Previous Section Index Home Page

7.8 pm

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (LD): The House is at its best when it is debating a Bill of this nature. The contributions from right hon. and hon. Members this afternoon demonstrate why it is such a privilege to be here and why I shall be sorry to retire at the next election. [Hon. Members: “Oh!”] I say that just for sympathy.

John Bercow: More, more!

Mr. Willis: It was not a plea for more time.

I want to start by echoing the hon. Members for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) and for Salisbury (Robert Key) in their plea for a bioethics committee. The issue was raised by the hon. Member for Norwich, North when he chaired the Science and Technology Committee during its inquiry into human reproductive technologies and the law. It was raised in the Joint Committee and the Science and Technology Committee when they considered the legislation. It is nonsense that there is no mechanism to bring together people from both Houses to debate ethics and advise the Government on issues of such importance, and that the Government have to look elsewhere for such advice.

I begin my brief comments by congratulating the Government on their measured and deliberative approach to the Bill. It is rare but extremely welcome for significant policy changes to be based not on media hype or dogma but on research evidence, and to be subject to careful parliamentary scrutiny. However, I have to tell the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), that the programming is giving all Members real cause for concern. To allocate only three hours’ debate for the whole of schedule 2 is unrealistic. I think Ministers believe that the schedule is about saviour siblings, but it is significantly more than that; it is also about embryo testing, sex selection, storage limits, the licensing of therapies, the Lord Hunt test and, most important, the use of hybrid embryos. That is what the hamster test is—a hybrid embryo—and it has never been regulated in law, yet it will come under schedule 2.

The Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Bristol, South (Dawn Primarolo), who will take the Bill through the House, has now returned to the Chamber. It is important that she argues for far more time for discussion of those matters; otherwise people will feel
12 May 2008 : Column 1120
cheated and pressure groups will say that the Government simply railroaded the Bill through Parliament, which will undermine all the work the Government have done.

Mr. Burrowes: I commend the hon. Gentleman on chairing the Joint Committee with such dexterity and on dealing with issues of great complexity and depth in a fairly short time. I commend him, too, for his point about the lack of parliamentary time. I offer him an example relating to human admixed embryos, where there is a lack of definition, which exercised the minds of our Committee and the other place. There is still no definition, only illustrative examples, so how can we really have a clear Bill and clear regulation?

Mr. Willis: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments and for his diligent support for the Bill. Under the expert legal guidance of Lord Mackay of Clashfern, we tried hard to find an all-encompassing definition of all embryos that were not pure embryos. Indeed, the Academy of Medical Sciences tried to do so, too. Unfortunately, we failed. To return to the hon. Gentleman’s point, however, we should not give up; before the Bill becomes law, it is important that we have a much clearer definition of what we are talking about. However, I am content with the descriptions in the Bill relating to admixed hybrid embryos.

The 1990 Act has stood the test of time. We have heard many tributes to the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) and the then Conservative Administration for taking the Act through Parliament; we owe a huge debt of gratitude, too, to Baroness Warnock. They and the House showed faith in our clinicians, our scientists and our regulators, and that faith has been rewarded. The challenge for us, as the Bill goes through, is to be equally bold and trusting, always bearing in mind the wise words of Lady Warnock:

In essence, despite the opposition of some people to the Bill, the measure does little more than bring within the law and within regulation interpretations of the Act made by the HFEA, changes in society and breakthroughs in medical science since 1990.

In considering the Bill and possible amendments, I draw the attention of Members to the three Select Committee reports tagged to the measure: the “Government proposals for the regulation of hybrid and chimera embryos”, produced by the Science and Technology Committee, the Joint Committee report, and the report, “Scientific Developments Relating to the Abortion Act 1967”. I suspect there will be many amendments on abortion.

The first of those reports followed the White Paper produced by the Department of Health in December 2006, which proposed the prohibition of the creation of animal-human chimera or hybrid embryos. The White Paper coincided with applications from Newcastle and King’s to create human-animal cytoplasmic hybrid embryos, both of which were granted under the 1990 legislation but need to be brought under the Bill. The Science and Technology Committee concluded unanimously that the Government’s proposed policy was wrong. We found that there was a pressing need to clarify the law in relation to hybrid embryos, and that research allowing
12 May 2008 : Column 1121
the creation of human-animal chimera or hybrid embryos was necessary and desirable. We concluded that such research had the potential to contribute to the development of greater understanding of the genetic basis of diseases and of stem cell technology. However, the important point is that we did not say that it was the only viable form of research to develop stem cells. We did not say that, and I cannot recall that any serious group of scientists or politicians has made such a claim.

