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Orders of the Day — Human Fertilisation and Embryology

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:22 pm on 19th December 2000.

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Photo of Liam Fox Liam Fox Shadow Secretary of State for Health 4:22 pm, 19th December 2000

I am grateful to the Minister for once again setting out her case so objectively and precisely. It is helpful to the House, although I cannot help thinking that, since we had this debate just last Friday, this is a parliamentary version of "Groundhog Day". I state yet again that the motion will be subject to a free vote among Conservative Members.

The issues fall into the categories of process and substance. I shall be gin by saying a word about process. The decision to be taken is a major one. It will have profound consequences for both the science base and the ethics within which research occurs. Many outside the House will not understand why such a profound decision is before the House in a statutory instrument, which is not amendable, rather than in primary legislation. That may be due to the way in which we do business in the House, but we might need to think again about whether it satisfies those on both sides of the argument who would rather have more detail.

For example, let us consider the definition in the draft regulations of serious disease. On Friday, the Minister admitted that interpretation of that definition would very often be left to the courts. There is a strong feeling in the House that there is already too much interpretation by the courts and that we in Parliament should be giving greater direction on the exact meaning of terms in any legislation that we pass. Many will find the process rather unsatisfactory.

Debates such as today's lead all parliamentarians into difficult territory. We must make decisions about the future of our science base and set the moral and ethical parameters of our society. Too many believe that too many powers have been taken from the House. It is good to see a fine attendance in the House for a debate of great moral importance to the country.

We must beware the relativist's argument that, because different moral and ethical perspectives lead us to draw lines in the sand in different places, no lines can or should be drawn. The fact that different people make different judgments cannot justify the making of no judgment whatever. It is impossible to remain morally neutral on the issue irrespective of whether it would be politically expedient for us to do so. If we fail to consider where the ethical boundaries lie and we shy away from setting them in a legislative framework, we are, in effect, saying that there are none at all.

There is genuine and deep-rooted political unease in the House about many of the medical techniques that are employed. We have had debates on euthanasia and genetic research, and we are now debating cloning. They have all raised public concern, and we need to respond to that. The questions that the medical revolution asks are too important to be left to scientists and doctors alone. We must tackle them on behalf of the society that we represent. I hope that that can be done this afternoon in an atmosphere of tolerance and respect for the different and strongly held views.

We also need to remember that human knowledge is always developing and that it is far from infallible. There is always the danger of the unpredicted outcome or the unforeseen consequence. What might be regarded as a certain medical truth at one point can be discredited within only a few years. Examples such as thalidomide illustrate that point.