12 May 2008

Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill Passes First Hurdle

MPs have voted to allow the Human fertilisation and Embryology Bill to continue to it's next Parliamentary stage, despite deep splits among MPs. The bill was given its second reading by 340 votes to 78, a majority of 262. The bill will now undergo detailed scrutiny. The key votes on the individual components are expected on the 19th and 20th may 2008..

The government, faced with the prospect of a rebellion by Roman Catholic ministers, has promised Labour MPs a free vote on twhat were considered to be the three most contentious issues. These are the creation of hybrid embryos, "saviour siblings" and the proposal that IVF clinics should no longer have to consider the need for a "father" figure when deciding whether to offer treatment Liberal Democrat and Conservative MPs have been offered a free vote on all elements of the bill.

The bill was introduced by Alan Johnson and as expected there was much debate around the removal of he 'father clause'. Ian Duncan-Smith seemd to find it very difficult to say the word lesbian referring to gay couples all the time and was very opposed to the message being given out that fathers are redundant. Norman Lamb was particularly helpful in the debate stating "The need for a father is for many people the most emotive issue of all. It challenges many of our assumptions about families and society. I was struck by the number of single women and lesbian women who are already having IVF treatment. In 2006, 1.4 per cent. of the 40,484 IVF treatments were for single women and 0.5 per cent. were for registered lesbians—560 single women and 200 lesbian women in one year. Conservative Members argue that if that treatment is happening already, what is the point of changing the situation? However, there appears to be evidence that the need-for-a-father test is an additional hurdle that excludes some women. My hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon refers to the criteria set by the NHS in its clinics. I understand that there is evidence of unequal access; if women are able to obtain treatment only in private clinics, some will inevitably be excluded."

Similarly he argued that they should not be persuaded to lower the time limit for abortions. However unhelpfully he raised th issue of birth certificates "Let me turn to the issue of whether the birth certificate of a donor-conceived child should have that fact recorded on it. There is considerable force behind the argument that the individual has the right to know. The issue was debated at length in the other place, and one of the possibilities that was considered was the use of a symbol to indicate that a child was donor-conceived. The Government are committed to carrying out a review of the law and practice, and I would be grateful if the Minister said, in her closing speech, where we are with that process and when the review is likely to reach a conclusion."

Geraldine Smith, Labour MP for Morecombe and Lunesdale was very unhelpful though and is vehemently opposed to the removal of the father clause. She said "On the need for a father, clause 14(2)(b) removes the provision in the 1990 Act under which IVF clinics must have regard for the need of any child resulting from IVF treatment for a father. I consider that removal to be one of the most ill-conceived measures to be put before the House while I have been a Member. The law as it stands provides an important safeguard for the unborn child, as well as recognising and promoting the generally accepted notion of the ideal family unit—the one designed by nature, that of a mother, father and child. There is abundant evidence showing that children raised in a stable unit of that nature develop much better socially and emotionally, and attain higher levels of educational achievement than their counterparts in other types of family unit. I make that point as a simple statement of fact. In making it, I in no way wish to disparage the love, care and commitment given to their children by most lone or same-sex parents.
The current law does not prevent or obstruct single women or lesbian couples from obtaining IVF treatment. Indeed, we have not heard one example today of a lesbian woman who has not been able to receive IVF treatment. The law simply emphasises the importance of a father to a child and encourages women without a male partner to make provision for a father figure to be involved with the child, such as a grandfather. To me, that seems pure common sense. The best interest of the child should be of paramount importance in this debate. Surely a discussion of the benefits that a child gets from having a father and an examination of how the void created by not having one could to some extent be filled should be a minimum requirement for the IVF treatment assessment process. The state, through either the NHS or a licensed clinic, in effect licenses the creation of life that would not otherwise exist. It therefore has a responsibility to ensure that all relevant factors are taken into consideration before a decision to proceed is taken. The Government’s decision to remove the requirement for the need for a father to be considered is a clear abrogation of that responsibility. My final point on this matter relates to the Government’s intention to airbrush out of existence the biological fathers of the children of lesbian couples. I believe the measure is unfair to the child and potentially harmful. It smacks of the state colluding to fulfil a fantasy of parenthood and should be removed from the Bill."

