Human Fertilisation and Embryology (Research Purposes) Regulations 2000

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:41 pm on 22nd January 2001.

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Photo of Lord Alton of Liverpool Lord Alton of Liverpool Crossbench 3:41 pm, 22nd January 2001

My Lords, the fact that more than 40 Members of your Lordships' House have sought to speak in today's debate underlines, as the Minister has said, the momentous and awesome nature of the decisions that we are invited to address. My principal concerns fall into four areas: constitutional, legal, scientific, and ethical.

Before turning to those concerns I want to speak about the amendment that is before the House. Over the weekend it has been suggested that it may not be legitimate to bring forward such an amendment, but the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, said in a debate on subordinate legislation that the House,

"has an unfettered right to vote on any subordinate legislation submitted for its consideration".--[Official Report, 20/10/94; col. 364]

The amendments before us--in favour of a Select Committee report before we reach a decision on this matter or a retrospective Select Committee report--show that we have made some progress over the past seven days in our thinking on this important issue. At least there is now an acceptance that there should be a Select Committee to consider these matters. I am grateful to the Minister for what he has said to the House today.

Before Christmas, when I tabled my amendment suggesting that such a Select Committee should meet, I discussed the matter with my noble friend Lord Walton of Detchant--I always enjoy a conversation with him--who said that there is no need for a Select Committee and that we should agree with them forthwith. So I regard the fact that the Minister has said that the Government will accept the principle of a Select Committee as progress.

The next matter to decide is whether there should be a retrospective Select Committee. Imagine a court of law where the judge gave out the verdict and sentence before hearing the defence, the prosecution and the witnesses. Such a process would be held up to ridicule. I believe that if a Select Committee were to meet after we have agreed to these regulations, we should be in danger of dealing with such a momentous issue in quite the wrong way.

Another point on the amendments is that when the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, looked at the future of this House and its deliberations, he reported on the issue of statutory instruments. He envisaged the possibility of disagreement between this place and another place. In Chapter 7 of his report, on page 77, he said that where such a disagreement occurs, there should be a three-month period for reflection.

A Select Committee of your Lordships' House could be required to report within a three-month period. It could place its proposals before the House after which it would be perfectly possible for the Government to relay their regulations, possibly amended, to another place. All that would then be required would be a one-and-a-half-hour debate in a committee and not even on the Floor of the House. That is the point on the amendments before us today: whether to have a Select Committee now or after we have taken a decision on the regulations.

I turn to the common ground before I speak on the four areas that I have mentioned. It is worth stating that every noble Lord wants to see progress made in combating the degenerative diseases to which the Minister has referred. No one here is in favour of unnecessary pain or unnecessary suffering. Overwhelmingly, your Lordships will deplore anything that smacks of eugenics or of germ-line gene therapy. All noble Lords will want to see good science and good ethics marching hand in hand.

Observers of this House should note that this debate is being held with reference to our best traditions, with respect being shown for each other's deeply held beliefs and differences.

I have said that the arguments for prudence and caution fall into four categories: constitutional, legal, scientific and ethical. I shall speak to those subjects in turn. Over the life of this Parliament many of us have questioned the way in which the Government have dealt with legislation. This is another such instance. It is wholly inappropriate to use unamendable regulations to deal with an issue of this importance. The Government have indicated to us today, as they did in another place, that ultimately they will introduce a Bill to outlaw reproductive cloning. I welcome that. But why not wait to deal with therapeutic cloning at the same time in a Bill that will be open to amendments?

Under Section 19 of the Human Rights Act 1998, the Government are required to produce a compatibility statement on the face of a Bill stating that there is no conflict with European law. If we were debating a Bill rather than regulations the Government simply would not be able to do that--certainly not if they are serious about our intentions to sign the European Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine, which under Article 18.2 prohibits therapeutic cloning outright. Hence we have regulations rather than primary legislation.

In parenthesis, I add that this is a curiously convoluted world in which we can find parliamentary time for a Bill that protects foxes but we cannot find time for a Bill that will lead to the manufacture and elimination of countless human embryos.

