David Alton’s Universe Column on the report of the House of Lords Select Committee on Stem Cell Research – March 2002

Last week, the House of Lords Select Committee on Stem Cell Research, chaired by the Anglican Bishop of Oxford, gave the go ahead to experiments on cloned human embryos and ‘spare’ embryos left over from IVF procedures.

Its conclusions came as little surprise to those of us who questioned the wisdom of appointing a retrospective Select Committee to look into cloning and stem cell research after Parliament had approved hastily prepared and ill-conceived Regulations authorising such research. There is little point in wasting months of parliamentary time going through the motions of an inquiry when the conclusion was fixed at the outset. The process only adds to the general contempt in which Parliament is held.

No one who spoke in Parliament against the use of human embryos in destructive research was appointed to this one sided inquiry. The Committee’s chairman, the Bishop of Oxford, had spoken publicly in favour of embryo experimentation and so-called therapeutic cloning, and as a leader in the Anglican Church, helped to clothe the Committee with the cloak of ethical respectability. Although the Committee did receive oral evidence from scientists working on adult stem cells, such scientists either represented bodies that supported ‘therapeutic’ cloning or had declared their personal support. No scientists devoted exclusively to research on adult stem cells and opposed to embryo experimentation were invited to submit oral evidence. This makes a mockery of the Committee’s claim to have given more attention to recent developments in adult stem cell research than to any other. Furthermore, the “impartial” scientific advisor to the Committee who guided them in their deliberations is himself leading pro-cloning protonist and practitioner and a professional colleague of one of the leading proponents of destructive embryo experimentation, Lord Robert Winston.

The Daily Telegraph concluded that the Committee has left itself open to the charge that it “did not approach this issue with a genuinely open mind” and the London Evening Standard lamented its failure to explore “all the alternatives before proceeding with this emotive ethical precedent”. The general feeling of contempt and cynicism about this whole risible process is inescapable.

Yet the Committee’s report exposes the inflated claims of the Government and its pro-cloning allies. It acknowledges that over the next few years most studies on embryonic stem cells will involve “basic research” which “will not in itself be therapeutic”. According to the Committee it could be anything from five to twenty five years before we see the introduction of effective stem cell based therapies. The ‘hit and miss’ nature of this “basic research” will involve the manufacture, cannibalisation and destruction of human embryos. This hardly demonstrates the “respect” for the human embryo which the Committee is so keen to convince us it wishes to promote, particularly when adult stem cells are demonstrating their superiority in providing effective stem cell based therapies. Why else would 3 out of every 4 dollars of private investment in the USA be going into adult stem cell research and technology?

The chronology of the Committee’s report is seriously askew. After concluding that destructive research using cloned human embryos and ‘spare’ IVF embryos should be allowed to proceed, we are then lectured on the ethical status of the human embryo. Notwithstanding the inadequacy of the Committee’s analysis, this back to front approach is analogous to giving a person the authorisation to steal a car and then lecturing him on the ethics of theft. It only reinforces the feeling that the Committee’s conclusions were fixed from the outset and that tricky questions of ethics would not be allowed to frustrate matters.

Finally, perhaps one of the saddest aspects of this whole affair is the considerable damage caused to ecumenical relations. Observing the press conference at which the Committee’s report was published, one would have been forgiven for concluding that the report was a Church of England document. There you had the Bishop of Oxford addressing the media, accompanied by his press secretary, also a cleric. If, as the Financial Times and other newspapers have reported, it is true that “mainstream Church of England opinion supports human embryo and cloning research”, then a vast gulf will have opened up between it and the Catholic Church. Alternatively, if this is not true then, as Christians, we have much to do to convince our society to uphold the sanctity of human life.

Either way, as Catholics we must continue to demonstrate that the pursuit of scientific excellence does not have to involve the destruction of early human life.

Making a Killing from Human Clones

Universe Column

By David Alton

Spurred on by vested interests every bit as powerful as those involved in the Enron-Arthur Anderson scandal,  the pressure to permit the cloning of human embryos continues unabated.  The battle has been waged in the Courts and in Parliament in a Select Committee whose report is imminent. The debate in the media has often been distorted by one-sided documentaries.

The biotec industry has poured money into political funds, wooed politicians, including Government Ministers, and seen its share prices rise as it secured political approval for experiments and possible treatments using cloned human embryos. Huge financial interests are at stake and vast profits will be made.  In every respect they have been out to make a killing.

The Select Committee contained no one who had spoken in the debate against cloning.  No Government Minister was called to appear before the Committee and there was no investigation into the commercial influences. Despite this, some members showed great  integrity and  independence of character in challenging the prevailing mood.

Nor are they alone.

Just before Christmas The New Scientist (ital) said, “creating human clones for no good reason is wrong.” They added: “Like stuck records, ministers and policy makers continue to enthuse about therapeutic cloning even though the majority of bench scientists no longer think it’s possible or practicable to treat patients with cells derived from cloned embryos. They have already moved on to investigating the alternatives.”

