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When heterosexual people agonise long and hard and decide that adoption is not the right course for them or for the children, we support them through the physical and emotional trauma of fertility treatment and we rejoice with them when it is successful. But when single or gay people make that same difficult considered decision, we are suddenly surrounded by phrases like “children are accessories” and “nobody has the right to a child”. Of course nobody has the right to a child, but nothing in the Bill suggests that they do. All that is suggested is that people are given the same consideration as potential parents.

The noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, said the other day that legislators have to be utilitarian in the broadest sense of the word. She said:

We invite noble Lords to think about the consequences of removing the words set out. Under the 1990 Act, the HFEA is required to provide guidance. The current guidance states:

On Monday the noble Lord, Lord Winston, spoke movingly about the powerful emotion that leads people to want to have children, and the lengths to which they will go in desperation if they cannot. He talked about the fact that if people are refused fertility treatment they will go abroad, make private arrangements, or put themselves into the hands of unscrupulous practitioners. I suggest that in seeking to make the changes that noble Lords have indicated, we risk eliminating those single women and gay people who have taken a responsible attitude towards parenthood, who are willing to subject themselves to the intrusive questioning that is quite rightly conducted when people present themselves for this sort of treatment and who are the responsible parents we should be encouraging.

I noted the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill. Other countries such as New Zealand have taken a different approach and allow more than two people’s names to appear on birth certificates. I challenge those noble Lords who have said that they do not wish to be discriminatory but that they wish to see the recognition of fathers to consider that approach. Why? Because it is our role and duty, in this House of all places, to demonstrate to the outside world not only that we have mastered some of the most difficult scientific concepts—I was delighted when the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, confessed that she would not like to sit a test on it either—but that we are capable of going beyond pejorative headlines to understand such ever-increasing social complexity. Then, we will be able, just as others have tried along the way, to recapture the feeling that was abroad in 1978 that the world had changed, that knowledge had increased and that with the powers that are now open to us we have the ability to make that a force for good, for change and for the benefit of adults and all children.



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5.17 pm

Earl Howe: My Lords, we are almost at the end of a debate which, by any standards not least those of this House, has been one of remarkable quality. That fact is as it should be because, as almost every noble Lord has remarked, the matters before us in the Bill are of exceptional social and ethical importance. While the opinions expressed by noble Lords have been wide-ranging, we can all agree that as a House of Parliament we have been tasked with addressing issues of the utmost gravity, which the British public rightly expect us to examine forensically and with due sensitivity.

The phrase “from these Benches” is not one that I shall be using during the passage of the Bill. Any views that I may express will be my personal views and no more than that. The Conservative Party, deliberately, has taken no position on the matters in the Bill because, as with the 1990 Act, they are issues that should be left to individual parliamentarians to decide for themselves in a free vote. Therefore, but for the fact that it is the custom of the House to have an Opposition spokesman winding up, my presence at this Dispatch Box is not of significance.

This Bill has been long in gestation. It comes to us following a House of Commons Select Committee report in 2005, a public consultation, a government White Paper, a draft Bill, pre-legislative scrutiny of that Bill by a Joint Committee of both Houses and a government response to the Joint Committee’s report. By no stretch of the imagination therefore could this Bill be regarded as having been fashioned in haste. All that should give us reassurance but, at the same time, the history of the Bill is no reason for saying that what it contains is necessarily perfect. It is for Parliament as a whole to decide on its merits or failings. I have absolutely no doubt that we shall wish to debate every issue thoroughly and very often from first principles.

However, while the Bill may break important new ground, it is for all that an amending Bill. As such, it seeks to build on an inherited corpus of thought and public policy embodied in existing legislation. As has been said by many speakers, we owe much to the work done by the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, and her committee in the 1980s, which gave us much of the ethical and practical underpinning for our present regulatory regime. Perhaps the defining feature of that underpinning was the balance which the Warnock committee sought to strike between utilitarian considerations about treatment and research and strongly held, often absolutist, beliefs about the sanctity of life and the status of the human embryo. The balance was struck by acknowledging on the one hand the legitimacy of the medical and scientific case, but on the other hand insisting on a system of strict regulation, tight codes of practice, an outright prohibition on certain sorts of activity and the adoption of a gradualist ethical position on the status of the developing human embryo, based on science.

