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Thirdly—consistent with that thought and with the principle of according increased protection to the foetus during its development—I believe that we should take a more restrictive view of late abortions. The change made in 1990, which lowered the time limit from 28 to 24 weeks, has clearly been justified. The limits set at each stage, from 1967 onwards, have been intended to reflect the limit of viability. The research published by Field and others in the British Medical Journal last week was based on a study of the survival of extremely premature babies born in the former Trent health region. It clearly shows that an increased proportion of babies born at 24 and 25 weeks’ gestation are surviving to be discharged home from neonatal intensive care. The authors report no corresponding increase in survival in respect of babies born at 23 weeks. It must be noted,
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however, that 18 per cent. of those babies admitted to neonatal intensive care did survive. As we are talking about a total of 510 babies a year born at 23 weeks’ gestation, that means that approximately 100 of those babies would live and go home. If they were aborted at 23 weeks, they would not live.

Mrs. Dorries: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Lansley: Let me talk about the study first, then I will happily give way.

The authors also report that no babies born at 22 weeks survived. Like other studies, they suggest that this might represent the limit of viability. I cannot say whether they are right, but I note that, of 150 babies born alive at 22 weeks over the whole period of the study in Trent, only 24 were admitted to intensive care. In the latest period, 2000-05, only nine were admitted to intensive care. From my point of view—I am not a scientist, but I can read statistics—in order to draw any conclusion from such a small number of cases, one would need to assess why those babies were being born so prematurely. Were they failing to thrive? Were they twins or other multiple births? Were they suffering from a genetic defect?

Abortions at 22 weeks would be of a foetus that was otherwise healthy, unless they were carried out on the specific ground of a prospective abnormality or handicap of the child concerned. So while such a baby would require intensive care, and doubtless very large numbers might not survive, I do not regard that study as providing conclusive evidence that a baby cannot be sustained at 22 weeks.

I would personally be loth to move from the principle of linking the time limit for abortion to the viability of the foetus. That is where it was established in 1967; it has moved over time. It is arguable, but I would argue personally that the evidence would support a further reduction—in my view, to 22 weeks—in order to ensure a prospective legal framework that could accommodate improving medical science.

Mrs. Dorries: I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware of other studies—for example, in University College hospital, London, and in other countries—showing that if poorly babies who are born prematurely receive immediate good neonatal care from a specialist dedicated team of staff, the outcomes are very much better. University College hospital figures are much better than those emerging from the Trent study. One conclusion from the Trent study is that anyone going into premature labour should go to University College hospital and not to the Trent region.

Mr. Lansley: My hon. Friend may have gathered from what I said that I am effectively arguing that in circumstances where neonatal intensive care was provided to all such babies born at 22 weeks and where the foetus was otherwise healthy—or rather the baby was healthy at that stage—the prospects for survival at 22 weeks may well be far greater than suggested by the negative view expressed in the study from Nottingham and Leicester. It is not for me to say any more than that, but I think that it provides a basis for reducing the limit—albeit, in my view, by just two weeks.

Mr. Willis: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Lansley: No, as I am going to conclude.

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Let me make my point of view clear. I shall support the Second Reading of the Bill, but I shall vote against the programme motion. On human admixed embryos, in respect of which the Government are changing the ethical framework of the 1990 Act, it is unacceptable to dispense with such a controversial issue in as little as three hours. The number of interventions on the Secretary of State’s speech demonstrates that other issues will also take considerable time. As far as abortion is concerned, I have no doubt that a full day’s debate, rather than just three hours, should have been allocated. Issues about the time limit, the manner in which approval for early abortion is given and other aspects of the availability of early abortions cannot be given their due weight in a debate of just three hours.

I hope that colleagues on both sides of the House will vote against the programme motion and thereby start the process, which I hope the Government will bend to more as time goes on, of allowing Members on the Front and the Back Benches to express themselves freely on this subject. I hope that the Bill will be amended to reflect the continuing need for an ethically robust framework. I believe that science prospers when the ethics of research are also strong. I hope that the House will join me in supporting the Bill on Second Reading.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): I inform the House that Mr. Speaker has imposed a 10-minute limit on Back-Bench contributions.

4.43 pm

Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley) (Lab): May I first tell my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State how pleased I am that the Bill is before us on Second Reading. I was involved in debates about the human embryo during the 1980s. Issues were posed in a private Member’s Bill, which I will not go further into; I was also heavily involved in debating the legislation in the 1990s. My right hon. Friend was right to describe that legislation as pioneering—indeed it was. It was rightly debated extensively on the Floor of the House.

Let me respond to both the right hon. and learned Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) and the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley), who mentioned that we now have 18 years of experience of regulation in this area. I and many other Members will have visited the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority and talked to those who work for it. When it was introduced, it was not a blank sheet of paper for the future; it is quite different now from what it was back in 1990.

