Previous Section Index Home Page

22 Oct 2008 : Column 336

22 Oct 2008 : Column 337

22 Oct 2008 : Column 338

22 Oct 2008 : Column 339

Orders of the Day

Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill [ Lords]

As amended in the Public Bill Committee, considered.

Clause 3

Prohibitions in connection with embryos

2.34 pm

Dr. John Pugh (Southport) (LD): I beg to move amendment No. 49, page 3, line 26, after ‘transmission’, insert ‘via cytoplasm’.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment No. 41, page 3, line 26, at end insert—

‘(5A) Regulations made under subsection (5) may not provide for an egg or embryo whose nuclear genetic material has been altered by genetic modification, or whose nucleus has been replaced by the nucleus of a somatic cell, to be a permitted egg or a permitted embryo.

(5B) In this section, “genetic modification” includes the alteration of the nuclear genetic material of an egg or embryo by—

(a) recombinant nucleic acid techniques which change the DNA sequence of nuclear chromosomes of the egg or one or more cells of the embryo, or

(b) the introduction into the egg or into one or more cells of the embryo of a stably-maintained artificial chromosome, virus or plasmid.’.

Amendment No. 47, in clause 4, page 4, line 37, at end insert—

‘(f) an embryo created by combining pluripotent or totipotent human cells with amimal embryonic cells in which the latter have been altered so as to contain double the number of chromosomes, or in which the animal cells have been otherwise altered to become largely or entirely extra-embryonic tissue.’.

Amendment No. 50, in clause 68, page 53, line 19, at end insert—

‘(2A) This section shall be subject to section (prohibition on placing human gametes into an animal).’.

Amendment No. 73, in schedule 2, page 58, line 42, at end insert—

‘(4A) A licence under this paragraph may not authorise any activity the purpose of which is to develop techniques for creating a child by germ line genetic modification.

(4B) Regulations made by virtue of paragraph 3A(1)(c) may not provide for activities the purpose of which is to develop techniques for creating a child by germ line genetic modification.

(4C) For the purposes of this paragraph and paragraph 3A, “germ line genetic modification” means—

(a) altering the nuclear genetic material of an embryo, or of a gamete used to create an embryo, by—

(i) recombinant nucleic acid techniques which change the DNA sequence of nuclear chromosomes of one or more cells of the embryo or of the gamete, or

(ii) the introduction into one or more cells of the embryo or into the gamete of a stably-maintained artificial chromosome, virus or plasmid, and

(b) placing the embryo containing the genetic alteration in a woman, so that any resulting child could transmit the genetic alteration to its descendants.’.

22 Oct 2008 : Column 340

New clause 24— Prohibition on placing human gametes into an animal—

‘(1) The Secretary of State shall by regulations make it an offence to place any human gamete into an animal.

(2) Sections 3 and 4 of this Act shall not come into force until regulations under subsection (1) have been made.’.

Dr. Pugh: As sufficient brickbats have been handed out so far, may I put on record that this emotive Bill was dealt with courteously and considerately in Committee?

The big debate is about whether it is right to extend the range of experiments involving the human embryo that may be carried out. The alleged goal is the extension of scientific and medical knowledge that could alleviate human suffering, especially, but not exclusively, that of a generic origin. For some hon. Members, no possible reduction in suffering, improvement in maternity or growth of knowledge can justify what they regard as the violation of human life and the interference with normal human development. Their position is unqualified. For many hon. Members in the Chamber, however, this is a case of balancing hope and fear. On the one hand, there is the hope that some day, terrible inheritable and cellular diseases will be conquered, and on the other hand, there is the fear that an increasingly casual approach to human life will denature our society and create possibilities that we would not wish. That balance is being played out in nearly every Member’s head.

I suspect that we cannot know with any confidence whether those hopes or fears—or both—will be realised many years hence, so we all act on a kind of faith. Our position depends on whether we believe that the grounds for hope outweigh the grounds for fear, or vice versa. On Second Reading, that point was made most eloquently by the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman), who is not in the Chamber; he said that he was more fearful than hopeful. That is the heart of the debate.

Whatever one’s judgment on the main issue, my amendments Nos. 49 and 50 and new clause 24 do not affect it, because regardless of one’s take on the Bill—for or against—we know that it was never intended that the Bill would authorise human genetic engineering or reproductive cloning, even through it repeals the Human Reproductive Cloning Act 2001. Nor was it intended that the Bill would allow scope for genetic engineering or reproductive cloning. The humane intention behind the Bill is to allow women whose eggs are encased in cytoplasm with disease-carrying mitochondria to transfer those eggs into healthy cytoplasm and avoid inheritable disease. I am sure that we all wish to avoid the transmission of inheritable disease.

