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3 July 2006 : Column 530

There are, of course, areas of disagreement. That is not surprising. The Committee made 104 recommendations. It is interesting that the Government rejected very few of them outright. Indeed, rather than do so, the Government chose instead to consult more widely to gauge professional and public opinion. Not surprisingly, there was disagreement over the Government’s use of the precautionary principle. I am rather pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) is not here to make a speech. He is delayed and has sent his apologies to the House. We have just spent a considerable amount of time discussing the precautionary principle in a new inquiry, and we have not come to any sensible conclusion. The hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Newmark) nods from a sedentary position. The Committee’s recommendation to include the Human Genetics Commission in the new regulatory body was a rationalisation too far for the Government, but I am sure that the hon. Member for Norwich, North would like to take up that issue later, because it was a fundamental proposal in the Committee’s report.

My hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon is in Committee at the moment and there was a vote at 4 o’clock, which is why he is delayed. I know that he has given his apologies to Members—in case there was some concern over his health.

The Government disagreed with the Committee’s argument that there was a mismatch between the protection afforded by legislation to an embryo created in vitro before implantation and one at a later stage of development. The Committee was pointing out that allowing the greater use of pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, or PGD, may mean that the demand for abortions falls—particularly in the case of abortion on the grounds of foetal sex, which is technically illegal but difficult to police. Perhaps the greatest area of disagreement was over the future role of Parliament in regulation. I will return to that a little later.

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that Parliament should not do anything to deny any child the possibility at birth of growing up with both a mother and a father?

Mr. Willis: The Committee made it absolutely clear that it is important for children to be brought up in a loving environment. A significant number of children are brought up in incredibly abusive and unhappy environments. I would not wish to speculate on a child being brought up in a single household, but I agree with the hon. Gentleman in that, where possible, my personal view is that I would like there to be two parents—a male and female—within the household bringing a child up. That does not preclude other methods of rearing, which are perfectly satisfactory and which have proved to be helpful in terms of developing good human beings as far as society is concerned. I will return to that issue later.

On many of the key issues, the Government agreed to consult further. The results of that exercise were published in March 2006 as a summary of the views expressed, with no accompanying explanation of lessons drawn. I am looking forward to hearing from the Minister how helpful the exercise was, although if my interpretation of the volume of the published responses—there were 535—is correct, it would be fair
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to say that a variety of views were expressed. It was very difficult to draw firm conclusions, but perhaps the Minister will add her comments later.

Judging from the views expressed in Committee, I suggest that the extent of disagreement was never in doubt. However, disagreement should not be an excuse for inaction. Sooner or later the Government must take a view and convince Parliament and the public of the merits of their proposals. There were issues of concern to members of the Committee, and I am sure that right hon. and hon. Members will highlight their own, so I will not attempt to raise anything other than what I consider to be one or two crucial areas, for which Government proposals must be forthcoming.

First is the issue of sex selection for social reasons, which is highly contentious. I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House will have different views about it. The Committee could find no adequate justification for prohibiting the use of sex selection for family balancing, but sensibly called for further work to establish the demographic input of such a policy. The HFEA has also consulted on the issue and advised against it. The Government invited views but announced no plans to change their position.

I confess that the Government might be right on this occasion, and that such a policy might well give rise to unforeseen difficulties, so I would want to see convincing evidence of the potential impact before being convinced of the need for change. I suspect that the demand for sex selection is actually quite low—much lower than many hon. Members believe. We should not forget that it currently requires people to go through incredibly difficult and costly treatments to get a child. However, we have to plan for a time when there is a pill that destroys male sperm or ensures that a male embryo could not implant, so the Government need to be clear about how they would prevent sex selection, and they cannot dodge the issue in any draft Bill, or when they bring their conclusions from the consultation before the House.

A second area of contention between the Committee and the Government surrounds the welfare of the child provision in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990. The Committee argued that the requirement for those providing fertility treatment to have regard for the welfare of the child, including the need for a father, was unjustified. It held that the provision was not only discriminatory towards the infertile and some sections of society, but that it was

Quite apart from the difficulty of interpreting what the welfare of the child means in practice, I cannot see a case for the state interfering in the reproductive decisions of parents because they happen to be infertile, when it makes no such attempt in respect of anyone else. For example, there is no welfare of the child provision for other fertility treatment such as vasectomy reversal. So, if the Government are committed to maintaining a welfare of the child provision, I hope that they are prepared to spell out exactly how it should be applied in practice. I look forward to hearing the Government’s latest thinking on what is, admittedly, a very difficult issue.

