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11.56 am

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford): It is in the nature of Friday Adjournment debates that there is a wide-ranging discussion and an opportunity to explore fundamental questions in greater depth. Today has been no exception, and I am pleased to take part in such a considered debate.

It is important to be clear about the central proposition that will come before the House for a decision. That proposition will be simple. It will be limited in its scope and, I believe, easily understood. It does not require an understanding of the finer points of embryology or, indeed, stem cell research. However, I recommend the parliamentary Office of Science and Technology's note of June this year on that subject.

The reason for the debate is that we anticipate new regulations, the effect of which will be to extend the purposes for which human embryos may be used in

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research. The exacting framework and rules of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority will, as the Minister clearly stated, remain in place. There will have to be conditions of consent and there will only be a permission for usage up to 14 days, and only when no alternative effective method of research is available.

The change proposed by the Donaldson report is not fundamental, but, as the hon. Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton) illustrated, it means revisiting some of the most fundamental arguments of the original debates, which culminated in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990. Like the hon. Lady, I was also in the House during the passage of the Bill, but of course I voted for it and have a settled view. I am satisfied that it has provided a proper framework to govern the everyday work of people who seek to assist childless couples.

The authority has carried out its duties in an exemplary way, given that it is working at the forefront of science and in difficult circumstances. It has faced up to the tough challenges of Diane Blood and, more recently, the Scottish couple who wanted to determine the sex of their embryo. We cannot underestimate the ethical dimensions of the work and the concern of the general public. I certainly do not.

In the context of genetically modified crops and foods, the Government tell us that their decisions will be based on sound science, and it is reasonable for us to ask what is sound science. If it were simply to be objective, accurate and peer reviewed, it would not necessarily be ethical. The public understand that. We must bring human judgment to bear on scientific decisions.

We have rights as individuals and as a society to insist on moral frameworks within which science is carried out in our name. I am a strong opponent of the way in which GM foods and crops have been introduced into the food chain and our environment. I do not believe that science should be allowed to go unfettered. In my youth, I was an experimental scientist in genetics for a few years. I know that there are cavalier scientists. I also understand the enormous excitement of working at the forefront of science, and I know that scientists often become so focused on their work that they exclude all other influences. We are therefore right to be cautious.

The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) mentioned BSE. Of course, the tragedy of BSE has been a disaster for scientists and has done much damage to their reputations. However, I suggest that it was more the fault of politicians and administrators than of scientists. I also know that, but for the extraordinary achievements of our scientists, engineers and technologists, human beings in this country and throughout the developed world would still be living nasty, brutish and short lives.

As legislators, we have a duty to grasp the developments and progress of science, and to ensure that our legislation, in setting appropriate frameworks, keeps pace with them. As human beings, we want better health for ourselves and our loved ones. We want our pain alleviated and, as we move inevitably to our deaths, we hope to avoid the most disabling conditions and the dependency that they bring. We constantly will our medical services to provide ever more effective care and cures. As a society, we cannot hold those attitudes and

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aspirations without facing the responsibilities of making decisions about the fundamental research that makes future cures possible.

The issue of experimentation using stem cells arises because of the huge advances in understanding degenerative diseases. No one proposes that embryos be donated for unspecified research purposes. As the Minister confirmed today, the Donaldson report has made a limited proposal for the use of donated embryos, which would otherwise be destroyed, in the service of the living. I believe that that is an ethical purpose.

Furthermore, we must keep at the forefront of our minds the reasons why embryonic cells are available. It is not the reason that is suggested in one of the letters that has been circulated to us from a woman called Pauline Egan. She says:

She goes on to say:

That is an extraordinarily emotive and exaggerated view of the proposed research.

We are not considering human beings in the sense that most people perceive them--as foetuses, babies, children and adults. We are talking about a relatively small mass of cells. Yes, they are human cells, and special consideration and respect should be shown them, but in no way can the sentiments of the letter that I cited be applied to the proposals that the House will consider. If those sentiments were true, I would certainly oppose the sort of cloning that that letter suggests.

There is no suggestion that women should be asked to donate eggs for scientific research. The eggs and embryos that are the subject of the debate arise in the laboratories of doctors who attempt to assist those who are infertile. We should remember that assisted conception is the motivation for the production of embryos, and all those involved have to give their express consent. I think that the majority of people in society believe that people have the right, within the safeguards of the 1990 Act, to create those embryos. In the current state of science and practice, the number of embryos created exceeds those used in the treatment.

As someone who has experienced the pain of childlessness, I believe that I can understand the feelings of those who seek IVF treatment. More than most, they have an acute sense of what life is. They also have lengthy and close contact with medical science and an appreciation of the efforts of those who work in the service of human health and well-being. Those are the people who would be asked to donate eggs and embryos that would otherwise be destroyed. My guess is that many of them will feel that, for up to 14 days, their human cells can be used for alternative and ethical purposes that would advance the common good. As the Minister explained, that common good is research into degenerative diseases.

The hon. Member for Congleton spoke of adult stem cells as the alternative. She misunderstands science if she believes that a spate of papers, which suggest that adult stem cells can be used to produce cells for different sorts of tissue, means that there is no need for other

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fundamental research. A sound body of opinion in the scientific community believes, for reasons that my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) outlined, that it is not an alternative but an addition. At the moment, some fundamental research can be done most effectively by using embryonic stem cells.

Mrs. Ann Winterton: Does the hon. Lady believe that research should be conducted on primates, which are nearest to human beings, before embryonic research is undertaken? Does she agree that that is the right way forward? It has been the traditional way forward, and can provide extremely helpful data and information before the move on to embryonic research.

Joan Ruddock: As the hon. Lady knows, I do not work in that field. We would have to ask for the judgment of scientists who do. I rely on their judgment, and they believe that some fundamental research can best be done using embryonic stem cells. I stress that that has arisen only because of the progress in understanding human degenerative diseases. There cannot always be application across species to advance that science. It is for the House to decide whether such research should be added to existing legislation. There will be a free vote, but my opinion is that the House should take a positive decision. We have a duty to society and to the sufferers of degenerative diseases.

I conclude by quoting from a letter that I received from Maureen McHugh, a 44-year-old woman with a boy of six and a girl of eight. She is in her fifth year of Parkinson's disease and writes:

She says that Parkinson's disease

I agree with Maureen McHugh, and feel a great sense of duty to all those who suffer from such conditions. I take seriously the views of the Donaldson committee and others who suggest that we should in due course extend, in the proposed very limited and specific way, the purposes for which research is permitted on embryos.

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