The United States the House of Representatives has voted to make any form of human cloning a criminal offence punishable by a $1 million fine and up to 10 years in prison. The European Parliament has banned any funding of scientists involved in human cloning.

Many of us believe cloning is wrong because human life should be protected from the moment of fertilisation.

But new breakthroughs using stem cells have been derived from adult bone marrow that, in addition to growing indefinitely in culture, can apparently transform into any tissue type, renders the use of embryonic stem cells completely unnecessary.

People suffering from degenerative diseases – like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s – have been tantalised with propaganda telling them that the only hope for curing their disease is to manufacture cloned human embryos.  Since 1990 half a million human embryos have been destroyed or experimented upon – yet not one single cure has been developed.  Paradoxically, a cure is now firmly on the horizon, and it will be reached without the destruction of embryos. A cure without making a killing.  Cells from the patient’s own body could one day be turned into all sorts of perfectly matched replacement tissues and even livers and hearts.

These adult stem cells don’t suffer from the tumours and runaway mutations that have blighted developments with embryos.  Two other laboratories have found similar results in adult mice, and experiments are also underway using human skin and muscle cells.

For years the biotech cloning lobby has insisted that only stem cells derived by destroying human embryos could provide effective treatments for degenerative diseases. That is now exposed as a lie.

But we also know that cloning is dangerous.

Dolly the sheep, the world’s first cloned mammal, has yet more health problems. Dolly was the only survivor of 277 embryos.  Most cloned animals suffer from multiple malformed organs, are often dangerously overweight and have high death rates for both newborn clones and for those female animals carrying clones.  Now we also know, in Dolly’s case, that she is ageing prematurely.  Although shocking to see these animals suffer in this way, what irresponsibility would lead us to do the same to humans?

The Raelian Cult and cloning

Universe Column

By David Alton

In April 1999 I won a place in a parliamentary ballot. This enabled me to choose the subject for debate. I used it to question the surreptitious manner in which human cloning was becoming a reality without any proper parliamentary or public debate.

In the ensuing House of Lords argument, and during the subsequent battles, the great and the good of the scientific and philosophical fraternities united to pour scorn on the contention that so-called therapeutic cloning was the bridge across which full scale reproductive cloning would march. The claims by the Raelian Cult that they have, indeed, achieved this goal (whether true or not) simply underlines how quickly the unthinkable becomes the norm, the accepted.

The timing of the Raelian announcement, over Christmastide, was illustrative of the darker forces at work within this debate. The parody of the birth of the new Adam in the Bethlehem stable by the creation in the laboratory of the cloned Eve, as the baby is to be called, is obvious.

For the Catholic, hearing this announcement, on the vigil of the slaughter of the holy innocents, it merely underlined the cyclical nature of the battles between good and evil. Once again Rachel will be heard weeping over the loss of innocent life.

Inevitably on hand to assure us that such a development should not be greeted with alarm were the usual suspects:  an advisor to the British Government and the former Episcopalian Scottish Primate, Dr. Richard Holloway.

Professor Sheila McLean, a senior ethical adviser to the Blair government, said that cloning could be morally justified and called for a worldwide debate on the issue. Professor McLean, of Glasgow University, said that reaction to the human cloning announcement had been dominated by knee-jerk opposition on religious grounds and that there had been no “convincing argument against reproductive cloning”.  We should not be surprised by the willingness to accept this latest attack on the sanctity of human life. It is all of a piece.

The first harbinger of the acceptability of reproductive cloning came as usual from Baroness Mary Warnock. Over the past 18 years she has always provided philosophical ballast for those intent on embryo experimentation.

Having previously opposed human cloning she moved the goal posts yet again by pronouncing that there might well be circumstances in which reproductive cloning should be permitted. This was while her many allies in Parliament – including Richard Harries, the Anglican Bishop of Oxford – were continuing to argue that a little bit of cloning – “therapeutic cloning” – was alright, but reproductive cloning was thoroughly reprehensible, and one wouldn’t lead to the other. The great and the good would be on hand to prevent it from happening.

In virtually her next breath, Lady Warnock then prepared her friends to abandon the 1990 sophistry about embryos enjoying “special status” and “respect.”  She said this was not possible if you were going to flush them down the drain.

Endearingly honest though this is, doesn’t it graphically illustrate how the previously unthinkable has occurred. Since her 1990 report nearly a million human embryos have been destroyed or experimented upon, with only 4% seeing the light of day. In saying that it is impossible to equate this destruction with high-sounding phrases like “special status” and “respect” we are at least agreed.

And doesn’t it also demonstrate conclusively that these anti-life positions follow logically one from another? Abortion has led to embryo experimentation and this has led to cloning. The much-maligned Catholic Church has often been alone in speaking against the systematic destruction and commodification of life.

