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5.30 pm

Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): I shall endeavour to speak as briefly as I can, as I am the only Member on the Opposition Benches, apart from the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris), who served on the Committee. I have a few things to say, but what I say will be much shorter because I can simply say that I agree with all 104 recommendations produced by the Committee.

I support the motion, which aims to supply funds and grant-in-aid for the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. I congratulate Dame Suzi Leather on the work that she and her colleagues do on a remarkable committee. I think that there will probably be a need for more resources in future, not fewer.

I speak also as one of only two Members in the Chamber today who served on the Committee that considered what became the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990. I think it is true to say that my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) and I agree on almost everything, and have done for almost 23 years, except on this issue. We have disagreed with each other for 23 years about some of the important issues that are now before us. I strongly respect her views although I disagree with them.

We are dealing with a report that was produced in the previous Parliament. It was undoubtedly the most interesting and significant Select Committee that I served on for 23 years, despite my having served on five Select Committees. I thank the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), who is the current Chairman of the Committee, for his thoughtful contribution to the debate. I thank particularly the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson), who throughout all the trials and tribulations of a remarkable Committee managed to lead us to a conclusion and to get a report published when it was the wish of some that that should not happen. It would have done a great disservice to the House if a report had not been published.

We are dealing with some of the last great taboos. That is why it is important to tackle them head on. To know what we should do about human reproductive technology, we should start by understanding and appreciating the widely differing views that people hold about the nature of the human embryo.

A young man living in a Jewish community about 2,000 years ago would probably have accepted the traditional Jewish position on the status of the embryo—it is not a person but must be treated with the respect due to a form of human life. That is surely something with which most of us could agree.

In the fourth century, teaching in Roman north Africa, St. Augustine of Hippo believed that the human embryo did not have a soul because it was not sentient. Writing in 13th century Naples, St. Thomas Aquinas rekindled Aristotlean philosophy and decided that humanity began with ensoulment at 40 days for a male foetus and 90 days for a female foetus. Was not that progress?

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The Bishop of Rochester advised our Committee last year that the gradual emergence of a person was the usual approach in the Christian tradition until 1869, when Pope Pius XI abolished the distinction between early and late abortions. By 1984 the Warnock committee had concluded, rather in the Christian tradition, that a human embryo develops over time. It said that a human embryo cannot be thought of as a person or even as a potential person; it is simply a collection of cells which, unless it implants in a human uterine environment, has no potential for development.

I do not think that a human being is created at the moment of conception. That is the moment that takes the egg and the sperm a step nearer to implantation, with humanity commencing at 14 days with the appearance of the primitive streak, the precursor to the spinal chord, signifying cell differentiation and the beginning of sentience. I believe that life is a continuum with a genetic line moving ever onwards, unless it dies out through lack of procreation. That, surely, is why we humans are so interested in our ancestors and, indeed, the fortunes of our children.

There is a huge problem now. Only 30 per cent. of fertilised eggs of embryos implant. What about the rest: the spare embryos? The Church of England Mission and Public Affairs Council said in its report on embryo research:

The former Bishops of Oxford and Salisbury, in the other place, have in the past both talked of the problems that arise if all human embryos are regarded as having full human status from the moment of conception. If 70 per cent. of embryos are destroyed, do we believe that they are ensouled human beings and does that mean that heaven is largely populated by embryos? I do not know. I look forward to someone helping with that problem.

Research on human embryos can be undertaken without compromising their special status, but the research must have proper legal and ethical oversight. I also believe that it is right to create embryos for research purposes, always insisting on the 14-day rule. The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough said that Parliament sometimes had to tell scientists to stop that process. We cannot stop science or prevent progress. Science is moving onwards at a fast pace all the time. The report suggests that both Houses of Parliament should have a role in listening to all the arguments, in representing the different views in the legislative process and in deciding what should be legal for the time being—because what is legal now was not legal 20 years ago.

Mr. Willis: That is exactly the point that I was making and I am sorry if I misled the hon. Gentleman. It is important that Parliament be given an opportunity. The bioethics committee is the right vehicle for that.

Robert Key: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his clarification. The problem is that reproductive technology is moving way ahead of us as legislators. That was always going to happen. I remember saying in
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the Chamber during the Third Reading debate on the 1990 Act, “They will be back.” I am quite surprised that it has taken the scientific community and the Government so long to come back to the House. I support the Select Committee’s call for parliamentary oversight and a new parliamentary Standing Committee on bioethics. Only then will all sides have the chance to be heard and will there be an opportunity for the evidence to be weighed.

