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6.21 pm

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon) (Con): The House has been treated to a rich feast of speeches, demonstrating the diversity of opinion on the subject held by our constituents and certainly by right hon. and hon. Members. I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon). Although I do not agree with everything—perhaps anything—that he said, I recognise his tremendous expertise in this field. There are valid arguments on both sides of the debate.

In making decisions about what human embryo research we will permit, we must, as the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East said, be guided by science and discovery. Our civilisation has always cherished progress and we should endorse those who legitimately strive to produce remedies against some of the worst diseases that assail human frailty, but we should not be too hasty in abandoning an ethical understanding of what it is to be human. Nor should we discard the wisdom of the ages: the wisdom that places humans as important moral objects, distinct from other animals. Reaching back to Plato and Aristotle, man has sought to understand the distinction between humans and the rest of nature. We need to hold in balance, on the one hand, our traditional understanding of who we are, including legitimate religious beliefs, and on the other, important scientific endeavour. Why is it that some people who are so socially liberal are inclusive of everything apart from those who hold sincere religious beliefs? That is not true inclusiveness.

Those of us who believe that some—not all—of the Bill’s provisions should be rejected do not oppose research into therapies that could save and improve lives. However, we believe that there is a better way of conducting that research. I want to ensure that public money is spent most effectively. We are constantly told that more than 80 therapies have been developed from adult stem cell research, while so far no therapies at all have been developed as a result of embryonic stem cell research. We have still not been given an answer for that in the debate. Yes, of course, it takes a long time, but we have had 20 years. When the Minister winds up, will she tell us why she thinks that we have not had greater success in that important field?

Dawn Primarolo: I can give the hon. Gentleman the answer straight away: the technologies under discussion have existed only in the past few years. He refers to science and developments that have been around for longer. We need not go further than that.

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Mr. Streeter: Greater breakthroughs than we have seen in the past are necessary.

Of the three main controversial issues in the Bill, I am instinctively against human admixed embryos, for moral reasons. I make no bones about that. Mixing the life essence of humans and animals is plain wrong, and a slippery slope to who knows where. But even the science seems to favour those of us who oppose this measure. Those who favour human admixed embryos rely on two main arguments: first, that admixed embryos are necessary because they will provide a mechanism for mapping genetic disorders; and secondly, that they will make up for the shortage of human eggs.

My concern is that the creation of human admixed embryonic stem cells is a distraction from areas of research that are proven to be more effective, because they will never be able to be used as a therapy and no one wishes to see them implanted. Thus, the only use for them is disease modelling. However, even in that context there is a vast problem. How far will such admixed embryos truly mirror the development of human embryos? Stuart Newman, from New York medical school—he has not been quoted yet, and we have had plenty of quotes—called it a poorly motivated experiment, and said that the

The hon. Member for Bolton, South-East said that he could not place reliance on some of the current technology and research; I am afraid that I do not place reliance on hybrid research, as there is no guarantee that it will mirror a purely human embryo.

John Bercow: May I say through you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I am extremely inclusive of my hon. Friend? I just do not think that the Bill should be driven by his particular views. He says that one of his objections to the admixed embryos is that they represent a slippery slope. May I put it to him that of all the arguments that he can deploy, the so-called slippery slope thesis is the least persuasive? If he believes in parliamentary sovereignty, such matters can and will be determined by this House. If I may say so, it is a lazy argument.

Mr. Streeter: It was one of the arguments that I put forward. I simply do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. The slippery-slope point is that once such research is done, we know not where it will lead us. Parliament is not aware of everything that is done in this community and country every single day.

The creation of induced pluripotent cells—I must confess that I do not really know what they are—or adult cells with embryonic stem cell properties, now, it seems, provides a credible alternative to embryonic stem cells. Human eggs are not needed in the creation of those IP cells, as they are created using adult human cells, such as skin tissue. They are already proving better at disease modelling, drug testing and investigating cell reprogramming. Dr. Robb MacLellan, a researcher at the Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at the University of California, said on 1 May 2008:

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The world is moving forward with these new technologies: they are the technologies that are internationally recognised as the future. The Bill enables British scientists to move further away from the cutting edge of their field—it promotes research into gas lamps when electricity has already been invented.

