Sledgehammers and eggs: Roger Gosden on the strange case of a Criminal Justice and Foetal Tissue Bill

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IN THE small hours of last Wednesday morning the House of Commons made an ass of itself. Because of the timing - too late for Wednesday's daily papers, old news for Thursday's - the event (not, in itself, particularly unusual) received relatively little attention. The Times placed the news halfway down its 'in brief' column. But the House's decision blighted the hopes of thousands of childless couples. It accepted an amendment, tabled by the Tory Dame Jill Knight, a seasoned anti-abortion campaigner, which would prohibit the use of eggs or tissue from human foetuses for fertility treatment.

Infertility is not merely a social handicap, it is a sign of disease. Yet the amendment was tacked on to the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill, a measure that is supposed to allay public fears about burglary, violence and car theft, not to deal with women's health. Only a handful of MPs stayed on for the debate. Further, the amendment was intended to pre-empt the decision of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority's review body, set up by the Government to examine the whole question of human egg transfers.

This is my professional research area. At present, a few young women volunteer to undergo hormone treatment and an operation to provide eggs for infertile couples. The only reward is that of helping others. The procedures are painful and not without risk. Even then those few infertile women who benefit may have to wait four years for a suitable egg.

I receive lots of letters from couples who are desperate to have a child. Some women cannot conceive because they have had the menopause in their 20s and 30s. Others have been born without proper ovaries and feel unfeminine and isolated from the mainstream of life. I can only help them by finding new treatments for gynaecologists to use.

We need alternative sources of eggs of good quality. The prospects - some still remote - are of using eggs from live donors, from cadavers and from foetuses. Britain's fertility research is at the forefront. The transplantation of ovarian tissue has been successful in animals for years and a similar operation might overcome sterility in women. The benefits of restoring hormones and fertility at the same time are obvious. But there are two problems. First, would the graft be rejected as a foreign body? Second, would it be ethical? So I have explained my work, indicated what it might lead to and offered it for moral and ethical scrutiny. The fertilisation and embryology authority published a public consultation document in January.

Parliament was wise to set up this body, which puts the regulation of research above party politics and factional interests and is now the model for other countries. The authority has a large representation of people from outside medicine, from different walks of life and different religions. It has sharp teeth: it has already refused to license embryo cloning and gender selection, except for medical reasons. Anyone who carries out unlicensed work is liable to criminal prosecution.

The authority has so far sent out 19,000 copies of the consultation document and received comments from nearly 10,000 respondents. Public debates are being held, involving scientists, doctors, and clergy. Dame Jill Knight, however, has not troubled herself with the facts. Has she visited the units to see the patients or consulted the scientists involved in the research? Not to my knowledge.

She and those who supported her - including the health secretary, Virginia Bottomley, whose department helped Dame Jill draft the amendment - have been guided by prejudice. The result is ridiculous and nonsensical. The amendment would prohibit the use of female germ cells for the fertility treatment of women. Yet it would permit the use of male germ cells to treat infertility in men. It would even forbid the use of eggs from a miscarried conceptus in the treatment of the same mother. How can MPs (most of whom have already completed their families) forbid people to use their own genetic material?

Even more worrying is the impact which this amendment could have upon other medical research. Dame Jill told the House: 'The new clause is a catch-all.' She added: 'I want to send a message out to scientists that there is no point in spending any more time on research in that area, or in messing about with aborted mouse eggs, rat eggs or anything similar.' I wonder if she realises that such 'messing about' gives a better understanding of the causes of birth defects and miscarriage. Unwanted foetal tissue is the best material for research into a wide range of blood diseases and some cancers, such as leukaemia.

In some members' minds the use of eggs from aborted foetuses was confused with abortion itself. I have always opposed abortion on demand. I am in favour of life. But if we allow this amendment to come into law, we would be denying life. Not one less abortion will be performed as a result.

As knowledge advances and possibilities of radical disease treatments emerge, we should weigh the ethical questions in public debate. Nothing is more likely to make scientists secretive about their work or to persuade them to scurry overseas than the sort of pre-emptive strike the Knight amendment made in the Commons last week. The authority should be allowed to continue its deliberation unfettered. The House of Lords has frequently rescued Parliament from bringing ill-considered measures into law. We must hope it does so again.

The author leads a team at the University of Edinburgh School of Medicine researching the physiology of reproduction and the causes of infertility and birth defects.