Second Reading debate resumed.
My Lords, before I continue what I had already commenced on Monday evening, I should like to associated myself and my party members in your Lordships' House with the sentiments expressed about the noble Lord, Lord Brennan. I have been praying that he will have a speedy recovery, and it appears that those prayers are being answered. We look forward to having him back in your Lordships' House very quickly. It just goes to show us all how brittle life can be and the necessity for us to make preparation for the life that is to come. I also associate myself with the remarks passed about the noble Lord, Lord Darzi, and his skill. We thank him for what he did in those vital golden moments immediately after the noble Lord, Lord Brennan, became ill.
I wish to voice my concerns on matters arising from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. The current proposals threaten not only human dignity but the family and, if the liberalising amendments on abortion are accepted, human life itself will also be threatened. I believe that the creation of animal/human embryos for research is not only unnecessary and undesirable but unethical and would undermine our human dignity and alter the very nature of humanity. Further, this proposal totally disregards the biblical law on mixing kinds or species as laid down in Holy Scripture, and would be an offence to the Creator Himself, who made man in His own image. These proposals would also unleash an untameable monster on an already morally diminished people, the end result of which is too fearsome to contemplate.
I was greatly heartened at the weekend to hear Professor Wilmut’s decision to abandon cloning because of the new discoveries and work of the Japanese Professor Yamanaka, who has found a way to create a patient’s own stem cells from fragments of skin, obviating the need for embryos. Today a statement was made by another scientist from America, who agrees with this and is on to the same line of creating a patient’s own stem cells. A warm welcome was given to this by Sir Martin Evans, who sees it as a long-term solution, and by Professor Robin Lovell-Badge, who said that it was very likely to be the future. I believe that Josephine Quintavalle spoke for all right-thinking people when she commented:
“As a country we must follow the Wilmut lead and put behind us all meddling with human cloning and animal/human hybridisation”.
I trust that your Lordships' House will take these words to heart today and reject the proposals in this iniquitous and immoral Bill.
My concerns are heightened when I hear that a group of Members of another place have threatened that they will use this Bill to force Northern Ireland doctors to carry out abortions. To use this Bill as a Trojan horse without any considered discussion on the implications is an abuse of Parliament. No consideration to this issue was given by the Joint Committee, nor by any Select Committee. Such behaviour flies in the face of the assurances given by successive Governments that no change would be made to the law without the consent of the democratically elected representatives of Northern Ireland. This is but the latest example of certain people trying to foist their ideas on the people from every background and tradition across Northern Ireland who have repeatedly and steadfastly shown their revulsion at the wholesale murder of unborn children.
Northern Ireland will not be bullied by political activists whose ideas and actions have brought about the massacre of more than 7 million innocent unborn children in the years that this Act has been in operation on the mainland. It is difficult to comprehend the enormity of this murder campaign, and how many scientists, musicians, doctors, teachers and business men and women have been flushed down the sluices of our hospitals and clinics. We hear complaints about the brain drain, but it never seems to be recognised that the surgeons who advise women and carry out their wishes are the people who drain the brains, together with the lifeblood, dismembered limbs and bodies and crushed skulls of their silent victims. I wonder whether the women who abort their children and those who carry out the gruesome execution of these innocent and defenceless living babies ever think that they are emulating Herod in the horrific campaign that he perpetrated on innocent victims in his day. It is heartbreaking to think that any man or woman who has sworn to preserve life is instead wilfully and systematically doing what only God Himself has the authority to do—sons and daughters of Herod indeed.
At this time of renewed hope in Northern Ireland under the new system of Government, it is extremely important that Westminster politicians should support it, bearing in mind the strong opposition to abortion in Northern Ireland. In response to a question on 16 July this year from my colleague, the right honourable Jeffrey Donaldson MP MLA, Mr Paul Goggins, the Minister in another place, revealed that legislation covering abortion falls within the criminal law and therefore remains a reserved matter. However, a further question from Lady Ann Winterton MP seeking clarification received an answer that made it plain that, once criminal law becomes a devolved matter in Northern Ireland, so too will abortion.
How will the Government respond if parliamentarians try to table amendments during Committee, Report and Third Reading of this Bill extending the Abortion Act 1967 to Northern Ireland while it remains a reserved matter? What about the Government’s promise of the triple lock which shuts firmly the door on the Government proceeding down that road? Will the Minister make it clear today that his Government will resist any attempt to overturn the undertakings given to Northern Ireland elected representatives?
I must tell your Lordships’ House that any attempt to impose the 1967 Act would be “over our heads” and “in spite of us” and the whole world would know it. During the abortion debate in the Northern Ireland Assembly as recently as 25 October this year, that view was made abundantly clear from the mainstream parties.
Many dangers are connected to abortion. The mortality following abortions is higher than recognised, and women need to be seriously counselled before they make such a devastating and irreversible decision. Sadly, I have had mothers tell me that because they refused to abort what they were told would be a seriously handicapped baby, they were reprimanded for being irresponsible. However, when their babies were born, they were perfect. How many sons and daughters have been denied the right to live because of misdiagnosis?
Handicapped children also have the right to live and I believe that they are made in the image of God. I served for some years on the board of a school for physically handicapped children in Northern Ireland and was deeply impressed by the love and devotion of the parents to these children. These children are special and deserve special treatment. There are doctors and surgeons able to rectify many of the deformities with which some of these children are born. The world would be a poorer place without the handicapped when we think of the achievements and pleasure so many of them have given to the world.
