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I cannot think of a good experiment to do now but I am sure someone will think of a good experiment.
Alan Johnson: I am not known for my knowledge of good experiments, but I can point out that the same Joint Committee told the Government that true hybrids ought to be used, because the famous hamster test done years ago used true hybrids. In fact, cytoplasmic embryos are the most exciting development that most scientists wish to use. Nevertheless, I believe that it is important not to rule out other important areas of research.
Mr. Willis: A cytoplasmic hybrid embryo will have just 0.1 per cent. of animal tissue in it, but does the Secretary of State agree that in reality, once we mix in any element of animal, the principle of using hybrids for research purposes is established? That is the point that the Committee was trying to make; once we go down that road, it seems illogical to rule something out because of a particular mix.
Ms Keeble: I speak as someone who has been through in vitro fertilisation treatment and written a book on it. Does my right hon. Friend accept that the alternative to using admixed embryos, which is using human eggs, is itself unethical because of the risk that it poses to women, and the pain that it involves? The use of an alternative is therefore ethically preferable.
The Bill introduces explicit regulations on embryo screening. Embryo screening and selection will be allowed only for the purpose of detecting serious genetic diseases or disorders. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority has licensed screening in a number of cases since 1990, including for single-gene disorders such as muscular dystrophy and sickle cell disease. The Bill will clarify the powers of the HFEA to license embryo screening to enable parents to have a child who is a genetic match for an older brother or sister who is seriously ill. That has been permitted by the HFEA in a handful of cases as a last resort, where there are no other donors and all other medical avenues have been exhausted.
John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): But does my right hon. Friend also accept that some of us fear that what he describes looks like creating a child just for spare parts, and that there are great fears about that?
Alan Johnson: Let me try to dispel that fear. Once again, that is a misrepresentation. That course of action would be used, has been used, and has been licensed by the HFEA, when there is no other medical avenue to pursue. All such cases have involved the treatment of very rare blood disorders, and the tissue taken has been from the umbilical cord. The Bill will support such screening as a last resort, and it is expected that tissue used would be confined to cord blood and bone marrow only.
The Bill makes it clear that it would not be possible to test an embryo where the intention is to remove an organ from a child to treat a sick sibling. Nor will the Bill permit parents to screen embryos in order to include, rather than exclude, a particular disability. Following the results of the public consultation, the Bill also outlaws sex selection for non-medical reasons.
Mrs. Nadine Dorries (Mid-Bedfordshire) (Con): Does the Minister agree with Lord Winstons remarks in The Daily Telegraph on Saturday? He is the Governments adviser on the Bill, and he is unhappy with the principle of saviour siblings.
Alan Johnson: Lord Winston is not the Government adviser on the Bill. He has had his go at that and talked about it in another place. In that debate, Lord Winston was very supportive of the Bill as a whole.
Dr. Iddon: I wonder whether my right hon. Friend saw on breakfast television this morning the Whitaker family, who were forced to go to the United States for saviour sibling treatment and who now have a very happy family. The child at risk is now well. Is that not good news?
Alan Johnson: My hon. Friend makes an important point. Not only that family but thethankfully few families who have used the system would be keen to ensure that other families had the same opportunity.
The past 18 years have witnessed significant social change. Since 1990, clinics have been required to take into account the welfare of any child who may be born as a result of assisted conception when deciding whether to offer treatment to couples. The 1990 Act insists that clinics must take into account
the need for a father
the need for supportive parenting.
This does not signal a desire to diminish fatherhood, nor are we denying children who have been conceived through assisted conception access to information about sperm donors. Indeed, the opposite is true. If the current law leads same-sex couples or single women to seek sperm in the unregulated sector, where donors will not be screened or recorded on the HFEAs register, access to information about the man who donated the sperm will not be available for the child.
Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green) (Con): I wish to clarify that, as it is the aspect that I am interested in. The new wording has been introduced in the Bill, yet I am aware of no gay couple who have been refused treatment. They are protected under the Human Rights Act and they cannot be refused treatment. The original provision was a guidance measure, as a signal, mainly to heterosexual couples, that the absence of fathers has an extremely detrimental effect on families. Why, oh why, are we driving the change through now?
