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12.12 pm

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough): I apologise to the House, but I will have to leave before the debate ends. I shall, however, carefully read the Minister's concluding remarks.

I, too, was not clear about my opinion on this subject at the start of the debate. It might seem obvious that, as someone who has made a series of publicly stated ethical positions, I would support the Government. I have no religious belief, have been through IVF and have always supported a woman's right to choose. There are a number of science-based companies, including biotechnology companies, in my constituency and I have been involved in promoting science. However, I was very concerned about the potential of cell nuclear replacement and cloning, and the ethical implications of human control over human life.

As I do not believe in a god, human beings are the most important--the core--guiding value of my ethical belief. Therefore, when human beings start to exercise control over the existence of other humans beings, I think that early on in the process there should be a sign that says, "Take care. Stop." I am proud that, during the passage of the Human Rights Act 1998, I supported an amendment that led us to outlaw the death penalty for ever in peacetime Britain.

However, my views have begun to change. There are serious issues to consider. On the special status of the embryo, I do not agree with people who think that humanity starts with fertilisation. I never have thought that. However, I believe--it is reflected in the 1990 Act--that the embryo has special status and that we must very carefully protect it and regulate any experimentation on it.

The field of genetic engineering raises very profound issues. I accept that much of what we are considering today is not that, but we have so far failed to address questions that, as legislators, we should address. They include issues of genetic privacy, the way in which insurance companies can begin to insist on genetic screening, matters concerning human life and patents on it, and so on. We need to address those very important issues following those that we are confronting in this debate.

I was certain that to deal with the matter without long reflection and in a private Member's Bill would have been wrong, so I was happy to vote against the ten-minute Bill moved by the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris). Around the time of the introduction of that Bill, I received letters from constituents both supporting and challenging it. I have taken the views of my constituents very seriously, but next week I intend to vote with the Government. The reason is simple and it arises from my own life.

There are two significant things wrong with me. People may suggest lots of others, but one is that I am infertile and the other is that I have multiple sclerosis. At the moment, there are two fertilised embryos of mine in a medical facility that are available for research. It is ironic that they could be used in research that could help to deal with my infertility, but not in research that could help to deal with my multiple sclerosis, about which I am more anxious. Unless we agree the regulations, that will be so for everyone.

I am symptom-free. I am one of the very lucky people with this serious disease who can carry on living a very active and fulfilling life. If I suffer symptoms, I get

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tingling arms and the like, but many people suffer much more seriously from such diseases. It seems arrogant and wrong for us to deny them the chance of a cure for their illnesses through the use of embryonic material for research. It seems deeply ironic that we will allow the use of such material for improving contraception but not for dealing with serious illnesses.

I have come to the conclusion--owing to such irony, I suppose--that I have a duty to vote for the change in regulations. Unless we change the regulations, we shall be continuing to say to people with degenerative diseases that we are not prepared to make strenuous efforts to find treatments or cures for them, when we know that there is real capacity in such research to make a difference.

I remain anxious about the potential of cell nuclear replacement. I urge the Minister to ensure that the primary legislation that she has promised on reproductive cloning is passed, and passed soon. I am afraid that three years of close contact with Whitehall has taught me that civil servants have two arguments. One is that we have always done something in such a way, so it must be right. I find that particularly provoking. It has created a number of habits in the House that seem to stand in the way of all sorts of progress.

The other argument is the thin end of the wedge argument, which is not particularly honourable and which I am always reluctant to accept. However, we do have a responsibility to establish deep and powerful protections against reproductive cloning.

Ms Kelly: I have listened carefully to what has so far been a good speech. I was particularly interested by my hon. Friend's argument that we need to introduce legislation on reproductive cloning as soon as possible; I could not agree more. Does she also agree that the best way to prevent reproductive cloning is to prevent cell nuclear replacement cloning as well? The regulations do not allow for that remedy, which the House should be given the opportunity to consider.

Fiona Mactaggart: I do not agree. Although I did not take medical finals, I have, like the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge), read a great deal of factual material--more, indeed, than I am used to. In the past 20 years, I have read a lot of fiction, but not many thick scientific reports. In such areas of research, the potential of cell nuclear replacement is extremely powerful. If we defer that potential until the introduction of relevant primary legislation, we could miss the opportunity vigorously to search--as I believe we should--for treatments for serious illnesses.