There are also serious complications following abortions such as the risk of premature births in subsequent pregnancies. There is overwhelming evidence regarding the physical and psychiatric consequences for women. Breast cancer is another significant risk factor. I watched a young mother being interviewed on television. She had an abortion because she had had a difficult time at the birth of her first baby. She was given medication to do away with the baby. She went to the lavatory and as she looked down the bowl she saw two little feet disappearing down the toilet. She will never forget that experience: she said that herself. These things are matters that we need to consider and think about deeply because they affect us all. It will affect that young woman all her life.
It is also shocking to think that every abortion carried out has a 50 per cent mortality rate. When a woman goes in for an abortion she has herself and her unborn baby to consider. On every occasion, the child is done to death. That is another very serious matter that we need to think about very seriously. There are other consequences to do with husbands and fathers. Husbands have no legal right to stop the abortion of their children. Evidence suggests that 25 per cent of prospective fathers only accompany their wives or partners when they apply for a termination. The other 75 per cent are never advised by their GPs or clinics.
I have many other concerns but time has beaten me. This year we celebrate the bicentenary of the abolition of slavery, but using human embryos for commercial benefit is no different from slavery and is equally abhorrent. I shall continue to oppose this Bill if it goes forward. I trust that your Lordships will think very seriously before bringing matters to a conclusion.
My Lords, I wish to return to the main themes of the Bill, one of which is to ensure that Britain remains at the forefront of medical research. Laudable as that is—and it is—it cannot be at any price, and, like other noble Lords, I have reservations and questions.
The 1990 Act provided the legal framework for the regulation of treatment and research involving the use of embryos outside the body. In doing so it enabled the public to have confidence in that area of research. Since 1990, things have moved on and science has advanced and they need to be regulated for public confidence and trust to be retained. We are dealing here with controversial matters for this Bill permits research that much of the rest of the world would not allow; it tests ethical limits and where they should be placed in a number of ways. The Bill must continue to provide public trust in the system of regulation. That is not easy when it represents a compromise between passionately held and conflicting views. If that was true of the 1990 Act, it is just as true of the Bill before us today.
The 1990 Act was flexible—it gave discretion to the regulator, detailed decision-making to the scientists and all within a strong regulatory framework. This Bill transfers into legislation certain issues hitherto left to the regulator and it is right that Parliament should decide the major issues of principle, for the regulatory body regulates only on what Parliament has decided. In doing so, many things need to be kept in balance. We need a balance between the pioneering work of our scientists and the benefits they will bring to many people; the key ethical principles we hold which determine where the boundaries are to be drawn; principles such as the utmost respect for the moral status of the embryo; the welfare and well-being of any potential child, which has to be paramount; the assurance of human dignity and worth; and the continuing confidence of the public in these hugely complex—indeed, breathtaking—areas of research. All those factors point to the need for serious and detailed consideration of the Bill in Committee.
I have three particular areas of concern. The first concerns the term “interspecies embryo” that the Bill introduces. This term includes a whole raft of possible combinations of human and animal tissue. It includes creating an interspecies embryo from human egg and animal sperm and vice versa. It also includes replacing the animal nucleus in an animal egg with a human nucleus and vice versa. All these practices will now be allowed, although the conditions under which they may be created remain laid down. I believe that this all-embracing term “interspecies embryo” is too wide. It is too big an umbrella and it covers things which in reality are quite different. For example, the Bill does not differentiate—and I believe that it should—between cytoplasmic hybrids and the so-called true hybrids. I believe that cytoplasmic hybrids should be allowed but that true hybrids are more problematic. I do not want to get technical here—indeed, I am not competent to do so; that is for Committee—but cytoplasmic hybrids and true hybrids are formed by very different processes. Even if both sorts of interspecies embryos come to be allowed and to be created, they are never to be implanted in a woman; but do we have sufficient safeguards in place?
In considering embryology, I support the scientific development as long as the vital moral status of the embryo is retained, such that it never becomes and is never regarded as a mere bit of tissue with no real significance. Over the years we as a society have been able to retain that attitude of respect for the embryo in our laws and regulations. Equally there is the continuing sense that using human embryos for research is never straightforward, and is always testing and highly complex. That should lead us to proceed with caution. Does this generalised permission in the Bill to create interspecies embryos lead to a lessening or a dilution of the attitude of respect for the human embryo? If it does, it should be resisted. We need to be clear about the differences between the different forms of hybrids, and to think again about the indiscriminate way in which that term is being used.
We must also take very seriously the fact that the Bill allows embryos to be genetically altered for research for the first time. Several noble Lords have already mentioned Professor Wilmut’s decision to stop using human embryos for his research. He says he is doing it for scientific reasons, but does not his decision still reflect this retained sense of the important moral status of the human embryo?
I have two other comments. The Government are removing from the law the clause that the doctor seeking to give IVF treatment should consider the welfare of the future baby, including the need for a father. It seems extraordinary that at this time in our society’s life we state in the law that in the welfare and well-being of a child there is no need any more for a father. We hear it said again and again that children lack good male role models today, yet we are writing fathers out of the script. Again, it is surely very odd that the law might provide a birth certificate showing two women as parents of the child. I well understand that comes from a desire not to discriminate, but to have two women, or, indeed for that matter, two men on a birth certificate as parents is a very odd way to put things.
We have come to see that donor-conceived children should be able to discover the truth about their origins, and of course we all commend the Bill’s desire to promote the truth. So why provide a birth certificate naming two persons of the same sex, when it is simply not true? If the well-being of the child is a key principle, and if truthfulness is a key principle, then above all we have to be honest.
Finally, I come back to trust. For reasons of maintaining public trust, I, too, support the creation of a national bioethic commission, and I very much hope that the Government will consider that seriously. The noble Lord, Lord Brennan, put that point very powerfully before he was taken ill. I add our tribute from these Benches to the attendants for their skilful attention and care, and, especially, to the noble Lord, Lord Darzi. We are very grateful for his considerable help. We look forward to the noble Lord, Lord Brennan, returning to his seat on the Benches behind us.