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A third area is the allowable use of pre-implantation genetic diagnosis—PGD—and this needs serious clarification. At present, it is the responsibility of the HFEA, but paragraph 251 of the Committee’s report describes the authority’s policies and licensing decisions on pre-implantation tissue typing as “highly unsatisfactory”. Lord Winston, I suspect, used more graphic language. Certainly, no evidence was produced by the HFEA to support its claim that PGD would be used for “trivial” purposes, and the fact that the Government have agreed that it would be preferable if the parameters for PGD were more clearly set out in law is a tacit admission that the Committee was right.

For many, PGD provides a welcome opportunity for parents to reduce or eliminate the risks of passing on hereditary conditions and diseases such as Duchenne muscular dystrophy, Huntington’s and cystic fibrosis. The Committee argued in line with the gradualist approach that if an embryo is to be destroyed because it may carry a serious disease, it is better to do so when it is just a few days old than at 24 weeks. However, I fully accept that those who believe that all abortion is illegal and wrong would not subscribe to that view.

The crucial point to emphasise is that new technologies are developing quickly and, as a consequence, the HFEA is being required to take decisions with an ethnical dimension and with serious consequences. For example, the HFEA recently ruled that PGD could be extended to testing for certain types of cancer, and only last month we heard about a new technique developed at Guy’s and St. Thomas’ hospital in London that may enable thousands of diseases to be screened for as existing tests are improved significantly. The key change is that whereas the original PGD screening was for known diseases or hereditary conditions, the new screening is for possible development of conditions later in life, and that requires a substantially different approach from the present one.

Geraldine Smith (Morecambe and Lunesdale) (Lab): If we are not careful, could not such screening become the ultimate form of discrimination against people with disabilities—denying them the chance to be born?

Mr. Willis: I have enormous sympathy with that point. I spent much of my professional life working with children who had sensory impairment and physical disabilities. All of them were precious to their parents, despite the fact that many had huge problems in managing their condition. However, I suspect that many of those parents, if they had had the opportunity to screen out some of those difficulties, would have done so. The question that the Committee rightly asked, and that the Government have to answer, is: should parents in that situation have the choice? We hope that the Government will adopt a fair position on that question.

Geraldine Smith: Is the hon. Gentleman not concerned? Once we start down that slippery slope, where does it all end? I am sure that parents would much rather have a very intelligent child. Many would hate to have a child who grows up to be a politician. They might want a child with blue eyes. That is getting into the realm of eugenics—producing the perfect child
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that the parent wants. I do not want a world that has no one with any sort of disability, because such people have all been screened out and denied the chance to live.

Mr. Willis: Few hon. Members would disagree with the hon. Lady. I would go further and say that what we have seen in parts of the United States, where deformities, in particular deafness, have been screened in because the parents want their child to mirror their own condition, is absolutely horrendous.

Science is getting to the point where we have an amazing number of techniques and can do amazing things, but at that point we have to stop and to ask, “Is this what we want?” The Committee was right to ask some of the questions and it was right to say to the Government that we simply cannot let such matters drift on. The Government are there to make some of those decisions. The Committee’s recommendation about a bioethics committee is relevant. The hon. Lady is correct: not everyone is comfortable with the new possibilities or with the fact that it is the HFEA, which has only limited input from professional ethicists, that is taking those decisions. That worries me. In my view that is the job of Parliament—but I know that many people would disagree.

The new treatments bring their own ethical dilemmas. The value or rights of an embryo have to be weighed against the potential benefits of avoiding certain conditions; equally, the impact of such activity on existing people with such conditions must be taken into account. Although there are arguments over what diseases and conditions are serious enough to warrant screening, there is a more fundamental argument about who should make those decisions. The Committee argued that Parliament should set the ethical parameters for the use of PGD and other such procedures, and that regulators should then be responsible for ensuring the highest possible clinical standards.

I fundamentally agree with that position. Parliament, rather than unelected regulators, should have responsibility for establishing the ethical framework for the use of PGD and other procedures and for endorsing guidelines as necessary. The Committee proposes a new parliamentary Standing Committee on bioethics that would make recommendations on the need for legislative changes and scrutinise any secondary legislation in the field. Such a system has been adopted throughout Europe and I commend the principle to the Minister for serious consideration.

Of course, such an approach to bioethics would necessitate changes to the existing regulatory framework, which is a fourth area of contention between the Committee and the Government. The Committee recommended a three-pronged approach on a new regulatory framework to give greater clarity to existing legislation and thus allow medical professionals to get on with their jobs without the bureaucratic burden of frequent applications to the regulators.

The Committee’s call for a new human genetics, fertility and human tissue commission to replace the HFEA, the Human Tissue Authority and the Human Genetics Commission appears to have been rejected in favour of a model that combines the HFEA with the HTA. That body will retain the HFEA’s licensing
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responsibility, although that is a matter about which the Committee was critical. I hope that the House will debate the two sides of that argument today.

