Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Human Fertilisation and Embryology

3.41 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Yvette Cooper): I beg to move,

We have held two Friday debates on the regulations. I think that all hon. Members who participated in or listened to those discussions would agree that they have been very good debates. Although passions run high and emotions run strong on both sides of the argument, our debates in the House so far have been thoughtful and reflective. Perhaps most important of all, they have in most part been deeply respectful of the divides that remain between us. I hope that today's debate will continue in that vein of respect and reflection.

It has been clear from our debates so far that it is not a party political issue. We have heard strong speeches for and against the regulations from hon. Members on both sides of the House. Indeed, the principle of embryo research was established in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990, which was steered through the House by a Conservative Government. For Labour Members, it is a free vote. I hope that Opposition Members will have a free vote, too.

It is not a party political issue, but it is not an easy issue either. Some hon. Members will strongly oppose the regulations on principle. Some are opposed to all forms of embryo research in all circumstances, no matter what the regulatory framework or what the benefits at stake are. They oppose the current law on the same basis. Some oppose in vitro fertilisation treatment on the same basis, too.

I have deep respect for those views. I have heard them argued in the House, often very eloquently. I will listen with care to those points today, but ultimately I disagree with them.

For those who do not take an absolutist position on embryo research, I believe that there are strong reasons to go ahead with the regulations. I want to set out five clear reasons why the regulations should go ahead.

First, there are immense potential benefits from allowing the research to go ahead, particularly for those suffering from dreadful chronic diseases. Secondly, given that those immense potential benefits exist, the regulations are a sensible extension of the current law. Those who support the current law and who support IVF should logically support the regulations, too.

Thirdly, I want to make it clear that adult stem cells are not yet an alterative to embryonic stem cell research. Fourthly, I shall set out the strict regulatory framework and why that will prevent any unnecessary embryonic research if it is no longer needed. Fifthly, I want to make it clear that this has nothing to do with human reproductive cloning.

I want to set out all the five points in turn, but before I do so I shall deal with the suggestion that the measure is being rushed through Parliament. The Donaldson report was published in August; it received a lot of media attention at that time. The Government's response was also set out at that time. We clearly said that we would introduce regulations to extend the purposes for which

19 Dec 2000 : Column 212

embryos were used in research. We have given people many months' notice of our intention. On 10 November, Lord Hunt and I wrote to all members and peers setting out our intentions and summarising the key issues in the Donaldson report. We have also invited hon. Members to three detailed medical briefings from the chief medical officer over the past two months. We gave the House the opportunity of a five-hour debate on Friday 17 November and a further five-hour debate on Friday 15 December. Never before, in the memory of those working in the Journal Office, has a statutory instrument had so much debate before a vote.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): The hon. Lady knows from Friday's debate that I support these regulations and believe that they should be passed today. However, she has not explained satisfactorily to the House why this is not primary legislation. Why is it being taken as secondary legislation?

Yvette Cooper: This is secondary legislation because Parliament considered the issue in detail in 1990, and set out a power in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 to extend the purposes of research in this way. I shall deal in detail later with the restrictions that apply under the 1990 Act, but Parliament clearly decided at that time to give power to its successors to extend the purposes of research through regulations.

We set out the regulations on 27 November and we revised the wording slightly in response to concerns last Tuesday--a full week ago. There has been plenty of opportunity for hon. Members to debate and discuss the issues. I understand that many hon. Members will not have concentrated on the detail of the issues until the vote was looming because we are all extremely busy. I understand that many hon. Members may feel taken aback at the complexity of the issues, but that would have happened whenever the vote took place.

Many of those who claim that this is rushed are those who would be opposed to the regulations whenever they were put before the House. The idea that this is rushed is not true. We have had plenty of time for debate and it is now time for the House to make up its mind.

I want to set out why the Government believe that this research is so worth while and why the regulations are so important. The purpose of the regulations is to permit embryonic stem cell research. In such cells may lie the key to healing within the human body. Stem cells are cells at an early stage of development. They can differentiate into any number of different kinds of cells or tissues. They are extracted from embryos when they are but five to six days old, when the embryos are clusters of 100 cells that would fit on a pinhead. They are still before the implantation stage and before any sign of neural development. Embryonic stem cells in particular are regarded as pluripotent. They have the potential to become anything--brain cells, nervous tissue or heart tissue--and therein lies their power.

The human body heals and regenerates all the time, but some tissue does not regenerate--no matter what the drugs or the treatment, there is nothing that doctors can do. For the Parkinson's sufferer whose neural cells are destroyed by disease, drugs can alleviate the symptoms for a time, but they cannot put the cells back. For the woman who endures a dreadful stroke, therapy may help

19 Dec 2000 : Column 213

other parts of her body cope with the disability, but nothing can repair that tissue. For the child who falls from a horse or a bike and breaks his neck, no amount of medicine or physiotherapy can repair the broken spinal cord. The tissue simply will not grow and the paralysis cannot be cured.

In stem cells may lie the key to turning all that around. Those injuries, illnesses and diseases that have so far proved beyond the power of medical knowledge could come within our grasp, given the right kind of research. Because stem cells have the potential to become brain tissue, nervous tissue or heart muscle or any of the many tissues that will not regenerate in the body on their own, scientists believe that they hold the key to understanding how to regenerate tissue and how to heal. For those diseases where the tissues will not repair on their own, stem cells may be the only thing on the horizon that holds out any hope. Drugs for those diseases are mere palliatives.

It is little wonder that the Parkinson's Disease Society, Diabetes UK, the Alzheimer's Disease Society, the Huntington's Disease Association, the Royal Society and the British Medical Association back the regulations too.

The potential of stem cells goes far wider, however, as the big killers--cancer and heart disease--could be affected too. Stem cells could be a route to repairing heart muscle or the tissues destroyed by cancer treatment. That is why the British Heart Foundation, the Cancer Research Campaign and Breakthrough Breast Cancer are all supporting the regulations.

The human stories behind those patient groups and organisations make an even more persuasive case. The issue is about a boy paralysed in an accident in a rugby match who will never walk again. It is about a woman with Parkinson's disease who struggles with speech, so that she cannot sing nursery rhymes to her children. It is about a grandfather who cannot enjoy his grandchildren growing up because of a devastating stroke. It is about patients waiting for heart or liver transplants that will never come. For all those family tragedies, stem cell research may provide them with hope.

The regulations are an extension of the 1990 Act. Some people will feel that, no matter how great the benefits that stem cell research could bring, embryo research is always wrong. I respect that view, but I disagree with it; nor does current law embody that view. The chief medical officer's expert group, which drew up the Donaldson report, concluded that the regulations do not raise any new moral issues beyond those that have already been debated and discussed in passing the current law.

Parliament is not being asked to cross the Rubicon today. Given the benefits that such research could bring, I believe that those who support the current law and IVF should also support the regulations.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough): No one doubts for a moment the enormous advances that have been made in medical science or the enormous advances that may be made to relieve suffering. Everyone accepts those advances. However, is not the hon. Lady concerned that, to advance medical science, we shall be creating a new, cloned genetic blueprint of a human being--[Interruption.] The Secretary of State shakes his head.

19 Dec 2000 : Column 214

However, if we allow it, we shall be creating a genetic blueprint that will result in a new human being that will then be destroyed. We shall be creating the blueprint simply to destroy it. Is that wise? Is it the right and ethical thing to do?

Next Section

IndexHome Page