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9.17 pm

Dr. John Pugh (Southport) (LD): Avoiding any controversy, may I begin with six unquestioned and unquestionable truths? First, it is uncertain whether important therapies will come from embryonic stem cell research. Secondly, if they come, it is probable that they are a long way off. Thirdly, no substantial therapies have so far come from embryonic stem cell research but, fourthly, many therapies have come from adult stem cell research. Fifthly, it is ultimately adult stem cell research—this point has not yet been made—that holds the key to mass-producing and industrialising the production of stem cells. Sixthly, adult stem cell research—cord blood use and so on—is morally problematic.

Despite all that, the research community wants to continue to extend the embryonic stem cell research programme, although clearly some in that community would give it up if it turned out to be futile and a dead end, or if such research proved to have no demonstrable advantage over adult stem cell research. Parliament is asked to extend the programme. At the meeting referred to by the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), Professor Colin Blakemore, a former head of the Medical Research Council, asked me to have faith. Why should we not? Well, the main, fundamental reason is the possible encouragement that the research gives to a casual attitude to, or a lack of respect for, human life.

The ethical position would have been so much easier in the middle ages, when an embryo was seen as unformed matter, but in the 21st century we know better. We know that every embryo is the blueprint of
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an individual and the code of a human life no different from ours. Of course, an embryo is not actually an individual, and we could argue that its destruction and its treatment do not matter—that it is mere human material. That has already been argued in this debate. However, that is not the view of the existing law. It requires good reasons for experimenting on, or tampering with, embryos. If that was not the case, we would be comfortable with embryos being used in cosmetics, foodstuffs and so on. We require good reasons, namely the hope of scientific advance or medical therapy. The potential risks and harms are set against the potential goods in a utilitarian fashion.

In the House of Lords, Baroness Warnock made it clear that this is a utilitarian debate. Utilitarianism seldom works, because people weigh risks and harms differently. But assuming it does, we are asked to consider the benefits of extending the research programme to allow cybrids—cloned admixed embryos—human-animal embryos, chimeras and transgenic beings. Arguably, although it has not been said in the debate, the Bill allows a loophole for human reproductive cloning. All these permissions are not quite subject to the 14-day rule or the no-implantation rule.

If one looks for a clear principle that explains the boundary between the permissible and the impermissible, one does not find it in the Bill. The real limit is the imagination and endeavour of the scientific community—the ad hoc, post hoc baptising of what decent scientists do, as opposed to rogue, usually foreign, scientists. There is no rule that can be provided to differentiate the two categories, other than the claims that the decent scientists have good ethical reasons, that their work may minimally advance understanding, and may, but not will in all probability, lead to therapy. What research programme, when one thinks about it, could not meet that standard? Perhaps that is why the HFEA has refused none hitherto.

If we have no clear idea what we want to rule out, we can have no clear idea what we want to rule in. We are a society in moral and intellectual confusion, and that is embodied in the debate, drawing ad hoc, post hoc temporary limits, and wrapping legislation round existing practice.

I take seriously the claim that embryonic stem cell research will be fundamental to the cure of Parkinson’s disease, motor neurone disease and so on. I am uncomfortable setting the gain to society of a reverence for human life against the clear pain and suffering of individuals with those terrible diseases, but I am not yet persuaded that extending the embryonic stem cell research programme is essential to a speedy cure of those terrible afflictions. I have been urged to have faith on the issue, but I would like to have my faith in this context based on rationality.

The case for cybrids, admixed embryos, is based not on a drive for better experiments, because animal mitochondria will be mixed in, which will be a problem, but on a drive for more experiments. Perhaps that work will produce a gain that cord blood, aborted gonads and adult stem cells cannot provide. Perhaps it will produce something to fill the gap, but perhaps not.