The key point is that the Bill says that an egg or embryo for which mitochondrial disease is addressed is a “permitted” egg or embryo. It is an unquestionable, but ignored, fact that some mitochondrial diseases result from deficiencies in the nucleus, rather than arising from the cytoplasm or the mitochondria. The manipulation of the nucleus is thus—subject to regulation, of course—unintentionally permitted. Several amendments in the group, including Nos. 49 and 41, would address that by simply closing the door, or drawing the line, and restricting the law to what was originally intended.

Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the vast majority of genes in the mitochondria look after mitochondrial proteins,
22 Oct 2008 : Column 341
which apply across the human race? They would not contribute to a person’s individuality, so he is exaggerating the problem of mitochondrial disease.

Dr. Pugh: To exaggerate a problem is still to identify that a problem exists, and I do not think that it was intended that the Bill would generate such a problem.

Hon. Members may think that amendment No. 41 is more comprehensive than amendment No. 49, which I tabled, but my amendment would put the Bill back on track. The amendment would mean that the Bill would do what hon. Members, whether they support or oppose it, thought that it actually did.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): May I offer my support for my hon. Friend’s amendment No. 49, which is at the head of the group that we are discussing? I have no doubt that the regulations in the clause would stop nuclear modification to prevent cytoplasmic disease, and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority would not, in any event, license such a procedure, but my hon. Friend is right: it is sensible for legislation to say what it means. There is no doubt that the Government mean the provision to deal only with cytoplasmic causes of mitochondrial disease in DNA. It is unfortunate that the Bill reaches us in this imperfect form, but my hon. Friend’s amendment would improve it.

Dr. Pugh: I thank my hon. Friend for that support. I see that we are in a holy, or perhaps unholy, alliance. We all have our views on the “slippery slope” argument, but slopes are certainly a lot more slippery if we do not examine carefully where we are treading and what exactly we are doing. Arguably, that is all my amendment seeks to do. We are talking about not an unintended consequence, but an unintended meaning to the Bill, which it behoves us to address.

Turning to new clause 24 and amendment No. 50, the legislation prohibits the placing of animal gametes or embryos in a human. My amendment mirrors that by banning the placing of human gametes in an animal for experimental purposes. Such an experimental procedure was carried out as recently as in 1984 in Australia. It, too, involved embryos. At the moment, such an act is covered, rather weakly, only by the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986.

Arguments against that simple, seemingly innocuous but important amendment are extraordinarily weak. They include the argument that so far, such experiments have been futile and uninformative—that is probably true—and the argument that scientists would not want to do such procedures anyway. The Department of Health argued that

but that is disputed by Professor Millar of the Medical Research Council.

Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley) (Lab): The Medical Research Council, the Association of Medical Research Charities, the Wellcome Trust and the Academy of Medical Sciences say that new clause 24 and amendment No. 49 would weaken invaluable research. What does the hon. Gentleman say to that?

22 Oct 2008 : Column 342

Dr. Pugh: I would really like instruction on what that “invaluable” research, conducted in such a bizarre way, would deliver.

Dr. Harris: As I understand it, some of the research that would be banned by my hon. Friend’s new clause involves looking at the development of human gametes in the context of animals. It is not about creating embryos; it is about studying the development of human gametes in vitro. That is what his new clause would cut across. I do not think that it is the sort of frightening research that some would say it is, and I do not think that he is justified to seek to ban it when it is already regulated in other ways.

Dr. Pugh: There is absolutely no reason that I can think of why such research should not be banned if people cannot state clearly the identifiable benefits that could be derived from it. That is quite apart from the question of whether humankind can be crossed with other primates—that, of course, is the scenario that most frightens people—and whether Stalin’s scientists’ dreams of creating a “humanzee” can be realised. That could all be science fiction.

I want to make two simple points. First, why should we legislators leave it to scientists to set limits on what is morally permissible? Scientists, bankers and MPs are all, in general, decent honourable folk. However, where there is an interest, I have limited faith in self-regulation for any of them. After all, in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990, we outlawed placing a human embryo in an animal.

Secondly, would it not be a sight as monstrous as any hybrid creation to see hon. Members shuffle through the Lobby to preserve the right of scientists to put human gametes in animals’ wombs? How would such an action be represented to their constituents? If hon. Members suggested and supported something that absurd and abhorrent, would not constituents think that hon. Members themselves had been transmuted into a flock of unreasoning sheep?

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): In many respects, I am pleased to follow the hon. Gentleman, because amendments Nos. 41 and 73, in my name and the names of a number of other hon. Members, are in the same vein. We wish to make it absolutely explicit, in the two amendments, that we are ruling out human genetic modification. I have always been pleased to try to do that in other areas, too. I have always been an opponent of the genetic modification of food, so it is unsurprising that I am an opponent of any attempt to allow it to happen to human beings.