The Committee recognised, as did the scientists and patient groups we met, that research into adult stem cells and research into cord blood stem cells were of equal importance—it was not one or the other. Earlier, the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) made that point in his usual brilliant way. The same point applies to the newly developed technology of induced pluripotent stem cells in Japan and the United States. The hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) is no longer in the Chamber. He made the telling point that if we tried to bring adult stem cells back to pluripotency, we would unleash all sorts of other things whose genetic trends are unknown. It is important that no avenue of possible scientific advancement that could bring relief to people suffering hugely debilitating conditions should be outlawed or limited. Regulated, yes—outlawed, no.

Robert Key: Can the hon. Gentleman confirm my understanding of the difference for the Newcastle team if they can use human admixed embryos? They use about six human hybrids a month, whereas if they could use admixed ones, they would use 200 a week.

Mr. Willis: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. That is a very important point. However, I want to establish the fact that it is not an either/or situation. Once the House has established that, we can start to move forward.

This afternoon, I have heard a number of claims that so far research using embryonic stem cells has not yielded results.

Mrs. Iris Robinson (Strangford) (DUP): That is so.

Mr. Willis: But research is not like that; pure research is about finding answers for which we did not even have a question. If the House legislated by saying that we had to know the answer before we could permit the research, we would end up with the most sterile research community ever.

John Bercow: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Willis: I cannot resist the temptation.

John Bercow: Some colleagues labour under the misapprehension that success in research terms is like a result on election day, but it is not like that. Success in research is not a fact but a process.

Mr. Willis: I had not realised that the hon. Gentleman was speaking in my time. However, the whole issue of admixed hybrid embryos addresses the fundamental point raised by the hon. Member for Salisbury about the shortage of eggs.

12 May 2008 : Column 1122

This afternoon, we have heard that the harvesting of female eggs is an invasive process—it involves dangers and it should be avoided at all costs. In the abattoir this afternoon, hundreds of thousands of oocytes were flushed down the drain. Not only could all of them be used for research purposes but they would also allow human embryos—human oocytes—to be used sparingly and effectively, because techniques to do so would have been developed elsewhere.

My last point is on saviour siblings. There will rightly be a huge debate on the use of embryos as so-called commodities. I think that the Roman Catholic Church is right to raise that as an issue. We in this House who do not necessarily agree with that particular religious point of view should not refuse to hold that debate. However, in my mailbag—I am sorry that the hon. Member for Salisbury gets so little mail; he can have some of mine—I often get post that shows that the Catholic Church has, in many ways, traduced the argument by making claims about the research that do the Catholic Church a disservice. There is a genuine debate to be had about where life begins and the sanctity of the embryo, but rather than simply making great claims, let us have that debate in a genuine forum.

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

Mr. Willis: No, I will not. The issue of saviour siblings is very pertinent. If, through pre-genetic diagnosis, we can screen out of embryos debilitating conditions that will affect the life chances of a child, we should do it. If we can use saviour siblings to make sure that a child lives, rather than dies, surely that is something of which this House should be proud.

7.21 pm

Emily Thornberry (Islington, South and Finsbury) (Lab): I welcome the provisions in the Bill that allow the screening of embryos for tissue matches to enable the treatment of siblings with serious medical conditions, and I agree that the right measures are in place in the Bill to safeguard the welfare of the resulting child. The Bill also provides clear, necessary guidance on the use of pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, and places limits on its use. The measures in the Bill to regulate the scientific use of embryos, including human admixed embryos, will offer vital opportunities for research on medical conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, so that we can move closer to new treatments.

I will resist the temptation to discuss abortion today, but if any misguided attempts are made to limit women’s access to abortion, I will certainly attempt to speak again, because I have a great deal to say on that issue. I speak as the representative of Islington, South and Finsbury, where there are 3,640 single parents. If there were a league table of single parents with dependent children, Islington would be in the top 20. In Islington, there are a great many gay marriages; there is at least one gay marriage a day, and a very large number of gay people in my constituency now live together in legally recognised, loving relationships. It is the experience of my constituents that heterosexual couples do not have a monopoly on good parenting.

I should like to compliment my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor) on her passionate speech, which showed her at her absolute
12 May 2008 : Column 1123
best. She is completely right to ask why, if gay people are appropriate adoptive parents, they cannot have children of their own. I accept that single parents have a difficult, demanding job, but they are fed up with being demonised by some Conservative Members. Children need consistent parenting, clear boundaries and, most importantly, a loving home. My late mother brought up three children on her own, and she coped by making sure that she had friends who supported not only her but us, and who provided male role models, where necessary, for my brothers and me.

It is claimed that if, through clause 14(2), we replaced

with a need for “supportive parenting”, it would fundamentally undermine fatherhood. “Supportive parenting” and “fatherhood” are hardly mutually exclusive—well, not in the majority of cases, anyway. Hon. Members should look at the other side of the coin: allowing the phrase,

to remain would expressly discriminate against single women and lesbian couples. Frankly, that will not do. It is discriminatory and unfair. Essentially, that is my point, and I could sit down now, but I will not, because I also want to discuss the issue of birth certificates, which has not really been touched on.