From this emerged the concept of the special ethical status of the human embryo—a concept that means, put at its simplest, that anything done in a laboratory with or to a human embryo may be done only for

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compelling and benign reasons, as defined in law, never frivolously, lightly or wantonly. This approach was adopted by Parliament in the 1990 Act and sought to reconcile as far as was possible two diametrically opposed camps. Full-scale consensus between the two camps was never going to be achievable. That is perhaps the first key point to make in the context of this debate. For Parliament there is no unequivocally right answer to the questions we are addressing, nor can we reasonably expect to do other than debate those questions within the broad framework of principles laid down by the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, and the 1990 Act. It is entirely possible that we will end up drawing lines in the sand that are substantively different from the lines currently drawn in the Bill; but those individuals who wish to see the entire structure of law in this area overturned—that is the manifest desire of many who have written to Members of this House in sometimes passionate terms—need to understand why we are not in that territory.

Having said all that, there is a troubling feature to the Bill, or rather, to Part 1 in particular. This point was made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans and by the noble Lord, Lord Brennan. The Bill lacks the equivalent of a Warnock report establishing the ethical values and evidence-based pointers that should guide Parliament and the regulator in these novel areas of decision-making. Perhaps the most obvious manifestation of this lacuna relates to the question of whether or not to legalise the creation of hybrid embryos. A number of witnesses to the Joint Committee regretted the fact that that question was made more difficult by the uncertain and vague ethical status of such hybrids. No group of informed men and women has yet sat down to form a considered view of these issues; and the Bill itself is silent about them. As the Joint Committee commented, the fact that the Government initially proposed one set of provisions for hybrid embryos and then another—each time expressing surprise that there could be any other viewpoint but theirs—only then to change their minds again, is a graphic illustration of how rudderless they were, and perhaps still are, on the issue. Perhaps the Minister thinks that that does not matter, provided that Parliament places a clear and unambiguous set of provisions in the Bill. Even if that is his position, I still believe that we owe it to the regulator to articulate a set of fundamental guiding principles that are relevant to the exercise of his discretion in making licensing decisions. That is perhaps a task which we can begin to tackle in Committee.

The provisions relating to hybrid embryos are perhaps the most controversial from an ethical perspective. Many people regard the very idea with revulsion and many have expressed outright hostility on religious grounds. I am sure that noble Lords have been right to say that those views are ones which we have a duty to respect. On the other hand, the reasons that researchers wish to create cytoplasmic hybrid embryos have been well rehearsed in this debate. They are essentially reasons of expediency and pragmatism in the cause of pursuing potentially beneficial science. Until now, the creation of interspecies embryos has been prohibited by law, with the sole exception of the hamster test to assess the performance of human

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sperm. The Joint Committee recommended that the matter be put to a free vote of both Houses, and I believe that that is what we should do.

We will debate these matters in Committee but, as we do so, we need to be careful about clarity of thought and language. It is surely not enough to say, as some do, that the mixing of human and animal genetic material is inherently degrading to humanity. What exactly do people mean by that? If researchers are to be denied by Parliament the freedom to conduct certain kinds of research, then parliamentarians, in turn, have a duty to define precisely the alleged harms to society that would ensue from such activity. The Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 already sanctions the mixing of human and animal genetic material. It is far from self-evident to me that the creation of a very few cells of a hybrid nature which would soon be destroyed would of itself degrade the human condition or engender disrespect for humanity among either scientists or society at large.

Nor can I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Alton, that the recent emergence of techniques which may one day make embryonic stem cell research unnecessary is reason enough now for Parliament to make embryonic stem cell research illegal. All the available scientific advice, including that from the MRC, is that, of the three possible routes to the applied use of stem cells, including the reprogramming of adult stem cells, there is no conclusive evidence which of them will ultimately prove the most effective. The noble Lords, Lord Patel and Lord Walton, re-emphasised that point. In my view, it would be highly premature for Parliament to close off one or more of those options. In any event, the regulator already has to be satisfied that the use of human embryos is necessary for the purposes of a given piece of research.

Many noble Lords spoke about the proposal to remove from the conditions of treatment licences the requirement that clinics must take account of the future child’s need for a father. I was particularly struck by the speech of my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern on this subject, as I was by the speeches of the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York and the noble Baroness, Lady Deech. Equally, this afternoon I was extremely impressed by the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis. Certainly, Parliament needs to be guided by the evidence; and there is some evidence that the presence of a second parent rather than the gender of that parent counts more in terms of a child’s welfare. At the same time, many of us are instinctively uncomfortable with the notion that the presence or absence of a father in a child’s life should be completely irrelevant to any assessment of its likely welfare. Again, I have no doubt that this is a matter which in Committee we shall wish to explore thoroughly.

