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Yvette Cooper: I shall return to the issue of fears about cloning and the discussion on cell nuclear replacement later in my speech. As the arguments are complicated, I shall deal with them later. I shall also happily take another intervention from the hon. Gentleman then.
Now, I should like to address the issues raised by the current law, which already provides that embryo research is legal. However, it is permitted only under strict controls and in certain circumstances. Nevertheless, it is legal already. The fundamental principle of whether and in what circumstances embryonic research might be acceptable has already been debated and was enshrined in law 10 years ago.
Under current law, research can be conducted with a maximum 14 days' embryo development. Additionally, each research project must be individually licensed by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, and the HFEA must satisfy itself that there is no other way of doing the research, avoiding embryo use. The embryos must also be donated through informed consent.
Research can only be done for one of five purposes: advances in the treatment of infertility, increasing knowledge about congenital diseases, increasing knowledge about the causes of miscarriage, developing more effective contraception techniques or developing methods for detecting gene and chromosome abnormalities before implantation.
In 1990, Parliament saw fit to allow research to proceed under those circumstances and that strict regulation. However, Parliament also provided a power to extend those purposes should the development of medicine and science make doing so worth while in future. That is exactly what the regulations do. They extend the purposes for which embryos can be used in research. They do not change the regulatory framework, the strict limits, the 14-day limit or the need for an individual licence from the HFEA. They also do not permit research if there is any other way of doing the research without embryos. They also still require embryos to be donated with informed consent.
All the regulations do is to change the purposes of permitted research to include basic research into stem cells and research into the understanding and treatment of serious disease. The strict regulatory framework that exists for embryo research right now will apply also to the new research, and so it should.
Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury): Before the Minister leaves the legal aspect of the matter, is it her understanding that the cell nuclear replacement technique is legal at present, even though it has not been attempted yet?
Yvette Cooper: Yes, our understanding of the current law is that the cell nuclear replacement technique is legal, but only under the strict regulations that apply, and only for purposes that are legitimate under the current law. I shall return to the matter later.
I do not believe that there are fundamentally new moral issues at stake that were not raised in the debate on the 1990 Act. If embryo research on infertility is acceptable, surely research for Parkinson's disease should be too? If embryo research for contraception is acceptable, surely research for muscular dystrophy should be too? That is especially true when the potential for sufferers from Parkinson's disease or muscular dystrophy might be so great.
We are not talking, either, about huge changes in the number of embryos that might be used. Between 1991 and 1998, 48,000 embryos were used in research after being donated by couples going through IVF treatment. A further 250,000 embryos created through IVF were simply destroyed. Given the nature of stem cells, scientists believe that very few embryos would actually be needed to extract the stem cells and generate the stem cell lines that could be used for many, many research projects.
Mr. Fabricant: I believe that there may be some confusion in the House on this matter. Will the Minister confirm that the blastocyst--the group of some 100 cells that is undifferentiated, with no neuron or muscular tissue--will not be grown into a fully formed foetus? Will she confirm that the technique is not cloning, but that individual types of cell will be developed from the blastocyst simply for the cure of disease?
Yvette Cooper: I can certainly confirm that embryos are not permitted to develop beyond 14 days. That is very clear under the law. Moreover, the stem cells, once extracted, cannot possibly develop into human embryos or babies.
As long as IVF continues, hundreds of thousands of spare embryos will be created. Most are destroyed. If Parliament votes against these regulations, hon. Members will deny couples the choice to donate their spare embryos to stem cell research for spinal injury or stroke. Those embryos will be destroyed instead.
Of course embryo research should not be permitted for just any old thing. That is why the regulations specify serious disease. We are talking not about the common cold but about spinal injuries, burns, osteoporosis, stroke, cancer, heart disease--about serious disease and disability.
Ms Ruth Kelly (Bolton, West): Does my hon. Friend agree that, although cell nuclear replacement, or cloning, may technically be legal under the existing regulations, that technique will become desirable only when the regulations are extended? In addition, does she agree with the Donaldson report, which stated that the prospect opened up by the technique may go further than was contemplated by the Warnock committee, or by Parliament when it debated these issues?
Yvette Cooper: It is true that Parliament in 1990 did not envisage the possibility of cell nuclear replacement. That technique has been developed since that time, and could not have been anticipated in the debates. However,
Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North): Does my hon. Friend agree that in the early and late 1960s people were replacing cell nuclei from frogs, mice and other animals, with very positive results? Bob Briggs in Indiana and John Gurdon at Oxford did marvellous things with cell nuclear replacement at that time. We have waited 30 years to consider the question of whether the technique should be used on human beings. That is how science works: it takes a long time to move from work on lower organisms to work on higher organisms.
Yvette Cooper: It is true that the pace of science moves on. It is because of our position in the scientific debate and, more importantly, in the medical and health debate, that Parliament is now being asked to consider these regulations and to allow the research to go ahead.
Over the past few weeks and months, some people have argued, in the House and outside, that adult stem cells provide an alternative. I agree that where alternatives exist, embryos should not be used in research. That is the position under the 1990 Act. However, adult stem cells are not yet a substitute for embryonic stem cells in research.
Some people have argued that adult stem cells are better, or at least as good, or at worst merely a year behind, and that embryonic stem cell research is unnecessary. However, the best scientific and medical advice we have is that that is fundamentally not the case. If it were, we would not need to put these regulations before Parliament. We would not need to spend time debating these issues today. The patient groups which have bust a gut lobbying Members of Parliament to support the regulations would not be bothered whether the regulations got through or not. But they are. They are very bothered--and for good reason.
At the current point in our knowledge, adult stem cells are not the easy alternative that some have suggested. Adult derived stem cells are few in number and hard to find. We do not know whether there are stem cells for every part of the body. Those that we can find take longer to grow and develop, and their potential to turn into a wide variety of different cells appears more limited.
Embryonic stem cells are a different story. They can renew themselves and develop into many kinds of cells and tissues. They could hold the key to learning how to turn the clock back on adult cells, and turn them into other cells instead.
Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): For many of us, the issue is one of principle. The hon. Lady has said that were there a choice, adult cells should be preferred. What is the principle that gives rise to that distinction, which she herself has drawn?
Yvette Cooper: I endorse the principle embodied in the 1990 Act and set out in the Warnock report--that a measure of respect should be accorded to the human embryo. However, the 1990 Act also provides that embryo research, under strict conditions and in certain
Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion): We have already heard how science has moved on in the past 30 years, and adult stem cell science could progress similarly. The hon. Lady prayed in aid the British Medical Association's report to parliamentarians, which chimed with our views that adult stem cell research was preferable, but that embryo stem cell research had to be done in order to get to that stage. How will the regulations ensure that further adult stem cell research will not be neglected because of the ease of embryology research?