I am pleased that we are updating the regulation of assisted reproduction and embryo research in the light of scientific developments over the past 18 years. In 1990, we were very restricted in what we could do; we need only look at the decisions that the House has taken on the issue, through statutory instruments, which we could not have taken back in 1990. I remember when I was a shadow health spokesman that I had to help a Minister and his Parliamentary Private Secretary to get through a provision on the lifetime of stored embryos. That had not been put in the original Bill—no one wanted to go there, because of the ethical issues at the time. The Committee of Selection hand-picked Labour Members to bring in time scales
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for the storage of human embryos, so that eggs whose owners had walked away and were untraceable could be got rid of. Those were the types of difficulties that were left because we could not know the detail in 1990. Eighteen years on, the situation is a little different.

The Bill will help to maintain the UK’s position as a world leader in embryo research, including stem cell research. In addition, it will reflect modern social attitudes and Government policies on the family. Given the changes introduced by the House over the past decade, that is necessary. Research involving human embryos is necessary for the progress of assisted conception techniques. That was true then and it is true now. According to House of Commons Library figures on IVF up to 2005, there are now thousands of IVF births a year whereas many years ago there were hundreds. That is a result of this type of research.

Such research also holds great promise for the understanding and development of treatments for a range of diseases and disorders. In particular, embryonic stem cell research using cells extracted from early embryos potentially offers major breakthroughs in medical science. Research involving the creation of human embryos outside the body led to the first IVF-conceived birth in 1978—some Members of the House went to her 21st birthday held down here, when she came to say hello.

The UK has a widely admired and established system of statutory regulation, based on an independent licensing authority, the HFEA, which reflects the special status of the human embryo, as recognised in the Warnock report which underpinned the 1990 Act. The hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire said that that special status should have been enshrined in legislation, but my understanding is that it is based on a gradualist approach to the moral status of the human embryo: that it has an increasing status as it develops. That is my understanding of why we legislated as we did in 1990. The law therefore allows research, but only within certain parameters, such as a 14-day limit on the development of embryos in vitro. The Bill seeks to update the existing law, primarily in the light of technological advances, thereby helping to maintain the UK’s position as a leading research base.

I want to comment on the three issues that will be subject to a free vote, on which many of us have written. On human admixed embryos, some of the language over the past 18 years has not changed at all, as the Easter sermon in Scotland showed. It is not about creating monsters, as much as people still make that argument about such science, and it never was. If it were, I would not have been as supportive of such science over the years. It is purely laboratory research and aimed at increasing knowledge about serious diseases and treatments for them. Embryos must be destroyed at 14 days, and so far no scientist has been able to develop the embryo beyond six days. Those embryos cannot be placed in a woman or, indeed, in an animal. Interestingly, no one is suggesting that the 14-day limit on which we agreed in 1990 should be changed. Whatever was said at the time, no one is saying now that we got it wrong then. Medical science has come nowhere near trying to give that boundary a shove, and telling us to change what we understood to
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be right and proper. I do not consider that the science has become out of control. I think that some of the decisions made by the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) in 1990 were right, and that that has been shown by the test of time.

The Bill seeks to clarify the regulation of human admixed embryos for research. The 1990 Act refers only to human embryos, not to new and innovative ways of creating embryos combining human and animal material, which is why the provision on admixed embryos has been introduced. The Bill proposes that the same licensing process should apply as for fully human embryos, and that the 14-day legal limit should apply to admixed embryos as well. The issue has arisen under the current legislation, as has the HFEA’s responsibility for managing the science effectively on behalf of us legislators, and I see no problem with accepting that element of the Bill.

Another issue is that of embryo screening and selection, and saviour siblings. The Bill spells out for the first time in law a number of rules relating to the screening and selection of embryos and gametes. In broad terms, embryo screening and selection will be allowed only for the purpose of screening out serious genetic diseases or disorders. The HFEA has licensed screening in a number of cases since 1990, including cases of single-gene disorders such as cystic fibrosis.

The Bill will ban selecting the sex of a child except when the intention is to avoid a serious sex-linked disease, and it addresses the issue of saviour siblings. As a last resort, an embryo may be selected so that the resulting child is a tissue match for a seriously ill older brother or sister. That has been licensed in a handful of cases involving rare blood diseases. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) referred to the family of three young children and their mum and dad who appeared on BBC television this morning. They had to travel to America, a total journey of 80,000 miles. They were lucky in the sense that they were able to do that, unlike many of our constituents who might otherwise be assisted in the same way. The Bill makes it clear that such activities are lawful, and gives Parliament the opportunity to debate them. I agree with that as well.

My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson), who has now left the Chamber, raised the issue of what he described as “spare parts”. He asked whether saviour siblings could be created for the purpose of organ transplants. The simple answer is no. Whatever anyone may say, the Bill does not allow embryo selection decisions for that purpose, although other parts of the law—governed by the Human Tissue Authority—do allow it.

Another issue that causes people to shuffle around in their seats a fair amount is that of the “need for a father”. I do not think that the Bill is about “doing away with fathers”, or about being politically correct. I think the Government are right to recognise the important role that fathers play in their children’s lives. There is a range of policies designed to strengthen that role, and to underline fathers’ responsibilities. In fact, the Bill will bring conditions into line with legislation already passed by the House on civil partnerships—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I am afraid that the right hon. Gentleman’s time is up.

