Stem Cell Research: Select Committee Report

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:47 pm on 5th December 2002.

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Photo of Baroness Warnock Baroness Warnock Crossbench 5:47 pm, 5th December 2002

My Lords, I add my congratulations and expressions of gratitude to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford and his committee on their report. I declare an interest having been involved in the 1990 legislation, within the framework of which the debate is now taking place.

The report has been criticised on the ground that its conclusions were wholly predictable, but that does not entail that they are wrong. I find it difficult to understand the suggestion that the report is in favour of unfettered medical research because it is clear that the framework of regulation within which research using human embryos is carried out is rigorous and quite specific. I also find it difficult to understand how it can be said of the report that it has missed an opportunity to revisit the ethical and moral considerations that lie behind the 1990 legislation.

I shall confine my few remarks to Chapter 4 of the report, where the central moral issue of the status to be accorded to the early human embryo is discussed. As the report notes, this moral question has not changed since the 1980s and the lead-up to the legislation of 1990.

In paragraphs 4.6 to 4.17 (pages 21 to 22) of the report, under the heading "Should the early embryo be treated as a person?", I thought that the report, for once, failed in clarity. It failed to make clear the confusion generated by introducing the concept of personhood into the debate. The question of whether the embryo is a person is not a different question from that of the status we should accord to the embryo; it is exactly the same question.

People sometimes speak as though asking whether an embryo is a person is like asking whether an animal is a horse—a member of the genus equus—to be settled by observation, scientifically. But, of course, that is not the case. The question of whether someone or something is a person is a legal—or, at least, quasi-legal—question, a matter of deeming someone to be a person. There is no sense in saying such things as, "The embryo may possibly be a person", or, "The embryo is probably, or probably not, a person". Neither probability nor discovery comes into the question at all. It is a matter of decision—and Parliament did decide in 1990 that the early embryo did not have the right to the protection that presumably belongs to persons.

I regret that in the original report that led up to the 1990 legislation we used words such as "respect for the embryo". That seems to me to lead to certain absurdities. You cannot respectfully pour something down the sink—which is the fate of the embryo after it has been used for research, or if it is not going to be used for research or for anything else.

I think that what we meant by the rather foolish expression "respect" was that the early embryo should never be used frivolously for research purposes. That is perfectly exemplified by the regulations that are brought in and the licensing provisions that are looked after by the HFEA. It is the non-frivolity of the research which is conveyed by such expressions as "respect for" or "protection for" the embryo.

Finally, one question that must be addressed is whether embryos should be created specially for research purposes. Personally, I have never been able to see any moral objection to creating embryos for research purposes once the central moral decision about the status of the early embryo has been taken. Of course, those who believe that the embryo must be given the full protection of the law from the moment, or the process, of fertilisation believe that it would be utterly wrong to create human embryos for research. But if you have taken the decision that the early embryo is to be used, where necessary, for research, my own view is that there is no difference between an embryo that is surplus to IVF requirements and an embryo that is specially created.

The enormous value, as I see it, of the new knowledge, the new science, the new understanding to be gained from embryonic stem cell research suggests that embryos should, if necessary, be specially created—so that this knowledge can be acquired and can ultimately be used for therapeutic purposes. I do not believe in a sharp distinction between fundamental research and practical and useful research. You cannot have therapeutic research unless you understand the science. That is brought out clearly in the report.

I am in favour, therefore, of using embryos created by cell nuclear replacement as research tools. But one point worries me. It was mentioned by my noble friend Lord Alton, and I believe it to be serious. There is the possibility that women may be exploited into giving away whole cycles of eggs. This was the most shocking story—I entirely agree with my noble friend. The HFEA or another body must address it immediately, perhaps by introducing new regulations to prevent the exploitation of women who, because they are desperate to have children, agree to give away a whole cycle of eggs in exchange for free IVF treatment. That is a shocking thing to do.

We need new regulations to cover egg donation. The possibility of donors being exploited is another reason to carry out research using adult stem cells rather than embryonic ones. However, both areas of research must be explored, and I accept fully the probable limitation of the use of adult stem cells.