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I pay tribute to those people, and to the scientist and patient groups and the medical charities that have done so much to explain to the media, parliamentarians and the public what the research is about. It is much easier if those explanations come from patients, patient charities,
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doctors and scientists than simply from Ministers or other politicians, who may seem to have a vested policy interest in the matter, even though I do not doubt the sincerity of people on either side of the debate.

The Government deserve some plaudits for bringing forward the Bill in its current state. The White Paper was not the best way of interpreting the results of the consultation, but the Bill is far better than that presaged in the White Paper. That is a result of the Government’s willingness to listen to the reports of scrutiny committees, such as the Select Committees that considered the matter. Governments and political parties are sometimes unwilling to change their expressed view for fear of being accused of doing a U-turn, but in this case, where there is a need to consider scientific evidence, it is appropriate that the Government have done so.

Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme) (Lab): I, too, was a member of the Science and Technology Committee, along with the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon), when it considered the issue in 2005. I have grave concerns about the lack of debate on human-animal chimeric embryos and human-animal transgenic embryos or hybrids. The issue is being glossed over. Does the hon. Gentleman recollect that we on the Committee did not agree about those issues and that five members—half the Committee—issued a separate report disowning the substantive report?

Dr. Harris: What I can say is that when the Science and Technology Committee considered the issue more recently, there was unanimity, which included the three Conservative Members, two of whom have a strong history of voting for pro-life positions. They had recognised—by the time we reported in 2007—that the evidence was clear that authorising embryo research would be ethically appropriate and scientifically justified.

I should like also to thank the Government for listening to the concerns—expressed through the House of Lords—of scientists about consent, which my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) mentioned. The Government have to pay some attention to the timetable. It would be a pity if some people felt that they could not support certain measures in the Bill because we had not been given enough time, although I obviously understand the pressure on Government time. The Government should hold out some hope that they will seek to amend the Bill in certain areas, if only to give clarity on, for example, whether embryos can be licensed for therapy as well as research.

A number of interesting points have been made by opponents of that measure, although it is unfair to characterise the position of embryonic stem cell research in the way that they did. For example, the hon. Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter) argued that after 20 years of embryonic stem cell research there were still no therapies. As the Minister rightly said in an intervention, however, the technology is relatively recent; indeed, it was only possible to pursue it in this country following the passage of the 2001 cloning regulations. I understand that there is already the prospect of two early clinical trials in the United States relating to—I believe; I am not certain—the treatment of spinal injuries and serious retinal disease.
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We also heard the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith) citing leading scientists, apparently in support of her position. I intervened to say how inappropriate that was. Sir Martin Evans, Robin Lovell-Badge, Professor Martin Bobrow and Sir Liam Donaldson all support the measures in the Bill. Quoting them out of context and then misinterpreting what they said on specific points does not do justice to the debate.

True hybrids were discussed by the hon. Members for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) and for Morecambe and Lunesdale. The reason why the Select Committee advocated including true hybrids in the permissive regime and allowing the HFEA to license their use if an appropriate application came forward was that there was no good reason not to. Once one accepts that it is legitimate to do destructive medical research on human embryos, there is no ethical reason to give greater protection to things that are not human embryos. It would be an inversion of everyone’s ethical compass to say that certain embryo entities require greater protection than a fully human embryo.

It is true that scientists have not yet, beyond the hamster test, identified potential scientific uses for true hybrids, but if they do not, the HFEA would not then license their use, because that research would not be necessary or desirable enough and neither would the further test, that it is necessary to use embryos at all, be satisfied. It would be wrong to have a ban in primary legislation, however, because a non-ethically difficult use might come along in a few years’ time, and the House might then be required to pass new primary legislation. The onus is on hon. Members such as the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire to show why we should not give the HFEA the power to license such research if the appropriate requirements are met.