Regulations of this kind also dispense with the dreary business of detailed scrutiny, transparency and proper parliamentary opposition. In another place Members were at least given the opportunity for two preliminary debates of five hours each before a vote was taken. Even that poor substitute for Committee and Report stages has not taken place in this House.

The danger of dispensing with due process is that democracy will be brought into disrepute and that public cynicism about our institutions will simply be deepened. That is why, along with noble Lords with whom I differ on the status of the human embryo, such as my noble friend Lady Warnock and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford, we have offered an alternative today that will allow for sober reflection and for proper debate, being agreed that this issue should not be dealt with in this manner. Indeed, in a recent interview, my noble friend said that such matters should not be shovelled through Parliament. I agree with her.

In a landmark report to your Lordships' House, the Science and Technology Committee stated that post-BSE and after the saga of genetic crops, science is facing an emerging crisis of confidence in Britain. The committee said:

"many are deeply uneasy about the huge opportunities presented by areas of science including biotechnology and information technology, which seem to be advancing far ahead of their awareness and assent. In turn, public unease, mistrust and outright hostility are breeding a climate of deep anxiety among scientists themselves ... Science's relationship with United Kingdom society is under strain".

It is hard to see how the use of unamendable regulations will lessen that strain or combat the hostility and mistrust identified by the Science and Technology Committee.

I have one other observation about the constitutional process. In this country there is a fine and honourable tradition of holding free votes on issues of conscience. Outsiders have an expectation that this House will examine issues in a less partisan and more reflective manner. During my 18 years in another place--many noble Lords have longer first-hand experience--I cannot recall such active involvement by a government department in lobbying on one side of the argument. For instance, when the Department of Health was asked to allow Professor Neil Scolding, Burden Professor of Clinical Neuroscience at Frenchay Hospital, Bristol, to speak at the meeting which the department organised in your Lordships' House, it declined to let him put the case against the use of embryonic stem cells or to accept any other opposing speaker. That does nothing for intelligent or tolerant debate and does nothing for free speech or for the handling of these conscience issues.

I would therefore put in a plea that beyond today's debate and the reasonable right of a Minister to come to your Lordships' House and address us in a forthright and lucid manner, as the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, has properly done today, departments should behave with impeccable neutrality in "free vote" matters.

So much for the constitutional issues at stake. As I said, there are legal issues, too, and the regulations raise important questions of law. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Rawlinson of Ewell, former Attorney-General, and the noble Lord, Lord Brennan, will address those matters in more detail. Suffice it to say, the High Court will receive an application for judicial review on Friday next seeking to test the Government's response to the Donaldson report. The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, has drawn attention to that in the amendment which she has tabled and she has kindly said that she will support my amendment tonight.

One of the issues addressed by that case is the potential for these regulations to pave the way for reproductive cloning, even if that may happen inadvertently. The Government say that they are opposed to that development and today the Minister said--I agree with him--that we should all feel a sense of repugnance about such a proposal. If that case is upheld, this debate is being considered on an entirely false premise.

In a parliamentary reply on 8th January, the Minister stated that on 13th December last the European Parliament voted to set up a temporary committee on human genetics and other new technologies in modern medicine. The European Parliament, together with the Council of Europe, has already voted in favour of a total ban on all forms of therapeutic and reproductive cloning. Pushing through these regulations will make it far more difficult to enforce internationally accepted norms--and we are all agreed that if others decide to break the law elsewhere these issues fall outside the remit of any individual parliament.

Noble Lords will have seen the impressive letter, signed by European parliamentarians drawn from all political traditions, urging us not to pass a precipitate and premature measure. Given the opposition from President Clinton's bioethics committee and President Bush's stated opposition, we are left extraordinarily isolated. Surely we would not want to become a safe haven for unscrupulous practice.