We have a responsibility to ensure that embryos created through cell nuclear replacement are used only in a restricted way. However, it is clear that there are such restrictions: there is a 14-day limit on development of the embryos and a ban on their implantation. Such restrictions must be entrenched in future primary legislation. In view of the capacity of such technologies to be abused in other countries, we should--I hope that we will--seek international agreement on restrictions.

A further genetic engineering issue that concerns me deeply, and which I hope the Department of Health will address, is the patenting of human material. At the moment, there is insufficient debate on the use of patents. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister will comment.

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We also need to ensure that we do not commit genetic discrimination. In this country, insurance companies are legally entitled to require people to take genetic and other forms of tests. We should place further restrictions on such discrimination.

There are issues that we need to address, and my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, West (Ms Kelly) and I concur on some of them. However, the concerns, although serious, should not prevent us from permitting next week's change to the regulations. We cannot responsibly deny the research's potential for enabling real change for people whose illnesses threaten their future. I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House will support the regulations next week. I know that it will be a hard decision to make--it certainly has been for me. I hope also that the Department of Health will consider some of the genetic engineering issues that I have raised and will soon introduce robust mechanisms to deal with them.

12.25 pm

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): This has been a powerful and important debate. Sometimes I thought I was in the Synod, not the Chamber, and that you, Madam Deputy Speaker, were the Archbishop of Canterbury, presiding over a philosophical, theological and ethical debate.

I was disappointed by the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg). She said with great passion and great skill everything that I wanted to say, and far better than I could.

There has been considerable discussion about whether a blastocyst, which is the body on which the experimentation would take place, has a soul. If it were accepted that it does not, we would not be having the debate. I think that the House is united in its belief that if we can take any steps to enable scientists and doctors to alleviate suffering, we should do so without hesitation.

The thought that we can undertake experimentation on adult stem cells at this early stage instead of doing so on embryonic stem cells is mere wishful thinking. If there were not voices saying that it is far too soon to be able to undertake that sort of experimentation, we would not be having the debate. I have read the information that has been given to us and I shall quote from the Wellcome research trust. It states that it is not clear

That is a reference to stem cells. It adds:

My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) said that he would prefer to see the use of adult stem cells. Later, when he was questioned, he admitted that if it transpired that adult stem cells could not be used, perhaps he would accept that embryonic stem cells would have to be used instead to develop therapies for curing a number of disfunctions. My hon. Friend holds especially strong views on these matters, and I think that his response demonstrates that the issue is not one of black and white. Fine balance must be weighed.

My hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), who speaks from the Opposition Front Bench, rightly said that it is important to have an informed debate. The House

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has shown itself at its best today. We have had an informed debate in the absence of party politics. It has been entirely about moral, ethical and medical issues.

My hon. Friend also said that it is important not to be alarmist. Many outside have been alarmist. Even today, we have heard hon. Members say that stem cell research could lead to further experimentation, some of which would be illegal; but we should never use the argument that we can never undertake any experimentation for the better good of humanity if it might lead to research that could damage society. That would be to use what the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) called the thin end of the wedge argument: where would that lead? If we adopted that position, there would never be change in society.

Last week I had dinner with a canon from Lichfield cathedral. Over dinner, after several glasses of good red wine from the House of Commons, we discussed embryology. He said, and I agree, that one must always have a balance on such issues. When discussing moral and ethical matters, it is all too easy to say that there is a clear black and a clear white, a clear good and a clear evil. There is a fine balance to be weighed up for the greater good.

I asked my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough whether he knew whether the saying that God helps those who help themselves was from the Bible or just a general proverb. Surprisingly, he was not able to help me, but I believe that it is a truism. I believe that we have been put on earth as a test, perhaps to see how we behave towards our fellow human beings. God has given us an intellect, which I believe should be used for the greater good. If that means experimentation such as stem cell research for the greater good, we should go ahead and undertake it.

The balance is not quite as fine as some hon. Members have tried to make out. I do not believe that a non- sentient, non-thinking being such as a blastocyst--a clump of four, eight or 16 cells--is an intelligent being with a soul. As I said earlier, such a debate is better held in a synod than in Parliament.

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