I also believe that in this matter of trust and confidence the Government could take the lead in pressing for international guidelines and global agreements, and, not least, to ban the implantation of cloned human embryos. The way embryology has developed in this country has enabled public confidence in innovative practices. We have taken tentative steps forward—too quickly for some and not quickly enough for others—by giving permission for research within careful regulation and scrutiny, with the HFEA keeping a very close and responsible eye on it. That has been all to the good. It has allowed important developments. It has increased our understanding of embryology and stem cell research, but it has always kept us mindful of the respect and care that is owed to all human life, not least life in its very earliest moments. That has been possible because we have trusted our scientists and regulators. Whatever we do, we must not allow any parts of the Bill to put that trust at risk.
My Lords, I am a layman in both senses of the word in this debate; both spiritual and temporal. When the debate began two days ago, I was in some doubt as to whether I should contribute to it at all. However, during the debate, I have come to some conclusions, and there are things that need to be said or repeated with some force.
I was very much taken with the fact that the Bill deals with extraordinarily complex matters with which most of us are entirely unfamiliar. It stands to reason—does it not?—that before we legislate we should know precisely what it is that we are legislating on. That means that we must have a language that we all share. I was disturbed to hear my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern reveal to the House that even the experts brought in by the Joint Committee that scrutinised the Bill were unable to understand the definition proposed of the interspecies embryos to which the right reverend Prelate has just referred. If we do not know what they are, and if the scientists do not know what they are, we cannot say anything about them. We must get the language understood; the language that we use in discussion as well as that which we use in legislation. It might be useful to have a glossary placed in the Printed Paper Office before we proceed much further.
The point about paternity cannot be overemphasised. I commend to those of your Lordships who did not hear it the speech made by the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York on Monday about the role of the father and our duty to preserve it. I also commend it to those who did hear it, because he spoke at some speed, and it was only on reading his speech that I realised the full power of what he said. To keep things short, I endorse every word of that speech.
It is an extraordinary thing to try to write fathers out of the lives of children before they are born. It seems to me grotesque and unpleasant. The sensibilities of those who may be bringing children up after they are born must come second to the interests of the child—
My Lords, I wonder whether the noble Lord, Lord Elton, will allow me to give an example of why what he says is not relevant to the Bill. My sister is a lesbian, and she and her partner decided to have a child. Her partner bore the child, with the active agreement of a man friend. My sister has no rights whatever over that child. She had no legal power to become the equivalent of a father. Fortunately, it has worked well, and the child has grown up happy and contented. The effect of the existing law is to take away the equivalent of a father, and the effect of this Bill would be to give my sister rights that would be equivalent to those of a father. It works in the opposite direction from that which the noble Lord, Lord Elton, is describing.
My Lords, I am much indebted to the noble Lord, and I congratulate him and his sister and rejoice in the birth of a happy human being. But we are dealing with the general and not merely the particular. The Bill is not perfect, and the noble Lord suggests that there is no way of introducing a right for a woman in this position or a relationship which cannot in my view properly cut out the parenthood of the male.
I declare an interest as a father and a grandfather, as someone who taught for 10 years, as someone who was a Minister in the Home Office for three years and who was responsible for juvenile offenders in the Department of Health for six months before that. I speak as the founder of a trust to keep juveniles out of crime, which has now been absorbed by the Rainer Foundation, of which I am a patron. I have some lasting interest in the effects of male input into the upbringing of children.
All the statistics and the subjective impressions bear out the international belief that a significant male role model has a defining input in the behaviour of children who result from a marriage or another union. Those statistics cannot be contested and they chime in with what my instinct tells me and my religion teaches me is the right thing to do. I do not rule out the possibility of putting a locus for a second female with the child of a couple—I am undecided on that and it should be looked at—but to rule out the male responsibility seems to go in the face of nature, religion and good sensible politics on the part of a Government who are trying to stop overfilling the jails of this country.
On the question of male paternity, I, too, wish to pick up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Winston, that anonymity has a very costly downside. We are treating human material with new forms of manipulation, the results of which may not become apparent in those who result from them—the product of those manipulations—until 10, 15 or even 50 or 60 years on. If the actual parentage of those individuals is not known, lessons which may be vital for the well-being of humanity generally may simply elude us.
I see an enormous difficulty, which I am not sure has been addressed, in deciding at which point an embryo becomes a person. Several people have mentioned the point at which the primitive streak appears on the 14th day. That seems morally acceptable, in light of the fact that natural birth results in the loss of many fertile ova in any case. It is a pity that a different term is not used—here we come back to our glossary—for that collection of cells. If it could be a line of cells, rather than an embryo, that started on the 14th day, that would be extraordinarily useful—although it may be an approximation—and an addition to the glossary that we need.
This Bill was not designed to be and should not be used as a means of amending the law on abortion. That is a line in the sand. I commend the idea endorsed by the noble Lord, Lord Brennan, in a dramatically placed speech, and by sundry others, including the right reverend Prelate. I echo the right reverend Prelate in asking your Lordships to consider not going too fast in these matters. It seems that our thirst for knowledge has rather outgrown our need for wisdom. As technology accelerates, we are more rapidly faced with increasingly complicated and potentially costly, even lethal, problems and being asked to decide on them very swiftly at a moment in our social development when, as the right reverend Primate the Archbishop of York said, we are very consumerist, saying, “It’s there, I want it, I must have it”. This stage of our history started when Barclays Bank invented for Barclaycard the compelling advertisement,
“takes the waiting out of wanting”.