The case for extending human-animal hybrids is based not on existing research objectives but on the possibility
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that someone might have a research objective. The Royal Society says the provision may have been drafted because

and we must “future-proof” the legislation. Aside from the moral issues and the possible waste of time and money, I am genuinely at a loss to know what scientific research programme cannot be justified by saying

This is blank cheque legislation.

9.23 pm

Mark Simmonds (Boston and Skegness) (Con): This has been an excellent and stimulating debate, which has belied the concerns, rumours and accusations that the House could not cope with such complex issues. There have been contributions demonstrating real passion and real expertise. The contributions have been intelligent and well informed, particularly that of my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley), the shadow Secretary of State.

The Bill is evolutionary and thought provoking, but the debate has demonstrated the significant diversity and disparity of views in the House, reflecting the diversity and disparity of views outside, although not necessarily in the same proportion. I have enormous respect for those with ethical and moral reservations about the Bill. As one who is married to a south American Catholic, I understand how deeply and passionately held those views are. The comments that I am about to make from the Dispatch Box are therefore my personal views, not necessarily those of the entire party that I represent.

The 1990 Act has proved a robust piece of legislation. Credit for that must go to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) who, with his colleagues, piloted the Bill successfully through the House 18 years ago. The Act was also built on the excellent work of Baroness Warnock and her colleagues, whose ideas were its precursors. However, the 1990 Act should now be updated and reviewed, within an ethical framework, in the light of advances in science, medicine and technology.

As other Members have said, Britain is a world leader in reproductive stem cell technologies. We should be proud of that heritage and want Britain to remain at the forefront of such scientific research, in a clear ethical framework. Britain has flourished in the field, not only because of the skills of our scientists and our first-class facilities but because of the clearly defined regulatory environment, grounded on ethical platforms.

It is right that the complex issues involved should be carefully considered in Parliament and the country as a whole, and I welcome the national debate on many of the controversial and important issues. However, it is also right that Members should be able to vote with their consciences on these key moral issues. It was wrong of the Government to try to whip the Bill, as they originally intended, and it was wrong to whip the Bill in the other place. I am pleased that Conservative Members will have a free vote throughout the Bill’s passage.

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In answering interventions from my right hon. and learned Friends the Members for Rushcliffe and for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), both distinguished and experienced Members, the Secretary of State gave no decent response on why Government Members would not get a completely free vote, which the House had in 1990. I suspect that if the Secretary of State and the Minister had their way, this would be a completely free vote for Government Members.

There is a large number of controversial and complex aspects to the Bill and it is right that some of the votes should be on the Floor of the House; we Conservatives have been pressing for that. I am pleased that many more Members will have the opportunity to contribute to the debate. We believe that the programme motion is incorrect and that there should be longer debates, particularly on admix embryos. If we are to debate abortion as part of our discussion of the Bill, that should be for longer than three hours.

The debate on schedule 2, which contains provisions on not only saviour siblings, but such important issues as embryo selection, embryo research and, potentially, the issue of birth certificates, will all be taken in a three-hour period next Tuesday afternoon if the programme motion goes through. That will not allow anything like the time that should be allocated for such significant issues. We will have time to debate in detail the four different types of admix embryos, but there are significant differences between them. I will not go through them in detail now, but I want to highlight one or two key differences. Cytoplasmic embryos are a mix of only up to 0.1 per cent. of the genetic material. Transgenic embryos probably usually transmit only one gene—but not gametes, which are sex cells—into animal mitochondria. Human-animal chimera embryos are useful for understanding how stem cells develop into the different types of cells in our bodies.

However, the main issue during the debate on admix embryos will be the necessity or otherwise for true hybrids. Some hon. Members have said that they do not believe that there are disparities between the types of potential admix embryos, but there are. True hybrids are the only ones that are 50-50 and the only ones to merge the sex cells of animals and humans. We shall certainly table further amendments to enable further discussion on these important issues.

