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Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill [HL]

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:38 pm on 19th November 2007.

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Photo of Baroness Neuberger Baroness Neuberger Liberal Democrat 6:38 pm, 19th November 2007

My Lords, like other noble Lords, I begin by declaring an interest as a former member of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority and its two predecessor organisations, as a former member of the Medical Research Council, and as an honorary fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of General Practitioners. As others have declared their religious interests, I declare my interest as a rabbi and the president of Liberal Judaism in the UK. As other noble Lords have also declared, I was a member of the Joint Committee of both Houses on the draft Bill, to which this is the substantive successor. The committee was wonderfully chaired, with considerable time given to discussion of the details, by my honourable friend in another place, Mr Phil Willis. We should all also pay tribute to the Clerks of the committee. They did a stunning job in rather difficult circumstances, because we met so frequently.

I also thank the Minister for the Government's taking so seriously our comments in the light of the evidence we heard. I am particularly grateful to the Government for recognising that it is not in the best interests of better regulation, or of the kinds of debate on these complex issues which need to take place, to merge the two authorities, the HFEA and the HTA. I am particularly grateful that they took seriously the scientific evidence we heard on the use of interspecies embryos. I believe that the Government are on the way to getting this right, although the definitions—as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, made clear and other noble Lords hinted at—can and should still be debated in considerable detail. I want to focus primarily on that issue.

Like other noble Lords, in the past 10 days or so I have been submerged beneath a huge pile of letters from many members of the public asking us not to legislate to allow hybrid embryos and, in some cases, comparing this scientific technique to Nazi Germany. As the child of a refugee from Nazi Germany and the relative of many others who perished, I find that comparison particularly odious. Be that as it may, I believe that it is right that we take this strongly expressed view very seriously even if it comes from an organised lobby, as the identical nature of the letters suggests that it does.

Some scientists would like to dismiss this opposition and are impatient with it. I would argue that that is a mistake. I think that we have to have this debate properly, as we did to some extent in one of the best debates that I have been part of in my three years in this House—that on stem cell research in May, to which the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, referred. We need to lay the issues on the table and, in the face of real concern "out there", whether we like it or not, we need to be clear about what we think and why. Because of that concern, and unlike the noble Lord, Lord Winston, I believe that regulation is needed and I support it. I think that we are going along the right lines.

Let us try to take the concerns on board. First, there is clearly an irreconcilable difference between those who believe that ensoulment happens at the time of conception and those who believe in a more gradual acquisition of human status over the development of the foetus. Within the main religious traditions to be found in this country, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans made clear, we range from one end of the spectrum which says that this tiny embryo, or pre-embryo as we used to call them—which no one suggests should be used for scientific research beyond 14 days or the appearance of the primitive streak—is in fact a person, a human being in the making deserving of all the respect that we would give any human being, acknowledging the unique status of the human being, through all sorts of other permutations of views about the nature of the pre-embryo, embryo, foetus, newborn or premature baby and new baby. And you can arrive at the traditional Jewish view that does not really recognise the full human status even of the newborn, as evidenced by the fact that the newborn baby does not get a full funeral should it die within the first 30 days of life; it is not a person in the sense of, say, a one year-old. Suffice it to say that that particular bit of legislation could never have been framed by women, who would have felt the existence of the unborn child within them from the time of it "quickening", kicking, pressing on the bladder, and whatever else unborn babies of six months' gestation or more do. But that was and remains to some extent the position within truly Orthodox Judaism.

Those two positions can never be brought closely together because they come from totally different standpoints. Whatever we do in this area is a compromise. The compromise to which we have come, rightly in my view, is to set an absolute limit of 14 days or the appearance of the primitive streak, whichever is earlier, and to forbid implantation of cloned embryos—no reproductive cloning. And that seems about right.