My final point is about abortion time limits. Paragraph 308 of the Committee’s report recommended that a Joint Committee of both Houses should be established

It is more than 15 years since the legislation was last reviewed by Parliament. We now know a lot more about the foetus and have gained more evidence about the factors underpinning the 24-week limit. There is growing pressure from those on both sides of the abortion debate to look again at developments since 1990 to determine whether a change to the existing legislation is warranted.

Early-day motion 2379 was tabled by the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith) in support of that, and it had been signed by 59 Members at the last count. Its signatories have all viewpoints; indeed, I signed it myself. The head of the Catholic Church, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, has recently called for the time limit to be reviewed. All that shows that there is a feeling in the House and the country that we should at least review the scientific evidence and put it before the House, rather than simply pretending that things are as they were in 1990—or, indeed, 1967.

Geraldine Smith: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the matter goes much wider than just the Catholic Church? There is a feeling among people in the country and MPs that a debate should take place. The Government should be leading the debate and putting legislation before us.

Mr. Willis: I agree that the matter goes much further than the Catholic Church. I am not a practising Catholic and do not come from that particular lobby, although I have a strong Christian background. However, this is not about religion. When I become Chairman of the Science and Technology Committee, one of the first things that we did was to ask the House of Lords to fulfil the recommendation of the former Committee by setting up a Joint Committee to review the science and determine where we were on that.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman think that there is any new science—and science alone—that would require the issue to be brought back to the House?

Mr. Willis: With the greatest respect to the hon. Gentleman, I do not know the answer to that. Does the fact that we now have better imaging of the foetus at 24 weeks represent a substantial change from the situation 10 or 20 years ago? Of course, people such as Lord Winston claim that the foetus is exactly the same at 24 weeks as it was 20, 30, or 40 years ago. However, medical technology, and our ability to maintain life at 24 weeks, have changed. The purpose of having an inquiry was to examine such matters and to try to ensure that we put on the table the question of where
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the science and technology were, and how we could tackle the key ethical questions so that Parliament could debate and discuss that and the Government could take action, if necessary. That is what Parliament should be doing.

Mr. Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman not appreciate—I am sure that he does—that many people are deeply concerned about the idea of one operating theatre struggling to keep alive a 24-week-old foetus child, while in another operating theatre down the corridor, a 24-week-old foetus baby is being terminated and perhaps left to die on the operating table? That causes great concern to many people across the political and the religious spectrum.

Mr. Willis: I have deliberately tried not to enter into a debate of pure emotion— [ Interruption. ] That may well be fact, but the hon. Gentleman does not know the circumstances behind either of those cases. To hold that view is grossly unfair when one is unable to examine the circumstances behind why a woman is aborting at 24 weeks. If the hon. Gentleman believes that any woman does that lightly, I am sorry, but I profoundly disagree with him. It is important to examine the core issues, rather than just stating our own personal, emotive views.

Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman consider that, along with the science and the medical advances, there is also the issue of the woman’s right to choose? That is rather important, too, is it not?

Mr. Willis: I fundamentally agree. At the end of the day, it is certainly not for white, middle-class males in Parliament to tell a lady in Birmingham, Brighton or Newcastle what she should do in such difficult circumstances. What the Committee and I are saying is that, given that this issue has not been examined for 16 years, is it not time to examine the science and the technology and put it objectively before Parliament? This issue may well be dealt with through a private Member’s Bill, but I point out, with the greatest respect, that it commands huge interest in the country, so it is up to the Government to take a lead on it, rather than an individual Member. Such a Member might introduce an ill-considered Bill that is purely emotive and does not deal with facts.

Mr. Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): But does the hon. Gentleman not agree that the unborn life has an equal right to that of the mother, and that that must therefore be taken into consideration? However, it is important that we focus on the technology. Technology has improved in the past 16 years, which is why the House should consider reducing the age of termination from 24 weeks to 20 or 18 weeks. We should investigate this issue through technology and science.

Mr. Willis: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, and I hope that he will forgive me if I do not stray into a debate on ethics with him. One wise Committee recommendation was that the House should have a bioethics Committee. We are moving
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into territory that, even five years ago, we did not believe we would enter. It is important that some of these issues be discussed within that framework.

Our Committee suggested to the House of Lords that we examine the science. It said “no”, and that it would prefer to have the matter dealt with by an ad hoc Committee of the whole House. I approached the then Leader of the House to ask for such a Committee, but was refused. This issue will not go away. It is important that the Government think again and at least set up an ad hoc Committee of the whole House to look at the facts and put them before Parliament. At that point, we can bring in the ethical, as well as the scientific, debate in an effort to resolve these issues.

I commend this excellent report to the House, and I look forward to the remainder of the debate.

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