Alan Johnson: The original legislation was put in place before the House agreed on civil partnerships, and before the House agreed to outlaw discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. The right hon. Gentleman says that gay couples can go through the process. That is the case, and it is the case for lesbian couples. However, those people are treated completely differently. That is the point. We are seeking to make sure that the treatment is the same for gay and lesbian couples as for heterosexual couples.
Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire) (Con): I am unclear about the basis for the Secretary of States assertion that same-sex couples or, for that matter, single mothers are being denied access to treatment by regulated clinics as a result of the application of the need for a father test. What is his evidence for that proposition?
Alan Johnson: If we are considering a Bill [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman asked for evidence. We are considering a Bill 18 years on, after we have introduced civil partnerships and legislation against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Leaving in the Bill a provision that is challengeable, and could lead to couples feeling that the law has discriminated against them, would be a missed opportunity. The right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) and others make the argument, but as there is currently no issue, and the need for a father has never adversely affected any gay or lesbian couple going through the process, why not make the law consistent with the other laws that Parliament has carried, while we have the opportunity of updating the legislation?
Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): In answer to the question asked by the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) about the evidence of discrimination, he need look no further than the eligibility criteria for treatment in the NHS, which refer to a male and female couple, and the evidence given to the Select Committee that was chaired by the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) by Pink Parents, who clearly stated that clinics expect them to bring a man along just for show, so that they can tick the relevant box.
The basic principle at the heart of the clause is that clinicians making these decisions should value good parenting and consider, in the most comprehensive way possible, what is best for the welfare of the child. The clause also reflects current practice. When there is no legal father, the HFEA guidance requires clinics to assess the prospective mothers ability, and that of others in the family or social circle who will share responsibility for the child, to meet the childs needs.
Clause 54 will also give same-sex couples who have children through assisted conception the same parenting rights as heterosexual couples. The current law recognises the woman who carries the child following assisted conception as that childs mother. If the woman is married, her husband, unless it is shown that he did not
consent to treatment, is recognised as the childs legal father. However, at present, the female civil partner of a woman who gives birth following assisted conception has no legal status. She is not recognised as the parent of the child, and her name would not appear on the birth certificate.
The Civil Partnership Act 2004, widely supported in the House, recognised the joint parental responsibility of same-sex couples. The Bill would mean that the non-birth woman in a civil partnership would have the same recognition as a husband whose wife underwent treatment using donor sperm. It would also mean that male couples and civil partners could apply for a parental order, in line with married couples. That would bring this area of law into line with national legislation prohibiting discrimination on the grounds of gender or sexual orientationlegislation that, again, was widely supported in this House.
I have highlighted the elements of the Bill that have attracted the most publicity. However, although they have a lower profile, other clauses contain sensible reforms that will have a more immediate impact. One example can be found in clauses 24 and 25, which amend the restrictions on the use of data collected by the HFEA about fertility treatments.
The 1990 Act recognised the importance of maintaining patient privacy and imposed tough restrictions on the use of any information that could identify a patient. Under current legislation, even if at the time of treatment a patient says that he or she is happy for information that may assist identification to be passed to researchers, the HFEA is not permitted to comply. That places severe limits on the use of data collected by the HFEAdata that ultimately could improve the success of fertility treatment and the health and well-being of children conceived as a result of such treatment.
Although it is imperative that we support the patients right to privacy, it is also essential that we enable scientists to make better use of HFEA data, which are a valuable and comprehensive source of information that will lead to better treatment for patients. The Bill would provide a regulation-making power for releasing information to researchers without the patients consent if that were necessary for the public interest. Any such regulations would be subject to consultation.