And as these latest developments have unfolded I for one have thanked God it has done so.

Consultation on Sex Selection

Universe Column

By David Alton

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) has launched yet another public consultation. This one is entitled “Sex Selection: Choice and Responsibility in Human Reproduction” and examines the sex selection of babies for non-medical or social reasons.

The last public consultation on sex selection was held in 1993. Sex selection for social reasons was firmly rejected. Why we are being consulted on this subject again? Like the recent Irish referendum, if the establishment don’t like the answer you give the first time they’ll keep coming back until you agree with them.  The thought police are hoping that the public will give their approval this time.

Sex selection using preconception sperm sorting, although not currently as reliable as pre-implantation testing, avoids embryo creation and destruction.  However, whilst the creation and destruction of embryos is subject to regulatory control under the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, preconception techniques are not subject to any control. If they were to be regulated, this would therefore require an extension of present legislation.

The official line is that this consultation was launched at the initiative of the Department of Health. Can it really be the case that the Health Secretary Alan Milburn and his officials, with all the pressing problems of the NHS, woke up one morning and suddenly thought to themselves, “We must have a consultation on the application of the new reproductive technologies for sex selection”?

Rather, it is the discredited HFEA that is the catalyst for this consultation as it seeks to expand its power and influence over the new reproductive technologies. The commodification of human reproduction continues apace, fuelled by the eugenic and utilitarian philosophies of the HFEA. These are betrayed in the questionnaire at the end of the consultation document when respondents are asked to identify themselves in a category entitled “pro-life” – no doubt for ease of processing responses (into the bin). There is no corresponding category entitled “pro-death”.

The consultation document says that the purpose of the consultation is to “seek the views of the public concerning under what circumstances sex selection should be available to those seeking treatment and whether any new legal provisions should be put in place to regulate it”.  Hasn’t the HFEA jumped the gun here? Surely the purpose of the consultation in the first instance should be to ascertain whether or not the public considers it ever appropriate to authorise sex selection for social reasons.

No doubt we will be assured that the practice of “family balancing” will not be employed in the UK for frivolous reasons, just as we were told that the Abortion Act would not lead to abortion on demand. I shudder to think what impact this latest British export will have in societies like China and India where a preference for boys over girls is already creating severe social imbalances. Newly released statistics show that the imbalance between girls and boys in India is getting worse. Among Indian children under six, there are now only 927 girls for every 1,000 boys, while in New Delhi itself the situation is even worse with only 865 girls for every 1,000 boys under six!

Is it too much to hope that the Women’s Movement might see where this gender-loaded and gender-driven agenda is taking us?  Probably. But you can do something. Put pen to paper and write to the HFEA and to your MP rejecting the use of sex selection techniques for social reasons.

Live birth cloning

Universe Column for January 4th 2004

By David Alton

Just before Christmas I took part in a rather scary Conference on human cloning. It was scary because also on the platform was a representative of Cloneaid – whose representive could see no ethical objection to cloning for live births. In the face of worldwide opposition she claims that she and her colleagues have already cloned babies and intend to clone more. There simply could be no meeting of minds between us because there was no common ground. Not only does the pro-cloning lobby seem completely disinterested in the ethical arguments and international opinion it also seems oblivious to the huge risks to public health.

It is clear from current scientific evidence that the vast majority of cloned babies would die in the womb, and the few that developed to birth would be likely to die within a few days, or would be severely handicapped, or would die early. The most famous animal cloner is Professor Wilmut, who is best known for the creation of ‘Dolly’ the sheep. In a recent article in “Nature Reviews Genetics”, he says: “Our experience with other mammals shows us that any attempts at cloning humans are inherently unsafe at present. On these grounds alone, scientists should not condone human reproductive cloning, even without taking into account the equally important ethical and moral issues.”

Another article, in “New Scientist” paints a graphic picture of the fate of cloned animals that do survive to birth: “Abnormalities in those surviving to term frequently include oversized hearts and lungs, enlarged tongues, squashed faces, poorly functioning kidneys, intestinal blockages, immune deficiencies, diabetes, shortened tendons causing feet to twist into useless curves, a remarkable degree of obesity and impaired intelligence.” However, in many cases, even severe abnormalities in reproductive cloning may be undetectable until the animal dies unexpectedly. An animal which is apparently completely healthy one day, may die the next. Scientiests say that foetuses that look robust at 60 days may die at 61; that a clone that dies after five days of life can have normal chromosomes and genes while still in the womb. Cloned animals that survive longer than a few days can still die at a young age. For example, in one study it was found that many cloned mice died early owing to severe lung disease, tumours and liver necrosis. Professors Wilmut and his colleague Professor Jaenisch state, “There is no reason to believe that the outcomes of attempted human cloning will be any different…if human cloning is attempted, those embryos that do not die early may live to become abnormal children and adults; both are troubling outcomes.”