I was disappointed to hear the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes), who is not in his place and whom I genuinely respect for the clarity of his views, argue that there were no safeguards for saviour siblings. Common law provides significant safeguards for children regarding non-therapeutic acts such as the donation of bone marrow and other interventions. It is ridiculous to suggest that hospital ethics committees, doctors—who are subject to General Medical Council supervision—and common assault laws would allow the removal of body parts from living children, even without the Lords amendment that the Minister mentioned, which would prevent the use of saviour sibling legislation to presage the use of solid organs. There is no prospect of children’s bodies being raided for organs against their best interests, and there has never been any question of that happening. Children have always been able to donate tissue to siblings, and our having the ability to do tissue-typing in advance does not change that.

Hon. Members such as the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate have asked whether harm would be done to the saviour sibling. One can envisage circumstances in which a saviour sibling might ask, “What was the purpose of my being born?” but there is no evidence that that will happen. There is, however, clear evidence that if we do not allow these changes, small numbers of children—the siblings who are ill—would die. It is
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therefore appropriate to give the benefit of the doubt in favour of that clear evidence, and to proceed on that basis. I cannot see harm coming to a saviour sibling in a case such as that of the Whitakers, who were mentioned earlier. They ended up with two healthy children, but the alternative would have been that they ended up with none.

John Bercow: It is certainly true that my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes) envisaged harm to saviour siblings, but the harm that he envisaged was purely speculative. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that my hon. Friend was in danger of universalising from his sense of what would be favoured by his family? He is entitled to his view about what should apply to his family, but it is not clear why he should seek, on the basis of speculation, to prescribe for the rest of the nation in quite such a fashion.

Dr. Harris: Indeed. I agree with everything that the hon. Gentleman just said.

I move to the need for a father. I was, again, disappointed by comments on this issue. The hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale said, at the beginning of her speech, that she had nothing against lesbian parents, but at the end of it she attacked them for what I believe she called the “fantasy” of their parenting. It is offensive and discriminatory to use such terms.

The hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire made the assumption, in his otherwise very good speech, that we should start from that discriminatory hurdle, because it was not causing any trouble— [Interruption.] I hear “Nonsense” from those on the Conservative Front Bench, so let me put it in another way. In my view—I think that this is the Government’s view as well, and it should be the view of Parliament—discrimination against lesbian couples, such as making them jump over extra hurdles, is not justified by the evidence that we have heard about. That evidence comes from research into how well children do when they are born to lesbian parents and solo parents—women who specifically seek to become single parents. If that is the research finding, the onus is on people who want to put a discriminatory hurdle in the way of such people to justify doing so by showing that there is evidence of harm. It is not enough to say, “People can get treated if they go to enough clinics,” or that because no one has been willing to go through the publicity of a legal case, instead of getting on with their life, there has been no harm. We should start from the position that unjustified discrimination, such as placing extra hurdles before certain people, should not be allowed.

Finally, I want to deal with the question of the abortion time limit. It was asserted earlier that some babies are now surviving at 23 weeks, but a few also survived at 23 weeks in 1990. The point of viability is not the earliest point at which babies might survive when prematurely born, but the point at which a premature baby—a foetus—alive at the onset of labour would have a decent chance of surviving, without serious abnormality, independently of the woman’s body. In 1990, that point was set, on medical advice, at 24 weeks. The same medical advice that we trusted in 1990—we can read the debates to show that we did—shows that that has not changed, and that is why the abortion time limit should stay at 24 weeks.


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8.34 pm

Dr. Richard Taylor (Wyre Forest) (Ind): May I first record my support for the establishment of a bioethics committee, as has been suggested by the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) and many other hon. Members? Like other hon. Members, I have received a lot of letters on these issues. Many have been from those who are against the Bill, but I have also had some very strong ones from people asking me to vote in favour of it. I am not an up-to-date scientist; I bow to the views of the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris). I am speaking as a rather long-retired physician, with my knowledge of patients and of how some of the illnesses in question have affected them. I am speaking on behalf of the patient.

People know about the horrors of motor neurone disease. Although a person’s intellect remains intact, their body begins to fail around them. Their muscles can be the first to go, or their limbs, followed by swallowing and speaking. Gradually, they lose control of all bodily movements and functions, and eventually they cannot eat, talk or even breathe. This results in anguish for the patient and for their family. There are no effective treatments or cures, and it is even worse than cancer in that, because it is not a painful death, doctors cannot give analgesics to ease the end. It is truly awful, which is why so many motor neurone disease patients wish to die, and go to huge extremes to achieve a legal suicide. We must think of those people.

