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Orders of the Day — Human Fertilisation and Embryology

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:41 pm on 19th December 2000.

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Photo of Yvette Cooper Yvette Cooper The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health 3:41 pm, 19th December 2000

This is secondary legislation because Parliament considered the issue in detail in 1990, and set out a power in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 to extend the purposes of research in this way. I shall deal in detail later with the restrictions that apply under the 1990 Act, but Parliament clearly decided at that time to give power to its successors to extend the purposes of research through regulations.

We set out the regulations on 27 November and we revised the wording slightly in response to concerns last Tuesday—a full week ago. There has been plenty of opportunity for hon. Members to debate and discuss the issues. I understand that many hon. Members will not have concentrated on the detail of the issues until the vote was looming because we are all extremely busy. I understand that many hon. Members may feel taken aback at the complexity of the issues, but that would have happened whenever the vote took place.

Many of those who claim that this is rushed are those who would be opposed to the regulations whenever they were put before the House. The idea that this is rushed is not true. We have had plenty of time for debate and it is now time for the House to make up its mind.

I want to set out why the Government believe that this research is so worth while and why the regulations are so important. The purpose of the regulations is to permit embryonic stem cell research. In such cells may lie the key to healing within the human body. Stem cells are cells at an early stage of development. They can differentiate into any number of different kinds of cells or tissues. They are extracted from embryos when they are but five to six days old, when the embryos are clusters of 100 cells that would fit on a pinhead. They are still before the implantation stage and before any sign of neural development. Embryonic stem cells in particular are regarded as pluripotent. They have the potential to become anything—brain cells, nervous tissue or heart tissue—and therein lies their power.

The human body heals and regenerates all the time, but some tissue does not regenerate—no matter what the drugs or the treatment, there is nothing that doctors can do. For the Parkinson's sufferer whose neural cells are destroyed by disease, drugs can alleviate the symptoms for a time, but they cannot put the cells back. For the woman who endures a dreadful stroke, therapy may help other parts of her body cope with the disability, but nothing can repair that tissue. For the child who falls from a horse or a bike and breaks his neck, no amount of medicine or physiotherapy can repair the broken spinal cord. The tissue simply will not grow and the paralysis cannot be cured.

In stem cells may lie the key to turning all that around. Those injuries, illnesses and diseases that have so far proved beyond the power of medical knowledge could come within our grasp, given the right kind of research. Because stem cells have the potential to become brain tissue, nervous tissue or heart muscle or any of the many tissues that will not regenerate in the body on their own, scientists believe that they hold the key to understanding how to regenerate tissue and how to heal. For those diseases where the tissues will not repair on their own, stem cells may be the only thing on the horizon that holds out any hope. Drugs for those diseases are mere palliatives.

It is little wonder that the Parkinson's Disease Society, Diabetes UK, the Alzheimer's Disease Society, the Huntington's Disease Association, the Royal Society and the British Medical Association back the regulations too.

The potential of stem cells goes far wider, however, as the big killers—cancer and heart disease—could be affected too. Stem cells could be a route to repairing heart muscle or the tissues destroyed by cancer treatment. That is why the British Heart Foundation, the Cancer Research Campaign and Breakthrough Breast Cancer are all supporting the regulations.

The human stories behind those patient groups and organisations make an even more persuasive case. The issue is about a boy paralysed in an accident in a rugby match who will never walk again. It is about a woman with Parkinson's disease who struggles with speech, so that she cannot sing nursery rhymes to her children. It is about a grandfather who cannot enjoy his grandchildren growing up because of a devastating stroke. It is about patients waiting for heart or liver transplants that will never come. For all those family tragedies, stem cell research may provide them with hope.

The regulations are an extension of the 1990 Act. Some people will feel that, no matter how great the benefits that stem cell research could bring, embryo research is always wrong. I respect that view, but I disagree with it; nor does current law embody that view. The chief medical officer's expert group, which drew up the Donaldson report, concluded that the regulations do not raise any new moral issues beyond those that have already been debated and discussed in passing the current law.

Parliament is not being asked to cross the Rubicon today. Given the benefits that such research could bring, I believe that those who support the current law and IVF should also support the regulations.