Some have claimed that it would be possible to screen out abnormal embryos and not to implant them. Apart from this being the practice of eugenics, Professor Ian Wilmut states clearly that it is not possible currently to reliably predict which cloned embryos are “safe”, because current screening techniques using pre-implantation diagnosis only check specific genetic abnormalities, whereas cloned embryos have profound abnormalities as well as genetic defects. Even if abnormalities were examined, it would be impossible to carry out adequate checks because (a) abnormalities in cloned embryos have been found to be different from cell to cell. Therefore testing individual cells would not give an indication of whether other cells in the embryo were normal or not; and (b) it would require knowledge of the potential adverse epigenetic effects, which is currently not possible. Professor Wilmut and Professor Jaenish graphically spell out the dangers: “We believe that attempts to clone human beings at a time when the scientific issues of nuclear cloning have not been clarified, are dangerous and irresponsible. There is also considerable evidence about the dangers to public health if human embryos created for the purpose of experimental cloning are then used in treatments and therapies.

Even proponents of embryo experimentation, such as Lord Winston, have admitted that freezing embryos increases the risk of disability when the embryos are used for fertility treatments. As we tread warily into another year shouldn’t all of this make us at least pause for thought? Not if the people from Cloneaid have their way.

Debate on Cloning

Text of a speech given during the debate on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology (Research Purposes) Regulations 2000.

For the full text of the debate, click here.

22nd January 2001

Lord Alton of Liverpool rose to move, as an amendment to the Motion to approve the draft regulations, to leave out all the words after “That” and insert “this House declines to approve the draft regulations laid before the House on 12th December until a Select Committee of the House of Lords has reported on the issues connected with human cloning and stem cell research”.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the fact that more than 40 Members of your Lordships’ House have sought to speak in today’s debate underlines, as the Minister has said, the momentous and awesome nature of the decisions that we are invited to address. My principal concerns fall into four areas: constitutional, legal, scientific, and ethical.

Before turning to those concerns I want to speak about the amendment that is before the House. Over the weekend it has been suggested that it may not be legitimate to bring forward such an amendment, but the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, said in a debate on subordinate legislation that the House,

“has an unfettered right to vote on any subordinate legislation submitted for its consideration”.–[Official Report, 20/10/94; col. 364]

The amendments before us–in favour of a Select Committee report before we reach a decision on this matter or a retrospective Select Committee report–show that we have made some progress over the past seven days in our thinking on this important issue. At least there is now an acceptance that there should be a Select Committee to consider these matters. I am grateful to the Minister for what he has said to the House today.

Before Christmas, when I tabled my amendment suggesting that such a Select Committee should meet, I discussed the matter with my noble friend Lord Walton of Detchant–I always enjoy a conversation with him–who said that there is no need for a Select Committee and that we should agree with them forthwith. So I regard the fact that the Minister has said that the Government will accept the principle of a Select Committee as progress.

The next matter to decide is whether there should be a retrospective Select Committee. Imagine a court of law where the judge gave out the verdict and sentence before hearing the defence, the prosecution and the witnesses. Such a process would be held up to ridicule. I believe that if a Select Committee were to meet after we have agreed to these regulations, we should be in danger of dealing with such a momentous issue in quite the wrong way.

Another point on the amendments is that when the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, looked at the future of this House and its deliberations, he reported on the issue of statutory instruments. He envisaged the possibility of disagreement between this place and another place. In Chapter 7 of his report, on page 77, he said that where such a disagreement occurs, there should be a three-month period for reflection.

A Select Committee of your Lordships’ House could be required to report within a three-month period. It could place its proposals before the House after which it would be perfectly possible for the Government to relay their regulations, possibly amended, to another place. All that would then be required would be a one-and-a-half-hour debate in a committee and not even on the Floor of the House. That is the point on the amendments before us today: whether to have a Select Committee now or after we have taken a decision on the regulations.

I turn to the common ground before I speak on the four areas that I have mentioned. It is worth stating that every noble Lord wants to see progress made in combating the degenerative diseases to which the Minister has referred. No one here is in favour of unnecessary pain or unnecessary suffering. Overwhelmingly, your Lordships will deplore anything that smacks of eugenics or of germ-line gene therapy. All noble Lords will want to see good science and good ethics marching hand in hand.

Observers of this House should note that this debate is being held with reference to our best traditions, with respect being shown for each other’s deeply held beliefs and differences.

I have said that the arguments for prudence and caution fall into four categories: constitutional, legal, scientific and ethical. I shall speak to those subjects in turn. Over the life of this Parliament many of us have questioned the way in which the Government have dealt with legislation. This is another such instance. It is wholly inappropriate to use unamendable regulations to deal with an issue of this importance. The Government have indicated to us today, as they did in another place, that ultimately they will introduce a Bill to outlaw reproductive cloning. I welcome that. But why not wait to deal with therapeutic cloning at the same time in a Bill that will be open to amendments?