We have seen references to people with Parkinson’s disease in The Guardian today, and the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) also mentioned the condition earlier. It starts with tremor, stiffness and perhaps an immobile face, which can result in the patient beginning to lose their rapport with their friends. At first, drugs help, but the treatment becomes more and more complicated. The patient needs more and more drugs at more and more frequent intervals, and they eventually reach the terrible stage at which the side effects of the drugs, which they cannot get away from, are almost more terrible than the disease. Eventually, the poor patient becomes a total salivating wreck, with intellectual impairment thrown in.

Alzheimer’s disease was originally described as pre-senile dementia, but the description has now changed to cover senile dementia and atherosclerotic dementia. Its original description covered dementia that affected people who could still be in their 50s, which is unbelievably cruel for a spouse who might still have relatively young children. The family can be completely destroyed. The first thing that happens with any kind of dementia is that all the nice parts of a person’s personality go: their personal cleanliness and their recent memory, for example. Eventually, worst of all, they fail to recognise their best beloved. The effect on a family, particularly one with young children, is horrific. Those are just three of the illnesses for which, despite all the advances, we can do very little. So any research that could help, and that could possibly give patients and their families a gleam of hope, must be supported.

I respect all Christian views against the Bill, and we have heard from both extremes of the Christian spectrum. I think that there is, however, a middle view. I shall attempt to put forward—with great trepidation, as a lay person—the alternative Christian view, which I
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view as a middle-of-the-road Christian view. Those of us who attended the funeral of the late hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich, Mrs. Dunwoody, will remember this prayer:

Then there is the opening of the confession, addressed to “God of mercy”. Many of us believe in a God who is loving, gentle, compassionate and merciful. If that is the God we believe in, surely we also believe that he would want all efforts to be made to reduce suffering.

Returning from faith to fact, I wish to support the comments made about the use of blood from the umbilical cord. It is a completely wasted resource. The Anthony Nolan Trust, already referred to, estimates that 65,000 litres of cord blood are discarded every year. Cord blood is taken after the baby is born, so there is no risk to the baby. It is wasted, yet it can be an excellent source of stem cells. The Anthony Nolan Trust is asking for support because it has the opportunity to establish a cord blood bank that would have a much wider scope for collection and distribution of cord blood than does the current NHS cord blood bank.

To conclude, let me say a few words about abortion. Like other hon. Members, I cannot see how it has crept into this Bill. I just wish that it had not, because there is so much of relevance in the Bill that needs careful discussion that I do not think we have the time to debate abortion, which is a wholly separate issue.

If the main purpose is to reduce unwanted pregnancies, the Health Committee report into sexually transmitted illnesses of several years ago said categorically that sexual and relationship education in schools should be obligatory and Ofsted inspected. I have not been able to check it today, but I am pretty sure that the Minister who responded for the Government said that that aspect of education would indeed be so inspected. However, I do not think that it has been subject to such inspection yet.

Another practical and pragmatic point against dropping the limit from 24 weeks is, I am afraid, one of cost. If we ever reach the stage of debating the rationing of health care in the NHS—I think it is almost inevitable at some time—how would we balance the cost of looking after some of those very tiny premature babies that require intensive treatment for ages against the cost of treatment for cancers, blindness or the diseases that affect patients so badly later in life? I will certainly support Second Reading and I will be very interested to follow the debate on subsequent amendments. I regret that abortion has been brought into the Bill, as it is a matter that deserves attention separately.

8.44 pm

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): I am grateful to have an opportunity to take part in such an excellent debate, in which many viewpoints have been well put by many colleagues. No such debate takes place in isolation from scientific advance or ethical debate outside. I do not want to deal with the heavy aspects of individual parts of the Bill, each of which could take several hours, but to address what Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor was speaking about at the
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weekend, and what others have spoken about: the great pressure from those outside this place without a faith perspective to deny the validity of the views of those who do have faith and to deny them the opportunity to persuade others about their views. That is not a new phenomenon, but it has had renewed vigour in recent months and years. From well-known commentators to academics, that approach is presented not as an attack on free speech, which it is, but yet another step on the enlightenment path to make us happy, rational and free. It is not a challenge that Christians in the public square are prepared to duck.

