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Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, and I should not wish ever to be accused of being fuzzy on this question. He knows that I believe that we should provide protection for the human embryo. It is as simple as that. But he knows also that currently the status quo is the position which he advocates. Half a million human embryos have been used in research since the 1990 legislation was approved. They have been experimented on and destroyed in the process.
The advances for which the noble Lord has argued have not been made during that period. I have argued today, as have others in this House, that alternatives exist using adult stem cells rather than embryonic stem cells. It is that issue to which a Select Committee would have to apply its mind because as the regulations say, if alternatives exist, the human embryo should not be used. My attempt is to try to change the thinking that currently applies.
Lord Jenkin of Roding: My Lords, I respect entirely the views which the noble Lord holds and which he has expressed. He wants to change people's minds so that human embryos should not be used as they have been over the past 10 years under the 1990 Act. But many of those who support his amendment would not support any of this research at all. For that reason, it is a tactic. It may be a perfectly legitimate tactic, but it is a tactic and it should be recognised as such.
I find that I am greatly reassured by the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Walton of Detchant. That is the right way forward. Therefore, I hope that we shall not accept the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Alton. We should accept the regulations, subject to the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Walton.
Lord Habgood: My Lords, I should declare a special interest in this debate in view of my responsibility for advising on and monitoring all matters relating to xenotransplantation, of which tissue and cell replacement is, at present, the main focus of interest.
In the light of that experience, I see stem cell technology as offering a very promising alternative. It could eliminate the two major problems inherent in using animal tissues; namely, infection and immunological rejection. Whether it would eventually be possible to grow organs rather than cells and tissues from stem cells is at present an open question for the long-term future. Meanwhile, wearing that particular hat, I welcome these developments although, having seen a little of what goes on at first hand, I must confess a certain scepticism about the optimistic views of what more embryo research may produce.
On the whole, medicine advances by rather ad hoc means, making use of fundamental research but not very often growing directly out of it. Perhaps I may give an example. At present in the United States, one of the most interesting new treatments for Parkinson's Disease has nothing whatever to do with embryo or genetic research or anything like it. It consists of simply sticking pig fetal cells into human brains and watching what happens. The answer is that there is a modest improvement.
But wearing another hat, a moral and theological hat, I am aware, as we are all aware, of very considerable problems. I do not believe that the objections to using embryos for research should outweigh all other considerations, particularly if the research is seen as an interim measure until satisfactory ways have been found to derive stem cells from adult human cells.
I agree with those who say that there is no essentially moral difference between this proposed use and that under the present legislation provided that--and it is an important proviso--the aim of embryo research is to develop techniques which will make the further use of embryos less necessary.
When the Warnock report was being debated, the main aim of the legislation, in my own mind, was the improvement which was suggested in the techniques of in vitro fertilisation. We were debating in a situation in which in vitro fertilisation was already happening. Louise Brown had been born. We were thus presented with a fait accompli and we had to decide how best to monitor and control that.
It seemed to me that there was a moral imperative to improve the techniques which were clearly working but not working very well. It seemed to me then that if one does not believe, as I do not believe, that embryos have full moral status as persons, then the respect that we owe them does not necessitate absolute protection and can be satisfied by a strictly controlled use of them.
I hope that noble Lords will take very seriously the extremely important speech of the noble Lord, Lord Brennan. It seemed to me that he spoke to the heart of the moral issues. In particular I want to take up his phrase about the over-use of embryos, or almost casual use of embryos, that is beginning to change our concept of what it is to be a human person and of what is human life.
I believe that we need to be careful in defining where the limits of embryo research should lie, all the more so because the present fears surrounding it centre mainly on questions about where such research may lead us in the long-term. Therefore, I want to suggest four areas in which such limits should apply.
First, in the Donaldson report it is claimed that all necessary research could be done on spare embryos without the need for embryos to be created specifically for the purpose of research. If we take that at its face value it seems that there would be no harm in stating clearly that that would be so and that embryos should not be created specifically for such research.
Secondly, it seems to me that any further move in the direction of further embryo research should be seen strictly as an interim measure. In the first instance that could be done by setting a time limit of, say, five years. To set such a time limit would help to concentrate attention on the primary objective of using adult rather than embryonic cells.
I know that the HFEA is a sensible authority that will not let researchers go too far. However, the members of the HFEA are human and if they are under enormous pressure and there is no statutory backing that allows them to set limits on research, they will find themselves in an increasingly difficult situation. I am afraid that I simply cannot accept those regulations.