Mr. Cash: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Streeter: I have already given way a couple of times, and would therefore be breaking into my own time. I know that the House wants to hear my pearls of wisdom.

Most European countries—France, the Netherlands and Germany, to name but a few—have banned the process of somatic cell nuclear transfer, which is used in the creation of human admixed hybrids. I have just mentioned Europe, so perhaps I should have given way to my hon. Friend, but I will not. Professor Sir Ian Wilmut was a great hero to the social liberals in our midst when he created Dolly the sheep, but now that he has moved from embryonic stem cell research lesser emphasis is given to his point of view. I wonder why. If we pass the Bill, Britain will not lead in this area, but start to fall behind.

Let me turn to the troubling issue of saviour siblings. The fact that we can select our children to generate a source of material to help sick relatives does not mean that we should. Of course we all have deep sympathy for those who suffer from genetic disorders. In the past three years, I have watched my much-loved father-in-law slowly transform from one of the nicest, most wonderful people on the planet into a person who, because of his extreme Alzheimer’s disease, is completely unrecognisable. If I could wave a magic wand and find a way of treating that disease I would, but the fact that a complaint is very serious does not mean that we should continue with a research process that is wrong. I do not believe that that is an answer to the ethical and moral problems.

If a child has leukaemia and needs a bone marrow transplant, I expect any parent to do all that he or she can, but we must consider the psychological implications for the second child. We should not solve one problem by creating another. Saviour siblings may be loved, cared for and wanted—indeed, only families who care desperately about their first child will have them, so of course they will be cared for—but they will always have a secondary purpose. They are a means to an end, and they will come to know that.

I am sure we all remember the existential angst of our teenage years. We have probably seen it in our children as well, and in some cases even in our grandchildren. If to that turbulence is added the knowledge that one was created for the secondary purpose of providing tissue for an older sibling, the identity crisis suffered by many young people today can only be made worse. We already have a huge problem with depression and many other types of mental disorder.

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham) (Con): Will my hon. Friend give way?

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Mr. Streeter: I will not, if my hon. Friend does not mind.

I think Members will accept from their constituency experience that those are some of the hardest disorders and complaints to treat. I do not think we are doing particularly well at looking after people with mental health needs up and down the country, but many suffer from such psychological challenges because of their own upbringing. They may, for instance, have experienced extreme behaviour during their childhood. We should not seek a physical cure for one child at the expense of possible additional mental challenges for others. As Immanuel Kant said, humans should be an end in themselves, never a means.

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

Mr. Streeter: I will not, if my hon. Friend does not mind. I have given way twice, and if I did so again I would be breaking into my own time.

The third part of the Bill that I wish to discuss is the removal of the “need for a father” clause. The House may have guessed that I am not necessarily in favour of that. Although the practical implications of the clause are slight—we must accept that—its symbolic magnitude should not be underestimated. It is fundamentally a question of the hierarchy of rights. Should the sensibilities of those who may be bringing up children after they are born be put before the interests of the child? Lord Darzi recently said in another place that the removal of the “need for a father” clause should be seen in the context of the wider Government policy of promoting equality, but what about the wider Government policy of ensuring that the child’s welfare is the paramount consideration, as seen in the Adoption and Children Act 2002? Surely that should come first.

If society desires responsible fatherhood—which we do—the most detrimental act would be to send the male population the message that they do not matter. As we all know, family structures are an interdependent triad of relationships between father and child, between mother and child and between father and mother, each performing separate and complementary roles in the socialisation and normalisation of each party. We need to start affirming the position of fathers in parenting, families and society in general, and the Bill tugs us in the wrong direction. In this hierarchy of rights, it should be the child who triumphs.