Equally difficult are the questions surrounding the definition of parenthood where a child has been donor-conceived. The concept in the Bill of parenthood as a legal responsibility, rather than a biological relationship, is one that many find unacceptable. Personally I have yet to be persuaded that what the Bill proposes is misconceived. The laws around adoption already provide a model in this area. In the normal way, a child regards as his parents the people who nurture and bring him

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up. A different question arises, however, over a child's right to know about his or her genetic origins. At the moment, the Bill merely gives a child, when adult, the right to inquire about them. My noble friend Lord Jenkin of Roding was absolutely right: we need to ask whether that is enough. The issue of what information should be included on the birth certificate of a donor-conceived child is one about which the Joint Committee was considerably exercised; and I believe that in Committee we need to confront that issue.

Not all the other issues of importance in the Bill have been referred to in any detail: for example, the rules that should apply to saviour siblings—the noble Lord, Lord Alton, spoke about that— storage times for embryos and the difficult issue of the storage of gametes on behalf of someone lacking mental capacity. Our Committee deliberations will no doubt make up for that. For now, I think it is right for me to end on an upbeat note by congratulating the Government on bringing this Bill forward. Whether Parliament accepts it in its entirety is a question for the future. However, the Government can take credit for their assiduousness in shaping proposals, consulting on them, listening to views and bringing them forward in their final version for our consideration. That measured process bodes well for our deliberations, a process to which I, for one, look forward.

5.32 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Lord Darzi of Denham): My Lords, I take this opportunity to remind the House that I am a member of many royal colleges and the Academy of Medical Sciences. More important, I remain an active clinical scientist and I am a recipient of funding from research councils.

We have had a wide-ranging and extremely stimulating debate. We have heard some excellent speeches from all sides of the House. The issues raised demonstrate both the profound nature of the subject matter and the importance of proper scrutiny. We have seen a wide span of issues raised, including promising avenues of medical research and the welfare of children. As I have said previously, the United Kingdom has a good record of innovation and effective regulatory oversight, thanks in large measure to good parliamentary debates such as this. I shall do my best in the time available to answer as many as possible of the points that were made. I will not be able to do justice fully to all those issues in the space of one debate, but I am sure that there will be further in-depth discussions as the Bill progresses.

On the need for public debate, a number of noble Lords, including the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans and the noble Lord, Lord Hastings, raised concerns about the pace of change and the Government rushing ahead with the legislation. We also heard concerns from my noble friend Lord Winston that we are falling behind. Several noble Lords mentioned the great importance of informed public debate on these complex and emotive issues.

The Government agree that there should be a full public debate on complex ethical, moral and social issues, but we have tried to take as inclusive and as

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deliberative an approach as possible in our review of the legislation and the development of our proposal. As the noble Earl, Lord Howe, suggested, it is important that legislation keeps up with scientific advances and that the ethical implications are fully taken into account. The existing legislation is 17 years old and has served us well. It is, however, in need of updating and we have conducted a lengthy review process, resulting in the Bill before the House. There remains a general desire for a scheme of regulation with clear boundaries, but with a light touch.

The noble Lord, Lord Winston, raised important points about HFEA regulation, particularly the need for streamlined regulation of embryo research. The Government agree that it is important that research is not unduly delayed by the consideration of licence applications. The Bill gives the HFEA scope to introduce arrangements to enable licence applications to be dealt with more quickly. As the noble Lord indicated, these issues will no doubt be discussed in detail in Committee. On the filling of the vacant clinical academic chair previously held by my noble friend Lord Winston, I am sure that noble Lords will acknowledge that he is a mighty hard act to follow. Nevertheless, we will continue to strive to do so.

Many speakers have talked about how bioethical issues are considered and debated. The noble Lord, Lord Brennan, spoke powerfully in favour of an independent bioethics commission. The noble Baronesses, Lady Neuberger and Lady Hooper, among others, raised the idea of a parliamentary standing committee to consider these issues. The Government have considered the idea of an independent commission on several occasions and have expressed their view that the present system, whereby a number of bodies are able to consider and advise on various ethical issues, is preferable. The Joint Committee that scrutinised the Bill also found that it could not support the idea of a bioethics commission. However, the Government share its view on the value of debating bioethical issues and the benefits of addressing complex issues in Parliament. As I hope noble Lords will appreciate, however, whether to establish a standing bioethics committee of both Houses, or whether the current structure is preferable, is ultimately a matter for Parliament itself.

