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Orders of the Day — Human Fertilisation and Embryology

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:53 pm on 19th December 2000.

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Photo of Fiona Mactaggart Fiona Mactaggart Labour, Slough 5:53 pm, 19th December 2000

I am glad to follow the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire), my constituency neighbour. A letter that I wrote to a community of nuns in Slough reads: One of the things that I envy in people like the members of your community, who have a faith, is that you have the comfort of having certainty about these questions. I have to try to work out how to balance the different arguments and I am still struggling with that. As most Members will know, I concluded that struggle and spoke about it on Friday. It has been strange. I suppose I came out, as some would call it, as having multiple sclerosis. It is known that I am infertile. It is odd that I have suddenly been treated, in the words of The Times, as the "disabled MP". I have become defined by my condition. When we decide on these issues, we need to ensure that we do not let that happen. We must ensure that people with disabilities have rights, and that their rights and views are respected.

I was upset by the speech of the hon. Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton), in which she said that most people who are infertile are guilty of something called life style. It is true that sexually transmitted diseases lead to infertility in many instances, but there are many other reasons for it. Many people who have a restrained life style acquire sexually transmitted diseases. I admire the energy with which my hon. Friend Minister for Public Health is tackling that issue.

We must ensure that we do not allow ourselves to be pushed off course by a debate that does not form the basis on which a decision should be made. Strangely, most of the discussion on this subject in the newspapers has been about cloning. We shall vote on a set of regulations that simply allow three more purposes for research of embryonic material. Those are to increase knowledge about the development of embryos; to increase knowledge about serious diseases; and to enable any such knowledge to be applied in developing treatments for serious disease.

Let us consider the purposes for which such research is already permitted. It is already permitted to improve the efficacy of contraception and to deal with infertility and genetically inherited diseases, but it is not permitted to deal with many of the other diseases which, we have learned through stem cell research, could be subject to substantial new treatment.

Whatever our view, if we accept the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 and the existing regulations, it would be unforgivable not to vote for the proposed extension. Members have rightly been worried about the potential of cell nuclear replacement, but it has been said this afternoon that that could not lead to a developed human being. Although that is scientifically impossible now, it is not conceptually impossible. However, it is illegal. We need to be honest with ourselves and recognise that there is a difference between something being impossible and something being illegal.

In theory, cell nuclear replacement could lead to a developed human being. That is why we are all anxious, and why we are discussing that possibility rather than what the debate is supposed to be about. It is right for Members to urge the Minister to seek primary legislation at an early opportunity, before the theoretical possibility becomes a real one. We are all deeply concerned about the theoretical possibility and about ensuring that the rigorous protection that exists in the 1990 Act is backed up and strengthened further by primary legislation. I believe that we should be talking to other countries about their framework for research. In Britain, we have pioneered a framework that provides that, in every case, the scientist must show that there is no substitute for embryonic material. That is the right way to deal with these matters because the embryo deserves special status.

Apart from Members, such as the hon. Member for Congleton, who think that there is never any reason to carry out research on embryos, none of us can in conscience vote against the regulations. We can, however, continue to press the Department to introduce primary legislation at the earliest opportunity.