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Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. In his briefing to all noble Lords the Minister said that reproductive cloning was illegal and would remain illegal. What then is the purpose of the Bill to be brought before Parliament?
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, as I explained earlier, reproductive cloning cannot take place in this country because the authority has said that it would not, under any circumstances, license that. For any organisation or person to go ahead and attempt to do so would be in breach of the law that lays down those requirements. We have said that in order to back up that, and to make matters absolutely explicit, we shall introduce primary legislation.
Some suggestions have been made that undue influence has been brought to bear in order to bring these regulations to Parliament. Apparently, pharmacy companies and scientists have brought such pressure to bear. I make it plain that no such pressure has been brought to bear. The regulations mark the culmination of a considerable number of considerations by many committees, not least the Donaldson expert committee. Pressure has resulted from people being denied the results of research, as the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, so graphically put it. Appointments to the Donaldson expert group were made by the Chief Medical Officer in consultation with the Chief Scientific Adviser. They were made after consultation with the Royal Society and the Royal Society of Medicine. Members were chosen for their particular background, knowledge and expertise. As well as the expert group containing a wide range of opinions, members also considered submissions from a wide range of groups and individuals on all sides of the debate. I am satisfied that there were no significant conflicts of interest among the membership of the expert group.
A number of comments were made about the international dimension. The European Commission has already made clear that there are no plans for harmonisation or Community legislation in this area. The European Parliament has set up a temporary committee on human genetics and other new technologies in modern medicine. While the committee will consider a range of bioethic issues, it will no doubt look closely at the issues we have been discussing today.
In answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, the outcome, expected in about a year's time, may well reflect the European consensus on the way forward. But it is worth making the point that our current legislation and the work of the authority is much admired worldwide.
The situation in the United States contrasts sharply with that in Europe. A substantial difference is the distinction between the public and private sectors. Thus the national institutes of health cannot carry out embryo research but it can be carried out freely in the private sector. There may well be some international
I turn to the issue which many noble Lords discussed--the potential of adult stem cell research. I guess that scientists are a little like economists--not all agree with each other. I believe that the Donaldson committee succeeded in attempting to pull together the best available knowledge about the potential of adult stem cell research. Its view is not an isolated one; it is supported by the Association of Medical Research Charities, the Wellcome Trust and the Royal Society following a comprehensive review of the papers. It is supported by many researchers and scientists around the world who are at the forefront of research in these areas.
As the noble Lord, Lord Walton, pointed out, the embryonic stem cell uniquely has the potential to develop into almost any tissue in the body. The majority of the research work is likely to centre on the extraction of stem cells from embryos created from eggs and sperm, using spare embryos no longer required for infertility treatment. This research will help to develop techniques for extracting stem cells from embryos, growing them in the laboratory and learning how to make them differentiate into various types of tissue. It is this which offers the potential to understand how to treat a whole range of degeneratory diseases.
The main difference is that embryonic stem cells are able to renew themselves and form many different cell types, whereas the potential of adult stem cells is uncertain, with research suggesting that they may be much more limited in the ability to form other cell types. As my noble friend Lord Winston pointed out, it takes a considerable time to grow and develop adult stem cells, whereas embryonic cells by their very nature are much more readily developed.
These problems underline the importance of taking forward work on both embryo-derived and adult stem cells in order to provide the maximum benefit from the research. A number of noble Lords referred to the research claim by Dr Abuljadayel which was published in The Times last week and was the subject of a letter in today's Times from the president of the Royal Society. That letter from the president casts considerable doubts on the claims made, with scientists generally being agreed that such results are many years away.
As the Royal Society's letter points out, this work has not been published. Contrary to the claims made, is there any evidence of it being repeated? The work which was reportedly conducted two years ago may not have been published because no reputable publisher would accept it. In the light of the fact that 90 per cent of more than 4,000 scientific articles on this subject in the past year have focused on non-embryonic stem cell research, it is difficult to accept that this particular work was not accepted because of its subject matter.