The real concern that has emerged from this forest of trees under which we have all been sitting for the past few days is about interspecies embryos, the use of an animal egg and a human sperm to create interspecies embryos for research purposes only, entirely for the benefit of human beings. It is here that I have to say that I simply do not understand. I think that I would understand it if we were likely to see an army of half-sheep/half-men walking across Westminster Bridge. That would be horrifying, even if it were possible, and would indeed require enormous public debate; but no one is suggesting that. Indeed, what they are suggesting should make those concerned with the unique status of the human embryo feel rather reassured. It is to take an animal egg and, as it were, scrape out its middle—its yolk, for want of a better comparison—and to insert within it human sperm to grow on for a few days to use in order to create stem cell lines for use potentially in the treatment of terrible human diseases such as Parkinson's. Researchers are working on developing a way to replace with healthy cells the dopamine-producing nerve cells that have died in Parkinson's disease.

Although we hear much about the use of cells from cord blood—I absolutely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Alton, that we should collect cord blood as the norm—and although we hear a lot about adult stem cells, and indeed should look at the possibilities that adult cells give us, it does not mean that we do not have still to use these interspecies embryos where we can for research until new techniques are established that make that unnecessary. If we want to continue with research that is very promising, despite some of our correspondents throwing doubt on how valuable it is, we need to do it in this way for the alleviation of present human suffering. That is the point.

No one is suggesting implanting these eggs into any woman. No one wants to create hybrid creatures, half-man/half-cow. This technique of interspecies embryos is to be used to protect women from having their ovaries over-stimulated, of which there is a minor but not insignificant risk in fertility treatment, to get more eggs. The standard treatment now usually produces more eggs than are needed for fertility treatment per se, but the custom is to share eggs, which allows women with fewer financial resources to access treatment and leaves precious few human eggs for use in research. I wholly agree with the noble Baronesses, Lady Deech and Lady Jay, who have been pressing for making more in vitro fertilisation and fertility treatment available on the NHS. Part of the reason that the eggs are not available is that the treatment is not available on the NHS, so people are having to pay for it.

Those who dislike the use of human embryos for research purposes should be celebrating the fact that fewer eggs are available for such purposes. What is to be created between human sperm and an animal egg is in no sense a person. Surely it does not require that same concern about the uniqueness of the human being that a fully human embryo does. Indeed, it seems preferable, given the desire to respect the human embryo, to use such interspecies embryos for research. When we debated these issues last May, the noble Baroness, Lady O'Neill of Bengarve, asked us to think differently about what it means to have these clusters of cells, what is truly human, and what is in fact animal. Do those terms still apply as we used to think that they did?

The Christian Medical Fellowship has expressed its concern, arguing that such a technique blurs,

"the boundaries between humans and animals", and undermines

"our human dignity. It would 'offend' the image of God, transgress the Biblical prohibition of mixing kinds, damage concepts of historicity and lineage and fundamentally alter the nature of humanity".

I beg to differ. The use of such eggs for research and not for cloning in no way blurs the difference between animals and humans but merely provides material on which to conduct research; material which is not fully human and therefore, according to this line of argument, less deserving of respect. The biblical prohibition on mixing would indeed be transgressed by this, but that was designed—as those who read the Bible and biblical and rabbinic literature will know all too well—to prevent the ploughing of a field with an ox and an ass yoked together and to prevent the wearing of clothes made of two fabrics, such as wool and linen. The Hebrew term for that prohibition—following the noble Lord, Lord Winston—is called shatnes. I wonder if those who cite the biblical transgression of mixing wear a mixture of wool and silk or linen and wool; and if they do, whether that gives them cause for ethical alarm.

As for damaging the concepts of historicity and lineage, that is true only of any embryos that are to be placed within a woman and lead to live births. Such arguments are simply irrelevant when discussing research and would come to the fore only if we were ever to allow, as the noble Lord, Lord Walton, said, the creation of embryos with three lots of genetic material: the father's and the mother's with the mitochondrial material scraped out because of severe mitochondrial disease.

I do not have to time to say any more but I would like to ask the Minister two questions. First, given the concern expressed around the House, will he support the idea of a parliamentary ethics committee that can debate these issues on an ongoing basis? Secondly, will he in some way respond to the challenge thrown out by my noble friend Lady Williams of Crosby? As we are the leaders in regulation and legislation in this area and this research, how can the UK press for more global guidelines and a global ban on the implantation of cloned human embryos in the future?