced that they will introduce primary legislation to put the matter of reproductive cloning beyond doubt.
I repeat that commitment tonight. There is no slippery slope here. The position is simple. Reproductive cloning will not take place in the UK and these regulations cannot in any way make it happen. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, that legislation will be brought before the House as soon as possible. Of course, there are pressures on the parliamentary timetable, but this primary legislation is most certainly one of our priorities.
There have been some suggestions that undue influence has been brought--
Baroness Blatch (Conservative)
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. In his briefing to all noble Lords the Minister said that reproductive cloning was illegal and would remain illegal. What then is the purpose of the Bill to be brought before Parliament?
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath (Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of Health; Labour)
My Lords, as I explained earlier, reproductive cloning cannot take place in this country because the authority has said that it would not, under any circumstances, license that. For any organisation or person to go ahead and attempt to do so would be in breach of the law that lays down those requirements. We have said that in order to back up that, and to make matters absolutely explicit, we shall introduce primary legislation.
Some suggestions have been made that undue influence has been brought to bear in order to bring these regulations to Parliament. Apparently, pharmacy companies and scientists have brought such pressure to bear. I make it plain that no such pressure has been brought to bear. The regulations mark the culmination of a considerable number of considerations by many committees, not least the Donaldson expert committee. Pressure has resulted from people being denied the results of research, as the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, so graphically put it. Appointments to the Donaldson expert group were made by the Chief Medical Officer in consultation with the Chief Scientific Adviser. They were made after consultation with the Royal Society and the Royal Society of Medicine. Members were chosen for their particular background, knowledge and expertise. As well as the expert group containing a wide range of opinions, members also considered submissions from a wide range of groups and individuals on all sides of the debate. I am satisfied that there were no significant conflicts of interest among the membership of the expert group.
A number of comments were made about the international dimension. The European Commission has already made clear that there are no plans for harmonisation or Community legislation in this area. The European Parliament has set up a temporary committee on human genetics and other new technologies in modern medicine. While the committee will consider a range of bioethic issues, it will no doubt look closely at the issues we have been discussing today.
In answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, the outcome, expected in about a year's time, may well reflect the European consensus on the way forward. But it is worth making the point that our current legislation and the work of the authority is much admired worldwide.
The situation in the United States contrasts sharply with that in Europe. A substantial difference is the distinction between the public and private sectors. Thus the national institutes of health cannot carry out embryo research but it can be carried out freely in the private sector. There may well be some international "coming together" but I suspect that that will take many years. Surely, in the meantime we should ensure that our regulatory system is as effective as possible.
I turn to the issue which many noble Lords discussed--the potential of adult stem cell research. I guess that scientists are a little like economists--not all agree with each other. I believe that the Donaldson committee succeeded in attempting to pull together the best available knowledge about the potential of adult stem cell research. Its view is not an isolated one; it is supported by the Association of Medical Research Charities, the Wellcome Trust and the Royal Society following a comprehensive review of the papers. It is supported by many researchers and scientists around the world who are at the forefront of research in these areas.
As the noble Lord, Lord Walton, pointed out, the embryonic stem cell uniquely has the potential to develop into almost any tissue in the body. The majority of the research work is likely to centre on the extraction of stem cells from embryos created from eggs and sperm, using spare embryos no longer required for infertility treatment. This research will help to develop techniques for extracting stem cells from embryos, growing them in the laboratory and learning how to make them differentiate into various types of tissue. It is this which offers the potential to understand how to treat a whole range of degeneratory diseases.
The main difference is that embryonic stem cells are able to renew themselves and form many different cell types, whereas the potential of adult stem cells is uncertain, with research suggesting that they may be much more limited in the ability to form other cell types. As my noble friend Lord Winston pointed out, it takes a considerable time to grow and develop adult stem cells, whereas embryonic cells by their very nature are much more readily developed.
These problems underline the importance of taking forward work on both embryo-derived and adult stem cells in order to provide the maximum benefit from the research. A number of noble Lords referred to the research claim by Dr Abuljadayel which was published in The Times last week and was the subject of a letter in today's Times from the president of the Royal Society. That letter from the president casts considerable doubts on the claims made, with scientists generally being agreed that such results are many years away.
As the Royal Society's letter points out, this work has not been published. Contrary to the claims made, is there any evidence of it being repeated? The work which was reportedly conducted two years ago may not have been published because no reputable publisher would accept it. In the light of the fact that 90 per cent of more than 4,000 scientific articles on this subject in the past year have focused on non-embryonic stem cell research, it is difficult to accept that this particular work was not accepted because of its subject matter.
