House of Commons Debate on Genetics and Embryology: 1996. Plus ça change


House of Commons Debate on Genetics and Embryology: 1996. Plus ça change

Science Policy and Human Genetics HC Deb 19 July 1996 vol 281 cc1405-78

Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill) The hon. Member for East Kilbride (Mr. Ingram) said that it was unsatisfactory for us to link all these complex scientific questions in one debate and that it would have been better to have had a series of debates. I entirely agree. In some ways, the disjointed manner in which we have moved from one question to another illustrates that.

The hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Mrs. Lait) made some interesting points about the funding of science and I would love to be able to spend the rest of my time talking about that. Both the universities in Liverpool have projects that link well with the private sector and on which the two sectors work in partnership. However, I would not want to be over-reliant on that as a source of funding. That would be dangeros and we must not see that source of funding as a substitute for public funding of science, as I think the hon. Lady would agree.

In his usual way, the hon. Member for Motherwell, South (Dr. Bray) did the House a great service by linking scientific and ethical questions. I had the pleasure of working with him during his chairmanship of the all-party mental health group and I know of the diligence that he has always shown in all matters that he has attended to in the House. He has been one of the foremost spokesmen on scientific questions and we would all do well to listen carefully to what he has to say on these matters. In particular, I admire the way he reminds us not to fear science, to recognise its ability to achieve great advances, but also, that we must place the pursuit of science in the ethical context. He has pointed us in that direction and he is right to have done so.

The hon. Member for Pudsey (Sir G. Shaw), who has had to leave the Chamber, the hon. Member for Motherwell, South and other members of the Select Committee on Science and Technology have done the House a great service in producing their report. It is a shame that it has taken so long for us to have this debate, but we are having it today and Parliament is at its best when it considers intelligently and in some depth these complex moral and ethical questions.

I disagreed with the hon. Member for Pudsey when he was talking about genetic testing and mentioned the possibility of an organisation based on the model of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority—I think that the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye also mentioned it. For reasons which I will make clear, that is not a route which I would favour, and I do not suppose that many hon. Members will be too surprised by that.

The hon. Member for Pudsey also said that we must be concerned with abuses. It is not just the abuses, but the assumption on which the genetics debate is proceeding that we must turn to today. The Minister said that the questions are not legislative but ethical. To some extent that is true, but an umbilical cord links legislative and ethical questions. Legislation cannot be value-free or ethically neutral. A dirigiste or disinterested approach—marketplace genetics—simply would not do. We have to view the genetics debate in the context of where society is today. Just because something is scientifically possible that makes it desirable or right.

When a society loses respect for life and the components that are at life’s fountainhead, it loses everything. Public concern about civic dissolution, the lack of good stewardship of the environment, and about food production and animal welfare offer the ideal opportunity to reopen the bioethical debate and examine the implications of genetic manipulation. As a nation, we have a proper concern for animal welfare. Perhaps one day, when some transgenic pigs or foxes march to Westminster holding placards saying, “Save the human race” or “Save the unborn child”, we will realise the illogicality of the positions that we take. It may be through that opening that we will be able to touch a public nerve, rather than through some of the positions taken by America’s so-called moral majority. I find some of those positions odious.

Public concern about what we are doing to other species and our farming methods will radically alter the terms of the debates that we have been having on such questions in this country. In Britain, pigs weighing 55 stones—350 kg—have already been bred. Yes, they are certainly fatter, but they are arthritic and impotent. Commercially they have more value, but is that desirable? Human genes have been mixed with animal genes, producing more than 80,000 animals last year. Consumers have no idea what they are buying when they go to supermarkets. Chickens can be made to grow to their full size in 37 days, rather than 84. Cows that can yield 2,200 gallons of milk or 10,000 litres a year have been bred and can even produce human breast milk. Geeps, which are a combination of a goat and a sheep, have been bred. Brute force, mutilation and ruminants turned into carnivores: is it any wonder that the BSE crisis is upon us?

§ Dr. Bray There are dangers in allowing the debate about transgenic animals to get out of hand. We have a great many genes in common with fruit flies and, indeed, with every species that lives on the planet.

§ Mr. Alton Would the hon. Gentleman agree, however, that from the earliest times there have been injunctions on the mixing of species for good practical reasons? Although comparisons can certainly be made between genes of different stocks, we should weigh up the implications before we talk about the wholesale mixing of species. Existing agriculture and plant stocks are being eliminated as horticulture is displaced by genetically engineered plants. Ancient resistances and variations, which protected species, are being wiped out. New diseases and cancers in animals and people will escape this genie’s bottle. All this in the name of money and an insatiable desire to dabble in the grotesque.

Those of us who do not understand the minute intricacies of genetics are regarded as unable to understand the implications. On the basis of what we have already done, why should I have confidence in those who claim to understand? Scientists are supremely ignorant about where the DNA highway will terminate. We are expected to trust them in their ignorance. I do not and the British public should not trust them either. The calamity besetting British agriculture should act as a timely warning of the dangers that we face in giving carte blanche to geneticists.

