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Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill [HL]

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:24 pm on 19th November 2007.

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Photo of Baroness O'Cathain Baroness O'Cathain Conservative 6:24 pm, 19th November 2007

My Lords, before I deal with a particular issue in the Bill I wish to make some general points. This is a Bill fraught with ethical, moral and religious concerns and leads one to believe, as the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York noted, that law is completely separate from morality and religion.

I listened with great interest to the speech of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, who gave a brilliant analysis of the place of ethics in this Bill. We must get the ethics and other issues in the Bill in balance.

The Bill has raised concerns throughout the United Kingdom. My mailbag and Outlook box have never experienced such volume on a single Bill in my time in your Lordships' House. A huge proportion of those who took the trouble to write to me, and to whom I have replied—other than those who communicated with me this morning—urged me to vote against the entire Bill at Second Reading. I am sure that many of your Lordships have received such letters. I have written back to them making the point that it is a convention of this House that a government Bill should be allowed normal progress through its whole parliamentary passage from First Reading to Third Reading. I said that I would neither encourage nor support a vote on Second Reading. I am firmly of the view that it is imperative that all the issues are scrutinised and debated with intellectual robustness, bearing in mind the sensitivity of the views of those who are deeply concerned.

We cannot, and must not, disregard the massive antipathy created by this Bill. I know that we are not democratically elected but the tenor of the letters and e-mails received indicates that the general public feel utterly ignored and helpless. How can they be heard? They believe that they are not listened to by this Government, who, if I may be so bold as to remind the opposite Bench, were elected by only 22 per cent of those eligible to vote.

I give notice that in the later stages of consideration of this Bill I shall pursue, tenaciously, the issues which I believe have the potential to unleash unforeseen consequences and to damage the values, standards and beliefs of this country. Having given that promise, or is it a warning, I will concentrate on only one issue in my contribution today; namely, animal/human hybrids. On 3 May 2007, I spoke on this issue. I said:

"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".—[Hansard, 3/5/07; col. 1182.]

That, sadly, is still my view.

The Bill proposes, for research purposes, the creation of a number of interspecies combinations involving animal and human tissue, even including the creation of an embryo using either animal eggs fertilised by human sperm, or human eggs fertilised by animal sperm; that is to say, true animal/human hybridisation. As if that was not alarming enough for the majority of us, there is also built into the Bill a level of flexibility which would permit the extension of many of the quasi-prohibitive aspects of the Bill, without the need for full parliamentary approval. Is this not opening the door to creating legislation without true limits? It would permit the regulatory authority to make decisions in the light of future technological developments in this field rather that in reference to concise decisions of Parliament as expressed in law. This is not a scenario that should be supported, particularly in an area as sensitive and potentially dangerous as interspecies creations.

One of the many letters I received enclosed an article from the magazine America. The article is entitled "Stem Cell Research—Hype and Reality". It is a most readable article for a non-scientist. It points out that,

"embryonic stem cells defy control. When injected into animals or cultivated in petri dishes, they frequently give rise to teratomas (tumours, in which all sorts of tissue—skin, hair, teeth—are mixed together). These cells are designed to grow in the embryo, regulated by complex signals. The very plasticity that fascinates scientists makes them genetically unstable, hypertrophic and tumour-prone. They are far too dangerous for clinical use at any foreseeable time".

Those who have known me for years know that I also look at issues from a religious perspective. I will not disappoint them today. The noble Lord, Lord Winston, is no longer in his place but he mentioned Genesis, from which I shall also quote. God created man in His own image and likeness, and, as is written in Genesis 1:28, He ordained that man should have,

"dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth".

There is a clear definition between the species, which is how it must remain.

What other country in the world is taking the step that the Bill promotes? It is imperative that such a momentous and serious action cannot be taken by the Secretary of State without the full involvement of Parliament. However, it is providential that just two days ago I awoke to the news that Professor Wilmut, the creator of Dolly the sheep, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, described, has turned his back on therapeutic cloning and has decided not to pursue the licence to clone human embryos that he was awarded two years ago. He believes that a rival method pioneered in Japan has better potential for making human embryonic cells, which can be used to grow a patient's own cells and tissues for a vast range of treatments.

As I have said before in your Lordships' House—the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, mentioned this—"the likelihood of success"—in the treatment of degenerative disease—

"is greater with the use of adult stem technology than ... with embryo stem technology".—[Hansard, 22/1/01; col. 96.]

Then, we voted for a prohibition on human reproductive cloning, and it is extremely worrying to see in the current Bill a statement that the Human Reproductive Cloning Act 2001 ceases to have effect on the enactment of this new Bill. I know that the Minister stated in his opening speech that the Government have not changed their mind, but surely cloning animal and human tissue is but a step away. As the Bill gives such wide ranging power and discretion to the Secretary of State, can we be confident that in the future, not necessarily under this Secretary of State, this step will not be taken? Let us not forget the recent Korean fraud.

Finally, I have four questions for the Minister. First, has the development of adult stem cell technology ceased in this country, and do the Government not know about the advances detailed by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams? Secondly, as the increase in the range of therapeutic remedies using adult stem cell technology has not come to a halt, will the Government inform the House of the number and details of new therapeutic treatments since January 2001? Thirdly, what is the current situation worldwide of the research into and use of animal/human hybrids? Fourthly, are we world leaders in basic research, as seems to be the aim, and in an area in which no one else is engaged? I have a very healthy respect for science, scientists and scientific research, but are there no limits to which they will go? I suggest that playing God is one limit that should not be breached.

Annotations

Tomasz Kaye
Posted on 20 Nov 2007 10:06 am (Report this annotation)

"in Genesis 1:28, He ordained that man should have,

"dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth"."

This bible also tells us that bats are a type of bird, that the sun is not the earth's source of light, that hares "chew the cud" and that we should stone people to death if they work on Sunday.

Using a passage from this 'inerrant' book to support an argument doesn't seem like a good idea.