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Human Cloning

12.30 pm

Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North): I congratulate you, Mr. Amess, on your elevation. It has been a long time coming and well deserved. I shall miss you in other places.

Human cloning has raised much heat recently through the media and requires urgent Government consideration. [Interruption.]

Mr. David Amess (in the Chair): Order. Would those people leaving the Chamber kindly go about their business more quietly? We owe that courtesy to Dr. Gibson.

Dr. Gibson : Thank you, Mr. Amess.

Human cloning includes both so-called therapeutic cloning and reproductive cloning. Although they are based on the same technique—the addition of a nucleus to an enucleate egg cell—they have completely different aims. They involve the production of an embryo, but in therapeutic cloning, tissues or groups of cells are created for the purpose of treating some chronic diseases. In this place we recently discussed issues surrounding therapeutic cloning during the debate on stem cell research. In that case, cloning means transplanting the newly created tissue back to the patient. There is no prospect of the patient having an immune rejection because the tissue is genetically similar. It can also be transferred to other patients with the aid of immune drugs to suppress any response.

Reproductive cloning aims to allow the embryo to develop into an adult and involves the creation—in theory, at least—of an individual who comprises exactly the same genes as another person, alive or dead. We need to appreciate that two individuals with the same genes do not always turn out to be exactly alike. Identical twins have identifiable differences because of the great influence of environmental factors during the transformation from zygote to full adult. Those factors have a great effect on the development of tissues, characteristics and so forth.

It is argued that reproductive cloning might be the only way that some people are able to have a child. We currently have in-vitro fertilisation, which is legal, but there are severe ethical, legal, scientific and political problems with allowing reproductive cloning. Dolly the sheep was produced only after many unsuccessful attempts—270 to produce one poor little sheep. Imagine the trauma if that were to happen with humans. Yes, we have also produced pigs and cows and, indeed, America now has a whole industry dedicated to reproducing a tame pet that might have been run over. One's cat or dog can be recreated for a price. It is, of course, never quite the same as one's pet moggy but, because of the genetic influence, it sort of looks like it.

An industry has been established to fulfil narcissistic ambitions of self-perpetuation—that is precisely what it is. The technology is not state of the art. Many of the animals produced display lethargy, obesity, arthritic conditions and failed sexual prowess. There have been miscarriages, abortions, stillbirths and genetically abnormal offspring, yet we only hear of the one great success.

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An Italian scientist, Professor Antinori, is swanning around the conference circuit claiming to be able to judge embryos as fully normal and worthy of implantation in the mother, but many defects emerge only after birth during the development of the organism. In August 2001, an article in The Guardian referred to the same "maverick scientist" as promising a human clone by the beginning of 2002 and claiming that by the end of 2002 he will be able to produce an individual baby whom someone has paid him to create.

There is no reason to suppose that the problems that have been created during the development of pigs and cows would not apply to humans. It is not an exact science and we cannot turn back the clock in respect of DNA taken from an adult and put into a new cell nucleus to create a completely new organism. Problems can happen genetically on the way.

No children are born with their total genetic make-up being known in advance. Before birth, there is the mystery of which sex the child will be, the hair colour, the size, the looks and all the matters that make human beings different from each other. It is true that technologies can select embryos that contain certain genes. For example, the gene for a certain type of muscular dystrophy can be spotted. If it is, the individuals involved will be informed and, after discussion and advice, choices will be made. Under British law, we do not condone or allow the positive selection of certain characteristics.

In the first flush of human genetics earlier this century came the discovery of family trees where genes can be traced. The famous geneticist, Herman Muller, with whom I worked in Indiana, received a Nobel prize for discovering that radiation caused gene mutations. His book entitled "The Control of Human Heredity and Evolution" states:

In some ways, that is close to eugenic arguments. I am sure that hon. Members can imagine some of the arguments we had in our coffee breaks about what I thought was Herman Muller's over-enthusiasm for being able to fashion individuals genetically. He referred in his book to a co-worker who argued that cells could be spotted with intelligent genes and non-intelligent genes and that such cells could be transplanted. Science created that excitement, but as hon. Members know, it can sometimes be a few steps too fast for the society in which it is being developed.

Hon. Members will recall that the Government, together with the chief medical officer, the human genetics advisory committee and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, recommended regulations that backed therapeutic cloning and said that legislation was needed to ban reproductive cloning to contain the public's anxieties about the cloning technique as perpetuated by articles in various newspapers and television programmes. All credible British scientists agree that it is essential to prevent charlatans such as Antinori from conducting reckless and dangerous experiments on women and children.