Throughout the world, civilised countries have banned techniques which allow germ-line gene therapy; that is, the manipulation of future generations. Inadvertently, these regulations may further isolate us from world opinion and practice. In the treatment of rare mitochondrial diseases, where disease originates from the cytoplasm of egg cells rather than from the nucleus, as mentioned in the Donaldson report, it is proposed that a mother's nucleus may be substituted before fertilisation and implantation into a donor's egg. That has been characterised as the two mother/one father treatment. At paragraph 23, the Donaldson report states:

"Given the genetic makeup of any child born as a result of this technique, it would not constitute reproductive cloning. The resulting child would not be genetically identical to anyone else. Nonetheless, concerns have been expressed that oocyte nucleus transfer represents a modification to the human genome"-- it represents a modification to the human genome--

"which can be passed to the next generation".

If regulations are made under the Act to permit research into possible treatments into disease, and that research successfully develops treatments for mitochondrial diseases, such treatments could be licensed by the HFEA and so a pregnancy could be created. If germ-line therapies are not to be permitted, how can we countenance such research? What is the point in initiating basic research if the process is not permitted? Are we truly confident that such awesome and momentous implications have been adequately ventilated?

Professor Donaldson, in his report, also stated:

"The use of CNR to produce human embryos may be said to create a new form of early embryo which is genetically identical to the donor of the cell nucleus. This prospect goes further than that contemplated by either the Warnock committee or Parliament when it debated these issues".

It is clearly wrong, then, as Ministers have done in another place, to state that,

"the regulations do not raise any new moral issues beyond those that have already been debated and discussed in passing the current law".--[Official Report, Commons, 19/12/00; col. 213.]

As the Minister told us, in addition to permitting new practices, these regulations also place a legal obligation on the HFEA to police the new arrangements and to establish that no other alternatives exist.

In another place, the Minister said that the HFEA,

"must satisfy itself that there is no other way of doing the research, avoiding embryo use".--[Official Report, Commons, 19/12/00; col. 214.]

I welcome that, but paragraph 3(2) of Schedule 2 to the Act goes further than the Minister indicated to the House today. It states that the HFEA must satisfy itself that research is necessary or desirable. That is a much less stringent requirement than we are being told.

In any case, how in law is such a Solomon's judgment to be arrived at? How will the law work? Will the HFEA hear evidence? Will any dissenting voices be appointed to the authority to put an alternative point of view? What right of appeal will exist?

The HFEA is already overstretched and unable to undertake its duties effectively. Many of your Lordships will have seen a report in the Sunday Times of 7th January that up to 500 human embryos will be destroyed at a clinic in Hampshire because administrators,

"have admitted that they may be unable to return any of them to the right parents".

The solicitor representing the distressed women involved said that the HFEA had,

"inspected the clinic just before all this came to light. There is concern that the rules allow for a situation like this to develop".

What business have we in imposing further onerous duties on a body which is clearly unable effectively to discharge its current duties and responsibilities?

If the constitutional issues and the law should cause us to pause, so should the scientific questions. None of us in this House is anti-science but nor should we be blinded or silenced by it. Last week at various briefing meetings, I heard eminent scientists state that the use of human embryos is wholly unnecessary in achieving cures for terrible degenerative diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.

Professor Neil Scolding, a specialist in multiple sclerosis, stated that,

"it is simply not accurate to say that embryonic stem cells have an immediate therapy potential. It is a significant exaggeration of the true position".

He points to new developments over the past six months, since Professor Donaldson and the Royal Society looked at these issues, stating that,

"evidence shows that there is an alternative".

He says that there are two fallacies: one is that cures from embryonic stem cells are imminent; and the other is that adult stem cells are unlikely to be as effective.

It is cruelly misleading to pretend that cures are around the corner or that embryonic stem cells offer the best hope of a breakthrough. Dr Philip Jones, a scientist working at Oxford University, spoke at a meeting in your Lordships' House on Monday last. He has researched stem cells for the past decade. He told us that adult stem cells offered far greater potential for cures than embryonic stem cells. He added,

"Because these cells come from the patient's own body there would be no problem with immune rejection".

President Clinton's bioethics committee reached the same conclusion, stating that adult stem cells hold none of the moral problems associated with embryonic stem cells.

Dr Michael Antoniou, head of the nuclear biology group at Guy's Hospital, said that,

"adult stem cells have as much if not more therapeutic potential than those derived from embryos".