We need to wait a little longer before we become exactly clear on what we want, and whether we really want it. However, that goes beyond the Bill. If we observe the precepts set out by the most reverend Primate the Archbishop and some of my noble friends, I think that we shall not go as far wrong as we otherwise would.
My Lords, on the basis of my scientific qualifications, I am the least qualified Member of your Lordships’ House to speak in this debate. However, I speak with my religious, ethical and moral convictions.
I begin by thanking all those who have written to me by either e-mail or letter. It would be impossible for me to reply to each member of the community, as on Monday it took six hours for my research assistant to open all the letters and e-mails and I am still receiving correspondence on this issue.
I realise that the UK’s position as a world leader in reproductive technologies and research requires regulations. Therefore, I welcome the commitment to ensuring that all human embryos outside the body, whatever the process used in their creation, are subject to regulation. Reference has been made to designer babies, and I also welcome the ban on the selection of the sex of offspring for non-medical reasons. However, I remain deeply concerned with other aspects of the Bill and therefore will support amendments, such as those to the clause that will remove the reference to the need for a father.
I remain deeply concerned at the notion of abortion as a form of contraception, although I accept the need for abortion to save a mother’s life where there is a medical complication. As we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, on Monday, abortion has, sadly, been used for many other reasons.
As a Muslim, I believe deeply that all life is sacred and I am disturbed to be a member of a society that, since 1967, has condoned the destruction of more than 6 million innocent lives in the womb, as we have heard from many of your Lordships. In addition, we have condoned the manufacture and destruction of around 2 million human embryos; we have permitted the cloning of human embryos for experimentation; and now we have before us a Bill that allows the creation and, following experimentation, the destruction of animal/human hybrid embryos. As one eminent scientist opposed to these proposals told the Joint Committee that considered the draft Bill, this is simply satisfying scientific curiosity. It is deeply immoral to create a life simply in order to plunder it and dispose of it when it has outlived its usefulness. It is even immoral to mix the building blocks of human life with the genetic material of animals. As my Labour colleague in another place, Geraldine Smith, MP for Morecambe and Lunesdale and a member of the Joint Committee, rightly said, just because something is scientifically possible, it does not make it right; it does not mean that we should do it. Life is not a fashion accessory to be treated in this cavalier manner.
As we have heard time after time, the Bill also robs a child of a father by denying him knowledge of his lineage. Muslims have a profound belief not just in the sanctity of human life from conception onwards but in the importance of knowing your antecedents: the root from which you spring. No Parliament has the right, nor does any law, to deny a child knowledge of his origins.
Your Lordships may sometimes wonder why British Muslims feel uncomfortable with aspects of modern Britain; perhaps this issue illustrates one of those reasons. However, I do not believe that we are alone in finding these proposals utterly repellent and repugnant. We will join others in ensuring that nationwide attention is drawn to the proposals in the Bill, which many of us in all parts of the House will oppose.
There have also been calls to use the Bill to further liberalise the abortion laws. MPs such as Evan Harris, the Member for Oxford West and Abingdon, have called for the law to be extended to Northern Ireland, as the noble Baroness, Lady Paisley of St George’s, pointed out, and for the requirement to be removed for two doctors in the abortion authorisation. Doctors—including Muslim and Christian doctors—who exercise the conscience clause and refuse to undertake abortions have been criticised. I will fight any attempt made to repeal the conscience clause. No medic should be forced to take innocent life. If the law on abortion is to be reassessed, we should not rush into hasty and ill considered proposals.
If there is to be change, I would call on noble Lords to reflect on the consequences of the Abortion Act and I would urge them to support amendments that would limit more shedding of innocent blood. The effect of the loss of 6 million largely healthy young citizens from our society is impossible to calculate, but it has seriously diminished our capability to look after ourselves. Without immigration it is hard to see how society could support an increasingly ageing population. Among those lost will have been the average incidence of geniuses and prospective leaders; we may well have killed the very people who could have led our society forward.
The effect of abortions on women who have had them has been serious, with more depression, suicide and future obstetric problems, including premature births and miscarriages. There are serious risks of haemorrhages, infections and pain from medical abortions carried out in the home. How are women to dispose of the products of pregnancy at home? Is the sewer to be the main means of disposal? Does anyone in this House think that that is a suitable outcome?
The evidence of association between early abortion and breast cancer is a growing concern, even if the medical establishment is not yet sure of that. There is enough evidence for it to be raised as a possibility, but how often does that happen? If the only counselling given is that of the abortion clinics, it is probably never raised. It is interesting that abortion clinics never publish the numbers of women who decline abortion after their so-called counselling. Real non-directional counsellors would not be so shy of publishing their data. There is much anecdotal evidence that women, once they attend an abortion clinic, find themselves on a virtual conveyor belt. How often do they hear of the alternatives to abortion once across the threshold of an abortion clinic?
Post-abortion syndrome, which is mainly a form of post-traumatic stress with particular overtones of regret and even guilt, is blighting the lives of many. Men, too, regret the loss of fatherhood, while the absence of the knowledge and support of would-be grandparents can be crucial at a time of crisis. That is the trouble: a crisis pregnancy may confront a woman without support with the despairing conclusion that she does not have any other choice.
It is interesting that in the Irish Republic, where state-supported, independent counselling is available, the number of women going abroad for abortions has dropped for five years in succession. Independent and balanced counselling should be looked at in this country, too, but it will not come from the abortion industry. There is some safeguard in women having recourse to two doctors, one of whom is likely to know them and be committed to their ongoing care. Parliament was wise to put this requirement in place and we should not be persuaded that hastening to streamline abortions is in a woman’s interests.
Finally, these profoundly important issues deserve widespread consideration. The Government need to understand that many in my community are watching how this law proceeds with intense interest and growing concern.
