Stem Cell Research: Select Committee Report

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:41 pm on 5th December 2002.

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Photo of Lord Tombs Lord Tombs Crossbench 5:41 pm, 5th December 2002

My Lords, the debate which led to the setting up of the Select Committee lasted for almost seven hours and attracted a large number of speakers. Those speakers can be divided into three groups—those supporting the government Motion without reservation, those supporting it with reservations, and those opposing it.

In the first group—those supporting the Motion without reservation—there were 14 speakers, two of whom were later appointed members of the Select Committee. In the second group—those supporting the Motion with reservations—there were 11 speakers, two of whom were later appointed members of the Select Committee, and one of them chairman. In the third group—those opposing the Motion—there were 13 speakers, none of whom was appointed to the Select Committee.

Therefore, of the eventual membership of the Select Committee—11 in all—four were appointed from those supporting the Motion, and none from those opposing it. I believe that the Committee of Selection, perhaps unknowingly, served the House badly in that regard. The respect which Select Committees of this House enjoy widely is based on the belief that they are fully independent of the issues being considered. That is a valuable asset which must be jealously and conscientiously guarded.

However, when we turn to the declaration of interests by committee members, the situation worsens. Of the 11 members, nine declared interests—past or present—in academic fields, medical charities or the pharmaceutical industry, which could lead them to favour unfettered medical research. Of course, such a background does not preclude examination of the ethical dimension, but it suggests sympathies and peer pressures that make an independent appraisal more difficult.

In those circumstances, I have sympathy with the members of the committee. They were placed in a situation where their natural sympathies lay with unfettered medical research and were not exposed to the challenging discussions which would normally take place in a Select Committee.

So it was no surprise, to me at least, that the conclusions of the Select Committee supported the policy of the Government. It was no surprise, but it was a great disappointment because it meant that an historic opportunity to introduce an ethical dimension into this medical research policy was missed. Instead, on this subject at least, the unenviable position of the United Kingdom as one of the most ethically indifferent of western nations was confirmed.

The Select Committee concluded that the embryo enjoyed special but not absolute rights—a view, incidentally, not shared by many church leaders and theologians. But it also concluded that research on human embryos could be ethically justified only if there was no alternative. Here the alternative route of adult stem research is crucial. We owe a great debt to my noble friend Lord Alton for using his appearance before the Select Committee to introduce scientific evidence on the immense developments in that field. I am sorry to say that the Select Committee failed to recognise the importance of that evidence.

But, perhaps because of that, Recommendation (xix) of the report suggests that,

"At an appropriate time, perhaps towards the end of the decade, the Government should undertake a further review of scientific developments, particularly of the progress of adult stem cell research and therapies, and of the development of stem cell banks, with a view to determining whether research on human embryos is still necessary".

The Government have accepted that recommendation.

Welcome though such a recommendation is, it raises the question of why the benefit of the doubt is not given to the embryo rather than to the research scientist. A carefully argued written submission by the Roman Catholic Bishop of Plymouth, the right reverend Christopher Budd, put the case for a five-year moratorium on embryo stem cell research, and recent developments in the field certainly support that advice.

The view of the Standing Committee that embryo research is necessary for the present rests on the fact that the UK research establishment remains fixated on embryo research and its seemingly great potential. The astonishing advances in adult stem cell research and therapy over the past two years have taken place in other countries, notably the USA, and it is unfortunate that the Select Committee failed to invite evidence on the current situation from those countries. Instead, it relied heavily on advice from British scientists, influenced by their attachment to embryo research and unfamiliar in many cases with the rapid advances in adult stem cell work internationally.

I digress to say that it is not in the least surprising to me that scientists in one field do not seek to criticise the need for work in other fields—dog does not eat dog—and that researchers are content to work in their own fields and to observe with interest the work of others. It would be naive and unfair to expect them to decide the issues which the Select Committee was set up to examine.

The same mistake must not be made in any future review of the need for research on embryo stem cells, and the speed of developments in adult stem cell research and therapy make the suggestion of a review towards the end of the decade an unsatisfactory one. Instead, the pace of development requires, in my view, that there should be an annual review by a standing committee, independent of government and including international scientists familiar with developments in the adult stem cell field. I hope that the Government will seriously consider that option.