Therapeutically, gene therapy is going nowhere, despite the debate today. It is like all the claims that have been made about embryology over the years. Where have all the destructive experiments on human embryos led? ‘To no scientific advances. I question the assumptions on which we accelerate a process that will lead only to an increase in the number of abortions. If no therapy is available, people will be led into the so-called area of choice. Choice is a word that is frequently used in the Select Committee report and it is a word which has already led to about 40 million abortions worldwide in the past 12 months. Abortion will be seen as a solution to the imperfections and problems which genetic testing will in due course highlight and which have been highlighted by other tests in the past.

When Pandora opened her famous box, the one thing left inside was hope. There has not been one single case of a cure: just hopes of cures. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Dr. Jones) intervened to point out the possibilities with cystic fibrosis. There is no hon. Member of the House who would not want progress in the cure of disability. I taught children with special needs before I came to the House and the last child I taught died four weeks after I arrived here. He was a little boy with cystic fibrosis and the pain and suffering that he lived with during the last two years of his life will remain with me always. But it is not our right and it is not even desirable to destroy the handicapped person. Yes, we should try to eliminate the handicap or disability, but if all that the testing leads to is a so-called choice of eradicating the disabled person, it takes us nowhere – and is ethically inadmissible. We will end up living in a world of perfection tests and quality controls—a world in which we use testing as the first part of a search and destroy mission.

The English writer Malcolm Muggeridge once remarked that in modern western society it had taken only 30 years for a crime against humanity to become an act of medical compassion. He was referring to the great shift that has taken place in our society whereby euthanasia and other forms of medical killing have come to be widely and vigorously championed. Beneath the distinctive issues of bioethics and genetics lie the deepest matters of our humanity.

§ Dr. Bray All members of the Select Committee well understand the importance of the sort of issue that the hon. Gentleman is raising. That is why we recommended that there should be a majority of lay people on the genetics commission. I certainly hope that they include people with views of the nature of the hon. Member’s. The Committee decided that it could not tackle these issues and that we would work within the framework of the law. Paragraph 88 of the report says: ‘If a test shows evidence of a genetic disorder and the parents decide on abortion, that is allowed under the present law and the decision should be respected. However, if parents decline the test, or decide to carry affected children to term, they should also be supported in their decision. Considerations of the costs a handicapped child may impose on the state should never be presented or taken into consideration when counselling is given and decisions are made.’

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§ Mr. Alton In the context of British law, although not natural law, I can see the hand of the hon. Gentleman in paragraph 88 because, in the context—

§ Mrs. Anne Campbell We all wrote it. It was unanimous.

§ Mr. Alton I assumed that it was the hon. Gentleman’s hand because, in the circumstances, it tried to reach the best possible position. I strongly welcome what the report says about not taking into account the costs of someone being a handicapped person when deciding whether he should be allowed to live, but the hon. Gentleman will know that, in paragraph 90, the Committee says: ‘providing a pre-natal screening test for a genetic defect, in the absence of any treatment for that defect, gives a signal that many people, at least, may consider the condition so serious it justifies termination of a pregnancy. If that is not the case, offering pre-natal screening is a waste of resources.’ That is the point to which I am addressing my remarks.

Although political correctness and the ethically neutral language of “choice” still dominate political debate, they are being increasingly discredited. Public opinion has gently been turning, increasingly uneasy with the relativism that has created a culture of death. Freedom for the pike is increasingly seen as death to the minnow and it is increasingly recognised as a false freedom.

Western liberal society, with its emphasis on individualism and choice, has created a consumerist and materialist culture that insists that, “If it is right for me, it is right per se.” It is summed up in the slogan, “My right to choose”, all murderously loaded words. Rights must always carry duties, responsibilities and obligations. The origin of the word “choice” comes from the same Greek derivative as the word “heresy”. It is a modern heresy to suggest that we can reduce every ethical and scientific question, especially crucial issues such as human genetics, to matters of individual choice.

G. K. Chesterton knew better when he wrote: ‘To admire mere choice is to refuse to choose.’ The choices are increasingly less about left and right than about right and wrong. As we survey the wreckage of our human ecology and widespread civic dissolution, more and more people question the assumptions on which we are proceeding.

Choices must be measured against consequences. Individual freedoms and rights without duties should be measured against responsibilities and civic duties. The flaccid language of rights and choice must be challenged at its heart. In the west of Ireland, where my mother comes from, people have a saying that, “It is in the shelter of each other’s lives that the people live.” The rampant march towards individualism that has disfigured this nation in the past 20 years is the antithesis of that. The language of choice, which after all was the language of Thatcherism and marketplace economics, should not be applied to the sanctity of human life. That is at the heart of what I am challenging today.