My Lords, I declare an interest in that I find this one of the most fascinating and interesting subjects that I have ever come across in your Lordships’ House. It confuses me in many ways because I am, or was, a member of the Joint Committee; I was actually the longest-serving member and the one who knew the least. I was drip-fed by my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern, who introduced me to the primitive streak; I was spoon-fed by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, as we both had an understanding of Isaiah Berlin; and I was excited by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis of Heigham, who had that female enthusiasm for various activities. I learnt so much. My problem, however, was that I thought that this Bill was about saving life and curing diseases. I did not realise that it was such a social Bill or that it had the potential to create so many problems.
I declare another interest: in my own family, historically, we have had problems of fertility. Yet when it was suggested that there should be single-sex selection, I pointed out that the hereditary peerage would have welcomed that hundreds of years ago, as would many in the Middle East who would prefer to have only male children. My real sensitivity, however, came when I found that I had a problem. I saw a consultant, who said, “You have a knee problem; obviously, you are not academic”. I thought that that was a strange thing to say. Was I so stupid? He said, “No, academics are so happy with their own thoughts that they never take any exercise”. I went to see a surgeon in a well known hospital here and found myself sitting down waiting. There were a lot of women there and I was not sure where I was. Then I suddenly saw women coming in, one after the other, and then going out. Your Lordships will know what body language can be; you would see someone coming in nervously and going out with a spring in their step or looking more miserable. I was in the waiting room of a fertility clinic. I realised the importance of the child to a man and a woman and a family.
In the committee, I found two things missing. First, nobody could tell me what diseases or maladies this research would assist in. When I asked the Chief Medical Officer how many, he said, “We don’t actually know, but maybe about 10 million”. I asked whether anyone knew where it was going, but no one was quite sure. I also thought that we were short of socio-economic data. I worked in that field some time ago and my great guru Mark Abrams, who was then my chairman and president of the Social Science Research Council, said to me, “Always think in social trends, but don’t forget that trends can be reversed”.
Your Lordships will be aware of the publication Social Trends. I thought that I would look up some social data. As your Lordships know, we have 60 million people in this country, of whom 90 per cent are white and 10 per cent are black. Does that mean anything? Is that ethnic? No, but it means that there are different religions, and minority religions. We have 30.9 million women and 29.5 million men. We have an average age of 39, which is up from 34 over the last generation. These are just the basic statistics of a population. But 50 per cent are married; of another 10 per cent, my grandmother would have said that they “live in sin”, although it is now called co-habiting. You then look at the other trends and find that the fertility rate among women in the last generation has gone up from about 1.63 to 1.79: the average number of children has increased.
Perhaps more significant still is that the average age for giving birth is 27.3, up from about 23. In general, we have an older and older population, with people getting married later—women at an average age of 29, men at 31. This may not necessarily be relevant, but there is a change in the structure of our society in that 7 million people now live alone. A generation ago, 4 per cent were from single-parent families, and now the figure is 25 per cent.
These social changes have had an impact on me and I have wondered what has gone wrong. Are we talking about parents or families? So I thought that I would try something on your Lordships: I suggest that we stop talking about mothers and fathers, because, quite frankly, we need the mother just as much as we need the father and there is no mention of the need for the mother. We must start to look at the family unit.
As I pointed out, 50 per cent of the population are married. If they have children, they will do so by natural or assisted conception, or by adoption. The 10 per cent who are cohabiting can also have children. If you are married and have children, are they legitimate? Yes. If you are cohabiting and have children, are they illegitimate? I am not sure. I asked my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern this morning and he said that legitimacy does not come into it these days. People can have children naturally, if you call it that, or by assisted conception, or they can adopt. Then I came to a new classification of what I will call families: a family of two women cohabiting. They cannot have children by natural conception, but they can have children in assisted manners and they can adopt. I thought that maybe we should try to introduce into the law that we should assist people who are registered in some form or other. The registrations of civil marriages that have taken place since the Act was introduced show that there were 18,000 in the first year and an average of 800 a month since then. By my calculation, that comes to 30,000, which is a small minority compared with the 50 per cent of people who are married, so they are a minority group.
Here I shall make a political point, but not a party-political one. Over the past 10 years, I have noticed that in the political world people are paying more and more attention to the views of minorities, because, I suggest, they think that the minority vote might count. That may not be true, but the wishes and feelings of the majority are often ignored, including the moral feelings. When we look at that, my suggestion is that we have a few technical problems. The average age at which a male civil partnership is entered into is 47 and the average age for female civil partnership is 44. Therefore, the people involved are above the age at which it is normal to be given IVF treatment on the NHS.
Those are minor issues, but I come now to some of the other sides of the action. What diseases and afflictions can be cured? As your Lordships know, we have roughly 274,000 people in this country with heart problems, 275,000 with cancer, 700,000 with Alzheimer’s and 120,000 with Parkinson’s. If you go further down the scale, there are some 2 million people with diabetes and other things. Which of these diseases or afflictions can be cured? No one has been able to explain it to me.
I thought that I should look at the other side. I have become so interested in this that I have become actively involved in adult stem cells. I really did not want to have a knee operation and I wanted to be able to regrow cartilage. I learnt that stem cells can be taken from embryos but that they tend to be allergenic; the body may react and the immune system may reject them. In the middle you have the foetal stem cells from the cord. I declare an interest, as my grandchildren’s cords have been deep-frozen in case they may be useful in future. Then you have adult stem cells. I am told that they may be one of the best routes by which to go forward into the future because, although they are older and not so manipulative, they provide considerable benefits. In the cases that I am involved in, adult stem cells are used; they are extracted from the hip to regenerate heart muscle and to solve problems of diabetic foot, at a stage when possibly people can no longer have a heart transplant.