I wonder how many Members and how many of our constituents are familiar with the complexities of reproductive cloning, hybrids and chimeras, pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, embryo splitting, parthenogenesis, cell nuclear transplants, sperm sorting and haploidisation. Those things are happening around us, for our constituents, in our constituencies, every day of the year. They are real. They are happening today. We cannot ignore them. We cannot say that we wish that they did not happen, because they are happening.

For that reason, I was surprised by the announcement from the Vatican last week, as reported in The Daily Telegraph. The headline was:

When the Committee visited the Vatican, it was a huge privilege to be invited to visit the archbishops and bishops and their medical advisers and experts, who did us great courtesy and showed us great respect, as we did them. They will be reading this debate—if not watching it in the Vatican. I would like, therefore, to put on record my thanks to them for putting up with us when we challenged them with some very difficult ideas—perhaps of a nature with which they were not familiar. Perhaps they were not used to being confronted by parliamentarians, because the politics of Italy are different and the role of the Church in Italy is different.

I am sorry that the Vatican made that announcement last week and that Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo said, in an interview with Famiglia Christiana, an official Vatican magazine:

and to the

I therefore commend the courage of the Italian senator, Paola Binetti, a member of Opus Dei and a prominent campaigner for Catholic rights, who said:

and continued:

I agree with that. The Vatican’s reaction looks a bit like panic.

I want to make a few comments about the question of so-called eugenics and designer babies. The whole argument is tainted by our memory of the appalling atrocity of Nazism and all that happened then. The word “eugenics” is Greek and simply means well bred and well-being—a good baby. Of course, that is not how it is usually applied. Surely there is a great difference between seeking to create a child with particular characteristics such as blue eyes—or a child
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who is sporty or musical—to make a master race, and trying to filter out the damaging parts of this fragile human life where that is humanly possible. I have wrestled with that problem for years.

I recall that when the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill was going through the House in 1989 and 1990, I asked my bishop, John Baker, whether he would help. On 20 February 1990, he wrote this to me:

That puts that argument rather powerfully, and it is as true now as it was.

It is very important, therefore, to be careful when we are talking about designer babies to be clear that we are not talking about designing something to our own wish or to our own vision of a perfect child, but using science, which in my view is God-given, to enable us to use our brains to stop suffering as far as we may. I also feel—the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) said this eloquently, and I agree with everything that he said—that within the law, families should make decisions on their reproduction and not the state. The state does have a role, but we need to rebalance the arguments.

Finally, I want to say a quick word about abortion, because we cannot ignore it; it is part of the issue, and our report said what we thought we should be doing about it. If we want less abortion, we must look very carefully at the figures. Of the 185,000 abortions a year, just 124 occur after 24 weeks. If we are seeking to reduce the quantity of abortions in this country, does it make sense to vilify the tiny number of extremely vulnerable women in the most difficult and terrible circumstances who are in that category, and to say that they are somehow doing something unspeakable? I think not.

Let us look at the other end of the scale, too. Frequently we are told how awful it is that there are so many teenage pregnancies. I asked the Office for National Statistics for the figures, and in my constituency in the past 10 years the number of abortions among girls under 16 was 14. The ONS refused to set the figures out by year because it said that that would break confidentiality. We are talking very small numbers. The highest proportion of abortions in this country are performed on single women and those who have had abortions before. Perhaps that is where we should be considering education; something is wrong there. The hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith), who, sadly, is no longer present, used the word “Frankensteins”, but the proportion of abortions on the grounds of chromosomal abnormality is one third of 1 per cent.—that is all. If we want fewer abortions in our country—and, God knows, I am sure we all do—we will need more human reproductive technology and much more education.

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5.43 pm

Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North) (Lab): I quake a little when somebody says that we should have these debates in Parliament, because we will need about six weeks to go through the many issues that reflect our consciences and beliefs. It was not easy chairing the Committee—delightful bunch of people as they are; men and women united, just for a minute. I assure the House that I would much rather take penalties in the last minute than have to chair a Committee that was so severely divided. My attitude was, “Let’s just stay here all night”, and without my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) moving a guillotine motion—nasty man—we could have debated the issues for hours and hours. That reflects the problems.

We have come a long way in science from the days when we believed that only one parent was responsible for the creation of an individual. One was either an ovist or a spermist—there are pictures of sperm with young people within them—and that was how it all happened. It is not so long ago that we believed that. It is not so long ago, too, that we did not believe in genes and DNA—in fact, science in the Soviet Union was based on that for many years. In this area, knowledge moves on and beliefs change, and they do so pretty fast.