Of course the Bill has some good features, but I believe that overall it is a step in the wrong direction, and I hope that—unless it amends the Bill significantly—the House will ultimately reject it. When it returns to us in Committee, I shall support amendments seeking to reduce the time limits for abortion. I consider it a matter of national shame that this country remains the abortion capital of western Europe.

6.34 pm

Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North) (Lab): I believe that this is a skirmish in comparison with what will happen next Monday and Tuesday, when we deal with the nitty-gritty of some of these issues. We shall be able to have a real argy-bargy. I am sure that many of us
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have argued about the issues for 100 years and more, in cold flats, in universities and in schools. They have not gone away, and many of them are not new. All these questions—what is life, when is an embryo a gamete, what is the role of our maker—have been around for a long time.

I should declare a couple of interests. As was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon), I chaired the Select Committee. We had epic discussions, and we split, not amicably. I earned a reputation as Dr. Frankenstein, according to my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith), and I have loved and lived that reputation ever since.

I am also a member of the Stem Cell Foundation, which is part of a Medical Research Council unit. It contains some distinguished individuals who are interested in promoting the foundation, which was established in 2005 to support the advance of pioneering stem cell research into medical practice. We receive many private donations. So far we have received some £90 million, and we hope that when stem cell work starts to break through we shall be able to develop it in this country. Many of us remember what happened when monoclonal antibodies were discovered at Cambridge. The work was taken to the United States, and millions of people, as well as industries, benefited from our discoveries.

I am very pleased to be continuing the stem cell work. As with everything in science, we live in hope that something will happen, but it is never possible to swear to it. I am 99.9 per cent. sure that the sun will rise tomorrow morning, but who knows? Something just might happen. We live in a world in which interesting things turn up in science, and that is why we become involved. We want an environment in which we can research and find things out.

I remember when, in the 1970s, we discussed genetic recombinant DNA. There were huge fights and marches in Boston to protest against the insertion of animal DNA into human cells and vice versa. It was the scientists themselves who regulated the position and determined the category into which the work should fall. They have now established the principle, and people carry out such work all the time. For example, human insulin and bacteria are made in animal cells, to the benefit of many people who suffer from diabetes.

Science was what motivated us to examine the issue in 2004, but we knew that there was a public out there who had been involved in the debates about in vitro fertilisation, and much of what is being said now was said about it then. All the same words and phrases were used, such as “unnatural” and “playing God”. Now in vitro fertilisation is standard practice, and we are talking of improvements that ought to be made. We should be pressurising the system to ensure that it is available to people, because having a child is very much part of being a human being, and wanting a healthy child is particularly so.

There will be much more in medicine that will—I hope—really tax this place, feeding the need for Committees and debates. It is estimated that by 2012 everyone will be able to have their DNA examined for $10 and be told whether they are likely to suffer from diseases such as Alzheimer’s, if they want to know. Such information could be seen as intrusive by those
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who prefer to accept that life is a hazard and not to know what will happen, but it will be available. Jim Watson, the Nobel prize winner, has just had his DNA examined, but he refused to allow the part that might predict Alzheimer’s to be examined, because he has reached the age at which it might happen and he was not sure whether he could handle the knowledge emotionally.

Very interesting developments are in prospect, and as has been said before, we must be ahead of the curve and ensure we have the necessary legislation. Members have referred to the work in Japan. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East mentioned the oncogene, which might be involved in the development of cancers—Nobel prize-winning stuff again—and might be carried by retroviruses when they are put into a particular cell. That is the problem with gene therapy—trying to change genetic problems by inserting DNA. We do not yet have a foolproof mechanism for the use of retrovirusues, although scientists are trying to find other ways of getting genes into adult cells while preventing the development of cancers.