All of this I find fascinating, but it is a moral and ethical issue above all else. I am still not sure when life begins. I like the idea of the primitive streak roaming over something and of the single cell emerging that can then differentiate—from that comes forth life. I believe that the ethics and the morality are the most important part of the Bill and I agree with everybody who subscribes to the belief that that should be supervised by an appropriate body. I believe that that body should be Parliament.
My Lords, when I used to be involved extensively in agriculture, people used to ask me, “What do you think about GM crops?”. My answer was always the same: it depends who is using them and what they are using them for. I suggest that that is not a bad criterion for judging scientific discovery. All scientific discoveries are rather like the genie that you let out of the bottle: you know that you cannot put it back in again, and you know that the reason that you will be given for letting it out is that it will do all sorts of wonderful things. We have not really thought about the downside.
I will not say more on that subject, except that I very much support the proposal made by the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, and the noble Lord, Lord Turnberg, that we need a national standing committee on bioethics to see whether we cannot limit the damage that will ultimately be done by charlatans using the discoveries that we will have authorised for good.
I know that the last thing that your Lordships want to hear any more about is fathers, but I fear that fathers and families is the bit that I have to speak about. I will try to keep it short.
I find it very depressing that this Government, who have introduced so many excellent initiatives to help children, propose to use words in the Bill that will undermine the role of fathers and families. Honestly, I do not believe that they mean to do so, but I fear that the words they have chosen will have that effect. As drafted, the Bill has major social implications, as I see it. I suspect that the Minister will say that the removal of the word “father”—I take as the central example Clause 14(2)(b), which has been spoken about by other noble Lords—makes no difference because the welfare of the child requirement will remain in place. I believe that he is wrong.
For most people, and especially for some fathers, the removal of that word will imply that the Government do not really think that the role played by fathers is important. It will also seriously downgrade the standing of the traditional family in the long term. It will downgrade the role of fathers to leave some children in limbo, not knowing their biological father—a point that has been made by many noble Lords. It will promote the idea that the mother’s wishes are more important than the well-being of the child and it will encourage single parenthood.
Today, the state and local authority services are wildly overstretched and sometimes they have shown themselves not to be absolutely ideal surrogate parents. Our society surely needs more, not less, parental responsibility, especially more responsible fathers. It is not the moment to discourage fathers and suggest that they are not important.
During our debate on Monday, the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, who is not in her place, drew attention to our society’s growing need to look to fathers to be more responsible for their child or children. If we want fathers to be responsible, the last thing that we should do is to carelessly send them a message that they do not matter.
Why, then, are fathers important? Parenting is one of the most important jobs in the world. It is also one of the toughest, especially if you are poor. It is very expensive; it is hugely time-consuming; and it is often emotionally draining. It is scarcely surprising that the parenting job is easier and the chances of success greater if there are two partners working together, sharing the physical, financial and emotional burdens. To say that is in no way to criticise those mothers who have to bear the burden alone, and often do so with courage and success.
An accumulation of evidence shows the importance of a father in bringing up children. I suggest that the father has four roles. The first is giving physical, financial and emotional support to the mother. The second is as a secondary, but still very important, attachment figure for the child, adding to its self-esteem and sense of security. The third is as a role model, showing a boy what it means to be a man, building his self-esteem, encouraging him to work at school and developing by example his social skills. The fourth is as a role model to both boys and girls, showing them how a man and a woman can live and work together in a loving relationship.
It is possible, but not proven, that a second mother can perform the first two of the roles that were traditionally those of the father, but she certainly cannot substitute for the father as a male role model. When most boys reach the age of seven or eight, they instinctively start to ask themselves what it means to be a man. They seek out heroes to be their role models. If there is a father, the child will instinctively love and admire him and will turn to him. If there is not, however, he will look elsewhere. With so few male teachers in primary schools today, he may have little alternative but to find a role model in his computer game or, as he grows up, in a gang leader on the street.
I recognise—I am sure someone will say this—that there are some bad fathers and some families with poor relationship skills. To be fair, some of us have been saying this for a number of years and have been pressing the Government to do more to encourage and empower young men and women to improve their relationship skills and to teach relationship skills as part of the schools curriculum. Of course there are also wonderful mothers who manage to bring up their child successfully on their own, but this does not alter the fact that the statistics show that, across the board, children who grow up with a dad, or with a committed surrogate dad such as a grandfather, are likely to have better chances in life, both at school and later.
My main concern is not so much with that small minority of children who will grow up in a lesbian household and who will have two women to look after them, but with the fact that Clause 14(2)(b) and other parts of the Bill will send a message to fathers that it does not matter if they abandon their child, and it will send a message to all prospective mothers that it does not matter whether their child has a dad. In this context there is a serious lack of government clarity about the responsibilities of parenthood. This is not defined clearly in any way in the law of England, although it is defined in the law of Scotland. I shall return to this matter in Committee.
Finally, the failure of boys to achieve in schools and in later life is tremendously linked—more linked than we realise—to the lack of a father at home, a point that has been made by other noble Lords. This Government have, to their great credit, committed themselves to the principle that every child matters and to the principle that primacy must be given to the best interests of the child. In this context, they are making a very great mistake in giving the impression in the Bill that fathers do not matter. I shall be interested to hear how the Minister will square the primacy of the best interests of the child with the Government’s decision to sideline fathers in the Bill.
My Lords, a while ago my noble friend Lord Ahmed said that he was the least qualified in the Chamber to speak on this subject. I should tell him that he runs a close second to me because I am probably the least qualified.
Since the debate on Monday, I have been troubled by a number of issues raised by noble Lords. As the Bill progresses through its various stages, I have no doubt that some of my concerns will be discussed in greater detail, and I sincerely hope that my fears will be somewhat reduced. One issue raised in Monday’s contributions really frightens me: the plea made by my noble friend Lord Winston when he asked the Government to ensure,
“that the regulation is done with a light touch”.—[Official Report, 19/11/07; col. 710.]
