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Let me end by making the following point. There are people in this House—one or two I know of—who have parts of a pig attached to their heart. That keeps
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them alive. We do not need hypocrisy in this matter. We can have combined pigs and human beings to keep people in this House—and elsewhere—alive. There are combinations from different sources, and we should welcome that.

6.45 pm

Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): My constituents have a range of views on this issue, and for the avoidance of doubt I have posted details of my views on the matters under discussion on my website. Therefore, I will not have to repeat a lot of the arguments we have heard this afternoon, and I can concentrate on broadening the debate a little.

The most important thing to say is that I fundamentally believe in respecting other people’s views. I happen to come at this matter from a Christian viewpoint. I know that there are as many different views within, for example, the Muslim faith as within the Christian faith, and we should not start sniping at each other along those lines. Respect is crucial, not least, as my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) pointed out, for the scientific community. I know of no scientists—GPs, clinicians, or the people working in the fertility clinic or the genetics unit in Salisbury district hospital—who do not have an in-built sense of responsibility for the ethics of what they are doing. It is fundamental to everything they undertake, so I have huge respect for the scientific community in all of this.

Like some other Members present, I am a veteran of the 1990 legislation, and the law that we produced then—thanks to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke)—has stood the test of time and served us well. However, it is time to bring it up to date. Last year, a Joint Committee of Lords and Commons sat to examine the proposed legislation. I served on it. We made extensive recommendations to both Houses of Parliament and to the Government, as a result of which the Government have abandoned some of their proposals and changed others. I pay tribute to Ministers both in post then and now, and also to the Bill team at the Department of Health, who had an exceptionally difficult task in drawing up the Bill as it currently stands.

The Government are doing the right thing. We must have an updated Act of Parliament to make sure our scientists are working within the proper framework in terms of moral and ethical issues as well as practical, legal issues and considerations. Of course, this Bill is not being rushed through. The process has been continuous ever since the Warnock committee started its work in 1982. It has been continually on the back burner, and occasionally on the front burner as we have had to face individual issues.

I want to underline something that the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) said: the importance of having a national bioethics commission. The high court of Parliament is, de facto, our national bioethics commission. Every point of view is found and expressed in both Houses, and last year on the Joint Committee we had people of many religious views, varying from a rabbi to a bishop of the Church of England to a Wee Free Presbyterian and others, as well as people of no faith at all. That is how it should be.

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Having served on the Committee, under the chairmanship of the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson), that went to Sweden and to Italy to examine their bioethics committees, I am sure that the best bioethics committee is the Houses of Parliament. I emphasise and support what he said about the need to have a standing Joint Committee of both Houses along the lines of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, so that we can consider these issues as they arise.

It is important to underline the fact that the moral framework of the law, which was devised all those years ago by Baroness Warnock, still stands today. Three moral principles—first, that all human tissue is special and uniquely demanding of respect; secondly, that embryos can only be used for up to 14 days, the point at which the primitive streak emerges; and, thirdly, that no embryo that has been used for research may ever be implanted in a woman—are pillars that are fundamental to the morality of this legislation.

I said that I come at this from a Christian point of view: I am a fully paid-up member of the Church of England. I am grateful to the Archbishops Council for the advice that it has made available to all Members of this House on the exact position of the Church of England, because that is important. On all this free-vote territory and on all these moral issues, I always seek the advice of theologians and priests whom I respect before sticking my head above the parapet. It is important to recognise, as a starting point, that a human embryo needs protection because it has the potential to develop as a person, or persons, made in the image of God. We believe that the Church is called to balance its concern for healing and saving lives with its equally strong concern to see the moral significance of all human life, including the embryo, respected for its sacred nature. That is the position of my Church, and it is my position too.

Of course, some Christians regard an embryo from the moment of conception as a person made in God’s image, and therefore they oppose all experimentation on the embryo. I fully respect that view, although I do not agree with it. I take the gradualist approach, viewing embryos as much more than just cellular material, but I support limited experimentation in the first 14 days. I am not going to dwell on the individual challenges facing the House beyond that. Perhaps when we return next week for two days in Committee on the Floor of the House and perhaps if I have the honour of serving on the Public Bill Committee later, we will go into that in more detail.

One issue has not been mentioned so far: what should be put on a birth certificate? I think that the state has a moral duty not to be party to a deliberate deception about a person’s genetic history. The evidence convinces me that everyone has the right to know the identity of their biological parents, and it also suggests that the best approach is for the social parents to inform their children at the earliest opportunity, at the most appropriate moment, of their origin. However, for the avoidance of doubt and to be fair to everyone, there is a case for printing on every birth certificate a notice of other state agencies that may hold additional information on a person’s genetic history. Therefore, no one would be discriminated against and everybody would know that it might be worth checking, if there is any doubt and one’s “parents” have not told one.