Under Section 19 of the Human Rights Act 1998, the Government are required to produce a compatibility statement on the face of a Bill stating that there is no conflict with European law. If we were debating a Bill rather than regulations the Government simply would not be able to do that–certainly not if they are serious about our intentions to sign the European Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine, which under Article 18.2 prohibits therapeutic cloning outright. Hence we have regulations rather than primary legislation.

In parenthesis, I add that this is a curiously convoluted world in which we can find parliamentary time for a Bill that protects foxes but we cannot find time for a Bill that will lead to the manufacture and elimination of countless human embryos.

Regulations of this kind also dispense with the dreary business of detailed scrutiny, transparency and proper parliamentary opposition. In another place Members were at least given the opportunity for two preliminary debates of five hours each before a vote was taken. Even that poor substitute for Committee and Report stages has not taken place in this House.

The danger of dispensing with due process is that democracy will be brought into disrepute and that public cynicism about our institutions will simply be deepened. That is why, along with noble Lords with whom I differ on the status of the human embryo, such as my noble friend Lady Warnock and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford, we have offered an alternative today that will allow for sober reflection and for proper debate, being agreed that this issue should not be dealt with in this manner. Indeed, in a recent interview, my noble friend said that such matters should not be shovelled through Parliament. I agree with her.

In a landmark report to your Lordships’ House, the Science and Technology Committee stated that post-BSE and after the saga of genetic crops, science is facing an emerging crisis of confidence in Britain. The committee said:

“many are deeply uneasy about the huge opportunities presented by areas of science including biotechnology and information technology, which seem to be advancing far ahead of their awareness and assent. In turn, public unease, mistrust and outright hostility are breeding a climate of deep anxiety among scientists themselves … Science’s relationship with United Kingdom society is under strain”.

It is hard to see how the use of unamendable regulations will lessen that strain or combat the hostility and mistrust identified by the Science and Technology Committee.

I have one other observation about the constitutional process. In this country there is a fine and honourable tradition of holding free votes on issues of conscience. Outsiders have an expectation that this House will examine issues in a less partisan and more reflective manner. During my 18 years in another place–many noble Lords have longer first-hand experience–I cannot recall such active involvement by a government department in lobbying on one side of the argument. For instance, when the Department of Health was asked to allow Professor Neil Scolding, Burden Professor of Clinical Neuroscience at Frenchay Hospital, Bristol, to speak at the meeting which the department organised in your Lordships’ House, it declined to let him put the case against the use of embryonic stem cells or to accept any other opposing speaker. That does nothing for intelligent or tolerant debate and does nothing for free speech or for the handling of these conscience issues.

I would therefore put in a plea that beyond today’s debate and the reasonable right of a Minister to come to your Lordships’ House and address us in a forthright and lucid manner, as the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, has properly done today, departments should behave with impeccable neutrality in “free vote” matters.

So much for the constitutional issues at stake. As I said, there are legal issues, too, and the regulations raise important questions of law. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Rawlinson of Ewell, former Attorney-General, and the noble Lord, Lord Brennan, will address those matters in more detail. Suffice it to say, the High Court will receive an application for judicial review on Friday next seeking to test the Government’s response to the Donaldson report. The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, has drawn attention to that in the amendment which she has tabled and she has kindly said that she will support my amendment tonight.

One of the issues addressed by that case is the potential for these regulations to pave the way for reproductive cloning, even if that may happen inadvertently. The Government say that they are opposed to that development and today the Minister said–I agree with him–that we should all feel a sense of repugnance about such a proposal. If that case is upheld, this debate is being considered on an entirely false premise.

In a parliamentary reply on 8th January, the Minister stated that on 13th December last the European Parliament voted to set up a temporary committee on human genetics and other new technologies in modern medicine. The European Parliament, together with the Council of Europe, has already voted in favour of a total ban on all forms of therapeutic and reproductive cloning. Pushing through these regulations will make it far more difficult to enforce internationally accepted norms and we are all agreed that if others decide to break the law elsewhere these issues fall outside the remit of any individual parliament.

Noble Lords will have seen the impressive letter, signed by European parliamentarians drawn from all political traditions, urging us not to pass a precipitate and premature measure. Given the opposition from President Clinton’s bioethics committee and President Bush’s stated opposition, we are left extraordinarily isolated. Surely we would not want to become a safe haven for unscrupulous practice.

Throughout the world, civilised countries have banned techniques which allow germ-line gene therapy; that is, the manipulation of future generations. Inadvertently, these regulations may further isolate us from world opinion and practice. In the treatment of rare mitochondrial diseases, where disease originates from the cytoplasm of egg cells rather than from the nucleus, as mentioned in the Donaldson report, it is proposed that a mother’s nucleus may be substituted before fertilisation and implantation into a donor’s egg. That has been characterised as the two mother/one father treatment. At paragraph 23, the Donaldson report states:

“Given the genetic makeup of any child born as a result of this technique, it would not constitute reproductive cloning. The resulting child would not be genetically identical to anyone else. Nonetheless, concerns have been expressed that oocyte nucleus transfer represents a modification to the human genome”–

it represents a modification to the human genome–

“which can be passed to the next generation”.

