May 11, 2008

Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill

John Bercow supports the Bill and outlines the reasons why he welcomes the wide range of measures to be introduced.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith), to whose principled speech I listened with respect but, sadly, without agreement.

It is vital that we all, from whatever part of the House we come, take the responsibility of addressing a wide range of issues relevant to the Bill. We must address the issues of infertility, congenital disease, miscarriage and the development of human embryos. We must address how to apply fruitful research to the development of effective treatment, and what constitutes, what causes and what might cure or alleviate serious diseases. We must address how we can improve contraception in this country, and we must address the issue of the genes and chromosomal abnormalities that give rise to the list of distressing phenomena with which all Members of the House are familiar.

My starting point is that I have always felt that where the science is essentially persuasive, as I believe it to be, we should have a model of facilitation. We should go with embryo research because of the tremendous human opportunities that it offers. That is to say, I take an empiricist, pragmatic, instrumental view, rather than the view that some abstract principle should inveigh against the possibility that such research should be allowed or extended.

Some of the media treatment of the scientists who are working day in, day out, week in, week out, and month in, month out is a travesty. It does no credit to the media, and it does a gross disservice to those outstanding public servants who are doing their best for infertile women, for people suffering from terrible diseases and for children in some of the most appalling situations. They are doing their best for this country and they are doing this country proud.

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): My hon. Friend gives as his central motivation the idea that when he can see science leading somewhere, that process should be facilitated. But where does he place the sticking point? Even if there were an argument that science could take us in a beneficial direction, at what point would he start to feel uncomfortable? How does he make that judgment, and how does he expect other people to make such a judgment?

John Bercow: I shall offer two answers to my hon. Friend, neither of which will satisfy him, but both of which seem to me to be sound. First, I am wholly opposed to straightforward human cloning, and I suspect that that would be a majority view across the House. That is not what is planned or portended by the Bill. Secondly, I say to my hon. Friend: let politicians for a moment, rather uncharacteristically, assume the mantle of humility. I suspect that none of us in this House is as great an expert as Sir Martin Evans or some of the other individuals to whom reference has been made. I know that there is expertise in the House, which is respected, but we cannot compete with that other expertise.

We should not close off the possibilities of research simply because a Member, who is possibly already geared up to vote in a particular direction, chooses to seize on a given research project or a particular academic in order to advance a view that we should not proceed with a particular method. I believe in a degree of competition. I do not believe that the mere existence of alternatives is sufficient to allow us credibly or responsibly to say, “We won’t use that mechanism. We’ll stick to another. We’ll satisfy ourselves with something that already applies.” I believe that there should be plenty of opportunities for different methods to be used, in the hope that eventually one or more will yield positive results.

Dr. John Pugh (Southport) (LD): Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that although adult stem cell research is morally unproblematic, there is a distinction to be drawn here? Embryonic stem cell research is clearly morally problematic; otherwise, we would not be here debating it.

John Bercow: The kind of stem cell research that the hon. Gentleman supports might not attract the same level of criticism, but, on the strength of the information that I have garnered thus far, I am sceptical as to whether it is likely to deliver the scale and quality of outcomes that could be achieved by the kind of embryo research planned for in the Bill. I respect the hon. Gentleman’ position, but I stand by the view that we need all sorts of different sources of potential improvement. We should not act as the exclusive arbiters in favour of one source, rather than of either of the other two main sources that are on the table at the moment.

Let me confront some of the key issues, as other hon. Members have honourably and powerfully done. The first is the issue of admixed embryos. I respect the fact that some Members feel an almost overwhelming revulsion at the idea. I do not share that feeling. I have said that I am motivated by the pursuit of results, and I believe that the pragmatic arguments are strong. There is a shortage of human eggs, and the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) and others have referred to another relevant factor in this context—the fact that the whole process of egg harvesting is difficult, burdensome and hazardous. Moreover, for a proportion—admittedly only a small proportion—of women, it is potentially fatal. My view is that if we can efficiently deploy an alternative by using animal eggs as part of the mix instead, there will be much to commend that. I look forward to the possibility—I put it no more strongly than that—that that process might yield beneficial results.