Fourthly, two speeches have mentioned the recommendation concerning oocyte nuclear transfer. It seems to me that, although the research may be permissible, the practical consequences of that could be highly contentious. It takes us a long way beyond the present Act. The basis of the present Act is that no embryo that has been subject to genetic manipulation should be allowed to develop beyond 14 days. The transfer of a whole nucleus entails genetic manipulation of the most radical kind, and the research envisaged under that heading must inevitably
Those are four controversial points. It does not matter whether noble Lords agree with them, but I hope that noble Lords will agree that they require further discussion. I repeat, I welcome the proposals and I do not want to inhibit progress in stem cell research. However, I am convinced that this progress must be carefully and independently monitored and that further restrictions and safeguards of the kind that I have suggested should be built into the whole process.
For that reason I am minded to support the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, sorry though I am to disappoint my noble friend Lord Walton. Only a "W" separates them. In my own mind the "W" has been wobbling backwards and forwards all afternoon. I have to confess that I am mainly convinced that the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, is right by basely political considerations. It seems almost certain that there will be a general election this spring. If we pass these regulations and then have a general election, no matter what a Select Committee may say, who knows that will happen? I prefer belt and braces; I would prefer there to be a postponement, followed by a Select Committee and then a clear decision with proper safeguards built in when we know exactly what we want to do.
Lord Hunt of Chesterton: My Lords, the regulations before us permitting stem cell research with embryonic cells concern both the vital public issue of regulation of medical research and deep beliefs about the sanctity of life, religion and the development of science. I am honoured to follow the excellent speeches of other noble Lords that, as always, were very revealing on every possible aspect. They have spoken with great authority. I speak as a physical scientist and as someone whose life was saved by pioneering medical research 50 years ago. I hope that I am sensible of the way in which religious beliefs inspire and comfort people and also guide our ethical principles.
As we have heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, the use of embryos for medical research has been the subject of ethical investigation for more than 20 years, during which time the research has moved forward. The landmark Warnock report of 1984 concluded in paragraph 5:
As the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, reminded the House, the report led to a framework Act and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, an organisation that is well trusted in the UK and admired abroad, as it was in a recent Le Monde editorial. Because of that trusted framework new legislation is not needed but simply agreement to the regulations to proceed with the new research with embryos.
The regulations are supported by the authoritative O'Neill report of the HFEA and a totally open report of the Chief Medical Officer. That report emphasises the potential medical benefits of stem cell research, some of which needs to be done with embryos and some with adult cells. The members of the committee were not only distinguished medical researchers but also those who have considered the wider ethical and social issues. The report was published in June last year. There have been two major debates in the House of Commons and several meetings in and around Westminster with different interest groups well represented. So it is hard to say that there has not been time to hear about the information and to debate the wider implications. I cannot accept such criticism of the process by my noble friend Lord Brennan.
If the delaying amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, is passed, researchers are likely to leave the UK and to continue the work abroad. All scientists know that the application of research, including medical research, is most immediate and effective when it is done alongside the fundamental research. So the expertise in the application of medical research in the UK will therefore be less than in countries where the research is taking place. Is that really the aim of those supporting the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Alton?
The noble Baroness, Lady Williams, said that international regulation might be possible. Having worked with the United Nations system as the UK representative, I understand its limitations as well as its strengths. I believe that neither the World Health Organisation nor any other body will ever be able to control completely so marketable an area as research and treatment. However, there is a chance that some international regulation will be possible if the UK adopts policies which are likely to be a compromise between the total openness of the United States and the rigid position of many, but not all, European countries.
A crucial aspect of the debate has centred on definitions of life and the discrimination between embryonic cells and embryos. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans called the proposals a great step-change, whereas the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, argued that we are discussing incremental steps. If biological research has shown us anything, it has shown us not only that life is marvellously complex but that there are several distinct steps of cell division and differentiation. That is why under the proposed regulations the 14-day rule remains inviolate and that should give us confidence in the administration of the regulations.
In the past, religions have had doubts about the development of science, perhaps because religion comes out of every-day observation as well as the teachings of great leaders. But surely those great teachers inspire us with awe about the world in which we live and fill us with the desire to help the suffering. In the past, there were religious doubts even about life insurance and weather forecasts--that is still the case in some countries--so I can only marvel at the difficulty today for religious leaders to accept and explain these new developments.
I hope that the important common beliefs of all mankind will enable religion and science to understand each other and work together in this great human endeavour. Since urgent action is needed, and since after passing the regulations explanation will be essential from a Select Committee, as proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Walton, and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, said, in popular magazines, I urge your Lordships to support the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Walton.
Baroness O'Cathain: My Lords, human fertilisation and embryology is an unusual subject for me, as I know it is for many participants in the debate. Usually we in this House stick to where our experience and expertise may enable us to make a contribution to debates. But this debate has been notable for the fact that so many of us are deeply concerned because we believe that we have an obligation to understand what we are being asked to do. We have had a huge amount of information, numerous meetings and passionate pleas from many in the world outside this Chamber. But all of this has been only within the past week.