There is a shortage of eggs, a point rightly articulated by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow). However, it must be understood that the animal eggs are used only as a vessel to ensure an ample supply of eggs for research. My hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) and others have cited the work of Professor Yamanaka in Kyoto. Recently, I was fortunate enough to go to Kyoto university to discuss these issues with Professor Yamanaka’s team, which does not want embryonic stem cell research to cease. In fact, it needs to have a laboratory in California, which has a more permissive regulatory regime than Japan, in order to carry out embryonic stem cell research and continue its work on pluripotent cells. Let me quote what it said when I asked what would happen if embryonic stem cell research was not allowed: “We still need embryonic stem cells. If embryonic stem cells were not allowed we would be in trouble. Achievements here are based on former work done on embryonic stem cells.”

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These issues are not mutually exclusive. The development of induced pluripotent cells is an excellent advance, but the process is not without problems. Many scientists are concerned about the risk of telomere degeneration in induced pluripotent cells, as well as mitochondrial degeneration, damage from the virus used to stimulate reproduction, and the risk of reintroducing defective genes, culminating in potentially significant tumour growth—a point correctly made by the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon). I believe that all types of stem cell research—embryonic, adult and cord blood—must continue, as we do not know which, if any, will herald cures for some of the serious diseases that exist. However, I have reservations about true hybrids, to which we will return in Committee.

Hon. Members rightly raised the issue of saviour siblings and embryo selection. The Bill is absolutely right to outlaw sex selection for non-medical reasons. However, pre-implantation genetic diagnosis—PGD—will be permitted if there is a significant risk of a child developing a serious gender-related physical or mental disability, serious illness or other serious medical condition. It is not compulsory for parents with possible genetic illnesses to use PGD, and rightly they may not use it to select any positive characteristics. The Bill also permits the selection of embryos in order to provide compatible cord blood cells, bone marrow or other tissue to a sibling with a serious medical condition. Cells are taken from the umbilical cord of the saviour sibling, and, as a very last resort, bone marrow. It is clearly very controversial, but the creation of a saviour sibling already occurs, if only rarely: to date, the HFEA has licensed tissue- typing for only six families. It is, and should remain, a last resort. In that context, cord blood is known to be an excellent source of useful stem cells. As other hon. Members have pointed out, 98.5 per cent. of cord blood is currently thrown away. Retaining more would not entirely obviate the need for the creation of saviour siblings, but it would increase the chances of a match being found for a seriously ill child. I urge the Government to consider ways of increasing the amount of cord blood that is banked.

Let me turn my attention to the so-called “need for a father” clause. The important thing is the welfare of the child. The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) needs to be careful. We will have a great deal of debate throughout the passage of the Bill, and he must not assume that those who disagree with him start from a basis of prejudice—we do not. The Bill requires fertility clinics to take into account the need for a father when providing treatment. It is widely accepted that the clause has not stopped same-sex couples and single women facing barriers in accessing treatment, nor would it in future were it to remain. The hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith), who, sadly, is not in her place, rightly pointed out that there is no evidence to contradict this.

Dr. Evan Harris: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mark Simmonds: Not at the moment. The hon. Gentleman and I will have plenty of time to intervene on each other in the course of the Bill’s passage.

I strongly believe that children benefit from having role models of both sexes in their lives. Of course children can and do thrive being brought up in a
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loving, same-sex couple household or by a loving single parent—that is not in question. However, I would like clinics to have a duty to discuss with applicants for fertility services the differing perspectives that men and women can bring to life and the importance of both. The points made by some Members earlier about the social criteria that primary care trusts have for IVF treatment have no bearing on the Bill at all, although the inconsistency of those social criteria and their lack of transparency is creating real angst for many people. I know that the Minister is looking at that issue in great detail.