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One other issue is important. When the Joint Committee took evidence from a very wide range of people, one of the things we were seeking after truth to discover was what people in this country actually thought about stem cell research and about this Bill. The answer was clear: it was that we do not know. The Committee concluded:

Mr. Burrowes: It was a pleasure to serve on the Committee with my hon. Friend, to discuss issues with him and to agree with him about birth certificates. He mentioned that the view was that we did not know public opinion. As I recall it, that view came from the science editor of The Times. If one were to examine the formal consultation process, one would find that the view was very clearly that the majority of the public were against moving towards human admixed embryos.

Robert Key: There is a difficulty with this matter. I have produced from my copious notes the result of a poll that was produced recently in the national press. It asked:

All sorts of statistics were printed, one example being that 50 per cent. of people said yes to that. It also asked:

Some 40 per cent. of people said yes to that whereas 32 per cent. said no—or possibly the other way round. The poll is extraordinary, but it does not represent public opinion in the sense of social indicators as the result of basic, serious, professional, social science research into public opinion in this country in this area—we have it not. The Government have admitted that no such research has been done, which is why the Joint Committee, on which my hon. Friend and I served, has recommended that the Government should forthwith start doing that research; they should commission that serious research, so that we do not have to rely on what The Sun says its readers think or on what any other organ thinks its readers think.

John Bercow: My hon. Friend is making a characteristically sagacious speech. May I put it to him that much depends upon what question is asked? Moreover, there are Members who say, “My postbag says” without it perhaps having occurred to them that people of a particular view, especially those who are against a Bill, are probably, on the whole, more likely to write than those who are in favour of it. Would it not be a good idea simply for us to accept that we are not necessarily tribunes and that we cannot be sure of public opinion, but that we are here to exercise our judgment in the national interest?

Robert Key: We are, indeed, here to exercise our judgment, as in the famous Bristol speech, which my hon. Friend will doubtless recall.

I always add a pinch of salt to my understanding of what a colleague is saying when they say, “My postbag says” or , “I have never had such a big postbag.” I have
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received hardly anything at all on this issue in my postbag; I have perhaps received four or five letters, probably 20 e-mails and a postcard campaign or two, to which I have courteously replied. Nevertheless, none of us should assume that we know what all our constituents think—I do not. I always listen carefully and courteously when constituents tell me their view, but I then have to make my judgment.

I hope that I have explained one or two of the reasons why I come to my judgment that this Bill is a sensible and practical one. It has gone through the mill of the opinion of both Houses of Parliament. It strives to provide a framework that will ensure that our scientific community and our clinicians can care better for people in this country who are ill, or who will be in the future, and can relieve the problems that they suffer. As someone who observed my dear mother dying of Alzheimer’s disease, I do not need any convincing of what it would mean if only we could begin to understand how to put all those sorts of diseases right.

I believe that the Bill is a great force for good and a step in the right direction, rather than the wrong one. It is a natural evolution of the current position. As a Parliament, we must always be careful not to go too far. We must accept that it is our responsibility to say to the scientific community, “Just because you can do something, that does not mean you should.” We should come back to this matter in far less than another 20 years, and I am sure that we will do so. Indeed, I recall saying on Third Reading of the 1990 Bill that the scientific community will be back within 10 years. It took less than 10 years for us to take a view on certain limited aspects of the matter, but here we are again looking at this very important Bill.

It is a comment on how far we have progressed that there are perhaps 50 hon. Members on both sides of the House this afternoon and that people are speaking passionately about the subject. That was nothing compared with the situation in 1990, when people were sitting in the gangways, standing at the doors and standing behind the Bar of the House with enthusiasm. I suspect that that will happen again next week, when we deal with some of the more controversial issues, but we have moved on and there is a much greater public understanding, as well as acceptance, of what our medical clinicians and researchers are trying to do. I support the Bill on Second Reading. I will not be supporting every move all the way through that the Government wish to make, but, on the whole, this is a Bill worth having.

6.58 pm

Chris McCafferty (Calder Valley) (Lab): I am delighted to be able to speak in this debate on a Bill that I very much welcome. I believe that the Bill will strengthen regulation in important areas of scientific research, including embryo and stem cell research. That is a very grey area at the moment. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) said, a lengthy process of review has taken place since the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990. It has included White Papers, consultations and Committee reports, so this Bill has not been entered into lightly. In the other place, they did an extremely thorough job of debating and scrutinising the Bill. Judging by today’s contributions so far, the debates in this House will be equally stimulating.
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I listened with great pleasure to the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), who spoke with elegance, knowledge and humour on these important issues and managed to poke fun at the Government at the same time. It was an impressive masterclass.

I am pleased that the Bill sets out a clear regulatory framework for scientific research, although the HFEA already requires researchers to demonstrate that the research is necessary and it is permitted only if it fits within the research purposes set out in the 1990 Act and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology (Research Purposes) Regulations 2001.

