Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Supplementary evidence from Dr Maureen McHugh

  I was asked what brought me to the meeting. I would like to expand a little on the notes I left with the Committee Assistant. Foremost in my mind were a desire to see the HFE Act 1990 remain largely intact and the need to raise a voice in opposition to pro-life supporters. I agree with Baroness Warnock in this instance, the fundamentals of the 1990 Act are still good enough. Central to the Act is the definition of an embryo and while this may need to be broadened to include those created by activating an oocyte (parthenogenesis) or by cell nuclear replacement (CNR or therapeutic cloning) to bring them under the protection of legislation banning human reproductive cloning, the basic ethical arguments remain unchanged. Although afforded special status, the pre-implantation embryo is not an unborn child; it is a potential human being only and having potential does not unconditionally guarantee the right to life. I agree with the House of Lords Select Committee in saying that potentiality is not enough and if the loss of an embryo via its use in research can benefit countless individuals, then I believe it is justified. The HFE Act 1990 and the HFEA are not that bad and I think we have to be very wary of those who would wish to undermine our rights to IVF, PGDT and (in the future perhaps) stem cell therapy. Those in positions of power may not always be so sympathetic as the present leadership. One senior spokesman on health told me after a public meeting during the House of Lords stem cell and cloning inquiry in 2001 that he considered the use of embryos in research (or even IVF) to be murder. So I think the Committee must be very cautious.

  I was asked if I would approve of PGDT to prevent Parkinson's if this were possible (if Pd was a single gene disorder). If there was a single gene test for Pd I think it would be morally wrong to allow a pre-implantation embryo to develop further knowing that the resulting individual would be destined to suffer this miserable and devastating disorder. The same applies to any other serious disease that could be diagnosed and prevented in this way. To oppose this is not giving the right to life, it is simply condemning another person to a sickening fate sometimes worse than death. The difficulty with PGDT comes not with deselecting an embryo but in choosing one to be allowed to develop to term for a given reason. In this respect the law must be amended to deal with complex issues of purpose, taking into account the rights of the developing embryo; these I would consider following implantation in the uterus, to be (almost) equal to those of the living individual.

  Sadly, Parkinson's is a complex disorder and it seems unlikely that we will ever be able to exclude it via PGDT. In fact the picture becomes ever more complex as new genes contributing to the disease are identified, their function as yet unknown. With no cure in sight it is easy to see why we need stem cell research, although the same applies for many intractable disorders and conditions. The scientific evidence indicates quite clearly that the most appropriate stem cells for research purposes in the neurological context are those derived from the pre-implantation human embryo or blastocyst. The new HFE (Research Purposes) Regulations 2001 therefore must be protected before any steps towards new legislation are considered.

June 2004

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