I was pleased to see that artificial gametes are to be outlawed by the Bill; it would be helpful if the Minister would confirm that. I was surprised to hear that the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) seemed to be in favour of artificial gametes. I recognise that they could lead to a therapy for those who, through illness or accident, can no longer produce sperm, but artificial gametes have inherent risks. Were that practice to be permitted, the stem cells of a man could theoretically be used to create a female ovum. The stem cells of a woman could be used to create male sperm, enabling same-sex couples to have children who are the genetic offspring of them both. One individual could have a child who is the genetic offspring of only themselves, which is not the same thing as cloning, but clearly is something that the House must prohibit. I am afraid that by prohibiting such research in the Bill, we will not stop it; it will just move elsewhere in the world.

There are serious issues in the Bill that are not the subject of a free vote for Labour Members, and I think that they should be—for example, the issue of complex mitochondrial diseases. The Bill includes the possibility of eradicating a number of serious genetic conditions that are inherited through mitochondria. By opening the door to mitochondrial replacement, the Bill could allow the nucleus of a mother’s egg to be transferred into an egg with healthy mitochondria and then fertilised. That will allow women who know that they are carrying serious genetic conditions in their mitochondria to have children without the risk of passing on those conditions to their offspring. That highly innovative area requires careful research and consideration. It could provide significant medical enhancement, but it does throw up difficult ethical and moral issues.

The issue of birth certificates was mentioned earlier. It is a highly complicated area and the Bill would allow for same-sex couples to be named on birth certificates, bringing legislation in line with heterosexual couples who have used donor sperm. As I understand it, that issue is covered by schedule 2, and if it is not debated during the three-hour period next Tuesday, we will not be allowed to debate it during the remaining Committee proceedings. Parliament has to decide and consider whether we believe that birth certificates should primarily be a record of one’s social origins or one’s biological origins, or indeed, whether a further compromise can be found.

Another controversial issue on which the Government are not allowing Labour Members a free vote is the storage of child embryos or gametes in existing cell lines. Two areas must be looked at, in the context that
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consent is the cornerstone of the Bill, which avoids the need to decide on the issue of property and create explicit property rights. First, we are concerned that in cases where a child suffers from a serious genetic illness that will prevent them from reaching adulthood, parents are unable to consent on behalf of the child to the storage of their eggs, gametes or cells to use for research into the child’s condition. If a child cannot live to the age of 18, it will be impossible to do research to enable other children who suffer from such diseases to survive beyond that period.

Secondly, some valuable work has been done creating stem cell lines, which could be lost if the Government do not amend the legislation to allow cells donated in the past to be used for embryonic stem cell research without additional consent from the donor. In some cases, the cells have been anonymous to such a degree that it would be impossible to contact the donor, and in other cases it may be impossible to locate the donor. The Minister in the other place agreed to consider those issues and return to the House and we await the Government’s decision with interest.

Complex issues surround the surrogacy laws. In England, surrogacy agreements have no legal force, so parents who wish to use surrogate mothers have to adopt or apply for a parental order, which involves a great deal of state intervention. Parents can be refused adoption orders even though the child is their genetic offspring. Children who are born to surrogate mothers abroad also face challenges. In some countries, as in the UK, a child will be regarded as the offspring of the surrogate mother, but in others—for example, the United States—the child will be considered that of the commissioning parents, potentially leaving a child stateless and parentless.

As the hon. Member for North Norfolk said, other significant issues surround the therapeutic use of embryonic stem cells. I am sure that we will revert to that in Committee.

There are no provisions in the Bill to allow the creation of embryos or derivation of embryonic stem cells to treat conditions other than those associated with reproduction. Clearly, that needs to be examined.

The measure is important and complex, and it stirs intense and passionate convictions, as we have heard today. The significant pre-legislative scrutiny and the debate in the other place has honed many arguments and already altered its architecture for the better.

The debate is ultimately about where hon. Members decide to position the fulcrum, taking into account the importance of scientific innovation and the ethical framework within which we wish to operate, while—most important—protecting the special status of the embryo.

9.41 pm

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Dawn Primarolo): The debate has been excellent and wide ranging, covering many significant matters in the Bill and some that are not currently in the measure.

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