Intended for healthcare professionals


House of Lords supports human embryonic stem cell research

BMJ 2001; 322 doi: (Published 27 January 2001) Cite this as: BMJ 2001;322:189
  1. Susan Mayor
  1. London

    Members of the House of Lords—Britain's second parliamentary chamber—have supported government proposals to permit research using human embryonic stem cells, during a debate which many had thought would go against the recommendations.

    Peers voted in favour of proposals approved by MPs in the House of Commons last month to change the Human Fertilisation and Embryology (Research Purposes) Regulations and rejected a delaying amendment by 212 votes to 92—an unexpectedly large majority of 120.

    Under the current regulations, embryos up to 14 days old can be used only for very narrowly defined research purposes, relating mainly to reproduction. If the new regulations become law, they would allow the regulatory body for this area—the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority—to license a wider range of research, including the development of new treatment approaches to serious medical conditions such as Parkinson's disease.

    Many peers felt that the proposed changes in the regulations were being rushed through parliament and should be left unchanged until they had been fully considered by a Lords committee. There was particular concern about the ethical implications of stem cell research on embryos produced by cloning.

    Cross bench peer Lord Alton had tabled an amendment calling for the issue to be considered by a select committee. He said: “It's precisely because we need to consider these things in detail that we shouldn't be stampeded into making decisions by 31 January.”

    The proposed delay was supported by religious leaders, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the Roman Catholic church in England and Wales, the Chief Rabbi, and the President of the Muslim College.

    In a passionate debate Lord Alton questioned the morality of treating the human embryo as “just another accessory to be created, bartered, frozen, or destroyed.” He argued: “These are not trivial questions that preoccupy a few moral theologians. They are at the heart of our humanity.”

    However, supporters of the new regulations argued that delaying research could harm people with genetic diseases. Junior health minister Lord Hunt of Kings Heath reassured peers that there were no circumstances under which human cloning could take place in the United Kingdom, saying “there is no slippery slope here.”

    He continued: “The human embryo has a special status, and we owe a measure of respect to the embryo. But we also owe a measure of respect to the millions of people living with these devastating illnesses and the millions who have yet to show signs of them.”

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