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Human Fertilisation and Embryology

Part of Living Wage (Reporting) – in the House of Commons at 2:45 pm on 3rd February 2015.

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Photo of Steven Baker Steven Baker Conservative, Wycombe 2:45 pm, 3rd February 2015

I approach this subject with a considerable degree of humility, for two reasons. First, I will never forget meeting a family in my constituency whose child suffers from mitochondrial disease; there was both a haunting sorrow in that family and also the hope that if these regulations are passed they will be able to have a child without this problem. Secondly, I am very aware of my own shortcomings in relation to biological science. As a chartered engineer, I am perhaps more competent in the physical sciences, and I do not mind admitting that I had to look up at least a few of the words in the regulations in order to understand them.

As I have listened to this debate, not only today, but previously, I have wondered whether we have really reflected on how science proceeds, because scientific truth is not established by authority or by democratic vote; it is established, as Karl Popper put it, through “conjecture and refutation”—trial and error. Someone who reads Thomas Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” will discover that it is possible for quite large bodies of knowledge to be developed with errors in them. When those errors are corrected, the paradigm shifts—that is a term we have all heard. That is how science proceeds, through trial and error. The reality is that there will always be uncertainty in any scientific procedure.

When the Commons Library summarised the Nuffield Council on Bioethics’ review, the second point mentioned was this:

“The knowledge about these techniques is uncertain and could remain so for several generations—their use could potentially harm future persons.”

Luciana Berger, speaking from the Front Bench, made the point that, broadly, the question before us was whether there was a reason to withhold these techniques from people. If there is a reason, it is that they may do harm to future persons. I will not support the measure because this is inherently uncertain. That uncertainty is an inherent part of science, and it is no good appealing to authority to try to resolve the question, because different authorities will disagree and there is no way to resolve those disagreements apart from through empirical evidence, which we can obtain only by experimenting on humans.