If regulations are made under the Act to permit research into possible treatments into disease, and that research successfully develops treatments for mitochondrial diseases, such treatments could be licensed by the HFEA and so a pregnancy could be created. If germ-line therapies are not to be permitted, how can we countenance such research? What is the point in initiating basic research if the process is not permitted? Are we truly confident that such awesome and momentous implications have been adequately ventilated?

Professor Donaldson, in his report, also stated:

“The use of CNR to produce human embryos may be said to create a new form of early embryo which is genetically identical to the donor of the cell nucleus. This prospect goes further than that contemplated by either the Warnock committee or Parliament when it debated these issues”.

It is clearly wrong, then, as Ministers have done in another place, to state that,

“the regulations do not raise any new moral issues beyond those that have already been debated and discussed in passing the current law”.–[Official Report, Commons, 19/12/00; col. 213.]

As the Minister told us, in addition to permitting new practices, these regulations also place a legal obligation on the HFEA to police the new arrangements and to establish that no other alternatives exist.

In another place, the Minister said that the HFEA,

“must satisfy itself that there is no other way of doing the research, avoiding embryo use”.–[Official Report, Commons, 19/12/00; col. 214.]

I welcome that, but paragraph 3(2) of Schedule 2 to the Act goes further than the Minister indicated to the House today. It states that the HFEA must satisfy itself that research is necessary or desirable. That is a much less stringent requirement than we are being told.

In any case, how in law is such a Solomon’s judgment to be arrived at? How will the law work? Will the HFEA hear evidence? Will any dissenting voices be appointed to the authority to put an alternative point of view? What right of appeal will exist?

The HFEA is already overstretched and unable to undertake its duties effectively. Many of your Lordships will have seen a report in the Sunday Times of 7th January that up to 500 human embryos will be destroyed at a clinic in Hampshire because administrators,

“have admitted that they may be unable to return any of them to the right parents”.

The solicitor representing the distressed women involved said that the HFEA had,

“inspected the clinic just before all this came to light. There is concern that the rules allow for a situation like this to develop”.

What business have we in imposing further onerous duties on a body which is clearly unable effectively to discharge its current duties and responsibilities?

If the constitutional issues and the law should cause us to pause, so should the scientific questions. None of us in this House is anti-science but nor should we be blinded or silenced by it. Last week at various briefing meetings, I heard eminent scientists state that the use of human embryos is wholly unnecessary in achieving cures for terrible degenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

Professor Neil Scolding, a specialist in multiple sclerosis, stated that,

“it is simply not accurate to say that embryonic stem cells have an immediate therapy potential. It is a significant exaggeration of the true position”.

He points to new developments over the past six months, since Professor Donaldson and the Royal Society looked at these issues, stating that,

“evidence shows that there is an alternative”.

He says that there are two fallacies: one is that cures from embryonic stem cells are imminent; and the other is that adult stem cells are unlikely to be as effective.

It is cruelly misleading to pretend that cures are around the corner or that embryonic stem cells offer the best hope of a breakthrough. Dr Philip Jones, a scientist working at Oxford University, spoke at a meeting in your Lordships’ House on Monday last. He has researched stem cells for the past decade. He told us that adult stem cells offered far greater potential for cures than embryonic stem cells. He added,

“Because these cells come from the patient’s own body there would be no problem with immune rejection”.

President Clinton’s bioethics committee reached the same conclusion, stating that adult stem cells hold none of the moral problems associated with embryonic stem cells.

Dr Michael Antoniou, head of the nuclear biology group at Guy’s Hospital, said that,

“adult stem cells have as much if not more therapeutic potential than those derived from embryos”.

It is often said that in some therapies only embryonic cells may be used. Dr Antoniou said that nothing had been achieved to date with embryonic stem cells that had not also been achieved with adult stem cells, and that,

“adult bone marrow derived cells can contribute to all neural cell types in animal model studies”.

I draw your Lordships’ attention to a letter which appeared this morning signed by 49 young medics at the University of Cambridge in which they say that both their training as medical students and current research indicate that adult stem cells have as much therapeutic potential as embryonic stem cells.

Some noble Lords will also have seen the report in The Times last week that in this country Dr Ilham Abuljadayel had claimed to have devised a process which created endless supplies of stem cells from adult stem cells simply by using a donor’s blood. Clearly, that was not a matter which the Donaldson committee was able to consider before the regulations were formulated. If scientific opinion is so divided and is moving at such speed, should we with confidence proceed without properly scrutinising these claims and calling the scientists to whom I have referred before a committee of your Lordships’ House so that they can give proper evidence?