2.45 pm

I would like to think that I have the support of the Government, and of my right hon. Friend the Minister in particular. On a number of occasions she has made it absolutely explicit that the Government have no intention of allowing genetic modification of human beings. I think that the argument is about how the Government say that. However, the legislation could imply—I put it no more strongly than that—something slightly different. Amendment No. 41 basically tries to clarify that the Government cannot allow themselves, or a subsequent Administration, to use secondary legislation to do what should really come within the purview of this House—to
22 Oct 2008 : Column 343
clarify by clearly stating in legislation what should and should not be allowed. Amendment No. 73 basically says that if we do not have agreement and do not want to specify outcomes, it is meaningless to permit scientists to experiment in this field.

Dr. Gibson: My hon. Friend may be confusing the issue. For example, if somebody has cystic fibrosis, it is possible now to attempt to introduce genes, by various mechanisms, into the lung cells to prevent what we call somatic disease. However, a disease could also pass into the gametes, and be passed on from the person who is being treated to their children, should they be fortunate enough to have children. It is then in the genetic line. Part of my brain can see why we ban such research at the moment, but another part says, “Perhaps one day we’ll get lucky.” In other words, perhaps we will be able to knock out genetic disabilities. Many genetic diseases—250 or 300 of them—could then be completely knocked out. We should not throw the baby out with the bath water.

Mr. Drew: I hear what my hon. Friend says, but we have to deal with what we are faced with today. The amendments are carefully phrased. We are looking at mitochondrial opportunities to deal with diseases that someone might carry, but the amendments would make it absolutely clear that that should not be done through human genetic modification. There is a dividing line, but I hope that the Government are clearly on my side, and that of other hon. Members.

I have written to my right hon. Friend the Minister on the subject; unfortunately, I have not had a reply. I refer to the letter sent by my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher), my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) and me. We wrote to the Government in the hope that the point would be clarified before Report, given that in Committee I tried to draw attention to what some of us saw as a particular problem. To refresh everyone’s memory, we are talking about proposed new section 3ZA to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990, which, to many of us, is the key part of the Bill before us. It goes to the essence of what human fertilisation and embryology is all about. Those of us who wish to shut down genetic modification will draw attention to any loophole that will result from the Bill becoming law.

As I said in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson), I have no problem with the Government’s aim of helping people with mitochondrial conditions. The problem is that proposed new section 3ZA(5) is so broadly worded that it would allow a future Government to permit absolutely any technique—including genetic modification or even reproductive cloning—to prevent transmission of mitochondrial conditions. We want the Government to respond to that issue.

We feel that the Government have to clarify their position, because although there is an opportunity for Parliament to scrutinise in respect of permitting any technique that requires the passing of regulations, that is not the same as primary legislation. Views will change, and as has just been said, matters may pass on. As the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) said, unless the legislation is clear from the outset, there will be the slippery slope about which some of us are very concerned.

22 Oct 2008 : Column 344

The Minister cannot have it both ways. If the Government are coming down against the genetic modification of children, that needs to be stated in the Bill and we should not need to go to secondary legislation. If that does not happen, the Government will effectively be supporting a loophole that would permit such modification to happen in due course. There is an argument that my amendment might interfere with the techniques for mitochondrial donation. However, according to people far more scientifically knowledgeable about these issues than I, there are other ways in which such donations can be made. From my philosophical point of view, those are very preferable to genetic modification.

I agree with the hon. Member for Southport. We have had a listening Government and open-minded discussions. What happened before is different, but to me that is a slightly different issue. I hope that the Government will respond. The problem is that if we do not get things right with amendment No. 41 at this stage, that will be the law, even if there is a subsequent attempt to provide more control through the regulatory process. Some of us are nervous about that, because attitudes change and 90 minutes—at best—is not a good length of time in which to discuss such huge philosophical issues.

Amendment No. 73 clearly links to amendment No. 41, and through it we are asking why the Government, if they wanted to will the end—not allowing genetic modification in respect of the creation of children—were not prepared to rule out the means. As it is currently constituted, the Bill will allow scientists to continue to experiment in this area. That is problematic for two reasons. First, this country is an outrider on this issue in the world, and certainly Europe. Many European countries have ruled out the process. I am quizzical about why, in saying that they want a degree of restrictiveness in this area, the Government have not signed the relevant convention. That has been discussed in Committee and on Second Reading. Even if we want to be at the front end of scientific progress, why are we out on our own? Some of us do not want to go to certain places.

If our view is that we wish to make genetic modification in respect of the creation of children illegal, shutting down scientific research on the issue would seem perfectly reasonable. If it is not shut down, scientists in this country or elsewhere will work on the issue. If we believe that science will eventually find answers, such scientists—whether mavericks or the most genuine members of the scientific community—will push through that door. We will then be faced with the dilemma of what to do with that research—sorry about the pun, but the genie will really be out of the bottle.

I have explained why amendment No. 73 is vital. It would not interfere with the basic research, because other forms of research dealing with all manner of genetic imperfections would be allowed to carry on. The problem is that unless we are clear that we are not encouraging research through genetic modification, somebody somewhere, if the legislation retains its current wording, will go on with it.

Next Section Index Home Page