We as a Parliament need to regulate and legislate in respect of many of the processes that we have been discussing. However, we have to do more than that: we have to think about why we are regulating or legislating. In industry, there is continuous debate about whether legislation inhibits productivity, industrial growth, and so on. Sometimes we do nothing and sometimes we overreact, but I think that we in this country do nothing rather well. We do not get caught up in regulation, yet the world does not crumble about us. The same is true in the field that we are debating now, and that was the spirit in our Committee: we wanted to examine what was happening and make sure that we got legislation where it is needed. We were told at the beginning of our inquiry that nothing needed to happen—that we should leave the subject alone. Well, 104 recommendations suggest that something needs to change.

One has to ask whether the purpose of regulation should be to provide legal protection for the embryo, or to provide some regulation of assisted reproduction, or both. In fact, a regulator is not needed to protect the embryo. If the law says that a person cannot clone an embryo and someone does, one just calls 999 and gets the police in. Regulating IVF treatment is different, of course. IVF treatment is increasing and will continue to do so. Endocrine disruptors, which we have heard about, and many other factors are lowering sperm counts and otherwise making people infertile, but the desire to have a baby is an innate human characteristic, so there will be more pressure on IVF provision. The hon. Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) will remember that when IVF was first introduced, people said that it was a pariah that would destroy the world and that it must not happen, but now it is a standard technique, even though there is not enough of it in the health service, and it is improving all the time. Should the regulator regulate only for technical standards, or do we want it to enforce directions on how treatment is administered, or so on? The spirit of our recommendations was not dogmatic: we were trying to help the new science to develop.

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The HFEA was an extremely important addition under the 1990 Act. Regulation was extremely important to building public confidence in that legislation. However, events have moved on. We are not all old Labour—despite what some believe, we know that changes have to happen. We have to move on and the HFEA and its functions need to be examined seriously. For example, does it have the right people on it? It would not worry me at all if pro-life people had places on the authority, which they have been denied. We should get them in, have those arguments and not restrict them, because that diminishes the authority and makes people suspicious.

Is the HFEA rigorous enough about licensing and inspection? The HFEA has a triple role—regulator, policy maker and Government adviser—but it is not possible to fulfil all three functions. That is why the Committee said that we should try to separate them and why we said that Parliament’s role was extremely important. There is a plethora of knowledgeable, concerned people present in the Chamber and many more outside. I believe that the public would welcome involvement in the debate.

The HFEA is to merge with the Human Tissue Authority. We wonder whether that is a political move. The virtues of such a merger have to be explained, because—of course—the British Medical Association is none too happy at the prospect. We could think about merging the HFEA and the Human Genetics Commission—Baroness Kennedy’s group, which examines many issues, such as the new genetic science and its effect on disabled people. The bodies could all work together in harmony much better than they do.

We have heard about the problems of reproductive tourism. I think that it will be hard to stop both that and reproductive cloning, which someone will carry out successfully some day. I remember when people said that we could not clone a sheep or cat, but we have done that, so humans will be in the wings. We thus need to think about the regulation that we will need for inspecting that.

Do we need a national bioethics committee? The public now want a consideration of morality and their views to be put in the relevant arena. Everyone else seems to have such a committee, but we do not. Is that because such committees are perceived as expensive talking shops? Could we establish a body that was really meaningful? Will Parliament really be the best place to make the big decisions? Should we stop giving such issues to quangos?

Judgments are also made by local ethical committees. Are the decisions that are made at local level tough enough, or is it the case that just the great and the good—the local vicar and so on—are appointed to those committees and that they have a nice afternoon cup of tea and a biscuit and then go home? The question of how we achieve localism in such decisions is serious.

Things will never stand still in this area because new, unforeseen possibilities will arise and be combined with market forces and new dilemmas that emerge. As many hon. Members have said, regulation must keep up with that without inhibiting research—even if one thinks that that could be stopped. I accept that scientists can be arrogant and think that they can rule the world, but that is why they must engage with the political process and be brought into that arena. If they are kept out,
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they will have that opinion. We should not really start from where we are now, but think about starting all over again, given all the new developments that have taken place.

It is lovely if there is a mum, dad and child. It is lovely when a man meets a girl and they fall in love, before there is the question of having children, and they then live happily ever after and everything is perfect in God’s perfect land, as Neil Young would say. However, sadly, it does not always work like that for some people, and there are other types of relationships. The world has moved on to accept such people and be disciplined about them. We must incorporate that in our thinking. The problem is not major, but we must take it seriously. Nothing is really sacred, not even the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990—but gosh, to hear some people talk, one would think that it had to be protected at all costs.

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