It is often said that in some therapies only embryonic cells may be used. Dr Antoniou said that nothing had been achieved to date with embryonic stem cells that had not also been achieved with adult stem cells, and that,

"adult bone marrow derived cells can contribute to all neural cell types in animal model studies".

I draw your Lordships' attention to a letter which appeared this morning signed by 49 young medics at the University of Cambridge in which they say that both their training as medical students and current research indicate that adult stem cells have as much therapeutic potential as embryonic stem cells.

Some noble Lords will also have seen the report in The Times last week that in this country Dr Ilham Abuljadayel had claimed to have devised a process which created endless supplies of stem cells from adult stem cells simply by using a donor's blood. Clearly, that was not a matter which the Donaldson committee was able to consider before the regulations were formulated. If scientific opinion is so divided and is moving at such speed, should we with confidence proceed without properly scrutinising these claims and calling the scientists to whom I have referred before a committee of your Lordships' House so that they can give proper evidence?

I turn finally to the ethical issues. Your Lordships will have received a letter from 11 of our religious leaders, headed by the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury. They include the Chief Rabbi, the Cardinal Archbishop of Glasgow, the President of the Muslim College, the Director of the Sikh Network and other leaders of the Christian denominations. They have been joined by His Holiness the Dalai Lama in appealing to your Lordships to consider further both the scientific and the ethical questions posed by the use of embryonic stem cells before these regulations are passed. I believe that such a joint letter is without precedent. Are all of these appeals to reflect and deliberate further simply to be swept aside?

One does not have to believe in the sanctity of human life, or that life begins at fertilisation, to be concerned about the general commodification of life. Every generation is tempted by the seductive and tantalising prospect of universal happiness as a trump over all other values and principles, but human dignity must always be defended against the abuse of scientific techniques. It will not be lost on your Lordships that it was the Deputy Chairman of the Ethics Committee of the Reichstag, Hubert Hueppe, who said last month that it was cannibalistic to,

"breed a human being, only to kill it, disembowel it and impregnate something with it".

The language may be more strident than we are used to but the ethical issues that it raises cannot be lightly dismissed. Indeed, the Donaldson committee clearly stated:

"Although these embryos differ in the method of their creation, they are undoubtedly human embryonic life, which, given the right conditions, could develop into a human being".

The commodified view, which treats the human embryo as just another accessory to be created, bartered, frozen or destroyed, is not one that commends itself to me or many outside this House. When the Minister tells the House of Commons that a pre-14-day-old embryo has the "power" to facilitate cures to mankind's misery, to me it simply underlines that, even at this early stage of development, we are not dealing with something that is inconsequential. There is nothing therapeutic in this procedure for the new human embryo: once it has been used, it will be destroyed. There is no question here of donor rights or consent. Since 1990, when miracle cures were promised for 4,000 inherited diseases, between 300,000 and half a million human embryos have been destroyed or experimented upon. There have been no cures, but our willingness to walk this road has paved the way for more and more demands.

Dr John Wyatt, professor of neonatal paediatrics at the Royal Free, expresses the dilemma well:

"I and many of my fellow health professionals have a profound disquiet about the introduction of therapeutic cloning. Many of us are actively involved in research to find novel therapies for life threatening, disabling conditions. However, the creation and manipulation of living human embryos for the sole purpose of generating therapeutic tissue seems incompatible with respect for vulnerable human life. The redefinition of human embryos as mere biological material, as 'totipotent stem cells' in order to allay public concerns, smacks of semantic trickery rather than responsible debate".

The pressure to speak in today's debate underlines that these are not trivial questions which preoccupy a few moral theologians; they are at the heart of our humanity. What is clear is that we are inadequately prepared to vote on these regulations today, that the ethical and political process which we are using to decide these issues is inappropriate and inadequate, and that in agreeing to the amendment which I have laid before your Lordships' House we shall allow the exercise of prudence and caution. I am grateful to noble Lords for hearing me out. I beg to move.

Moved, as an amendment to the Motion, to leave out all the words after "That" and insert "this House declines to approve the draft regulations laid before the House on 12th December until a Select Committee of the House of Lords has reported on the issues connected with human cloning and stem cell research".--(Lord Alton of Liverpool.)