Although embryonic cell research is still in its early stages, it is already advancing scientific understanding of early human development and the processes involved in particular diseases, such as Parkinson’s and motor neurone disease. In the future, it could lead to the development of new cell-based therapies for these conditions. Like other colleagues, I have been contacted by a number of national and local organisations, as well as individual constituents whose friends or relatives suffer from degenerative diseases, who have all asked me to support the Bill. However, every letter, e-mail and phone call also stressed the need for adequate regulation of this important research.

I believe that the Bill strikes the right balance between scientific discovery and statutory controls and I fully support it.

Mr. Burrowes: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Chris McCafferty: No. I have only 10 minutes.

In particular, I support the retention of the requirement for medical practitioners to consider the welfare of the child before treatment is offered.

There has been a great deal of debate about the replacement of the reference to the child’s need for a father with one to the child’s need for supportive parenting. My personal view is that a child benefits from having a mother and a father and that fathers are intrinsically valuable. However, I also believe that the most important aspect of the upbringing of any child is a loving and supportive environment where their welfare is paramount. Whether that is provided by a conventional family, a single-parent family or any other type of family should not be a matter for Parliament to decide by statute. Early research into the welfare of children born to single women or lesbian couples who choose to start a family by assisted conception shows that those children fare just as well as those born by assisted conception to heterosexual parents.

The Bill also sets out the circumstances in which embryos can be tested in a lab. A wonderful procedure with a dreadful name, pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, enables couples who know they are at significant risk of having a child with a specific genetic condition such as cystic fibrosis or Duchenne muscular dystrophy to avoid the transfer of embryos affected by that condition. What a wonderful gift that would be to such a family. I support the use of embryo testing for this purpose, but I agree with the Government that it should be available only in cases where there is a significant risk of serious disease.

I also support pre-implantation tissue-typing, which is referred to as saviour sibling treatment and allows the selection of an embryo that is a tissue match with a
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sibling suffering a life-threatening or serious medical condition. In fact, the licensing authority has carried out a number of policy reviews on embryo testing, including on tissue-typing. Each application is considered on its own merits and a licence is granted only when the authority is convinced that the child will be a valued member of the family and that tissue from that child is the only means of treating the older sibling.

In practice, tissue-typing is only carried out for life-threatening blood conditions and has happened in only a small number of cases. Six families have benefited from such a procedure, but the technology has resulted in children being cured of serious medical conditions. The courts have already confirmed the authority’s power to license tissue-typing, and so one of the Bill’s most important aims must be to make that power explicit in law.

It has been widely reported—indeed, a number of hon. Members have already alluded to it—that some Members of the House will seek to amend the Bill in order to reduce the upper time limit for abortion. As I stated when I opposed a ten-minute Bill in 2006, I believe that any attempt to reduce the time limit, blatantly disregarding the views of the scientific and medical communities, would be irresponsible and ill-informed.

John Bercow: I am extremely grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way and I entirely agree with her. It is a pity that the Bill is being used for that purpose although, to be fair, it is in parliamentary order. Does she agree that if people who want to reduce the upper time limit are determined to go ahead with their amendments, as they are perfectly privileged to do in parliamentary terms, those of us who favour a different modernisation and improvement of the law will take our opportunity, too? We can obtain a genuinely progressive reform, rather than the antediluvian reform that some favour.

Chris McCafferty: The hon. Gentleman makes a valuable contribution to the debate. I sincerely hope that we get our opportunity to improve the legislation on behalf of women.

When the 24-week limit was approved in Parliament in 1990, the key argument was that that was the stage at which the foetus was considered viable. It is the considered view of the British Medical Association, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the Royal College of Nursing and the British Association of Perinatal Medicine that there is no evidence of a significant improvement in the survival of pre-term infants below 24 weeks’ gestation in the UK in the past 18 years. The recent EPICure and Trent studies that were referred to earlier both state clearly that there is no statistical significant improvement in survival under 24 weeks’ gestation.

As I have said many times in the House, the best way of reducing the number of unintended pregnancies and abortions is to improve women’s access to contraception as well as educating women and men about sexual health. It is not rocket science. Sexual health education should be compulsory for young people in school. In contrast, any reduction in the time limit would force a small number of vulnerable women to continue a pregnancy against their will. Proposals to reduce the time limit do
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not even appear to take into consideration the terrible plight of women who have a wanted pregnancy but discover a foetal abnormality at a later stage.

I, too, want to see a reduction in the number of women seeking abortion and a reduction in the gestation period after which such abortions take place. In fact, late-term abortions are extremely rare. In 2006, less than 1.5 per cent. of all abortions took place after 20 weeks and of those, 0.7 per cent.—a tiny fraction—were carried out at 22 weeks or later.

I wholeheartedly welcome the Bill and urge hon. Members to support it in its entirety and to resist amendments that are not supported by the medical and scientific fraternity or that are not evidence based.

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