Previous SectionIndexHome Page

4.36 pm

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon): I should first like to explain that there will be a free vote for Liberal Democrats on this issue, as did the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) from the Conservative Front Bench. The Liberal Democrats have always thought that such matters should be subject to a free vote, so our Whips do not compel us to turn up, or to vote one way or the other. However, the party does debate such matters, has policies on them and advises Liberal Democrat Members on how they should vote if they wish to follow the conference policy. Nevertheless, we recognise that this is a matter of conscience for individual Members. Although I speak from the Front Bench and have strong views on pro-life and pro-choice issues and reproductive cloning and therapeutic cloning, I take pains to make it clear to colleagues that they are by no means bound by what I have to say about our policies.

I agree with a further, clear statutory separate ban on human reproductive cloning, and have done so for some time. That was my view well before last year's debates, because the Liberal Democrats had said that we wanted such a separate definitive ban. In that respect, it will be difficult for me to oppose the Bill on Second Reading, and I shall certainly support it on Third Reading, because we agree with it. However, we are concerned about the way in which the Government have gone about the issue. We are concerned about what is not in the Bill, rather than what is in it. Indeed, I find that I share a viewpoint with people who take an opposite point of view from me on the legitimacy of therapeutic cloning and on whether embryos should be used at all. I do not find that difficult or embarrassing. We cannot choose our allies in any parliamentary debate, and it is not reasonable to say that we should not take a view in case we find that we have allies that we previously did not have.

Many reasonable concerns have been raised by those whom I shall call the pro-life lobby. I do not use that term in a negative nor, indeed, a positive way because I suspect that, in many cases, they are not necessarily pro-life. However, I do not believe that their concern that the Bill does not include measures further to restrict therapeutic cloning is reasonable. That is one of the reasons why I cannot support the reasoned amendment, under which the Bill would not be given a Second Reading because it does not reopen the issue of therapeutic cloning.

We had lengthy debates in the House last year. Indeed, many hon. Members who took part in those excellent debates are present. There were lengthy debates on the issue in the House of Lords, and there was extensive coverage of the issue. As I said at the time, I regret that those debates were not on amendable legislation. They were on regulations or were held under an Adjournment motion. Substantive amendments would have focused the debates. Nevertheless, I believe that this House and the House of Lords have given a view on the matter by large majorities, although the House of Lords did so with the caveat that a Select Committee should be set up.

The Select Committee has taken extensive evidence and, by all accounts, has done its work extremely thoroughly. It is due to report shortly. People on both

29 Nov 2001 : Column 1176

sides of the question should reasonably expect any recommendations that the Committee makes to be the subject of separate legislation. I am positively hostile to the view that this Bill—which is designed to close, however unsatisfactorily the loophole created by the judgment three weeks ago—should seek to reopen other issues.

I wish to say something positive about the Bill on Second Reading, and I shall do so. When we pass the Bill, as I suspect that we will, and it becomes an Act, it will strengthen the position of those of us, including those on the Government Front Bench and many Members in all parties, who support the principle of research being allowed to be carried out on early embryos that are obtained from both fertilisation and from cell nuclear replacement. That will assist research into cures for serious diseases.

That is not what are debating today, but one of the arguments against the position that the Government and I take is that there is a slippery slope that leads inevitably to human reproductive cloning. The fact that this Bill draws a line in the sand undermines that argument. I would not have accepted that argument in any event, but I hope that the Bill will persuade people that it is possible to legislate for limits and that one can delineate and debate appropriate regulations on embryos short of the abomination that is represented by human reproductive cloning.

Mr. Cash: In the light of the earlier debate, will the hon. Gentleman tell us why he is in favour of other therapeutic research but appears not to disagree with me when I say that stem cell research provides an alternative when it involves adults rather than embryos? With his qualifications as a distinguished doctor, will he answer that question?

Dr. Harris: In the main, I speak without using those qualifications. One does not need to have medical qualifications to debate this issue, as the hon. Gentleman has done expertly.

Although the subject that the hon. Gentleman raised probably falls within the remit of Second Reading, I am not keen to go into it, except to say that, assuming that the Government win the appeal, the regulations that were passed made it clear that the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority will not offer a licence for stem cell work on embryos—whether through fertilisation or by cell nuclear replacement—if there appears to be an alternative that does not involve the use of embryos. I share the view that this and previous Governments have taken since the Warnock committee reported—that embryos have a special status. Although that does not give them complete protection when there are therapeutic benefits to be had from their use at an early stage, their use should be avoided if at all possible.

