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12.30 am

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon): We have had a fascinating debate, although the number of hon. Members has not been many and is certainly depleted

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now. It is particularly disappointing, if not distressing, to see that the hon. Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton) has left the Chamber. She had much to say about the views of others, and I had hoped to challenge her to justify some of her own views.

We have heard discussion of both the scientific and the moral--the so-called moral and ethical--dimensions of the issue, and I think we are better for that. I think it has now been generally agreed that there are moral arguments on both sides of the issue. Even the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) was driven to accept that point, after he had initially suggested that the arguments against the proposals were based on morality, whereas those in favour were based on science. That is certainly not the case.

I am driven to my view on the issue not by the science, although that is an important factor, but by the ethical duty I believe we as representatives have to do what is right. After careful examination, I have judged that, although it will entail the curtailment of the rights of some early embryos, allowing research into life-saving therapies is the right thing to do. The issue is one of balancing rights. I think that if the balance of good and of rights weighs in favour of the proposals, we are ethically obliged to vote accordingly.

Those who are against the proposals have argued forcefully that embryos, like adults and live babies, have the right not to have damage done to them. Although those who are on my side of the debate might disagree with that argument, we respect it. I believe, however, that those of us who take the view that the proposals are ethically right should be speaking very loudly about the needs of people with fatal diseases and disabling conditions, and asserting their right to have their interests considered.

In that light, the speeches particularly of the hon. Members for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas) and for Salisbury (Mr. Key) were very welcome. They passionately made the case, which should be made passionately, that patients and their carers have the right to have their interests considered. They also made the point that we should first consider the scientific facts, and then, from our own moral perspectives, weigh the rights of people with the diseases and conditions that I mentioned against the rights of early embryos.

It has been said that the theological arguments on the issue have been made only by those who are against the proposals. That is not true. I am not a theologian, or anything like one, and I shall not attempt to comment directly on theology, but I should like to quote from a text that was sent to me by the author, Professor Reverend Robin Gill, who is a leading Church of England theologian. He said:

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Mr. Swayne: The learned theologian prefaced his remarks, however, by saying that, in his estimate, there was a real probability of advances being made. I assume that the hon. Gentleman was quoting the professor because of his expertise in ethics, but what qualifications does he have to enable him to make an estimate of the probability of real good coming out of the scientific research?

Dr. Harris: The hon. Gentleman raised that point earlier, and I will deal with it because it is an important matter. To weigh the benefits, one must be reasonably certain that the research is not a complete dead end. That is a legitimate point, but I think that it can be dealt with.

It is necessary to recognise that Church bodies are not only on one side of the argument. Briefings from the Church of England, which supports generally the provisions of the 1990 Act, are clear about the benefits. There is no automatic--Anglican, at least--theological objection to the proposals. My local bishop, the Bishop of Oxford--a near namesake, Richard Harries--has clearly said to me, and is willing for me to report, that he supports the proposals, although he recognises the ethical concerns. I suspect we will find that, although the Church of England's board of social responsibility represents different views, the Church is generally supportive both of careful regulation and of progress being allowed when there are no new ethical issues.

The hon. Member for Congleton--who, I regret, is no longer here to participate in this debate--suspects some conspiracy. She feels that it is somehow wrong for the Medical Research Council, which is entitled to its view, to hold meetings, issue briefing papers and, indeed, send those papers to Members of Parliament. She believes that it is wrong that, around the same time, the Association of Medical Research Charities, which enjoys the huge participation of many of our constituents and is funded by their generosity, should set out its view. She thinks that the British Medical Association, the Royal Society and the Wellcome Trust, which are fully engaged, should not be allowed to communicate their view to Members of Parliament without its being seen as a conspiracy.

It is the right of those bodies to advise us and inform our debate, just as it is the right of the Scottish cardinal and the Archbishop of Birmingham, both of whom have written to me, to make their views known. I have had messages from Right to Life, from Life and from the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, and I have read them carefully. I see no deleterious conspiracy arising from that. The hon. Lady should not see conspiracy in people putting their views when the time

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comes to debate these matters. I find it hard to understand it when she says that she does not accept any assurances given by scientists about the future, except for one view--which she probably misquotes--of one scientist, Lord Winston, whom she reports as saying that, 20 years down the line, we will have reproductive cloning. She cannot have it both ways. She must either take the advice of the majority of scientists, or say that she will reach her own view.

