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Orders of the Day — Human Fertilisation and Embryology

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:22 pm on 19th December 2000.

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Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Liberal Democrat, Oxford West and Abingdon 6:22 pm, 19th December 2000

The speech by the Minister for Public Health was one of the best speeches that I have heard, in what I accept is my short time here, in terms of her grasp of a complex subject and the clarity with which she put her case. That was extremely helpful.

May I also say, on behalf of some of those who urged the Minister to do so, that it was wise and sensitive of her to have amended the regulations slightly, to make it clear that we were talking about research into serious diseases, rather than carte blanche for medical research generally? The proposals contain a balance of benefits. Even those who take a different view of them will accept that.

We heard powerful speeches from the hon. Members for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) and for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), on both Friday and today. We also heard persuasive and clear arguments from the hon. Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton) and, on Friday, from the hon. Member for Bolton, West (Ms Kelly). It is useful that the Minister heard those contributions, because certain issues will come down the line in later years, and the House will have to address them.

The fact that we are discussing the matter today is proof that there is no automatic slippery slope. We cannot go beyond the point laid down in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 without obtaining parliamentary approval within a democratic and accountable system. Those who say, in debate, that this process would create a slippery slope are, by definition, contradicting their own point. The House may vote against the regulations—although I hope that it does not—and that would prevent our moving down what those people see as a slippery slope. I agree with the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) that the slope can go up or down, and I believe that in this instance it is going up, and that we should not be concerned about that danger. However, I am delighted that we are having this debate and that we shall have the chance to vote on the issue.

There are people here who have made it clear that they will always oppose any work on embryos. That view has to be respected, because it is clear, precise and well put, not only in the Chamber but in the organised processes by which it is communicated to MPs across the country. However, that argument is not an exclusive moral argument. I do not believe that the moral arguments are all on that side. Those of us who do not take the view that the spirit enters the human being at conception, or that that is when life begins, are also under a moral imperative, once we have found out about all the other issues, to support the regulations. That is an equally ethical approach, given one's starting point.

The religious arguments are not all on the other side. I do not claim to be an expert on religion, but I take advice from those who are. The hon. Member for Salisbury made it clear that opinion in the Church of England is, at worst, split. At best, it understands the ethical basis on which this kind of research can be carried out. In a paper produced for the Church of England's board of social responsibility, Canon Dr. John Polkinghorne—a well respected theological ethicist—set out the developmental approach to the status of the embryo. It is the approach that I take, and, from what the Minister said, I believe that it is the approach that she and others also take. The paper states: This stance accords the embryo a profound moral respect on the basis of its potential to develop into a human being, but it sees that ethical status of human personhood as being something that develops with the increasing complexity of being. While an absolute stance is the present official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, a developmental view of human personhood has not historically been absent from Christian thinking. St. Thomas Aquinas held the Aristotelian opinion that 'ensoulment' (presumably, human personhood) took place at 40 days for a male foetus and at 90 days for a female foetus. As I understand it, their current view was not adopted by the Catholic Church until some point during the 19th century. The paper goes on: The developmental view underlay the majority opinion in the Warnock Report and it is the basis for the HFE Act of 1990, with its restriction of embryo growth in vitro to 14 days and its permission to use embryos within that limit for tightly defined and specifically licensed research purposes. The embryo is being regarded as very much more than a 'speck of protoplasm', for it may only be manipulated for serious purposes that otherwise would be unattainable. The limit of 14 days is based on the end of the possibility of natural splitting (producing identical twins from a single embryo) and the beginning of differentiation with the onset of the primitive streak. It might be held to be a limit judged with some degree of conservative caution. That shows that there are people who can describe themselves as religious who do not automatically oppose the regulations.