I also point to the work of Angelo Vescovi, who leads an Italian team researching the potential of adult nerve stem cells to provide skeletal muscle. He is often quoted in support of the view that embryo stem cell research is not needed. However, in the journal Nature Neuroscience he is reported as saying that he "completely disagrees" with the interpretation of his findings that embryonic stem cell research is not necessary because all the benefits could be obtained by research on adult stem cells. He is also reported as having the view, which is held by an overwhelming majority of scientists working in this area, that both embryonic stem cell research and adult stem cell research should be pursued. As the noble Lord, Lord Habgood, suggested, the aim should be to regard embryonic stem cell research as interim in nature.
I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, that adult stem cell research is important and should be pursued. I also confirm that the Donaldson expert group has been asked to continue to monitor developments in this area. The Donaldson report is only six months old. In any event, the 1990 Act already provides the answer to the question of what happens if and when research into adult cells overtakes research using embryos: embryonic research would have to stop because the use of embryos would no longer be necessary for that research.
I turn to the two amendments before us. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, wishes to defer the decision until a number of issues have been considered by a Select Committee of the House. The regulations are due to come into force on 31st January. If the noble Lord's Motion is accepted the regulations will be killed.
The Donaldson expert committee has produced an authoritative and comprehensive report which I believe provides a basis on which a decision can be made by your Lordships tonight. Surely, we have reached a point where the research should be permitted to go ahead in the light of the overwhelming evidence of its importance and potential in treating serious and debilitating diseases. But I also recognise the value that noble Lords place on the appointment of a Select Committee. Surely, the noble Lord, Lord Walton, has found an acceptable way forward. In essence, it allows the research proposals to begin the formal process of application, which is likely to take at least nine months. At the same time, the Select Committee can be established by your Lordships' House. I hope that that can take place quickly, although that is a matter for the House authorities. The Government will fully support the setting up of the Select Committee. Like other noble Lords, I am sure that it will add to and inform public debate.
Lord Eden of Winton (Conservative)
My Lords, I apologise for interrupting the Minister. Since he refers to the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Walton, can he confirm that in the event that the report recommends certain changes the Government will not hesitate to table new or amended regulations?
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath (Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of Health; Labour)
My Lords, that was the very point to which I was about to turn. If the Select Committee emerged with a very different view from that of the Donaldson expert committee--although I doubt it; but let us assume it concluded that embryonic stem cell research was unnecessary--the Government would be bound to take note of it because it would be a powerful argument to revisit and review the regulations. There is still the safeguard that the authority can authorise only necessary research.
In conclusion, there is no doubt that the regulations have the potential to lead to treatments for many people with severe, debilitating diseases. My noble friend Lord Brennan is correct; not overnight, but the sooner research starts the sooner we can hope to defeat these diseases. We already allow embryos to be used in research for infertility, for contraception and for research into congenital diseases. Without these regulations we shall not be able to use embryos in research leading to cures for serious diseases like Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease. I find that very difficult to justify. I urge noble Lords to vote in favour of the regulations and for a Select Committee to consider the issues further as proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Walton of Detchant.
Lord Alton of Liverpool (Crossbench)
My Lords, it is not the tradition of your Lordships' House for the mover of an amendment to delay the House unnecessarily at the end of a debate. I do not intend to trespass long on the time of the House at the end of what has been an agreeable debate in the sense of people expressing their views in a forthright manner, intelligently listening to one another's points of view and begging to differ.
At the heart of the amendments before us is the issue of how we should go about deciding public policy on these complex questions. Do we have a prospective or retrospective committee? That was the point made during the course of our debate by the noble Lord, Lord Dahrendorf. It is clear to your Lordships, as the Leader in the Daily Telegraph said this morning, that this is a momentous decision,
"not only for this country but also for the human race".
The issue then for us is whether or not non-amendable regulations--a statutory instrument--are the right way to deal with the matter and whether or not, in the circumstances which have applied today, we can properly test the conflicting scientific and ethical opinion. Many have argued that alternatives exist to the use of embryonic stem cells and adult stem cells. The noble Lord, Lord Habgood, said that this could lead to germ-line gene therapy. If that is true then noble Lords have a real duty to consider their consciences when deciding how to vote. I wish to seek the opinion of the House.
Viscount Simon (Labour)
My Lords, the original Question was that the draft regulations laid before the House on 12th December be approved, since when an amendment has been moved to leave out all the words after "that" and to insert the words set out on the Order Paper in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool.
Lord Walton of Detchant (Crossbench)
Moved, as an amendment to the Motion to approve the draft regulations, at end to insert "and that this House calls on the Government to support the appointment of a Select Committee of the House to report on the issues connected with human cloning and stem cell research, and to undertake to review the regulations following the report of that Select Committee".--(Lord Walton of Detchant.)