We need your support to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can continue to hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

Orders of the Day — Human Fertilisation and Embryology

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:10 pm on 19th December 2000.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Robert Key Robert Key Conservative, Salisbury 5:10 pm, 19th December 2000

My hon. Friend is wrong to suggest that human cloning was science fiction at that time. It was not. I was the lay member of the Medical Research Council at the time, and human cloning was far from being science fiction. Indeed, the scientific community in 1990—I am sure that my hon. Friend made a slip when she referred to the 1980 Act—was asking Parliament to help it get to grips with the issue.

My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton) merely reinforces what I was saying, because my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) made the positive decision not to include cloning in the 1990 Act, because it was judged that no one—not scientists, Parliament or the country—was yet ready. That is why we have had to return to the matter now, and why the 1990 Act was designed in such a way that it contained a mechanism that would allow the House to go straight back to the matter. That is what we are doing now.

I return to the point about the debate held 10 years ago. I found the minutes of the meeting of the public affairs unit of the centre of medical law and ethics at King's College, London. The meeting was chaired by Professor I.M. Kennedy, who was assisted by Dr. Sophie Botros, a lecturer in medical ethics. For month after month, Members of both this House and of the other place met to discuss the issues surrounding the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. The agenda for the meeting of 31 January 1990 contained three items:

  1. 1. The 14 day limit on embryo research: what is its moral justification, what are its legal implications? How does it relate to the person/chattel distinction in law?
  2. 2. How do we define infertility and genetic abnormality? What are the moral implications?
  3. 3. Should children be allowed to know of their genetic origins (the moral and legal perspective)?
We had debates and briefings on research on specially created" or only "spare" pre-embryos, and on the moral Status of the Embryo. In the run-up to the 1990 legislation, those hon. Members who so chose could be fully appraised of the issues.

This morning, I received an e-mail. It contained no address, so I do not yet know whether it came from a constituent, but it sums up the problems that many constituents raise. It states: I am very concerned about the unrelenting pressure that a few scientists and pharmaceutical companies are putting on legislators, like yourself, to approve Embryonic Stem Cell Cloning (also called cell nuclear replacement). They are using carefully selected statements rather than the whole truth to convince Parliament that their vested interests are for the common good. This is a terrible abuse of democracy. My correspondent went on to say that the technology is unnecessary, but that is not the case. More than 100 charities and patient groups are fighting desperately for the Bill tonight it. Thousands of people in each constituency will be affected by the legislation in their lifetimes.

Of course it is wrong to suggest that the technology is unnecessary. I have considered the issue of adult stem cells very carefully and come to the conclusion that because they do not differentiate as much as embryonic cells, that is a severe medical and scientific disadvantage. We do not quite know how to explain it, but if I understand it rightly—and I defer to the scientists present—it is a bit like taking photocopies. After a time they start running out of toner and getting a bit dim. That is one of the problems of the system, to use a commonplace analogy.

I hope that we will take a civilised view, like any civilised country, and build up a bank of 20 or 30 stem cell lines which could be used as a renewable resource, rather like a blood bank. It is accepted that we have blood banks, which differentiate the different blood groups. The Medical Research Council has offered up to 50 such stem cell lines, because that is what is needed to overcome different immuno-responses.

A number of people are concerned about the policing aspect. I have thought very carefully about that. I know what happens in scientific communities; for 17 years, I have had the honour to represent Porton Down. If anyone thought that they were going to get away with anything, it would not last long, even under the Official Secrets Act, at Porton Down. Conspiracies never work, in my experience. Speaking as a former Minister, I can tell the House that the cock-up theory of Government always wins. However, in the scientific community, where there is peer pressure and peer review, conspiracies are attempted and fail They never work—someone always blows the whistle.

I shall not repeat my views on therapeutic cloning. I spoke in the debate in November. I made my views very clear and have published them on my website ever since, for all to see. I have, of course, consulted my bishop and the Bishop of Oxford, and I agree with them. We take the developmental view that human life is a continuum. I cannot say that human life starts at any particular moment, but I distinguish between human tissue and a human person.

Incidentally, the Bishop of Salisbury is concerned that the Government should reassure us that the benefits of stem cell therapeutic cloning will eventually be available to all on the national health service, not just to those who can pay. I hope that the Minister can confirm that. I go further than the bishop in seeking an assurance from the Minister that the benefits of any new therapy resulting from cloning will be available to all, and that there will be no postcode rationing and no need to refer it to the National Institute for Clinical Excellence.

I am also convinced that not everything that can be done by science should be done by science, and that is where Parliament comes in. I believe, too, that the moral arguments for and against permitting research using human embryos turn on the status accorded to the pre-14-day embryo. I have no doubt that they are human, but are they human tissue or human persons?

As I said in the debate on 17 November, I share the view of the former Archbishop of York, John Habgood, who has argued that the value that we attach to the lives of human beings—a value that is the root of all morality— increases as human life develops, and that we are therefore entitled, morally, to hold the life of a recently fertilised egg as less to be protected than that of a foetus at a later stage or a baby when it is born. The archbishop argued that not only is that morally acceptable, it is in fact what we do. Can those who think that there should be no distinction or degrees of human sanctity explain why we have saints?

Nature is profligate. We do not mourn for wasted sperm and eggs, alive though they are, nor for the three quarters of fertilised eggs that are lost before implant, half of which are genetically impaired. As the Bishop of Oxford has said: If every fertilised egg was indeed a soul, that is, an immortal spiritual reality created independently of the biological process, then, according to these figures, three quarters of heaven would be populated by souls that lived for less than a week. This does not seem congruous with what we know of a God who has chosen to create persons through a process of development. What of the slippery slope argument? First, it depends on whether we believe that the slope is going up or down. For science, the slope is mostly uphill—two steps forward and one step back. Even if one believes that the slope is downhill, if the first step is taken it is not inevitable that the next step should follow. Is it morally right to prohibit that first step? In logic, there is certainly no need—no necessity demands that second or third steps should follow the first—but that is Parliament's job and, in general, it has been well done.

Considering not the religious but the ethical or moral view, I can do no better than quote Baroness Warnock, who has written: We are not nothing but our genes. We must recognise that we are conscious beings able to form our own purposes, with powers both to understand and to control the laws of biology, as well as of physics. It may be our moral duty to scrutinise, criticise and regulate the projects of biological scientists in the light of our concept of a common good. It cannot be our moral duty to repress and prohibit altogether the exercise of their inventive and creative genius. I believe that the human intellectual abilities that allow us to understand and manipulate our world are God-given powers. To scientific knowledge and the powers that it confers, we must add wisdom to accept the good and refuse the bad. The benefits that may be achieved in healing the sick in this case outweigh the down side of using cells that may have the potential for a full human life. If we can hold out hope for some alleviation of the miseries of diseases such as Alzheimer's then, being human, we have a duty to do so. If that involves cell transplants or genetic manipulation, let us pursue such goals. Let us recognise that in changing some genes in some human beings we are not changing human nature.

As the Bishop of Oxford said on "Thought for the Day" last Friday, we are not playing at being God—we are being human. A human being does what human beings should do, which is to show a sense of respect for the miracle of human life and use our miraculous capacity to make human life better.