I turn finally to the ethical issues. Your Lordships will have received a letter from 11 of our religious leaders, headed by the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury. They include the Chief Rabbi, the Cardinal Archbishop of Glasgow, the President of the Muslim College, the Director of the Sikh Network and other leaders of the Christian denominations. They have been joined by His Holiness the Dalai Lama in appealing to your Lordships to consider further both the scientific and the ethical questions posed by the use of embryonic stem cells before these regulations are passed. I believe that such a joint letter is without precedent. Are all of these appeals to reflect and deliberate further simply to be swept aside?

One does not have to believe in the sanctity of human life, or that life begins at fertilisation, to be concerned about the general commodification of life. Every generation is tempted by the seductive and tantalising prospect of universal happiness as a trump over all other values and principles, but human dignity must always be defended against the abuse of scientific techniques. It will not be lost on your Lordships that it was the Deputy Chairman of the Ethics Committee of the Reichstag, Hubert Hueppe, who said last month that it was cannibalistic to,

“breed a human being, only to kill it, disembowel it and impregnate something with it”.

The language may be more strident than we are used to but the ethical issues that it raises cannot be lightly dismissed. Indeed, the Donaldson committee clearly stated:

“Although these embryos differ in the method of their creation, they are undoubtedly human embryonic life, which, given the right conditions, could develop into a human being”.

The commodified view, which treats the human embryo as just another accessory to be created, bartered, frozen or destroyed, is not one that commends itself to me or many outside this House. When the Minister tells the House of Commons that a pre-14-day-old embryo has the “power” to facilitate cures to mankind’s misery, to me it simply underlines that, even at this early stage of development, we are not dealing with something that is inconsequential. There is nothing therapeutic in this procedure for the new human embryo: once it has been used, it will be destroyed. There is no question here of donor rights or consent. Since 1990, when miracle cures were promised for 4,000 inherited diseases, between 300,000 and half a million human embryos have been destroyed or experimented upon. There have been no cures, but our willingness to walk this road has paved the way for more and more demands.

Dr John Wyatt, professor of neonatal paediatrics at the Royal Free, expresses the dilemma well:

“I and many of my fellow health professionals have a profound disquiet about the introduction of therapeutic cloning. Many of us are actively involved in research to find novel therapies for life threatening, disabling conditions. However, the creation and manipulation of living human embryos for the sole purpose of generating therapeutic tissue seems incompatible with respect for vulnerable human life. The redefinition of human embryos as mere biological material, as ‘totipotent stem cells’ in order to allay public concerns, smacks of semantic trickery rather than responsible debate”.

The pressure to speak in today’s debate underlines that these are not trivial questions which preoccupy a few moral theologians; they are at the heart of our humanity. What is clear is that we are inadequately prepared to vote on these regulations today, that the ethical and political process which we are using to decide these issues is inappropriate and inadequate, and that in agreeing to the amendment which I have laid before your Lordships’ House we shall allow the exercise of prudence and caution. I am grateful to noble Lords for hearing me out. I beg to move.

Moved, as an amendment to the Motion, to leave out all the words after “That” and insert “this House declines to approve the draft regulations laid before the House on 12th December until a Select Committee of the House of Lords has reported on the issues connected with human cloning and stem cell research”.–(Lord Alton of Liverpool.)

Human Reproductive Cloning

Lord Alton of Liverpool asked Her Majesty’s Government:
Following reports in the Sunday Times of 18 February, what action they intend to take to raise with the Bush Administration the consequences of permitting the development of a cloned baby; and what is their policy concerning the proposed adoption of babies produced via reproductive cloning by British nationals.[HL939]The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): The United Kingdom and the United States discuss topical health issues in a number of international bodies. However, we have no plans to raise with the US the specific issue of cloning babies.
The US has observer status at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation and the Council of Europe where human reproductive cloning has been condemned. In 1997 the World Health Assembly (WHA) also passed a resolution condemning human reproductive cloning. The WHA is the annual meeting of the World Health Organisation with a membership of 191 member states including the US.
The decision to grant an adoption order must be taken in the light of what is in the best interests of the child. This, and the law on adoption, applies regardless of the circumstances of the child’s birth.

Human Genetic Code

Baroness Sharp of Guildford asked Her Majesty’s Government:

    What are the immediate next steps they plan to take in the light of the unravelling of the human genetic code announced on 26th June.

The Minister for Science, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Sainsbury of Turville): My Lords, the Government will work actively to ensure that the promised benefits are delivered. In the last comprehensive spending review, the Government increased the budgets of the relevant research councils by £142 million over the period to 2002 in order to expand research into human genetics. Work on post-genomics will continue to be a major priority for the future. The Government are also very conscious of the important social and ethical issues that this scientific breakthrough will raise. We set up the Human Genetics Commission earlier this year to consider these issues and to consult widely with the public.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Does the noble Lord agree that one of the most pleasing aspects of this breakthrough, which was the result of teamwork on the part of 18 countries, is that the knowledge derived from the project has been kept within the public domain? However, is the Minister confident that we can maintain that position? Can he tell us what is the current position of the American courts; for example, will they be able to withstand the pressures for patenting that are placed upon them?