Gary Streeter "The third part of the Bill that I wish to discuss is the removal of the “need for a father” clause. The House may have guessed that I am not necessarily in favour of that. Although the practical implications of the clause are slight—we must accept that—its symbolic magnitude should not be underestimated. It is fundamentally a question of the hierarchy of rights. Should the sensibilities of those who may be bringing up children after they are born be put before the interests of the child? Lord Darzi recently said in another place that the removal of the “need for a father” clause should be seen in the context of the wider Government policy of promoting equality, but what about the wider Government policy of ensuring that the child’s welfare is the paramount consideration, as seen in the Adoption and Children Act 2002? Surely that should come first. If society desires responsible fatherhood—which we do—the most detrimental act would be to send the male population the message that they do not matter. As we all know, family structures are an interdependent triad of relationships between father and child, between mother and child and between father and mother, each performing separate and complementary roles in the socialisation and normalisation of each party. We need to start affirming the position of fathers in parenting, families and society in general, and the Bill tugs us in the wrong direction. In this hierarchy of rights, it should be the child who triumphs."

Robert Key, Conservative MP for Salisbury said "One issue has not been mentioned so far: what should be put on a birth certificate?" (Although it had been mentioned previously by Alan Lamb) "I think that the state has a moral duty not to be party to a deliberate deception about a person’s genetic history. The evidence convinces me that everyone has the right to know the identity of their biological parents, and it also suggests that the best approach is for the social parents to inform their children at the earliest opportunity, at the most appropriate moment, of their origin. However, for the avoidance of doubt and to be fair to everyone, there is a case for printing on every birth certificate a notice of other state agencies that may hold additional information on a person’s genetic history. Therefore, no one would be discriminated against and everybody would know that it might be worth checking, if there is any doubt and one’s “parents” have not told one."

Chris McCafferty spoke in support of the removal of the fathe clause saying children born to single women and lesbian couples fare just as well as those born to heterosexual couples. Emily Thornbury spoke passionately in favour of removal of the clause saying that children could be denied a second loving parent at the heart of the amily if the need for a father was not removed.

Iris Robinson (DUP) made no apologies for being a born again Christian and in doing so made reference to biblical texts. she made scathing attacks on the propsals to remove the need for a father saying " The abolition of the need for a father flies in the face of a society that invests its efforts in creating legislation against absent fathers. Why now give fathers the message that they are not needed? Children flourish when nurtured in a family with two parents of the opposite sex who work together and complement each other. That is God’s design and intention. We see from research that the pattern that God has laid down for fatherhood is necessary, because the lack of a father figure has a high cost indeed.
Children in father-absent homes are five times more likely to be poor. In 2002, 7.8 per cent. of children in married couple families were living in poverty, compared with 38.4 per cent. of children in female-householder families. Even after adjusting for income, youths in father-absent households still had significantly higher odds of incarceration than those in mother-father families. Youths who never had a father in the household experienced the highest odds.
Without a highly involved father, youths are more at risk of substance abuse. Each unit increase in father involvement is associated with a 1 per cent. reduction in substance use. Living in an intact family also decreases the risk of first substance use. Being raised by a single mother raises the risk of teen pregnancy. An analysis of child abuse cases in a US representative sample of 42 counties found that children from single-parent families are more likely to be victims of physical and sexual abuse than children who live with both biological parents.
Compared with their peers living with both parents, children in single parent homes had a 77 per cent. greater risk of being physically abused, an 87 per cent. greater risk of being harmed by physical neglect, a 165 per cent. greater risk of experiencing notable physical neglect, a 74 per cent. greater risk of suffering from emotional neglect, an 80 per cent. greater risk of suffering serious injury as a result of abuse, and overall, a 120 per cent. greater risk of being endangered by some type of child abuse. It is also the case, unfortunately, that fatherless children are twice as likely to drop out of school."