Beyond the domestic sphere, the noble Baronesses, Lady Williams and Lady Neuberger, asked about the Government’s position on attempts by the United Nations to ban reproductive cloning. The Government are prepared to support a worldwide ban on human reproductive cloning provided that it can be achieved without at the same time attempting to ban therapeutic cloning for legitimate research. Previous attempts at forming a UN resolution have foundered on this point. I say in response to the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, that the UK has not ratified the Council of Europe Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine. One problem is that that convention does not allow the creation of embryos for research and would therefore conflict with UK legislation.

On adult stems versus embryonic stem cell research, there has been a significant debate—particularly from the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Williams

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and Lady O’Cathain—around why we need to use embryonic stem cells in research when we can use adult stem cells. Several speakers referred to the work of Professor Wilmut, who has made a great contribution to stem cell research, which has also been eloquently described by my noble friend Lord Patel. He is, of course, right that all avenues of research should be explored.

Let me be clear: the Government wish to see research using all sources of stem cells, including adult, umbilical cord and embryonic stem cells. Stem cell research offers the potential to deliver numerous new treatments for diseases as diverse as Parkinsonism, diabetes and heart disease. It is far too early to know from where useful results will come. This position is supported by the published scientific findings and informs the legislation and the decision-making of the HFEA. The noble Baronesses, Lady Williams and Lady Barker, asked about the funding of adult stem cell research. From 2004-05 to 2005-06 the Medical Research Council provided funding of £14.7 million for adult stem cell research and £16.5 million for embryonic stem cell research.

Several noble Lords, including the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Newcastle and the noble Lord, Lord Elton, raised the issue of the creation of interspecies embryos for research. The 1990 Act provides a legislative framework for the regulation of research projects, including human embryos, in accordance with the legal limits. One of those limits is the prohibition of the mixing of human and animal gametes that could result in the creation of true hybrid embryos. Otherwise, the current legislation does not explicitly mention any form of interspecies embryo. The Government have sought to address that.

In the 2006 White Paper, following the development in the potential creation of interspecies embryos for research, the Government stated that the revised legislation would clarify the extent to which regulation would apply to embryos containing both human and animal material. The report of the Joint Committee that scrutinised the draft Bill very helpfully moved this debate forward. The committee recommended greater scope for discretion for the regulator and that the creation of a range of interspecies embryos, including true hybrid embryos, should be brought clearly within the regulator’s licensing remit. The Government have revised the Bill in order to put the proposal to Parliament for wider debate.

The Bill brings some interspecies embryos within the scope of the regulator where licences may permit their creation subject to the requirement that the project is necessary or desirable for the purposes described in legislation. Additionally, subsection (5)(e) in proposed new Section 4A contains a regulation-making power to extend the definition of interspecies embryos. This will provide future flexibility to ensure that the law keeps pace with technological developments. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, asked what the Government mean by interspecies embryos. The definitions in the Bill are intended to ensure that embryos at the human end of the spectrum of research involving the mixture of animal and human material are clearly within the HFEA regulatory remit. The

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Government have discussed the available approaches with representatives from a number of professional bodies, including the Academy of Medical Sciences, the Royal Society, the Medical Research Council and the Wellcome Trust.

On a more technical drafting point, the noble and learned Lord asked whether Clause 4(2) and Clause 3(2) are both needed. Clause 4(2) prevents any embryo other than a human embryo being implanted in a woman. This is to prevent animal embryos being implanted. Clause 3(2) limits the type of human embryo that can be implanted to a permitted embryo created by the fertilisation of a natural egg by natural sperm. The clauses prevent different things to make it clear that no animal embryo can be implanted in a woman and that only certain types of human embryos can be implanted.

Many speakers, including the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York and the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, have mentioned the child’s need for a father. I hope that I may be able to address some of the concerns through further explanation of the Government’s thinking. Many of the concerns raised appear to be motivated not by any practical effect that the clause may have in relation to assisted reproduction but by a general concern for the perceived signal or message that may be derived from its removal. I understand that concern.


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