Further, given that the British contribution to the project was funded by the Wellcome Foundation and that two-thirds of the American contribution was funded by the Federal Government, is the Minister confident that our universities and research institutes are in a position to be able to exploit the wealth of material that is now available to scientists in this country, rather than losing them overseas?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, the noble Baroness has asked several supplementary questions. As regards the public domain, the answer is no. All that can be guaranteed is that the partners to the Bermuda Agreement who agreed in 1998 that they would make such information public will continue to do so. That is the policy of the Federal Government and, indeed, of the Wellcome Foundation. Other bodies that gain information about the human genome through their own efforts can take whatever decisions they wish about making it public.

That, of course, is a completely different question from that of patenting, which was addressed by the Blair/Clinton declaration on the human genome. One must ensure that someone cannot obtain a patent unless he puts the information into the public domain. The main issue there is to define exactly where a patent can be issued. Everyone has agreed that one cannot

29 Jun 2000 : Column 1067

patent the broad data and that utility and invention must be involved. However, the question is how one defines that. That will be a difficult issue.As regards university exploitation, our universities are in good shape to undertake that. We have given them extra money. They are in a position to undertake the next stage of research to develop medical benefits from the information.

Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, I accept what the Minister said about the imperative for good science and good ethics to march hand in hand. However, does not he agree that the process would have greater credibility if the Human Genetics Advisory Commission had at least one dissenting voice among its membership? It will not be accepted as a credible body to examine the ethics of genetics as regards future human cloning unless it has dissenting voices in its membership. Does not the Minister accept that civil liberties issues–confidentiality, privacy, and the big vested interests of the insurance industry, which has so much to gain from some of the measures that are being promoted–also need to be weighed in the balance? Will he set himself entirely against eugenic practices that may emerge from the advances?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, the Human Genetics Commission has only just been set up. Therefore, it is too early to ask whether its membership includes dissenting voices. However, given the fact that the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, is its chairman, and given her performance in this Chamber on a number of occasions, we can be certain that there will be at least one dissenting voice! It is absolutely clear that the matters the noble Lord raised with regard to eugenics will not be tolerated under our system.

Lord Walton of Detchant: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the potential benefits for human health arising out of this development are enormous but that in the first instance it is likely within the not too distant future that genes which confer susceptibility to various diseases will be identified, thus allowing measures to be taken where appropriate in preventive medicine, and that in the longer term the prospect of gene therapy being used to cure some at present fatal disorders will also arise? Does the Minister also agree that the legal issue is important? The discovery of a human gene can be patented only if there is, as he said, an element of invention involved.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, I totally agree that the benefits of this development are huge. It will enable us soon to identify genes which confer susceptibility to various diseases. That enables preventive measures to be taken. In the long term there is the possibility of gene therapy. While we should be conscious of those benefits we should proceed carefully as regards the ethical and social issues that are involved.

Lord Clement-Jones: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Walton, mentioned the benign effects of genetic

29 Jun 2000 : Column 1068

testing. However, many of us are concerned about genetic testing for insurance purposes. Only last week the Government’s Genetics and Insurance Committee published its application form for use by insurance companies when applying for approval of certain genetic tests. Should we not consider whether those tests should be used at all? Have not the Government already sold the pass?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, noble Lords will be aware that genetic tests are currently used. Anyone who has undergone a medical for life insurance purposes is asked questions, the sole purpose of which is to determine whether he or she has any genetic susceptibility. The issue of genetic testing for insurance purposes is an extremely complicated one. Again, we need to proceed carefully in that area. The Government have set up the Genetics and Insurance Committee to assess whether any of the tests have actuarial predictability to enable them to be used. The Association of British Insurers has agreed that if the tests fail that assessment they will not be adopted.

There are other important social issues that need to be addressed. We have asked the Human Genetics Commission to keep those issues under review. It is not a simple matter of being able to abandon the tests easily, given that they already exist. There is also the following difficult issue; namely, that if people were able to keep the results of the tests secret, one would have what is called in the trade “adverse selection” in the sense that people would be able to obtain life insurance of a high value without the insuring company having access to the relevant information.

Lord Elton: My Lords, the noble Lord has revealed that there are international agreements, at least in a narrow range, on matters of patentability. However, on the more worrying issues of eugenics there is no international agreement. Is this not an area in which we should be concerned outside our own shores as well as in this country?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, there are some patenting agreements but, as a whole, this is an area where each country has its own patenting laws. That is one of the difficulties in that there is not a universal agreement on these issues. However, there is a European directive on patenting and therefore there is a common European position on this matter.

I think that everyone would wish to see an agreement established on eugenics. However, there is no such agreement at present. I do not think that at the moment it is a particular issue.