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4.53 pm

Norman Lamb (North Norfolk) (LD): I am sorry that the right hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron), the Chairman of the Health Committee, was cut off in his prime. It is a pleasure to follow him.

I welcome the opportunity to debate the Bill. It has been a long time coming, and rightly so. There has been a process of deliberation: a draft Bill has been considered by a Joint Committee. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) for his chairmanship of that Committee, and to its other members, who produced an impressive piece of work during an exhaustive process. What was particularly impressive was that the Government were prepared to listen. That is the way in which legislation ought to be developed before being presented to the House.

Why is the Bill necessary? The history in this area has been of legislation trying to keep pace with scientific endeavour and developments. The 1990 legislation followed the first great breakthrough: the first IVF birth back in 1978. It was six years after that that Baroness Warnock produced her report, which set out the ethical and moral principles that have guided us ever since, and which have stood the test of time. They included according a special moral status to the human embryo. Although those principles might not have secured universal acceptance, they have clearly provided a rational framework for the development of legislation. However, it took another six years before legislation finally arrived, in the form of the 1990 Act. I pay tribute to the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) for marshalling that legislation through Parliament, because, remarkably, it has also stood the test of time.

We have led the way internationally, but science has moved on and those advances raise new ethical, legal and social issues. Although the 1990 Act has clearly given public confidence because it introduced a robust regulatory system, in order to maintain public confidence legislation must be able to meet new challenges; hence the need for updating. Ultimately, it has to be Parliament that sets the framework—the boundaries within which scientists and the medical profession can lawfully operate. In setting the framework here and now, we have to look forward and anticipate new breakthroughs, in order to make sure that the legislation is as durable as possible.

I want to say at the outset that, like the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats will have free votes on all matters in the Bill. We have party policy on a number of issues—how could we not, when among our number we have my indefatigable and immensely impressive colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris)? Regardless of whether people agree or disagree with him, he clearly brings remarkable intellectual force to the debate. My party’s policy position is to be pro-science and in favour of research, but within proper limits and with proper safeguards.

Mr. Cash: Does the hon. Gentleman agree with Einstein, who said:

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Norman Lamb: I would not necessarily agree with that comment—and let me move on.

I have an important point to make. There is a heavy burden of responsibility on us all in how we conduct this debate. When dealing with issues that engender strong feelings and anxieties and on which Members and others have deeply held convictions, it is incumbent on those on all sides of the argument to remain measured, avoid exaggeration or sensationalism and respect the other point of view. Some of the comments made outside this place so far in the debate have not met that test. Church leaders and others to whom people look for guidance have a particular responsibility for the comments they make.

My party’s nominations to the Bill Committee will be two Members who come from very different standpoints on some of the issues involved: my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh), who is a Catholic, and my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon, who is a former junior doctors’ leader. That reflects the fact that although we have party policy on a number of issues, within our party—as within others—there is a wide range of views, and they should be represented properly and fully on the Committee.

I wish to deal with some of the key issues in the Bill, the first of which is the case for embryo research. As a layman who has witnessed the horror of degenerative and genetic conditions, I believe that there is a powerful case for research, which increases understanding and could ultimately lead to cures. My father had Parkinson’s, before he died, and I also knew well a local radio newsman in Norfolk who had motor neurone disease. I witnessed the deterioration that that cruel and horrible condition caused. If there is a chance of our finding cures or treatments, that is surely a worthy objective. Any such research would, of course, be subject, under this Bill, to tight control.

I wish to discuss human admixed embryos, which are inevitably one of the Bill’s more emotive issues. Surely, for the purposes of research, it must be right to consider their use. We are talking about keeping them only for up to 14 days and, again, only in a laboratory. As I have said, some of the claims have been exaggerated. There is a genuine problem of a shortage of human eggs hampering research. It is difficult to recruit egg donors—the process is a physically demanding one for a woman to go through—and there are long waiting lists of people seeking donor eggs for IVF treatment, so scientists struggle to obtain enough eggs for research. Surely it makes sense to save human eggs for IVF treatment, so if we really want research that has the potential to deliver cures of treatments for some of these awful conditions to be done, there must be a compelling logic to making use of admixed embryos.

I read a moving account in today’s edition of The Guardian by Geraldine Peacock, the vice-president of the Parkinson’s Disease Society. She has had the early onset of Parkinson’s for the past 18 years, which is nearly a third of her life. She says:

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The proposed legislation, and the capacity it offers for more research, give her and many others that hope, which is why I, personally, support that part of the Bill.

Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): Is not the most important point about human admixed embryos the fact that they behave like embryos but they are not embryos—they are not the product of a sperm and an egg, and they are not creating human life?

Norman Lamb: The most important issue is that such embryos facilitate research into horrible conditions. Anyone who witnesses such conditions is inevitably left with the sense that it is worth trying to defeat them. That is why I support the measure, which was also supported by the Joint Committee and by the Select Committee on Science and Technology. I understand the concerns, because we are dealing with a challenging concept and there is a sense that it blurs the distinction between animals and humans, creating unnatural entities. None the less, I am clear as to where I stand.

I wish to make one final point on this issue. The HFEA consultation in April last year found general public acceptance that such research for medical purposes may have some value. The HFEA has said:

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