It could be said that someone like me who has no scientific qualifications should not question what my noble friend said, but I want the most stringent regulation in the areas covered by the Bill. Many lay people like me would find it hard to accept that any easing of the regulations would be in the best interests of the researchers in this field. I suggest that they, like me, want just the opposite of a light touch.
As I said, many parts of the Bill cause me concern, but I have great concern about the fact that Members in another place have already made clear their intention to seek amendments to liberalise further the laws on abortion—laws that have led to almost 7 million abortions. It would be a pity if other controversial issues in the Bill—such as the creation of animal, human or hybrid embryos, or the deliberate removal of a father from the upbringing of a child—were overshadowed by issues never considered by the Joint Committee that scrutinised the draft Bill.
It is worrying to hear pronouncements that the Bill will be used to remove the two-doctors requirement on forms authorising abortion, to force nurses and midwives to undertake abortions, to extend the Act to Northern Ireland and to abolish the conscience clause. I was pleased that the noble Baroness, Lady Emerton, in her excellent speech on Monday, informed the House of the problems facing midwives and nurses. It is vital that the House has proper time to reflect on these huge questions before we are stampeded into voting. It would be better if these issues were sent to a Select Committee of your Lordships’ House where they could be properly considered.
In particular, I believe that we need to give fresh, objective and detailed consideration to the current upper time limit for abortions. As the House will know, the limit under the Abortion Act 1967 was initially 28 weeks but was lowered to 24 weeks as part of the changes introduced under the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990. This change reflected changes in our understanding of intrauterine life and improvements in neonatal care which meant that more premature babies were surviving. Under the Infant Life (Preservation) Act, already mentioned today, it remains a crime to abort a baby who is,
“capable of being born alive”.
There has been much debate about whether the upper limit should be lowered further, and public and parliamentary opinion on the matter is now very clear. In written evidence submitted to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, it was noted that 63 per cent of MPs, nearly two-thirds of the public and more than three-quarters of women support a reduction in the 24-week upper age limit. Seventy six per cent of the public think that aborting a baby at six months’ gestation is cruel. The recent poll by Marie Stopes International, as reported in the Telegraph on 20 October, found that two-thirds of GPs want a reduction from 24 weeks.
Those results are striking because the BMA remains opposed to a reduction. The BMA’s opposition suggests to me that it is out of touch with grassroots doctors’ opinion. The question has also been raised whether the BMA has been influenced by members of its ethics committee who have quite extreme views on the issue. Dr Evan Harris—the Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford, West and Abingdon—played a major role, through his local BMA division and as a member of the BMA ethics committee which drafted the guidance on upper limits, in achieving this change of policy. I note that he was also on the Science and Technology Committee which recommended this policy. According to a national newspaper, he tabled 126 amendments to the chairman’s original draft report. He is also secretary of the All Party Parliamentary Pro-Choice and Sexual Health Group and I believe that his partner works as a press officer for the BPAS, one of our country’s largest abortion providers. Might it be that we are being swayed by a small number of activists in this debate?
As a former union official I know how it is possible for a small group of activists to influence policies, not just in trade unions but within political parties. Abortion Rights—the national coalition pushing for liberalisation of UK abortion law in order to bring in abortion on demand, “nurse abortion” and to make abortion available in doctors’ surgeries and at home—claims the support of the TUC and a number of national trade unions. Given where public opinion is moving, I find it very hard to believe that grassroots members of trade unions are really this extreme in their views. I suspect that most of them are not even aware of what their leaders are claiming in their name or where their union contributions are going. I suspect that we are seeing a very effective political campaign by a few people with extreme views who are skilful politicians and yet badly out of touch with public opinion.
It is not hard to understand why public opinion has changed. I am sure that we have all seen Professor Stuart Campbell’s amazing 4-D ultrasound images showing, in amazing detail, babies walking in the womb from 12 weeks’ gestation. In written evidence, stories of babies born alive after failed abortions were also presented to the Science and Technology Committee.
A paper published in May 2007 in the BJOG, an international journal of obstetrics and gynaecology, presented data on termination of pregnancy for foetal anomaly from a large population-based cohort of births that occurred in a 10-year period from 1995 to 2004 in the West Midlands. The authors found that of a total of 3,189 cases of termination for foetal anomaly, 102—3.2 per cent—of the babies were born alive. Those live births following abortion for foetal anomaly occurred in 18 of the 20 maternity units in the West Midlands. The proportion of births at different gestation periods were: 14.7 per cent at between 16 and 20 weeks; 65.7 per cent between 20 and 24 weeks and 19.6 per cent at or after 24 weeks. These accounts have shocked the public, and quite rightly so.
Added to this growing perception of the humanity of the foetus is evidence showing that foetuses feel pain; and in the very best neonatal units, increasing numbers of babies are surviving below 24 weeks. We have all heard the amazing story of Millie McDonagh, who weighed just 20 ounces and measured 11 inches from head to toe when she was born in Manchester, in October, after a 22-week pregnancy. She was a week older than the world’s most premature baby, Amillia Taylor, who was born in the United States on 24 October.
The EPICure study, which is used by institutions such as the RCOG and the BMA to justify not lowering the abortion limit, was criticised in the Science and Technology Committee minority report for averaging out survival rates across a variety of UK centres. My point is this: in the best centres, such as in Minneapolis, Minnesota, we are told that 66 per cent of babies born at 23 weeks will survive. It seems bizarre that on the one hand we are condoning abortion for some babies while, on the other hand, making every effort to give the best neonatal care to other babies at exactly the same age. Something is very wrong.
