Previous SectionIndexHome Page

1.33 pm

Yvette Cooper: With the leave of the House, I shall reply to the debate.

We have had an extremely good, thoughtful and reflective debate. I pay tribute to all those who have spoken for the level of the debate, especially given the strong views that I know many hon. Members hold and how much many feel is at stake.

The hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) gave an eloquent account of the pro-life position. I welcome his recognition that, at this stage, embryonic stem cells have more potential in research than adult stem cells.

My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) described the scientific knowledge of adult stem cells and the nature of stem cell lines. The hon. Member for North Devon (Mr. Harvey) accepted the strong case for going ahead with the research, but expressed his constituents' fears that we might be on a slippery slope.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, West (Ms Kelly) raised concerns about cell nuclear replacement and mitochondrial disease, to which I shall respond later.

The hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) described the need for an ethical framework for science and pointed out that the ethical questions that are at stake are very similar to those raised by the 1990 Act. He said that those who supported that Act would probably support the regulations, while those against it, such as himself, will probably be against them, which I think is right.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) gave a powerful account of the potential of the research to ease conditions such as her own and what that could mean for patients' lives. The hon. Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge) explained with great humour her process of agonising, and has concluded that, on balance, we are doing the right thing at this stage. I spoke to her during that process, and I can testify to her agonising.

The hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) outlined the potential benefits of the regulations in respect of diabetes in particular. My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) referred to her mother, who has Parkinson's disease, and pointed out that, although drugs can alleviate its symptoms, they cannot stop them worsening. My hon. Friend also pointed out that stem cell research has the potential not merely to alleviate symptoms, but to develop treatments and cures.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) gave an excellent scientific account of the need to understand not only cell growth but mitochondrial disease. My hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Mr. Dobbin) put the case against embryonic cell research and expressed concerns about cell nuclear replacement.

15 Dec 2000 : Column 935

I shall try to respond to some of the key questions that have been raised. Several Members expressed concern about the process and the timing of the debate. The Donaldson report, which was published in August, followed other reports that also called for similar changes to the law on research. It considered the issues in great detail and received considerable media coverage when it was launched. In August, the Government announced that regulations to implement two of the report's recommendations would be laid, and we are discussing those regulations now.

We debated the Donaldson report on 17 November: it was a full Friday debate, and a good one. The draft regulations were laid on 27 November. Some who supported the report expressed concern that the regulations were too widely drawn, so limiting drafting changes were made, primarily to ensure the focus on serious disease.

The revised regulations were laid on Tuesday, in plenty of time for today's debate, which is another full Friday debate. There will be another half-day debate on Tuesday, before we vote. Therefore, we have provided considerable time for discussion, and as far as I know, no other regulations or statutory instruments have been given as much time on the Floor of the House. This is my fourth speech on the issue, and I expect, with the leave of the House, to make further speeches before the vote. Three briefings have also been offered by the chief medical officer to all Members and peers.

The regulations are within the scope of the 1990 Act, which created the power to extend the purposes of embryonic research. In fact, the debate on the 1990 Act allowed for that to be done in Committee and in one and a half hours. That has not been done; many hours have been spent discussing the matter on the Floor of the House before a free vote. Plenty of time has been allowed for debate.

Many Members who have raised issues relating to the process may disagree with the creation of the power by the 1990 Act to change the purposes of embryonic research. Nevertheless, that decision was taken, the power exists and we are, rightly, using it to put the regulations before the House for a free vote. If one accepts the 1990 Act and the existence of the power to make such regulations, it is clear that the Government have allowed considerable time for debate--far more than would normally be allowed for a statutory instrument. We have done so because we are well aware of the important issues that the regulations raise for many people and the need to discuss them fully. I agree with the hon. Member for Richmond Park that it is time that the House took a view and voted on this issue.

Many Members have asked whether there is a role for primary legislation. As I have said, the 1990 Act established the relevant power to act through secondary legislation. That was discussed during the primary legislation process and it was decided that such power should reside in secondary legislation. I think that there is a role for primary legislation to embed the ban that already exists on human reproductive cloning. We have said that we will do that, and it will be done in due course. It is for the House to choose whether to use the powers that we were given in 1990 to allow research to go ahead.

15 Dec 2000 : Column 936

I shall take up some of the substantive issues. There has been considerable debate on the respective merits of adult and embryonic stem cell research. It is clear that ultimately scientists want to be able to undertake research with adult cells, not adult stem cells. They want to be able to reverse adult cells and reprogramme them to use as regenerative tissue to help to tackle disease and disorder. If adult cells can be used, there is far more potential for developing compatible tissue to develop the treatments and cures to tackle diseases.

I think that there is broad consensus that adult stem cell research now has far more limited potential than embryonic stem cell research. It is the embryonic research that holds the power and the key to treating many of the diseases that we have been talking about. It is wrong to suggest that we should spend a long time undertaking adult stem cell research first and not consider embryonic research for some time. It is wrong to ask those who are suffering to wait while we try something else first when embryonic stem cell research is justifiable now, given its potential to ease the suffering that many people are enduring.

I agree with the concern that has been expressed about the need to have a proper moral and ethical framework for scientific research. The issue was debated in 1990. The key issue was what sort of ethical and moral framework should hold for those who wanted then to carry out embryonic research. It is a sign of the cross-party nature of these issues that in 1990 it was a Conservative Government who steered the Bill and the research proposals through the House.

The 1990 Act sets out quite a strong ethical and moral framework around embryonic research. It provides that research can be undertaken only up to 14 days, only if it is necessary for the research involved, only for particular purposes and only if it is carried out in an ethical way. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority is responsible for regulating that process.

