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Stem Cell Research

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:14 pm on 3rd May 2007.

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Photo of Baroness Warnock Baroness Warnock Crossbench 1:14 pm, 3rd May 2007

My Lords, like other noble Lords, I am extremely grateful to my noble friend for initiating this debate, which is extremely timely. I speak essentially as a lay contributor because, although I agree that there are moral considerations to take into account in finding the right framework of law within which stem cell research may go ahead, moral judgments cannot be properly made without a grasp of what is scientifically involved. Speaking for myself, I would not like to have to take an examination on the science that is involved.

Speaking as a lay member of society, I confess to a sense of urgency in the matter of settling how stem cell research and the implementation of the results of this research can best be carried forward. I do not detect much of that urgency in the Government's White Paper. As a society we have been slower than might have been hoped in putting the theory of stem cell research into anything like useful practice, or even potentially useful practice. There are two reasons to regret this—indeed, to urge that we as a society should advance as rapidly as possible to the next stage, which means advancing the fundamental research that is necessary.

The first reason, roughly speaking, is that competition is strong and likely to get stronger. On economic grounds, therefore, it is important that we should not hang around. I want to be assured that funding is not lacking for the next crucial stage in moving towards the clinical outcomes that we all hope for, and which, I believe, lie ahead. I doubt, for example, whether a new president, when America gets one, will be so dogmatically hostile to stem cell research as President Bush has been; so competition from the USA may be even greater than it is now, and it is already, as we have heard, extremely strong. It is essential that the Government should be wholeheartedly—and show themselves to be so—behind the next stages of the work. It is all very well to pride ourselves, as we often do, that our regulation on all kinds of scientific research is better than in any other country, but I need to be reassured that such regulation is efficiently and speedily applied, and that there are not unnecessary and often absurd delays in issuing licences and carrying out the resolution that the Government may say that they have that the research should go ahead. I hear numerous stories of endless delays and illformed judgments by ethics committees, and so on, which hold things up. I want these reassurances, partly on economic grounds. We must not allow our wonderful research capabilities to go to waste.

I very much hope for these reasons, among others, that the Minister will promise to think again about paragraph 2.85 of the White Paper, where the proposition is made that the general use of hybrid embryos should be prohibited. I hope that the Minister has taken very good account of my noble friend's speech, which preceded mine, on the need to rethink the status of the human embryo and to take into account the possibilities of the use of hybrid embryos.

My second reason for feeling a sense of urgency is even stronger. We have a moral duty to press ahead with providing the cures that we hear of for hitherto incurable conditions. When I say that "we" have a moral duty, I mean society. I take very much to heart the speech of my noble friend, Lord Crisp, who well understands the difference between private and public morality and between policy decisions and personal moral decisions. That is an extremely important point that the Government must be well aware of.

Nevertheless, we as a society have that moral duty. We cannot be content just to know that in future we may be able to restore damaged cells, but we need to decide to act on that knowledge now. I feel a certain despair at the length of time that it will take to carry out the consultations, as the now somewhat lame-duck HFEA and the Government propose to do. No good can come of consulting the public without first educating it—an important point which has been made again and again—but educating the public takes time. Without a better understanding no private or public moral judgments can be made. But there is no time to lose.