Schedule 2 will change birth certificates. There has been a great deal of heat and not much light in some debates on the subject. Let us take the example of three couples who become parents with the help of a sperm donor. In the case of the first couple, a heterosexual married couple, both people will be on the birth certificate, even if the father is not the biological father. If the second couple, a heterosexual unmarried couple, have a child through sperm donation, both people can be on the birth certificate, even if the father is not the biological father, as long as he goes to register the birth. In time, the children could go to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority register, where they could find out the name and last known address of their biological father, and any important biological data—such data will, of course, become increasingly important for children who are born now.

If the third couple were lesbians, they could be refused a donor if they did not bring along an Uncle Ben, or some other man, to prove that they understood

If they were refused a donor, they might enter into informal arrangements, which would mean that only one of them—the biological mother—would be on the birth certificate. The child would then be unlikely ever to know their father or find out any details about them. In addition, the lesbian partner would have absolutely no rights, even though she was, in practice, a parent. That is not fair or right, and it is not 21st century.

Let us say that that third couple managed to get a donor, perhaps by bringing along a male friend. As the law currently stands, only the biological mother would be on the birth certificate, although the biological father would be on the register held by the authority. Again, that is not fair; it is discriminatory and it has negative effects on the child. Until the non-biological
12 May 2008 : Column 1124
mother adopts, she has absolutely no rights as a parent, even though the child was born into a stable, loving relationship that had been legally endorsed through a civil partnership. That is not right. If the non-biological mother’s partner dies when the child is 18 months old, the second parent will have absolutely no rights over the child. In fact, the biological mother’s parents could take away the child and not give the other parent any access at all to the toddler. Is that fair? No, it is not.

What I am saying is not political correctness, or if it is, I do not care. It is just correctness. It is basic justice; it is what is right. If we maintain

we continue to discriminate against single women and lesbians who want to be mothers. Hon. Members should not misunderstand: those women will still become mothers. We will not be able to stop them. However, holding back the legislation will not supply their children with a single additional parent. If the legislation is not passed, hundreds of children of lesbian parents will be denied the opportunity to have a second loving parent at the heart of their family. We should do the right thing.

7.27 pm

Mrs. Iris Robinson (Strangford) (DUP): I make no apology for speaking as a born-again Christian. I represent the voice of those who look to a higher authority—one to whom we will all one day answer for the decisions that we make in the House. Each one of us is an individual of amazing worth. I approach the Bill through the central fact that we are all created in the image of God. Much science will be discussed and debated, but I want to remind us all that we need to consider the case fully—both biologically, through the logical argument of our God-given minds, and with respect to the mind of God.

We are told in the book of Genesis that we are created

Mankind is not made in any one person’s image, but in the image of God—the height of holiness and purity—and that gives man a sacred standing. It makes man fundamentally different from the rest of creation, including animals. We are not just another animal. We are created special, and that fact must be treated with respect. That tenet is central to human identity. The creation of hybrid embryos undermines our dignity and is fundamentally disrespectful of the boundaries of nature. It would tarnish the “image of God” present in all of us, would breach the biblical prohibition of the mixing of kinds, would confuse lineage, would fundamentally affect all human relationships, especially marriage and the family, and would cross an ethical line by creating something essentially new but unnecessary.

Indeed, 1 Corinthians 15 provides us with a clear statement of the difference between humans and animals in God’s order. Verse 39 reads:

I stand by that.

To date, human embryonic stem cell research has absorbed a huge amount of taxpayers’ money but delivered no therapies, whereas adult stem cell research,
12 May 2008 : Column 1125
which involves no ethical hazards, has delivered around 80 therapies for patients, and some 350 clinical trials are currently under way. That is a fact, and if we had to wait 20 years before we were deemed to be elected, we would be waiting a very long time. I say that in answer to the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon).

In Northern Ireland and many parts of the UK we are facing an epidemic of suicide and self-harm in young men. I have spoken to experts in mental health who work with such individuals. They point to the fact that many of these men were unfathered. The Bill puts us in the unacceptable position of creating more unfathered children.

Clause 14(2)(b) proposes replacing the current obligation for IVF clinics to consider the child’s need for “a father” with an obligation to consider the child’s need for “supportive parenting”. The current provision relating to fathers is not absolute. It does not stop lesbian or single heterosexual women receiving IVF treatment, but it does mean that clinics should ask questions about the provision of alternative father figures, and it sends out an important signal about the crucial role played by fathers.

Clause 45 makes provision for the creation of children who will have no chance of ever having a father. The clause sets out that when the would-be parents are two women, from before the child is born

Next Section Index Home Page