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In 1990, when the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act was passed, no one considered cell nuclear replacement, although it had been talked about in the scientific community since the 1960s when people carried out the technology with frogs and other so-called lower organisms. People obviously said that that could happen one day with a human being. That day is here now. In nuclear replacement technology, an egg cell receives its DNA from another cellular source and the egg cell develops into embryonic tissue or, indeed, into an embryo.

The Act, however, defined embryos as being the result of fertilisation—an egg and a sperm fusing together. When it was published, that was the only way in which to produce embryos—something that is now, of course, outdated. The pro-life movement has seized on that and claims that regulations could not be passed about cloning because the Act does not cover the nuclear replacement technique. If that is so, the argument is either that the technique is legal as it is not prohibited under the Act and scientists should be allowed to use it and be granted licences to undertake research and treat patients, or that cloning of any kind is illegal because the Act prohibits the splitting of embryos and other international laws and agreements prohibit cloning. The Government must make a clear decision. A judicial review is under way and a decision is imminent. I look forward to the Minister explaining how the Government will act as a result of the review.

I fear the judgment of lawyers and doubt whether the intentions of the 1990 Act will justify the necessary regulation to cover therapies involving nuclear replacement. Let us hope that pro-life groups do not turn back the clock and make cloning illegal, thus preventing the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority from granting licences for clinical research into diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. We have had those arguments in the House many times during the past year. I hope that the matter does not require primary legislation, that the Minister can confirm that it will be covered by the Act and that we can ban reproductive cloning. As the Government have been positive and supportive of science and medical research, I hope that we shall not lose this opportunity to clear up the dilemma that we face today.

12.40 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Ms Hazel Blears) : I, too, welcome you to the Chair of Westminster Hall, Mr. Amess. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) for having introduced today's debate. We have always said that it is important to debate such issues in depth and to take an open approach. I know that my hon. Friend fully supports the idea of exploring the issues seriously, as has happened over the past 18 months or so.

Human cloning is a serious matter and we in this country have given it a great deal of attention. In the debate on 17 November last year, my hon. Friend said that cloning is a difficult term to define. We have tried to be clear about the definitions involved in debates.

The creation of an embryo using cell nuclear replacement for research purposes only is commonly called therapeutic cloning. Embryos are not used

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directly in treatment, but stem cells can be extracted and used for research into potentially life-saving treatments, as in the cases that my hon. Friend mentioned—Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and incurable cancers—which might be tackled in that way. Enabling such research was a key consideration in introducing the regulations.

Cloning a human being, or reproductive cloning—the production of a cloned child—requires the implantation of a cloned embryo in the uterus. That is considered unacceptable throughout the world and will remain illegal in the United Kingdom. That is the Government's policy.

At the end of last year, three full debates on those issues were held in Parliament. The accepted view was that the standard of those debates was extremely high in both Houses, with many learned contributions full of expertise and knowledge and a great deal of energy expended by people who had clearly thought deeply about the complex ethical issues involved. The conclusion of a substantial majority of Members of both Houses was that permitting embryo research into potentially life-saving therapies for serious disease is right, and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology (Research Purposes) Regulations 2001 came into force on 31 January this year.

The regulations enable the HFEA to issue a licence under the strict conditions imposed by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 for the purposes of increasing knowledge about the development of embryos or about serious disease, or enabling any such knowledge to be applied in developing treatments for serious diseases. Since the regulations were passed, the HFEA has received two applications for research under the extended regulations. However, I understand that those applications involve not cloning embryos but using embryos that are already available.

The House of Lords Select Committee on Stem Cell Research has taken evidence and intends to report by the end of the year. There is certainly no lack of interest in the matter, and it is right that it should continue to receive the most careful attention.

The regulations do not allow reproductive cloning, or the creation of a human being using cloning techniques, and the Government are clear that reproductive cloning cannot take place in the United Kingdom. As my hon. Friend said, Professor Antinori said recently that he wants to carry out such treatment here in the UK, but that will not be permitted. I thank my hon. Friend for giving me the opportunity to state that clearly on the record.

My hon. Friend mentioned the judicial review brought by the ProLife Alliance late last year, which was heard in the High Court last week. The first aspect of the challenge related to the 2001 regulations, but that aspect was not pursued in the case. The regulations remain in force and permit the HFEA to issue licences for embryo research into serious diseases. The HFEA said that it would not take decisions about applications for licences for research that involves cloning techniques until after the judicial review. It would consider applications without making decisions, but no such applications were received so the matter has not arisen.