My main concerns are four in number and I shall deal briefly with them in turn. First, has the Donaldson report been overtaken by developments in stem cell research since its publication? The noble Baroness, Lady Williams, dealt with that issue admirably, making the point about the development of adult stem cell research and retro-differentiation, both of which were subsequent to the Donaldson report.
Secondly, is it valid to state, as does the letter from the Department of Health dated 11th January, that embryo stem cell research is perhaps the "only hope" for a cure for sufferers of Parkinson's Disease, diabetes, Alzheimer's, strokes and so forth?
I shall deal with those concerns in turn. My first concern is the Donaldson report. The meetings I have attended all concentrated on the Donaldson report, which is of some 12 months' standing. There have been many developments since then in the area of adult stem
The confusion about all of this must be solved. The noble Baroness, Lady Northover, quoted a letter in The Times today, in effect stating that adult stem cells cannot be as good as embryonic stem cells. The Daily Telegraph takes the completely opposite view. Who and what are we to believe? We need to know. We need that Select Committee now.
I do not want to put the clock back on any research, but before the Government go headlong into permitting embryo stem cell research and human cloning we should ask the following questions. Why will the US Government not fund such research? Why is the UK the only member of the EU which wishes to permit such research? In view of the long-term nature of such research, why do the Government not want to see a Select Committee established now, to be made up of all the differing views, to allay the fears of a great number of people both in your Lordships' House and in the country at large?
My third concern is the decision to have an affirmative order rather than a Bill. I really cannot understand what one might charitably call the "indecent haste" epitomised by the manner in which this legislation is being introduced. Less charitably, it could be described as "railroading". There is genuine concern among many groups of people about this issue. As was said by the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, there is real suspicion about scientists and politicians, which does not help the Government's stance.
In addition, the heads of the major faiths supported in this country are deeply concerned and do not want the regulations to go through today. After church yesterday, a sad priest asked me why the Prime Minister has consistently refused to see the representatives of the major faiths on this moral, ethical and religious issue. Opponents of the proposals have been dismissed as irrelevant if they are Christians--or even more specifically Roman Catholics. That gives the impression, I hope
This Government have always claimed to be in favour of multiculturalism. For the first time, leaders of all faiths joined together to appeal to the Prime Minister, but on four separate occasions he refused to see them. Does the Prime Minister not realise that there are genuine fears that the cloning of embryos will result in the production of babies to parents' specification and the discarding of those which do not match up? Which of us would have been born under such tough requirements? As one of the many people who e-mailed me asked,
The Sunday Times of 10th December 2000 reported that the noble Lord, Lord Winston, has patented a technique for genetically altering sperm to prevent children inheriting unwanted characteristics from their fathers. A co-worker of the noble Lord, Phillip Koeffler, admitted,
My fourth and final concern is the emotional one of raising false hopes of immediate cures. On that issue I drew great comfort from the words of the noble Lord, Lord Dahrendorf. As the debate proceeded, I believed that those who were likely to support the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord, Alton, were regarded as being in the "uncaring" category. I regard that as utterly unacceptable. Sadly, I have 12 years' experience of people who suffer from degenerative diseases. On at least three occasions each week--usually four--I visit a medical nursing home. There are people in that home who clutch at any article published in any magazine or newspaper which holds out the slightest hope that a cure is just about to be theirs. When we had presentations last week I specifically asked about the likelihood of any current sufferer being cured if this embryonic research went ahead. The answer was that it was most unlikely that any cure would be forthcoming for about 10 years.
The Minister opened the debate with a passionate plea for hundreds of thousands of suffering people. To imply a dramatic, imminent therapeutic dividend is an unkind disservice to vulnerable patients. If we cannot expect any quick results, surely we should demand that all angles of this very difficult subject be investigated by a Select Committee, if necessary under a strict timetable. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, said that the committee could report in three months. That is not a long time to ensure that all possible knowledge can be
The Government may face a major problem. If these regulations are passed today and licences are given and patents agreed, what would the Government do if the Select Committee for which the noble Lord, Lord Walton of Detchant, argues came down against research into embryonic stem cells? Would they withdraw the licences and compensate the scientists, researchers and companies for starting research and then stopping it? Surely it is better to wait. I have no hesitation in supporting the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Alton.
Lord Winston: My Lords, this is the sixth year of my membership of this House. I have experienced boredom, interest, excitement and a whole range of other emotions. However, having heard the speech just made by the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, I believe that this is almost the first occasion on which I have been ashamed to be a Member of this House. To raise the question of an apparent financial interest in such a way is outrageous. To set the record clear, I hold four patents, at least two of which concern adult stem cells. On the assumption that this Motion is rejected today, if anything my university, not I, stand to benefit from those patents. I shall not make any money whatever the result.
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