Commentators in national newspapers have been forthright, not only on Christians’ right to speak on this issue, but generically about Christians in the public sphere—attacking their right to hold to faith or at least to propound it as part of their reasons to do something. Among the clamour when Tony Blair mentioned God in the famous “Parkinson” interview, the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) was quoted on the BBC website as saying that his remarks were “bizarre”, and warned against politicians making “references to deity” in public life.

Dr. Evan Harris: The hon. Gentleman kindly warned me that he would cite that, and he knows from our conversation that the quote is only partial. What I remember saying is that when talking about a decision to go to war in the middle east, which was controversial among religions, it was probably best for western leaders not to talk about being judged by God in the afterlife for that decision. That was just a word of advice; otherwise, I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman that people should have a right to give their view, from whatever perspective, in the public sphere.

Alistair Burt: I am grateful for the clarification. The hon. Gentleman will not be the first colleague not to have been entirely accurately represented by the BBC. I am also delighted that the honorary president of the National Secular Society now welcomes the opportunity for politicians in the public square to put forward a defence of their views based on faith.

When I cast my votes on embryo research, abortion or the concept of fatherhood, on what do my constituents expect me to base my view? Is it their opinions and views? Certainly. Is it evidence from different sources about the impact of legislation? Yes, of course. At some stage, I must, as we all must, choose between competing views. But what else do I base my views on? I have a Christian world view, which impacts on those issues. It is not much of a secret, either in this place or my constituency. I do not believe in an impersonal universe—one made up of random collections of matter and energy. I believe that there is a God. Among other things, I believe that his plan for his universe holds life to be dear and sacred. No other understanding of my world makes sense to me.

I also hold a view, deeply influenced by Jesus’s parable of the prodigal son, that God’s laws for us are not designed to punish, to hurt or to prevent good things happening, but to warn us away from things that do us harm, and to safeguard the creation that he loves.
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Modern society provides plenty of evidence of the truth of that. It is a positive interpretation of God that makes sense to millions.

My Christian tradition also tells me that God works with us to interpret and unveil his creation. We do so with trepidation and humility, recognising both our fallibility and the viewpoints of others, which we must respect. The hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Dr. Taylor) is entirely right: there is a moderate Christian view to be put. That view does respect others. There is also an obligation on us to handle the arguments carefully and not to over-sensationalise either the arguments or those who hold to a different view. In relation to medicine or physics, we do not know everything, but scientific revelation, in which many Christians are involved, uncovers more every day.

By combining my beliefs, my knowledge and the evaluation of what is new, I come to a conclusion about how I might vote in this place on the matters before us today. But I cannot see why my vote or opinion should carry less weight than those of others because it has a base of faith, nor why any reference that I should make to God in that context should be considered bizarre by anyone.

Just over a month ago, The Independent on Sunday launched an attack—or what constitutes an attack for The Independent on Sunday—on a group of 12 Members of Parliament of all parties for having in their offices interns from the Christian charity CARE. Beneath the emotive and misleading headline “Evangelicals fund MPs ahead of embryo vote” was an article that was equally distorting, trading on the ignorance of the public to suggest that our interns’ passes—the same as those held by 13,000 other people—gave them privileged access with which they could influence MPs, and that the position of some of the MPs mentioned in the article, such as mine in the Opposition Whips’ Office, would allow them to exert undue influence on colleagues. There was also the old chestnut that all this was based on what had happened in the United States and heralded the rise of the evangelical right—ironically, just as that influence is, quite properly in my view, in decline over there. That last point must have been especially galling to colleagues who may be further to the political left than me.

However, the heart of the attack, and my reason for raising it tonight, was contained in the paper’s leader column, and in a quotation from Richard Dawkins:


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