Not all scientists agree with this type of work. For example, in an article entitled, “The Production of Admixed Animal-Human Embryos: Is it Necessary, or Merely Desirable?” Professor Michael Balls—a familiar name in this place—from FRAME, an organisation that tries to stop animals being used in medical research, questions the partial arrogance of science in wanting to do such things. Therefore, scientists do argue about whether this is a valid procedure in conference centres and debating halls—as I said, we have managed to hammer out the issue of recombinant DNA. My bet is that the scientific community, including the medics, and the public—when they are engaged—will be able to say what they think about these embryos.

Admixed embryos are not new. Indeed, I remember merging mouse cells and human cells and getting chromosomes—genetic material—from mice and humans. A competition went on between them, and the cells and chromosomes that developed were mainly human. As a result, we found out about matters such as which DNA genes and chromosomes were next to each other. That has now developed into the human genome field, which has so much potential in developing our attitudes on, and knowledge of, health. As there were admixed embryos in the past, I think there will continue to be such embryos.

We need the potential for making stem cells. Some stem cells at certain layers in the blastocyst are better at developing than others. Some people say, “Embryonic stem cells haven’t done anything.” That is not quite true. We have to go through very strong safety conditions and procedures, and we use mice and rats. People might be against that experimentation, too, but it is the law and it has to be followed. Certain situations, such as where there are model mental health problems in mice or rats, can be corrected by injecting embryonic stem cells.

John Bercow: The hon. Gentleman has much wisdom about these matters, so I listen to him speak on them with the greatest respect. Is it not worth underlining
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that admixed embryos will be subject to the same regulatory procedure that applies to embryos at present, namely the requirement for destruction at 14 days, or upon the emergence of the primitive streak? Therefore, the idea conjured up by some of the more lurid speculation in the tabloids that there will be some persistent ongoing consequence is nonsense.

Dr. Gibson: Yes, that is true; it is the stuff of science fiction, and people see it on the television so they are persuaded to believe that it will happen and that evil people in white coats are running around trying to do that and thinking, “Who cares about a Nobel prize when we can produce a three-headed monster; that’s a real achievement.” None of the scientists I know ever talks about that; they may do so in a jocular way after a couple of pints, but as far as I know no one wants to do that. There is no gain or benefit; there are merely problems, and it is unlikely to happen.

It is unlikely that these admixtures can reach the 14-day stage at present in any case, but it is possible to get very good stem cells at different stages. We know that there are pre-stem cells in certain cancers, and if they are in somebody with a leukaemia, that can develop at later stages into full-blown leukaemia. So the development of drugs against pre-stem cells—we do not have to go into the detail—is much more effective than doing that at later stem-cell stages. We have only managed to do that by being able to do the kind of test I mentioned.

I said that I was 99.9 per cent. sure that the sun would rise tomorrow morning. The same percentage is often cited in respect of mitochondria and hybrid admixed embryos. The mitochondrial DNA is the contribution from the animals; that is the 0.1 per cent. We should not dismiss mitochondrial DNA by saying that as it is only 0.1 per cent. it does not matter. Importantly, there are many mitochondrial diseases in human beings. We should look at the evidence. Work is still being done on this; such embryonic research is difficult, because when we try to make embryos by this method we have to look at the mitochondria. It must be asked whether there is a possibility that material from the nucleus—the DNA—also adds things to the mitochondria, and whether the mitochondrial DNA does, too. Is there an interaction between them, and what actually happens? It appears that in certain cases with such hybrids, human mitochondria starts to appear. It can be assessed by its DNA. Therefore, there is still a lot to learn in that area, even though it is only 0.1 per cent. of DNA. However, there is no evidence that this affects the stem cells produced, and the way they grow, and how they look. Their morphology is one thing, but their biochemistry is another thing, and there is no evidence of any changes in that.

It must be pointed out that this is all being done in a very regulated work environment. That regulation is done not only by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, but by local ethical committees. It is necessary to get permission from them to do this kind of research. Lord Winston in the other place complains, of course, saying there is too much regulation; but we have a lot of regulation that makes this work.

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