In the past 18 years, scientists in this country have pioneered medical advances that could not have been anticipated in 1990. The unknown and threatening seas to which Baroness Warnock referred have been navigated successfully thus far, thanks to the lodestar provided by Parliament, which has allowed scientists to
reap the benefits of embryonic stem cell research. Specialist regulation of reproductive technologies and clear legal boundaries have united scientific breakthroughs with public confidence in their development and use. Among other things, that represents a considerable triumph for parliamentary scrutiny and debate.
Approximately one in seven UK couples have difficulty conceiving. Assisted reproduction brings happiness and fulfilment to millions of people. Stem cell research has enormous potential to develop new cures for degenerative and other life-threatening diseases. It brings hope to hundreds of thousands of sufferers and their families. This Government believe that we should continue to support such research in order to exploit advances in medical science, but only provided that there are clear safeguards within the ethical and moral framework that Parliament has established with such skill and sensitivity. I commend the Bill to the House.
Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire) (Con): The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 has been a success. The first legislation of its kind in the world, it led to a framework for the development of assisted reproduction and embryo research that has been a positive example for policy making worldwide. I should like to join the Secretary of State in applauding the work of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) and colleagues who took that legislation through and the manner in which they did so.
The legislation was rooted in the work of the Warnock committee and its report. It was always clear that the legislation is not intended simply to facilitate research. Technically, it was not needed for that, and research was able to proceed. The issue was that that research required to be established within an ethical framework so that science is bounded, some forms of research are prohibited, and all research on human embryos requires a licence. That was encapsulated in the Warnock committees view:
The embryo of the human species ought to have a special status and no-one should undertake research on human embryos the purpose of which could be achieved by the use of animals or in some other way. The status of the embryo is a matter of fundamental principle which should be enshrined in legislation.
to ensure that Britain remains at the forefront of medical research.
However, the legislation is not just about reflecting scientific progress. The fact that scientists can do something does not mean that they should. Ethical boundaries do not shift in a mechanistic way to reflect the utility of new research techniques. When we scrutinise the Bill, I urge the House to have in mind not just the ease with which research may be conducted as a consequence, but always to consider the ethical implications.
The 1990 Act had ethical issues at its heart. That is why our predecessors in 1990 conducted the legislation on free vote. It is why, at the end of 2006, my right hon.
Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) and I said that Conservative Members would have a free vote throughout the passage of the Bill. It is why the Government could and should have done exactly the same. Unfortunately, back in 2006 the Government imposed a whip on regulations relating to the anonymity of sperm and egg donation, and they imposed a whip on Labour peers during the passage of this Bill. It has only been as they have relented under pressure from their own Members, from us and from the media that they have consented to a partial free vote on certain aspects of the Bill. I entirely share the view of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) that if Members have ethical considerations that, in their view, prevail over any other considerations in a Bill, they should be in a position to exercise their conscience and judgment, including on Third Reading.
For my part, therefore, what I will say reflects my personal view, and I do not intend that it should bind any of my colleagues. None the less, my hon. Friends on the Front Bench and I will sometimes wish to raise issues and table amendments to protect the interests of the House now and the interests of our constituents for the future.
Speaking for myself, I support Second Reading of the Bill. Even those who wish to amend the Bill at subsequent stages must recognise that the legislation needs to be updated. The example I would give, which will be familiar to many hon. Members, is that of the decisions that the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority made in January concerning two projects involving the use of animal eggs from which the nucleus had been removed. Despite the fact that the 1990 Act prohibits the mixing of animal and human gametes, other than to test the fertility of sperm, the authority regarded the embryo created as human and concluded that, as such, it could license research. The HFEAs decisions and interpretation of the 1990 Act suggest that substantial research using hybrid embryos would continue even if there were no legislation, so the Bill is necessary to provide clarity and to update the law. That does not mean, however, that the Bill should go forward unamended.
Lembit Öpik: On that point, is the hon. Gentleman aware that there is research that could be carried out nowI am most familiar with such research on motor neurone disease, but I am sure it could be done on other diseases, tooabout which scientists are awaiting clarification of the law through this Bill? That will allow them to be sure that they stay within the law while carrying out laudable life-saving work.
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