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6.22 pm

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon): The speech by the Minister for Public Health was one of the best speeches that I have heard, in what I accept is my short time here, in terms of her grasp of a complex subject and the clarity with which she put her case. That was extremely helpful.

May I also say, on behalf of some of those who urged the Minister to do so, that it was wise and sensitive of her to have amended the regulations slightly, to make it clear that we were talking about research into serious diseases, rather than carte blanche for medical research generally? The proposals contain a balance of benefits. Even those who take a different view of them will accept that.

We heard powerful speeches from the hon. Members for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) and for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), on both Friday and today. We also heard persuasive and clear arguments from the hon. Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton) and, on Friday, from the hon. Member for Bolton, West (Ms Kelly). It is useful that the Minister heard those contributions, because certain issues will come down the line in later years, and the House will have to address them.

The fact that we are discussing the matter today is proof that there is no automatic slippery slope. We cannot go beyond the point laid down in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 without obtaining parliamentary approval within a democratic and accountable system. Those who say, in debate, that this process would create a slippery slope are, by definition, contradicting their own point. The House may vote against the regulations--although I hope that it does not--and that would prevent our moving down what those people see as a slippery slope. I agree with the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) that the slope can go up or down, and I believe that in this instance it is going up, and that we should not be concerned about that danger. However, I am delighted that we are having this debate and that we shall have the chance to vote on the issue.

There are people here who have made it clear that they will always oppose any work on embryos. That view has to be respected, because it is clear, precise and well put, not only in the Chamber but in the organised processes by which it is communicated to MPs across the country. However, that argument is not an exclusive moral argument. I do not believe that the moral arguments are all on that side. Those of us who do not take the view that the spirit enters the human being at conception, or that that is when life begins, are also under a moral imperative, once we have found out about all the other issues, to support the regulations. That is an equally ethical approach, given one's starting point.

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The religious arguments are not all on the other side. I do not claim to be an expert on religion, but I take advice from those who are. The hon. Member for Salisbury made it clear that opinion in the Church of England is, at worst, split. At best, it understands the ethical basis on which this kind of research can be carried out. In a paper produced for the Church of England's board of social responsibility, Canon Dr. John Polkinghorne--a well respected theological ethicist--set out the developmental approach to the status of the embryo. It is the approach that I take, and, from what the Minister said, I believe that it is the approach that she and others also take. The paper states:

As I understand it, their current view was not adopted by the Catholic Church until some point during the 19th century. The paper goes on:

That shows that there are people who can describe themselves as religious who do not automatically oppose the regulations.

Dr. Iddon: Is not there a serious moral difficulty here for people who hold a deeply religious point of view? If embryonic stem cell research produced a breakthrough, and it became likely that we could cure one of the many diseases mentioned in the debate, how would we advise such people if they were suffering from that disease? Would the Churches, having objected to the regulations--if they are passed--recommend that they should not accept treatment resulting from the research?

Dr. Harris: Accepting treatment is a personal decision. It is quite reasonable that some people already do not accept certain treatments--vaccines derived from embryonic cell lines, or from foetal cell lines from aborted foetuses, for example. The whole point about the regulations is that they are permissive--I shall come to the question of consent in a moment. They will not force people to accept the treatment resulting from the research for themselves, or, if they were in the position of having to make such a decision, for their families.

Mr. McWalter: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the smallpox inoculation was discovered partly as the result of Semmelweiss injecting a small child with the

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disease and finding that the child's resistance was improved? It does not follow that people who have smallpox injections now are behaving unethically, even though it all started unethically.

Dr. Harris: I agree.

Earlier in our debate, a question was asked about the effectiveness of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, as some considerable responsibility lies with it. Generally, it has not been more lax than society in general, as was suggested. The famous case of Diane Blood, who wanted to use, posthumously, the sperm of her husband to procreate, was opposed down the line by the HFEA, even though that went against public opinion, particularly as portrayed in the tabloid media. The HFEA was unbowing in its opposition to that proposal, even though there was an uproar that that poor lady--as, indeed, she was as the result of her bereavement--could not start a family because she did not have her husband's written consent, as required by the regulations that were then in force. People who are concerned about the HFEA should therefore be reassured that it will not merely yield to public pressure on some of these matters.

One recommendation in the Donaldson report was that the HFEA should deal with the question of consent. Research will not be done on any embryos, and cell nuclear replacement--if it takes place--will not be done with any eggs without the consent of the donors of the embryos and eggs. That will be a personal decision for individuals who will or will not subscribe to the balance of benefits that we are discussing.

Some of the points about adult stem cell research made by the hon. Member for Hamilton, South (Mr. Tynan), and also by the hon. Member for Congleton, completely miss the point. I hope that they will be reassured on their concerns about scientific opinion, the potential of adult stem cells, the role of the HFEA and the likely path of scientists themselves. It is not correct, as a previous speaker said, that science is split on the subject. There will always be scientists who, perhaps for their own religious reasons, will express a view--such as that held by anti-evolutionary creationist scientists--which they do not claim as scientific per se, but rather the opinion of a scientist. It is not reasonable to get a scientist to state that view and then say that science is split, simply because there are scientists on both sides. One must look at peer-reviewed overviews of the literature and the state of science. The opinion of, for example, the Wellcome Trust, the Royal Society and the British Medical Association must have more resonance than the opinions of individual scientists.

I have challenged speakers previously, and said that scientists who are working on adult stem cells recognise the need for embryological work to continue at the same time. Indeed, many scientists derive their results from putting adult stem cells in animal models into embryological environments. It would therefore be illogical for them to oppose embryological stem cell research. Those scientists who, perhaps, have the most to lose from research grants going to embryological work will not come out with the views that their science has been cited as backing. Indeed, many have said that they

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are appalled that their research has been cited by those who describe it as an exclusive alternative to work with embryonic stem cells.

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