Monday 4 February 2008

Lords fail to oppose unethical embryo bill

The House of Lords this evening approved the Human Fertilisation and Embryology bill on third reading without any substantial restraining amendments. The Lords failed to divide on the Bill.

An attempt by Baroness Williams of Crosby to ensure that embryos could only be used for research when no alternative exists was rejected. Pro-embryo research peers said it was over-restrictive and impracticable.

The clause would have required researchers to produce evidence that the research couldn’t be done without using human embryos, and that the project was likely to produce an outcome. This was opposed by the government as well as peers involved in embryo research, and the House voted by 197 to 41 against the amendment. Following this defeat, critics of the bill failed to divide the House over the bill as a whole, allowing it an unopposed third reading.

During the debate, Lord Jenkin of Roding, a former health minister pointed to the lack of any moral framework behind the proposals – though not opposed to embryo research in principle himself. He said it was a “not to the credit of the House [of Lords]” that the Bill, now at its final stage in the Lords, still lacked any underlying ethical principle.

The Bishop of Chester urged that scientists should have more respect for dead people than to use their cells to create cloned human embryos or hybrid embryos for research, but the government assured the House of Lords that this would be permitted in the bill before it became law. Lord Jenkin rightly identified the total absence of a moral foundation for the bill. The Warnock report in 1984 accorded the human embryo a vague ‘special status’, and the 1990 embryology law paid lip-service to this principle. The current government rides roughshod over any such pretence of ethical sensitivity. The idea that anyone who has previously given general permission for the use of their tissue in research may now be cloned is shocking. This also applies to children who have died, and whose cells may have been cultured and developed into cell lines for legitimate research.

Lord Walton, in arguing for the creation of cloned embryos in such situations, said that it would only apply where there was “no indication that the donor had any objection”. Lord Walton’s assurance was absurd and misleading. Those who donated tissue 20 or 30 years ago would not have had any way of knowing that Lord Walton and his colleagues would be putting forward such obscene proposals now – and therefore no opportunity to express an objection. He will do grave damage to the reputation of doctors and researchers, and the government may seriously harm critical services like the blood donor service if they do what they promise and incorporate this in the bill. Many patients and donors will not want to give any of their genetic material to UK institutions if this becomes law.