Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

Stem Cell Research

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:44 pm on 3rd May 2007.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Baroness O'Cathain Baroness O'Cathain Conservative 12:44 pm, 3rd May 2007

My Lords, we must all be very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Patel, for initiating this debate on such an important area of research. The debate has been utterly fascinating and so informative; it has certainly increased my knowledge base. The absolute imperative that there should be much greater public understanding of stem cell research has just been so wonderfully explained by the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws. I had a 10-page speech ready, and I could tear it up and just say, "Amen to that". However, I have a couple of points to make, but I will stay within six minutes.

As a non-scientist, I have approached this subject from the point of view of caring for humanity, which is probably not unaffected by the fact that all the members of my immediate family, who are now dead and died far too young, would almost certainly have benefited from this type of research had it occurred 10 or 20 years earlier. There is a tremor in my voice even as I think about it. I absolutely agree with the noble Baroness when she asked whether we are in pursuit of perfection. Is it not better to have much happier, better lives, accepting all the flaws and frailties that we have, and try to make the best for all humanity, not just for those who will benefit from this research?

I could not agree more with the point about public opinion. When I heard the noble Lord, Lord Patel, say that 70 per cent of the general public supported stem cell research, I thought to myself, "70 per cent? Do they really understand it? Am I a complete moron? I am a non-scientist, but I do not really understand it". It was only the opportunity to speak in this debate that made me pore over so much of the information. I am convinced that 70 per cent of the public have not done that. I suspect it is like all things scientific; lay people feel that they have to cringe in a corner because scientists have so much more information and such bigger brains, and we probably feel inadequate and just agree with them. That is a serious issue. I have spoken to many non-scientific members of the public about this, and they think that embryonic cell research is a bridge too far. There have been undoubted successes with adult stem cell research. According to my research, something like 72 conditions have been helped by adult stem cell research. The other types of research deal with the sanctity of human life, which I know does not come high on everyone's agenda, but it does so for quite a lot of people.

I would guess that the public feel that adult stem cell research is fine, particularly bearing in mind that 72 conditions can be treated with it. People ask about embryonic research, but as far as I can see no treatments have come from embryonic stem cell research. There has been the huge scare story that has already been referred to today of the Korean experiment. People feel that this is an area of potential abuse, and that feeling will grow unless there is a greater understanding of the basic science. The possibility of human-animal hybrids, or chimera embryos, seems to really scare people. It smacks too much of eugenics and of what we are led to believe happened in the 1940s in central Europe. In any case, if such entities were permitted, it would raise huge questions over what is classed as human and what is classed as animal. Some scientists may think that it is an irrelevant question for the purposes of research, but it causes a problem and it raises profound questions about the nature of man and what it means to be human. It also raises significant legal questions. What legislation would cover any formed embryo; legislation affecting animals, or legislation affecting humans? That really concerns me. Maybe I am not aware of enough of the science to be able to make a judgment. We all know that the difference between an animal and a human in genetic terms is very small indeed, and it is not far-fetched to imagine a situation where a court could rule that an embryonic entity is actually an animal and allow it to develop past the 14 day cut-off period for human embryos.

I am almost at the end of my time. I have difficulties understanding much of the hype that surrounds embryo research and, given its lack of success to date and the availability of ethical alternatives that are proving successful, I share concerns about the proposals to amend the law and the possible development of animal-human hybrid embryos, as set out in the recent White Paper. If we insist on pursuing that route, I hope that we will have at least an assurance that there will be fantastic regulation, and monitoring of that regulation, to eliminate the potential for abuse. I am genuinely anxious and concerned. I do not want to knock the science; I am in awe of the science, but many other lay people like me feel exactly the same.

I shall end on this note: until the scientists communicate in the manner of the noble Lords, Lord Patel and Lord Winston, and bearing in mind everything said by the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of the Shaws, I will remain concerned.