Claire Curtis-Thomas Labour MP for Crosby said "I come to the deliberate removal of an explicit reference to the father on a child’s birth certificate. The Bill will not only allow for designer babies, but for designer artificially created families. Such registration of children on birth certificates will result in the creation of two-father and two-mother families. No account is to be taken of the child’s right to a mother and a father. That right should never be outweighed, particularly not by the supposed rights of adults to choose to engineer the structure of their family as they please. The rights of adults are paramount in the proposals before us, while the best interests of the child are totally ignored. The effect on the child’s identity, or their gender confusion, has not even been considered. A child is to be treated as a mere commodity, where someone can opt to become the other parent simply by giving notice. That child product, like a washing machine, can be registered by two mothers as parents on the birth certificate.
There are genuine religious concerns, and plenty of biblical passages support the family. They should not be constantly devalued or perceived as old fashioned. It is not old-fashioned homophobia to support the traditional family. I oppose unjustified discrimination against homosexuals, but I must protect the traditional notion of a family. Homophobia means a fear of homosexuals and the term is not appropriate in our current discussion. Opposition to the creation of same-sex parented families does not imply a fear of homosexuals or rejection of homosexual relationships; it is the simple assertion of the rights of a child."

Evan Harris criticised Geraldine Smith saying "I move to the need for a father. I was, again, disappointed by comments on this issue. The hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale said, at the beginning of her speech, that she had nothing against lesbian parents, but at the end of it she attacked them for what I believe she called the “fantasy” of their parenting. It is offensive and discriminatory to use such terms."

Andrew Stunell, made the interesting point "I shall not go into any of the significant issues that have been debated so far, except to comment on the role of the father and the rights of the child. I have heard it said tonight by two different speakers that the child has a right to know its father. I should like to remind the House that many children do not know who their father is. For children of single parents, the father may never be put on the birth certificate, or the details may be put on wrongly. The proportion of cases, even involving those in stable relationships, where, for perfectly understandable reasons, the wrong father is entered on the birth certificate is higher than Members of this House might like to think. An absolute right for the child to know its father would commit this House to a wide-ranging extension of settling of the paternity of every child born in this country. Let us not extend that right solely to those who are conceived as a result of the processes outlined in the Bill."

In summing up Dawn Primarolo: "To retain the reference to the need for a father would be inconsistent with other legislation that has been passed by Parliament to recognise civil partnerships and to remove discrimination on the ground of sexual orientation. In addition, Parliament would be seen as sending out the message that clinics must consider the need for a father. The code of practice, on which they rely at the moment, could not be relied on to amend that practice in future, because of the clearly stated views of Parliament. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) explained eloquently and in great detail why that change is necessary. There are further issues to do with the welfare of the child. If women are discouraged from approaching legitimate services, they might be encouraged to make their own arrangements. A loophole in the 1990 legislation was that it did not prevent the rise in the amount of sperm supplied by internet-based firms. We have already acted to bring those activities under regulation. Properly licensed services can give the necessary assurances of quality and safety, along with important access to future requirements with regard to identifying parents...... On the question of birth certificates, and of telling children that they are donor-conceived, we have made it clear in another place that we would carry out a review within four years of the Bill coming into force. It is therefore a bit difficult for me to explain what has already been done, as I shall have to wait until the Bill has been passed.

She wa then interrupted as follows:
Geraldine Smith: I want to ask the Minister about birth certificates. Will we reach a position in which two mothers appear on a birth certificate, but no father? How will a birth certificate be worded if two lesbians have a child, and one of them appears on the certificate as the second parent? What will the certificate actually say?
Dawn Primarolo: It will say that one is the mother and the other is the parent, which conveys the legal standard.
The Bill and the review that led to its drafting have evolved through a long period of reflection—[Interruption.]
Mr. Speaker: Order. Hon. Members must let the right hon. Lady speak—[Interruption.] Order.

I found this interesting letter written to constituents from Lynn Jones MP for Birmingham Selly Oak in support of the bill.

BBC coverage. HFEB - Key points

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