I also point to the work of Angelo Vescovi, who leads an Italian team researching the potential of adult nerve stem cells to provide skeletal muscle. He is often quoted in support of the view that embryo stem cell research is not needed. However, in the journal Nature Neuroscience he is reported as saying that he "completely disagrees" with the interpretation of his findings that embryonic stem cell research is not necessary because all the benefits could be obtained by research on adult stem cells. He is also reported as having the view, which is held by an overwhelming majority of scientists working in this area, that both embryonic stem cell research and adult stem cell research should be pursued. As the noble Lord, Lord Habgood, suggested, the aim should be to regard embryonic stem cell research as interim in nature.
I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, that adult stem cell research is important and should be pursued. I also confirm that the Donaldson expert group has been asked to continue to monitor developments in this area. The Donaldson report is only six months old. In any event, the 1990 Act already provides the answer to the question of what happens if and when research into adult cells overtakes research using embryos: embryonic research would have to stop because the use of embryos would no longer be necessary for that research.
I turn to the two amendments before us. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, wishes to defer the decision until a number of issues have been considered by a Select Committee of the House. The regulations are due to come into force on 31st January. If the noble Lord's Motion is accepted the regulations will be killed.
The Donaldson expert committee has produced an authoritative and comprehensive report which I believe provides a basis on which a decision can be made by your Lordships tonight. Surely, we have reached a point where the research should be permitted to go ahead in the light of the overwhelming evidence of its importance and potential in treating serious and debilitating diseases. But I also recognise the value that noble Lords place on the appointment of a Select Committee. Surely, the noble Lord, Lord Walton, has found an acceptable way forward. In essence, it allows the research proposals to begin the formal process of application, which is likely to take at least nine months. At the same time, the Select Committee can be established by your Lordships' House. I hope that that can take place quickly, although that is a matter for the House authorities. The Government will fully support the setting up of the Select Committee. Like other noble Lords, I am sure that it will add to and inform public debate.
Lord Eden of Winton: My Lords, I apologise for interrupting the Minister. Since he refers to the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Walton, can he confirm that in the event that the report recommends certain changes the Government will not hesitate to table new or amended regulations?
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, that was the very point to which I was about to turn. If the Select Committee emerged with a very different view from that of the Donaldson expert committee--although I doubt it; but let us assume it concluded that embryonic stem cell research was unnecessary--the Government would be bound to take note of it because it would be a powerful argument to revisit and review the regulations. There is still the safeguard that the authority can authorise only necessary research.
In conclusion, there is no doubt that the regulations have the potential to lead to treatments for many people with severe, debilitating diseases. My noble friend Lord Brennan is correct; not overnight, but the sooner research starts the sooner we can hope to defeat these diseases. We already allow embryos to be used in research for infertility, for contraception and for research into congenital diseases. Without these regulations we shall not be able to use embryos in research leading to cures for serious diseases like Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease. I find that very difficult to justify. I urge noble Lords to vote in favour of the regulations and for a Select Committee to consider the issues further as proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Walton of Detchant.
Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, it is not the tradition of your Lordships' House for the mover of an amendment to delay the House unnecessarily at the end of a debate. I do not intend to trespass long on the time of the House at the end of what has been an agreeable debate in the sense of people expressing their views in a forthright manner, intelligently listening to one another's points of view and begging to differ.
At the heart of the amendments before us is the issue of how we should go about deciding public policy on these complex questions. Do we have a prospective or retrospective committee? That was the point made during the course of our debate by the noble Lord, Lord Dahrendorf. It is clear to your Lordships, as the Leader in the Daily Telegraph said this morning, that this is a momentous decision,
The issue then for us is whether or not non-amendable regulations--a statutory instrument--are the right way to deal with the matter and whether or not, in the circumstances which have applied today, we can properly test the conflicting scientific and ethical opinion. Many have argued that alternatives exist to the use of embryonic stem cells and adult stem cells. The noble Lord, Lord Habgood, said that this could lead to germ-line gene therapy. If that is true then noble Lords have a real duty to consider their consciences when deciding how to vote. I wish to seek the opinion of the House.
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