Allowing embryonic stem cell research—when there is no alternative—and adult stem cell research to go together will enable us to ensure that we get the best research. I think that everyone's hope is that therapies will, in the end, be based on adult stem cells, because they will be easier to obtain in some cases. We will not be faced with the shortage of eggs that might limit the supply of tissue for transplantation. The general scientific view is that we need the research from embryonic stem cells to inform

29 Nov 2001 : Column 1177

research on stem cells of all kinds. This is not the time to go into that debate in detail, but I hope that we shall have the opportunity to do so in the future. The House should consider that subject regularly. When the House of Lords Select Committee reports and when the Government introduce other legislation—as they will have to do to implement the Donaldson report recommendations that they have not yet implemented—that debate will take place. I welcome the opportunity to have that debate, but I fear that the Government do not. That is why they often appear so unwilling to discuss the issues.

The Bill shows that a line can clearly be drawn. The second argument in its favour is that it will restore public confidence. In the debate on the timetable motion, I asked whether it was appropriate to assume that there is no public confidence on the basis of some adverse media coverage of a judgment. I asked whether introducing legislation that is not as complete as it might have been and that has not been consulted on as widely as it might be does restore public confidence or, rather, provides momentum to those in the public and the media who feel that the Government do not have a grip on the situation. The fact that we are debating an emergency Bill in one day sends the signal that there is a problem here. That would not have happened if the Government had approached the issue in a more measured way.

The third argument for the Bill is that there is the real and present danger of the implantation of a cloned embryo into a woman with a view to human reproductive cloning. That view has been expressed by Conservative Members, but I do not believe that a real and present danger exists. For it to be possible, there would have to be a reliable way of producing a human embryo from cell nuclear replacement, and there is not. First, even the news from America in the past week suggests that there is not a reliable way of getting an embryo to the stage where it continues to develop into a blastocyst. The case developed by Advanced Cell Technology was a pre-blastocyst human embryo.

Secondly, an Italian self-publicist would have to find collaborators in this country to carry out such work. As Lord Winston said in the House of Lords debate—I paraphrase him—someone who had a licence in this country to do the work regulated by the HEFA would be working outside that licence if he did such work with Professor Antinori. The fact that, since 1990, no one working in the field has lost their licence shows just how seriously they take their obligations under the existing law.

Thirdly, I do not believe that eggs are easily available to do such work. The storage of eggs for the creation of cloned embryos is still covered by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990. Therefore, this Bill is not required to stop those eggs being used; the law already exists for that. Fourthly, I do not believe that Professor Antinori would find a medical doctor, as opposed to a scientist, who is willing to get involved with the process of implanting such an embryo into a woman with a view to making her pregnant, let alone find a woman prepared to accept the significant risks of miscarriage and worse that such a procedure involves.

Putting all those factors together, it seems to me that there is no realistic prospect—not even a possibility that the Government might feel that they should legislate for—of that happening within the time scale of considered legislation or an appeal. The fact that an Italian

29 Nov 2001 : Column 1178

self-publicist has been wholly unregulated in Italy—there is no regulation there—and has not been able to make any progress towards his desired aims provides further evidence of the fact that he is publicising himself rather than significant work. On that basis, the Government did not need to bring us to this stage.

Should we be here at all? Despite the advice that the Government received, should they have predicted that they would lose the High Court judgment? When we discussed the matter previously, I did not take issue with the legal advice—I do not claim the advantage of foresight. Although it was not the main topic of our discussion, I want to be honest and admit that I cannot say, "I told you so." However, others can. Apart from the reason that I raised in the discussion on the timetable motion, it is worth briefly exploring others for why it seemed unlikely, in retrospect, that the Government could win. Some of those reasons may give them pause on appeal.

Section 1(1)(a) of the 1990 Act states:

I emphasise those last four words—

I rely on the work of Mr. Lee and Mr. Morgan in their book on the subject, but the words that I have emphasised make it clear that the Government could have provided for the inclusion in the statute of embryos created other than through IVF. However, they did not.

To read the Act as providing for embryos created through cell nuclear replacement, we must take "embryo" to mean

unless the context requires otherwise. However, the Act does not provide for that. The Act uses the words "except where otherwise stated", but omits to "state otherwise." That makes it more difficult for a judge to give "embryo" a purposive rather than a literal interpretation. I fear that the Government may run into trouble on appeal. I hope that they are taking wider advice on whether the appeal is winnable than the counsel's opinion that they took originally.

Next Section

IndexHome Page