Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill [HL]

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:14 pm on 21st November 2007.

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Photo of Lord Selsdon Lord Selsdon Conservative 4:14 pm, 21st November 2007

My Lords, I declare an interest in that I find this one of the most fascinating and interesting subjects that I have ever come across in your Lordships' House. It confuses me in many ways because I am, or was, a member of the Joint Committee; I was actually the longest-serving member and the one who knew the least. I was drip-fed by my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern, who introduced me to the primitive streak; I was spoon-fed by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, as we both had an understanding of Isaiah Berlin; and I was excited by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis of Heigham, who had that female enthusiasm for various activities. I learnt so much. My problem, however, was that I thought that this Bill was about saving life and curing diseases. I did not realise that it was such a social Bill or that it had the potential to create so many problems.

I declare another interest: in my own family, historically, we have had problems of fertility. Yet when it was suggested that there should be single-sex selection, I pointed out that the hereditary peerage would have welcomed that hundreds of years ago, as would many in the Middle East who would prefer to have only male children. My real sensitivity, however, came when I found that I had a problem. I saw a consultant, who said, "You have a knee problem; obviously, you are not academic". I thought that that was a strange thing to say. Was I so stupid? He said, "No, academics are so happy with their own thoughts that they never take any exercise". I went to see a surgeon in a well known hospital here and found myself sitting down waiting. There were a lot of women there and I was not sure where I was. Then I suddenly saw women coming in, one after the other, and then going out. Your Lordships will know what body language can be; you would see someone coming in nervously and going out with a spring in their step or looking more miserable. I was in the waiting room of a fertility clinic. I realised the importance of the child to a man and a woman and a family.

In the committee, I found two things missing. First, nobody could tell me what diseases or maladies this research would assist in. When I asked the Chief Medical Officer how many, he said, "We don't actually know, but maybe about 10 million". I asked whether anyone knew where it was going, but no one was quite sure. I also thought that we were short of socio-economic data. I worked in that field some time ago and my great guru Mark Abrams, who was then my chairman and president of the Social Science Research Council, said to me, "Always think in social trends, but don't forget that trends can be reversed".

Your Lordships will be aware of the publication Social Trends. I thought that I would look up some social data. As your Lordships know, we have 60 million people in this country, of whom 90 per cent are white and 10 per cent are black. Does that mean anything? Is that ethnic? No, but it means that there are different religions, and minority religions. We have 30.9 million women and 29.5 million men. We have an average age of 39, which is up from 34 over the last generation. These are just the basic statistics of a population. But 50 per cent are married; of another 10 per cent, my grandmother would have said that they "live in sin", although it is now called co-habiting. You then look at the other trends and find that the fertility rate among women in the last generation has gone up from about 1.63 to 1.79: the average number of children has increased.

Perhaps more significant still is that the average age for giving birth is 27.3, up from about 23. In general, we have an older and older population, with people getting married later—women at an average age of 29, men at 31. This may not necessarily be relevant, but there is a change in the structure of our society in that 7 million people now live alone. A generation ago, 4 per cent were from single-parent families, and now the figure is 25 per cent.

These social changes have had an impact on me and I have wondered what has gone wrong. Are we talking about parents or families? So I thought that I would try something on your Lordships: I suggest that we stop talking about mothers and fathers, because, quite frankly, we need the mother just as much as we need the father and there is no mention of the need for the mother. We must start to look at the family unit.

As I pointed out, 50 per cent of the population are married. If they have children, they will do so by natural or assisted conception, or by adoption. The 10 per cent who are cohabiting can also have children. If you are married and have children, are they legitimate? Yes. If you are cohabiting and have children, are they illegitimate? I am not sure. I asked my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern this morning and he said that legitimacy does not come into it these days. People can have children naturally, if you call it that, or by assisted conception, or they can adopt. Then I came to a new classification of what I will call families: a family of two women cohabiting. They cannot have children by natural conception, but they can have children in assisted manners and they can adopt. I thought that maybe we should try to introduce into the law that we should assist people who are registered in some form or other. The registrations of civil marriages that have taken place since the Act was introduced show that there were 18,000 in the first year and an average of 800 a month since then. By my calculation, that comes to 30,000, which is a small minority compared with the 50 per cent of people who are married, so they are a minority group.

Here I shall make a political point, but not a party-political one. Over the past 10 years, I have noticed that in the political world people are paying more and more attention to the views of minorities, because, I suggest, they think that the minority vote might count. That may not be true, but the wishes and feelings of the majority are often ignored, including the moral feelings. When we look at that, my suggestion is that we have a few technical problems. The average age at which a male civil partnership is entered into is 47 and the average age for female civil partnership is 44. Therefore, the people involved are above the age at which it is normal to be given IVF treatment on the NHS.

Those are minor issues, but I come now to some of the other sides of the action. What diseases and afflictions can be cured? As your Lordships know, we have roughly 274,000 people in this country with heart problems, 275,000 with cancer, 700,000 with Alzheimer's and 120,000 with Parkinson's. If you go further down the scale, there are some 2 million people with diabetes and other things. Which of these diseases or afflictions can be cured? No one has been able to explain it to me.

I thought that I should look at the other side. I have become so interested in this that I have become actively involved in adult stem cells. I really did not want to have a knee operation and I wanted to be able to regrow cartilage. I learnt that stem cells can be taken from embryos but that they tend to be allergenic; the body may react and the immune system may reject them. In the middle you have the foetal stem cells from the cord. I declare an interest, as my grandchildren's cords have been deep-frozen in case they may be useful in future. Then you have adult stem cells. I am told that they may be one of the best routes by which to go forward into the future because, although they are older and not so manipulative, they provide considerable benefits. In the cases that I am involved in, adult stem cells are used; they are extracted from the hip to regenerate heart muscle and to solve problems of diabetic foot, at a stage when possibly people can no longer have a heart transplant.

All of this I find fascinating, but it is a moral and ethical issue above all else. I am still not sure when life begins. I like the idea of the primitive streak roaming over something and of the single cell emerging that can then differentiate—from that comes forth life. I believe that the ethics and the morality are the most important part of the Bill and I agree with everybody who subscribes to the belief that that should be supervised by an appropriate body. I believe that that body should be Parliament.