There is a moral and ethical framework. It may not be the one that some hon. Members would like, but it is one for the use of science. We should continue to debate that framework, and we in Parliament need to be responsible for setting ethical and moral constraints on scientific progress. It is completely wrong to say that there is no ethical or moral framework on the research that is carried out.

The framework includes issues of informed consent that were raised by the hon. Member for Richmond Park and my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart). Couples must choose to donate their embryos for research. The Donaldson report recommends that couples should be asked not only to choose to donate but whether they would choose to donate their embryos for stem cell research. That would allow my hon. Friend the Member for Slough to take the opportunity to which she referred to donate her embryos to research that ultimately might make a difference to multiple sclerosis, from which she suffers.

Ms Kelly: Does my hon. Friend recognise that there are real issues about parental consent? In The Guardian this morning there is a report of a cross-European study, which shows that seven out of 10 parents who were asked about consent for research on babies were not fully

15 Dec 2000 : Column 937

informed and did not give true consent, and that it would be even more difficult to obtain full consent about the use of embryos?

Yvette Cooper: It is vital that consent should be informed. The Donaldson report refers to strict guidelines to ensure that there is proper informed consent for any research procedure involving embryos.

It is clear that hon. Members in all parts of the House recognise that there are ethical arguments on both sides of the debate. It is not a matter of ethics versus science--there are ethics on both sides of the argument.

Several hon. Members raised concerns about cell nuclear replacement. The legal advice that we have received is that the court will regard the embryos created through cell nuclear replacement as embryos. They are regulated by the 1990 Act, but the technique is permitted by the 1990 Act. It is true that the technique was not in existence in 1990 and could not have been anticipated in the debate at that time.

Hon. Members are worried about whether, by licensing cell nuclear replacement, we are starting on a slippery slope towards human cloning. I strongly repudiate that claim, not least because the 14-day limit is a massive block to prevent us from sliding down that slope. Under the 1990 Act, research cannot be done on embryos beyond 14 days, and those embryos cannot be implanted.

Yes, belt and braces do make sense, as the hon. Member for North Devon suggested. That is why we should reinforce in primary legislation the ban on human cloning. Belt and braces are probably already in place. We are talking about adding safety pins and some rope as well, to make trebly sure that that could never happen in this country.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, West expressed concerns about mitochondrial disorders. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East for his scientific explanation. I was slightly daunted at the prospect of having to provide an explanation. It is possible under the present Act to conduct research into mitochondrial disorders, but not to carry out research to develop treatments for such disorders.

The nucleus of an egg of a woman who has the disease is put into healthy mitochondria donated by another woman. That new egg might then be fertilised in the normal way, should the research go ahead. The resulting embryo would have genetic material from only two individuals, the father and the mother. A third person would have donated healthy mitochondria to make that possible. No one knows what the potential is in this area, but the chief medical officer's group recommended research into possible treatments that might use that technique. The regulations would permit that. It does not involve cell nuclear replacement or cloning. It involves the potential for a couple to have a child that is genetically their own.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, West suggested that research since 1990 has not delivered results. In fact, research into in vitro fertilisation and into the diagnosis of pre-implantation defects has taken huge strides forward as a result of the 1990 Act. It is true that huge strides have not been made in stem cell research, as that has not yet been licensed. That is the purpose of the regulations.

15 Dec 2000 : Column 938

My hon. Friend the Member for Slough was concerned about genetic patenting. Under the current law, genetic material as it exists in nature cannot be patented. There are concerns about the pace of technological change in this area, and the Human Genetics Commission will shortly consider the issue further.

Other hon. Members were worried about the biotech industry. I do not see that the issue affects that industry. Most of the concerns expressed have been from patient groups, in anticipation of the health impact of the research. In this country, medical research and advances depend on a mix of public and private investment, from which we all benefit hugely. If we do not support the regulations, the interesting consequence is that most of the research in this area will be done in the United States in the private sector, as such research is not permitted to be publicly funded. If we do not pass the regulations, it is likely that most of those developments will take place entirely in the public sector, without any public-private partnership and without any role for publicly funded research. That may exacerbate some of the problems about patenting human material that were raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Slough

Finally, concerns were expressed about the morality of any use of embryo research at all. Like the hon. Member for Woodspring, I believe that the key question is probably whether one supports the 1990 Act and accepts that it can be permissible to use embryos in research for particular purposes under strict regulations and conditions, when huge health gains can be achieved as a result. For those who believe that all embryo research is immoral, I cannot provide any arguments from the Dispatch Box to persuade them otherwise. I accept and respect those views, but I disagree with them.

For those who accept the 1990 Act and the fact that a proper ethical framework and structure of regulation to govern embryo research can be in place--and is in place--passing the regulations must be the right thing to do. We should come back to why we are doing this and what is at stake. It is about providing the potential for a powerful cure for illnesses such as Parkinson's disease and multiple sclerosis. It is about responding to concerns that were expressed most powerfully by my hon. Friends the Members for Aberdeen, South, for Cambridge and for Slough, who talked about their experiences and those of their relatives.

If we could find a way to treat Alzheimer's disease and strokes, we could open the doors of every nursing home in the country. The impact of this kind of research could be immense for the lives of people across the country. If we could find a way to treat the degenerative disorders that often strike people when they are young, such as spinal injury and, perhaps, Parkinson's, we could give them back the power to talk, walk and live. Ultimately, that could be the key to tackling some of the big killers in the country, such as cancer and heart disease, which kill hundreds of thousands of people every year.

It is true that we do not know where that research will take us. None of us can guarantee the results that it may lead to. However, that is the inevitable nature of research. Because we do not know where it will lead, we should do it. Because there is such huge potential, we should go ahead with it now. The promise is so great that I hope

15 Dec 2000 : Column 939

hon. Members will not block the research going ahead and allow it to make a huge difference to people's lives across the country.

Next Section

IndexHome Page