Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 200-207)



  Q200  Dr Spink: Is Dr King aware of the American experience, if you will forgive me, Chairman, where public opinion was very much against stem cell research generally until the disease-specific lobby groups got up and presented their case for human dignity and tackling some of these terrible diseases, and it turned round public opinion to be 70% in favour of stem cell research?

  Dr King: Yes, I know, but that is stem cell research in general. I think the same is true of the public in this country.

  Dr Spink: It is a case in point; that happened only when the public became better informed of what was actually proposed and what the consequences were of doing it and of not doing it. That changed public opinion very dramatically.

  Q201  Chairman: I suspect there is no point in carrying on, because you have your opinions and clearly Dr Spink has his. Dr MacKellar, in answer to Chris Mole's question?

  Dr MacKellar: I would support the Department of Health's proposal that this should go through Parliament and I suggest that if the position has to be changed it should go back to Parliament. The HFEA is not a representative body, there are only about 18 to 20 members, I do not know exactly how many. These people do not even represent all the different views which society has. Apparently, and this is what I have heard, you have got to have a specific kind of view with respect to the embryo before you are even invited onto the HFEA.

  Q202  Dr Spink: The Constitution of the HFEA is biased towards the permissive lobby?

  Dr MacKellar: Yes; that is exactly what I mean. It should be for Parliament to go back and not be left to the HFEA to make these very important decisions.

  Rt Rev Dr Lee Rayfield: I think there are questions around how committees are formed in that way, which are very interesting. I think what we are saying is that there would be a willingness to pursue to explore things which might be creative, which might enable us to move forward, but at the moment the time is not right. "Ban" sounds like a very strong word, but ban at least is straightforward, saying, "We're banning it for the moment but we're actually going to explore and see whether there are specific techniques on the ways forward, once we have done a proper consultation." I think probably that is what we would back, at the moment, but I can speak only as a feeling of that is where we will be. I do not think we should underestimate the `yuck' factor, which, of course, I appreciate that Mr Newmark said, about we would never take anything forward. The philosopher of science, Mary Midgley, came up with a useful phrase, which was that sometimes the `yuck' factor is something of an amber light for us, and it cannot be the last word, neither can everybody saying, "We want it" be the last word. The `yuck' factor should be at least listened to and acknowledged to be a player in this particular debate.

  Q203  Chris Mole: Does anyone have any particular ideas? I think you have all supported the notion of consultation. What would help to make the discussion clearer for the public at large?

  Dr MacKellar: I hear that the Wellcome Trust is coming on after us. The Wellcome Trust does an awful lot of work with the public understanding of science and they have been working with us, even up in Edinburgh, on something like a film festival, on bioethical issues; we had one on transplantation just a few months ago. This is an area, for example, where that could be looked at, how to develop discussion amongst the general public relating to the creation of animal-human combinations, chimeras, hybrids or cybrids. There is a need for this; the whole concept for example. I am on a research ethics committee in Edinburgh and we are working with the concept of informed consent. The informed part of the consent is extremely important for patients, but also it is important for the general public as a whole for society will also need informed consent. Before a decision is taken, either in favour or against, society needs to be informed, and sometimes society takes a long time to be informed. It does not take just a few weeks, sometimes it can take many months or even one or two years. This is what is needed before a decision is taken on this very important topic.

  Q204  Dr Harris: Dr King, you have explained some of the ethical problems you have, but also you have given some scientific arguments. What do you think qualifies you to say that your scientific view on the validity of this is sufficiently valid to ban the research, so it gives no-one the opportunity to show whether you are right or wrong? You said also you would not fund this research. What gives you any particular insights lacking by the MRC, the Wellcome Trust and the Stem Cell Foundation, which might have read even more papers than you have, maybe, on this subject? Why should your view of banning it preclude them making these decisions on our behalf?

  Dr King: I want to be clear about this. I am not saying that it should be banned on the basis of a scientific argument, I am saying arguments have to be judged on their own merits. I would suggest that, rather than a discussion about my personal scientific expertise, you have a serious look at the arguments that I am making, frankly, which have not been made properly in the public sphere by the scientists who are proposing these experiments. If they have got good answers to the critiques I am making, I would be very interested to hear them.

  Q205  Dr Harris: You would have to experiment to do it, would you not? I think this is the point made earlier. If I said I thought the earth was flat, we could do an experiment to see whether I was right. It would be wrong for me to say the earth was flat, "Let's ban any research into whether it is or not"?

  Dr King: All I am asking people to do is the same thing that science funding committees do every day of the week, which is they judge the validity of the likely success of every piece of research which comes in front of them and they make informed, scientific decisions on whether it is worthwhile putting money in that direction. There is always limited money.

  Q206  Dr Harris: On this question of dignity, Dr MacKellar, you say that part of the argument is around dignity, I understand that, but also you say in your evidence, in this regard, it should be remembered that the concept of dignity is not a scientific one. No individual will ever be able to prove whether or not a person, or entity, I guess, because there is debate, possesses human dignity. In a sense, that is quite convenient for you and inconvenient for those people who want to support this research, because they will never be able to prove you wrong on that, it is just a question of your belief. Can I ask you, therefore, do you think there is an argument that if you happen to believe that this is a violation of dignity then at least you and your followers have the right not to accept any therapies which might—and I accept it is a `might'—come out of this, rather than impose your view on people who do not share your view of what human dignity is, including those who are ill?

  Dr MacKellar: Yes, I think you have got a point there, and it is quite an old point actually. There were some experiments which were undertaken in Nazi Germany, for example, useful biomedical experiments, and the whole question after the war was, "Do we use the results of the experiments, these useful experiments, then maybe to develop the kind of research which may save lives?" That was a dilemma for the German public. It is the case, some people might reject it because they say the research which was used was considered unethical; some others might not.

  Q207  Dr Harris: It went a bit further than violating dignity though, did it not?

  Dr MacKellar: In Germany, yes, it violated the respect due to the dignity of the person.

  Chairman: I am going to finish there. Dr David King, Dr Calum MacKellar and The Right Reverend Dr Lee Rayfield, Bishop of Swindon, can I thank you all, but also apologise to you for the shortness of time. I think what you have done is exactly what we hoped you would do and that is to raise some very, very serious questions, which were about the ethics of what, in fact, is being looked at here in addition to the science, and we thank you very much for it, all of you.

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