The second part of the challenge by the ProLife Alliance relates to the definition of an embryo under the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990. That

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covers embryos created by cell nuclear replacement into an egg, which was the technique that was used to produce Dolly the sheep. The permission for a judicial review was granted on the grounds that there was an arguable case that raised matters of public importance. The judgment on the second limb of the judicial review has been reserved. We do not yet know the outcome, although it is expected in weeks rather than months, so we should know the outcome soon.

The current ban on reproductive cloning has two sources. The 1990 Act itself prohibits cell nuclear replacement into an embryo. If the nuclear replacement is into an egg—as was the case with Dolly the sheep—the Government believe that, given that the procedure will result in the creation of an embryo, it must be licensed by the HFEA. Of course, that is the matter before the court in the judicial review. I understand that some of the legal arguments centred on the legislation's purpose rather than its literal construction. The judge will consider that carefully.

The HFEA made it clear that it will not, as a matter of policy, issue licences for reproductive cloning. However, given the considerable public and parliamentary concern about the matter, the Government have stated their firm commitment to put the reproductive cloning ban on a statutory footing, and intend to introduce a Bill to do that as soon as parliamentary time permits.

It is true that there are different national approaches to embryo and stem cell research. They reflect the differing legal, historic and religious approaches throughout the world. The international bioethics committee of UNESCO reported on the matter earlier this year. It concluded that every society has a right and a duty to debate and decide on ethical matters with which it is confronted, and that embryonic stem cell research is a subject on which national debate is desirable. We have taken forward that approach in the United Kingdom. The round table meeting of science Ministers at UNESCO last month reaffirmed the unanimous commitment to the prohibition of human reproductive cloning. However, given the lack of international agreement on the status of the embryo, the UNESCO bioethics committee did not recommend international regulation of embryonic stem cell research now, but it considered that if such research was considered to be permissible following the national debate, it should take place only in the context of a state-sponsored regulatory system. In our case, that is the HFEA and, therefore, we are fully compliant with the international recommendations.

Later this month, the United Nations will consider proposals for developing a United Nations convention to prohibit human reproductive cloning. Developments are gradually spreading throughout the word and there is abhorrence for human reproductive cloning.

For the past 25 years, the United Kingdom has been at the forefront of assisted conception and related research. However, that does not mean that we are liberal. We have developed a system of strict legal control and licensing that covers all aspects of treatment and research. We have the most comprehensive legal controls of any European country. The regulatory system followed the fullest and most wide-ranging debate and public consultation possible on all the matters in the UK in the early 1980s.

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Such consultation and discussion has continued for the past 20 years. Clearly, the matters concern the British public, as well as parliamentarians at Westminster. We must continue to have an open, wide-ranging and informed debate with the public.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon): I am grateful to the Minister for giving way and to the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) for securing the debate. I concur with what the Minister has said. The Government have indicated that they will swiftly introduce a statutory ban. Does the Minister agree that that will give the United Kingdom a completeness of regulation that will put us at the forefront, particularly in comparison with other European countries? It ill behoves representatives of other countries that, unlike the United Kingdom, have, as yet, made no effort in statute to introduce the regulation, to criticise the steps that we have taken through regulations to ensure that responsible and effective scientific research with limits is conducted in the United Kingdom.

Ms Blears : The hon. Gentleman has made an important point. It has been suggested that our regulations will encourage reproductive cloning elsewhere. That is incorrect. It is vital to have a transparent, open and acknowledged system of regulation and licensing, so that the important issues that the Committee has been discussing can be addressed within a proper framework. If that system is put in place, the country will know that such issues are dealt with in accordance with our society's views. For instance, we must strike the right balance between research and the important ethical considerations that are relevant to this sensitive and delicate area. The United Kingdom is at the forefront of the development of a robust and rigorous system of licensing, which means that we can continue to make progress.

On research, the Government firmly believe that both embryo and adult stem cell research is necessary if we are to discover how to re-programme cells—which might be taken from any hon. Member present—to treat the very serious illnesses and disorders for which there are currently no effective treatments. The possibility of being able to do that is very exciting and, more significantly, is of fundamental importance to people who are suffering from serious illnesses, and to their families.

Following careful debate and consideration of such issues, both internationally and in the United Kingdom, the Government have introduced regulations that have the potential to make a substantial and positive impact on the treatment of illness and disability. That will greatly benefit the people of our country. The Government have got the balance right.

We have had a mature debate about delicate and sensitive matters, and it is crucial that we keep them under review. We must continue to debate them as the science develops, and we must ensure that we encapsulate our scientific advances within a legal framework that protects the rights and interests of everyone. I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North has had the opportunity to raise these issues.

12.52 pm

Sitting suspended.

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