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Much is at stake and I will vote against the regulations for the reasons that I have outlined. I have tried to put myself in the position of those who find themselves with a difficult dilemma. There has been too little time fully to consider the detail of what is proposed. There is too little definition in an unamendable statutory instrument, and too little analysis of the ethical consequences.
Most of all, before we are willing to use embryonic cells, we must be convinced that there is no alternative, and I could not be convinced of that. I recognise the magnitude and the importance of the decision. As hon. Members make the decision tonight, I hope that we will all understand fully the technical, moral and ethical considerations, and in all respects the costs of the decision that we are about to make.
Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South): I was eager to speak in the debate today to explain to the House why so many groups representing people with serious diseases want scientists to be allowed to use stem cells from embryos in their research, so that they may discover treatments and cures for a range of conditions.
Hon. Members will have received communications from groups such the Parkinson's Disease Society, the Huntington's Disease Association, the Cancer Research Campaign, the British Heart Foundation and the Genetic Interest Group, which is an umbrella organisation of more than 100 charities and groups, such as the Gaucher's Association, and which represents people with my condition. All of them are saying the same thing: please allow the research to be undertaken, as it has such enormous potential.
Almost all scientific opinion is in favour of the research and wants it to take place. Almost all medical opinion is in favour of the research and wants it to go ahead. Almost everyone who suffers from a degenerative disease is desperate for the research to go ahead, including many for whom the results of the research will come too late because their condition is too far advanced.
Indeed, people who have one of the degenerative diseases are, perhaps, most vocal in their support for stem cell research. They know at first hand what it is like to live with Parkinson's disease or multiple sclerosis, and they do not want future generations to suffer what they are going through, which is often described as a living hell. They think that scientists should be allowed to explore whether they can unlock the technology to provide a treatment or even a cure for some of the big diseases of our time. It is not for ourselves but for those who come after us that people like me are speaking out in favour of embryonic stem cell research being allowed.
As I said in the debate on Friday, I realise that I will not persuade hon. Members who have strong moral objections to the use of embryo cells in any research and for any reason, no matter how noble or critical that
However, the hon. Members whom I want to persuade to join me in the Aye Lobby are those who support the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 and agree that in some cases, and under the right and tight regulation, embryos can be used in research, but perhaps, for one reason or another, are uneasy about the regulations. I address myself to those in the House who fall into that category--those who accept that adult stem cells cannot be used, because the technology has not reached the point where such cells can be substituted.
I see the use of stem cells from in vitro fertilised embryos for research into the treatment and cure of serious diseases as a logical extension of the existing categories that are allowed under the 1990 Act. I am convinced that had the potential for such research been known about in 1990, it would have been included in the existing legislation.
I appreciate that the use of fertilised embryos in the conventional sense is not the sticking point for many people; it is the use of embryos created by cell nuclear transfer--the so-called therapeutic cloning--that causes concern. Because the words "cloning" and "embryo" are so emotive, there has been much misinformation about what is proposed and the uses to which such knowledge could be put by unscrupulous scientists. I assure hon. Members that this is not the start of some slippery slope.
The embryos created by nuclear replacement are not fertilised. They will never grow into a human life because it is illegal for anyone to try to do that. In fact, we do not know whether such embryos have the potential to grow into a human foetus and no one is going to find out, because to implant such an embryo into a womb would also be illegal. Human reproductive cloning is a criminal offence, and quite rightly so. The Minister has gone even further today, in promising to introduce primary legislation to enshrine that principle in law and to make doubly sure that such practices remain illegal.
The embryos created by nuclear transfer will not be experimented on; it is the stem cells from them that will be used in the research. It is, therefore, wrong to say that these cells have the potential for human life. The embryo may have, but the cells do not. They are individual cells or clusters of cells.
Why can the in vitro embryo stem cells not be used? Why bother with all the debate about the stem cells from embryos produced by nuclear replacement? The answer is simple: it is these stem cells, which use the genetic material contained in the nucleus of the adult cell taken from the potential recipient of the treatment, that hold the most potential. If scientists are able to work out how to turn these stem cells into tissue cells, nerve cells or skin cells, they can be used to replace damaged cells without fear of rejection, as they contain the person's own genetic material. There could come a time when the nucleus from one of my cells could be used to begin the process of growing new bone cells to replace my damaged bone. Just think of it--my own cells being used to help my body to heal itself.
If the vote is lost today, I and other hon. Members will have to go back to our constituents who have Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis or Huntington's disease and say, "Sorry, embryo cells can be used for research into improvements in contraception but cannot be used to find a treatment for what is wrong with you." We shall have to say, "Sorry, a group of unfertilised stem cells can be created with your permission, using your own genetic material, but these cells cannot be used to find a treatment for what is wrong with you." We shall have to tell them, "Sorry, a group of cells in a laboratory dish, which will die because they have no means of sustaining themselves, has the same status as you. These cells are so important that they cannot be used to help alleviate your suffering." That will be the position in the United Kingdom if the House votes to reject the regulations. I would find it impossible to explain the logic of that position to my constituents who have lobbied me to support the extension of the use of stem cells.
Many claims have been made for medical science over the years. How often have we heard announcements of miracle cures, which turned out to be no such thing? I am very sceptical about many of those claims, especially those made by drug companies. However, there have also been occasions when what appeared to be a small advance for medical science became the impetus for enormous improvements in the human condition: the discovery of the cowpox vaccine, which led to immunisation, the discovery of penicillin, and the first organ transplant.
Today, we stand at such a threshold. Stem cell research has the potential to act as the key that will open the door to many advances in our knowledge and ability to treat some of the most heart-rending conditions, which are presently untreatable. I ask the House please not to step back from that threshold. The only slippery slope is the one that leads to making many people's lives so much better. I urge the House to vote to allow this vital research to proceed.
Mr. Nick Harvey (North Devon): This is the third and, for the foreseeable future, final opportunity for the House to consider these matters. Hon. Members have now had several hours of parliamentary time in which to do so.
I have become familiar with the arguments only over the past few months and have--like hon. Members in all parts of the House--received many representations from people on both sides of the argument. They include those who want this research to be given the go-ahead, namely, patient groups who see the potential to alleviate suffering, and those with great misgivings--often, although not exclusively, coming from a religious standpoint--who point out the ethical difficulties and complications involved. I take seriously both sets of representations. I consider that the burden of proof is on those who want to go ahead and change the regulations, so I took seriously the objections of my constituents and others. In each case, I attempted to see whether or not there was a satisfactory answer--or at least an answer that would satisfy me--to the points that were made.
The hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) was right to say that we must be wary of giving any impression that immediate remedies or solutions for those conditions are just around the corner. Were we to do so, we would raise an awful lot of hope that would not be fulfilled.