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Stem Cell Research

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:24 pm on 3rd May 2007.

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Photo of Baroness Carnegy of Lour Baroness Carnegy of Lour Conservative 12:24 pm, 3rd May 2007

My Lords, I shall say a brief word about human embryonic cell research. Undoubtedly, stem cell research is near the top of the list of the world's most hopeful enterprises. We in the UK are at the forefront of that endeavour, so my heart sank when last weekend at a party I met a young Roman Catholic priest and I mentioned this debate. "Tell them," he said, "there are plenty of ways of doing that without killing babies".

I might almost have agreed with that young man when in 1990 I became involved in this House in the passage of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. That process and the visits, meetings and Committee reports that went with it, changed my mind. The big decision that had to be made then was whether to allow the minute cluster of cells that form the very beginning of the human embryo to be used during the first few days of its existence for research. As someone with a deeply Christian perception of life and a bit of a layman's interest in theology, I gradually came to the conclusion that it was right to allow that research but only for 14 days, only for medical research and under strict licence. Yes, the embryo had the potential to become a person, but at 14 days it was still a tiny cell cluster the size of a grain of sand and as yet without even the earliest development of what would become the spinal cord and nervous system. Importantly, because it would be an embryo surplus to a couple's in vitro fertilisation need, it was in any case destined to be thrown away. The potential benefits of research as seen at that time, weighed against those facts, convinced me and the majority in Parliament—and so the Bill became law.

The current anxiety about embryonic stem cell research, which is mainly about the use of human embryos, is the same anxiety as that in 1990. It is, indeed, the same as the anxiety that existed 40 years ago when the noble Lord, Lord Steel, put the Abortion Act on the statute book. That anxiety is linked to people's understanding of what it is to be human and how and when that understanding grows in response to the revelations of science. It grows at different speeds in different parts of the community.

For us in this country, the seminal legal decision was made in 1990, and it still stands. Embryonic stem cells currently show by far the greatest promise and they can be used for research up to 14 days. The question today is a lesser one by far—whether the type of that research should be extended, how more embryos can become available and how regulation needs improving to enable the extension. Given the facts and with the assurance of careful regulation and the involvement of local ethics committees, which is very important, I believe that the majority of the public are ready for these new developments.

Four years ago, 70 per cent of our population showed support for the use of human embryos. Since then, the media have been full of the possibilities of embryonic stem cells. They have been discussing the unsuccessful attempt by President Bush to slow up research in the United States and progress all over the world.

On the whole, public reaction seems strongly positive on condition that proper regulation exists. After all, most people have family or friends whose medical problems might be alleviated and GPs, who are closest to the public, support progress. We simply must not dally. The Government should think very hard about increasing funding. We should legislate carefully to extend embryonic stem cell research now with matching supervision and licensing. At the moment the United Kingdom is in the vanguard; let us stay there.