I would simply say to my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), for whom I have the highest regard and personal affection, that I hope he would accept that all the morality is not to be found on one side. Of course he is motivated by moral considerations, and so am I. I cannot stand idly by and look at the situation of someone who is withered and debilitated by the most appalling disease‚Äîbe it Parkinson’, Alzheimer’ or motor neurone disease‚Äîknowing that there might be a possibility of a cure or alleviation by one or more of the methods provided for in the Bill. I cannot simply turn away, saying that some abstract theory, dogmatic reasoning or religious insistence prevents me from giving the go-ahead to that work. That is where I am coming from on this subject.

There are similar moral considerations with regard to saviour siblings. Let me confront the point that is most regularly and passionately made against the concept. The notion is that what is entailed is the bringing into being of an additional human being for a purely utilitarian purpose. It is said that this would devalue the individual, that that person might suffer subsequently and that the process would be intrinsically wrong. My view is that, in the first instance, that should be a judgment for the prospective parent or parents. If the prospective parent says to himself or herself—or if the partnership decides—that this is something that they want to do because a sibling can be helped, a disease can be cured or a life can be saved and, as a consequence, extended, I have respect for that. The pursuit of tissue-typing offers the best and most obvious example of the deployment of the potential of scientific research for the ultimate purpose—the saving or improvement of human life. These processes exist not in isolation but to provide a particular benefit.

Mr. Cash: Would my hon. Friend extend his argument to make these therapeutic opportunities universal, or does he accept that only some people are likely to benefit from them, rather than all those who want them?

John Bercow: I can certainly conceive that not everyone who wishes to benefit will do so. If my hon. Friend is encouraging me—I am not sure whether this was the gravamen of his intervention—in the direction of saying that more and more people should so benefit, my answer is in the affirmative. I thought that I had made it clear that this is essentially a good thing, which we should welcome and which the Bill should allow to be introduced and extended.

The whole question of the so-called need for a father is writ large in our considerations. My view, for what it is worth, is that the Government’ proposal is perfectly reasonable. I am not convinced that the insertion of the phrase “supportive parenting” was necessary. It was a compromise that was reached in the other place, but the earlier formulation seemed perfectly satisfactory. However, I shall not castigate the Government for attempting to meet reasoned‚Äîif, in my view, incorrect ‚Äîcriticism. They have come up with a form of words that is unobjectionable.

My view is that we should not discriminate. We should not have class actions. We should not have the dogmatic exclusion of whole categories of people. We have equality legislation with which these provisions should be compatible. My anxiety is that the call to reinsert the need for a father is not grounded in evidence but driven by preconceptions and, in some—although not all—cases, by rank prejudice. That is wrong. Judgments should be made on the basis of the individual case, not on the strength of a theory.

Mr. Gerald Howarth rose—

John Bercow: I have already given way generously, as my hon. Friend will testify. I hope that he will have the opportunity to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to favour the House with his own views.

Let us have a fusion, as in the best traditions of this country acting pragmatically and this Parliament thinking sensibly, between science, appropriate—in some cases robust—regulation, and the social mores of our society today.

I applaud the political record and legislative achievement—in this matter as in almost every other—of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke). He, as a social liberal—a term he used himself—will confirm that attitudes today are different from those that applied 20 years ago. The idea that we have not had enough time to consider the issues is preposterous. Frankly, those who are opposed in principle always level that objection, and no time would be sufficient for them fully to exhaust their list of objections, prejudices and disagreements.

We have had a good chance—the Government have handled the process very fairly indeed—and this is a decent Bill. It is a progressive piece of social reform that offers the chance of making a significant improvement in the quality of life for thousands and thousands of people in this country. I welcome the Bill and hope that it will enjoy a safe passage.

6.10 pm

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