The hon. Lady made some comments about the extent of my knowledge of the Government's timetable. She said that I had given an interview to a journalist from The Tablet. Since she made the allegation, I have searched in my diary in the hope of finding even someone who might have masqueraded as such, but I can find no reference to any such interview. I repeat that at no time have I said that I know the Government's intentions; indeed, I have perhaps been as frustrated as the hon. Lady by the difficulties created by Government business managers, such as the short notice that was given of today's debate. The hon. Lady really ought to stick to issues about which she is certain. If she does not, she risks passing on the misinformation that she has been given to the House.

The hon. Member for Salisbury has already dealt with the suggestion of the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge that science must wait for public opinion. He cited the difficulties that that would have created for Galileo and Darwin. The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge said that the cannibalistic feeding of animals to other animals was abhorrent, and that it should have been foreseen that it was wrong. I do not think we can say that the eating of animals by other animals, even members of the same species, is abhorrent or unnatural--as we see on television, it happens in the animal world. Animals eat animals, even those in their own families. What has become obvious is that the idea of feeding animals to their own species in the context of farming was not sensible. I do not want to go into the details, but those who have examined the matter suggest that it was politicians who were unwise not to heed that.

It is important to look at the history of this measure. In December 1998, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, the Government's appointed authority--the House's appointed authority--produced a report jointly with the Human Genetics Advisory Commission, the Government's advisory body. The report concluded that the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 should indeed be amended to allow two more purposes of research.

I think that the Government should have started a parliamentary debate at that time, or at least indicated their willingness to present regulations and engage in debate on them. We now have the report of the Donaldson committee that the Government set up. I urged the Government, as did Members in every part of both Houses, to publish it in July, while Parliament was still sitting. If they had done so, we could have had the debates that we are having now at the time of publication, when press coverage was informed and balanced and there was a certain amount of discussion in the media. Parliamentarians, however, were not present to hear a statement from a Minister. On 16 August, many parliamentarians were out of the country, and no Minister was found to speak on the subject. For that reason, Parliament fell behind in the debate, and we are now having to catch up.

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It is because there was no sign of the report's publication in July that I applied for the opportunity to present a ten-minute Bill. In retrospect, I agree with the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) that the time was not convenient, but until Back Benchers are given more power to decide the timing of private Members' Bills, it is a little unjust to suggest that that was an avoidable factor.

Having said that, and having reflected on the matter, I am not at all embarrassed about the ten-minute Bill. It provoked a debate in Parliament and in public, and it made constituents on both sides of the argument understand that the issue would soon be before the House. I am willing to apologise to those who felt rushed into having to decide how to vote on the principle--that was not my intention when I tabled the Bill--but if my action pushed organisations supporting the measure into telling MPs that they supported it and why, and if it prompted patients' organisations and patients able to make representations to do the same, it will have done some good. Indeed, if we have to lose one vote but win the next, I am pleased that my own measure was defeated on a low turnout and hope that the Government measure will be passed. That exercise was therefore useful.

I shall deal with an important argument against the proposals which involves adult stem cells. I accept that some people have fundamental objections to embryo research, and I do not think that I will change their minds, those of my constituents who have written to me on the matter or, indeed, those of people in my constituency who have gathered signatures for petitions. I respect their views, but I have a fundamentally different view about the rights of an early embryo. Early embryos have some rights, but they are not the same as those of babies or adult human beings, about which we have heard. People with different views about those rights make a consistent case but when they start to subvert science to support their side of the argument, we are entitled to say that they are on shaky ground.

There is not an either/or choice between adult stem cells and embryonic stem cells, as research into both kinds of cells is taking place. The proposals do not suggest that research into adult stem cells should be stopped. Indeed, I believe that that research should be pursued with great vigour. However, we cannot stop research in one area in the hope that another area may yield results. It would not be reasonable, for example, for us to stop live organ donation, such as kidney donation--often from relatives of the recipient, but not always--just because we think that adult stem cell research may produce tissue replacement therapy. There are problems with live organ donation, which is not straightforward and would not be desirable if it was not necessary. However, we should not stop research into making it easier and more acceptable simply because we hope that tissue replacement may be forthcoming from stem cell research.

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