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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

I agree.

Earlier in our debate, a question was asked about the effectiveness of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, as some considerable responsibility lies with it. Generally, it has not been more lax than society in general, as was suggested. The famous case of Diane Blood, who wanted to use, posthumously, the sperm of her husband to procreate, was opposed down the line by the HFEA, even though that went against public opinion, particularly as portrayed in the tabloid media. The HFEA was unbowing in its opposition to that proposal, even though there was an uproar that that poor lady—as, indeed, she was as the result of her bereavement—could not start a family because she did not have her husband's written consent, as required by the regulations that were then in force. People who are concerned about the HFEA should therefore be reassured that it will not merely yield to public pressure on some of these matters.

One recommendation in the Donaldson report was that the HFEA should deal with the question of consent. Research will not be done on any embryos, and cell nuclear replacement—if it takes place—will not be done with any eggs without the consent of the donors of the embryos and eggs. That will be a personal decision for individuals who will or will not subscribe to the balance of benefits that we are discussing.

Some of the points about adult stem cell research made by the hon. Member for Hamilton, South (Mr. Tynan), and also by the hon. Member for Congleton, completely miss the point. I hope that they will be reassured on their concerns about scientific opinion, the potential of adult stem cells, the role of the HFEA and the likely path of scientists themselves. It is not correct, as a previous speaker said, that science is split on the subject. There will always be scientists who, perhaps for their own religious reasons, will express a view—such as that held by anti-evolutionary creationist scientists—which they do not claim as scientific per se, but rather the opinion of a scientist. It is not reasonable to get a scientist to state that view and then say that science is split, simply because there are scientists on both sides. One must look at peer-reviewed overviews of the literature and the state of science. The opinion of, for example, the Wellcome Trust, the Royal Society and the British Medical Association must have more resonance than the opinions of individual scientists.

I have challenged speakers previously, and said that scientists who are working on adult stem cells recognise the need for embryological work to continue at the same time. Indeed, many scientists derive their results from putting adult stem cells in animal models into embryological environments. It would therefore be illogical for them to oppose embryological stem cell research. Those scientists who, perhaps, have the most to lose from research grants going to embryological work will not come out with the views that their science has been cited as backing. Indeed, many have said that they are appalled that their research has been cited by those who describe it as an exclusive alternative to work with embryonic stem cells.