We know that from 16 weeks babies will recoil from a noxious stimulus in the womb and that premature babies born earlier than 24 weeks will, if stabbed in the heel with a needle, pull their foot away and cry. It seems reasonable to assume that they are feeling pain. Experts marshalled by the RCOG and the BMA tell us that these babies are not able to feel pain and that what we are observing is just a complex reflex. They say that such babies do not have the proper neurological connections between the thalamus and the cortex to sense pain. But other experts such as Professor KJ Anand from the University of Arkansas, who spoke on the Channel 4 “Dispatches” programme and has been in correspondence with the Times newspaper, tell us that the RCOG’s understanding is based on an outdated understanding of physiology and that foetuses do have the apparatus to feel pain down to 18 weeks.
Who are we to believe? I am reminded of the great philosopher, Bertrand Russell, who said:
“A fisherman once told me that fish have neither sense nor sensation, but how he knew this he could not tell me”.
I do not know whether fish feel pain or not, but Russell’s point was that we should be very wary of drawing our conclusions solely from those who have a vested interest in the fishing industry. The 6.7 million abortions carried out in this country since 1967 have been performed by doctors; most of them are members of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and many of them benefit financially from the process. Might this be a subtle way of influencing their interpretation of the data? Would we not be wary about seeking opinions about the link between smoking and lung cancer only from employees in the tobacco industry?
I shall cut out the last part of my speech because my time is nearly up. But I ask the Minister to specifically assure the House that any votes on the Bill’s contents or possible amendments to it will be free from any government whipping.
My Lords, I start by taking this opportunity to congratulate Sir Martin Evans, currently of Cardiff University, who is a joint recipient of the Nobel prize for medicine and physiology for 2007. It was he who first discovered that chromosomally normal cell cultures could be established from early mouse embryos, now commonly referred to as embryonic stem cells. He was subsequently responsible for developing what are called knockout mouse models, which started the new era in genetics and the immensely powerful technology of gene targeting. It is this research and methodology that now drives research workers all over the world, using stem cell research, to look for therapies for diseases.
I strongly support the Bill. I particularly welcome the proposals related to interspecies embryos and RATE. I shall comment mainly on the research aspects of the Bill and only briefly on other issues. However, before I do so, I declare an interest. I am a fellow of several of the medical royal colleges; I am a Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences; vice-president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh; chairman of the MRC Stem Cell Oversight Committee; chairman of the UK National Stem Cell Network; and I have been an obstetrician for more than 40 years.
Comments have been made that interspecies embryo and embryo research itself should not now be allowed because of recent developments and suggestions that we do not need it, particularly in the report related to the induced pluripotentiality of adult cells which was reported in today’s newspapers and in science journals yesterday. This is far from the truth.
Let me briefly say why scientists need the ability to research using interspecies embryos. For any cell-based therapy it is always better to have an autologous source of cells—that is, cells from the patients themselves—because this avoids the problem of graft rejection. A perfect solution would be the availability of adult stem cells—every stem cell research worker in the world is chasing this holy grail right now—but these cells are not available. Growing adult stem cells is not easy. There are many cell types that adult stem cells are unlikely to be able to give rise to. Embryonic stem cells, on the other hand, have the potential to give rise to any stem cell.
There are currently only two ways of obtaining patient-specific embryonic stem cells. One is by somatic cell nuclear transfer and cytoplasmic hybrid embryos—the so-called interspecies embryos. The reason why scientists want to carry out somatic cell nuclear transfer experiments—the so-called SCNT experiments—using animal oocytes is a pragmatic one: there is not a ready supply of human oocytes and large numbers of oocytes will be required. For example, an article published in Nature, a respectable science journal, and in the newspapers last week, reported the use of rhesus monkeys and SCNT technologies to produce ES cells. This procedure used 300 eggs to obtain 30 blastocysts, and from these only two embryonic stem cell lines were obtained. So the number of human eggs required using this technology will be enormous.
Readily available animal eggs provide suitable recipients for human somatic cell nucleus. Embryonic stem cell-like cells have been obtained from rabbit- enriched eggs and nucleated eggs and human skin cells. Such disease-based embryonic stem cell-like cells are ideal for studying human diseases and for the testing of small molecule drugs, which is urgently required.
There is a powerful argument for allowing interspecies embryos for research, under strict licence from HFEA, when no other means are available. Scientists who work in this kind of stem cell research are happy with that. They would much rather work in ethical surroundings and an ethically tested, regulated environment than in an open environment.
The second way of obtaining pluripotent patient- specific ES cells is by the direct reprogramming of adult somatic cells into ES-like cells. Today’s Times reports the findings of two research teams, one from Japan and one from Wisconsin. This procedure was carried out by a group of scientists in Japan, led by Yamanaka, and others in the USA have achieved this using mouse skin fibroblasts and adding four factors, four genes. It is a remarkable achievement. That it has come so quickly is quite astonishing. That it has required only four genes, of the many genes that might have been tested, is also quite remarkable.
One of these genes is an oncogene—a gene that causes cancer—known in technological terms as c-Myc. It induces pluripotency in the skin fibroblast. We now know that it is repeated in humans, because today’s report confirms it. As I said, two papers were published yesterday, one again from Japan and one from Wisconsin, by the people who identified human embryonic stem cells a decade ago. Your Lordships are now scientifically up to date.
I wish it was all that simple. The cells that Yamanaka had derived from a rabbit’s skin were rather like embryonic stem cells. He injected them into a four-stage, four-cell mouse blastocyst by taking out one of the cells from the four-cell mouse blastocyst and injecting his new stem cells. They worked and differentiated just like the natural blastocyst cells, but the mouse that developed was full of cancer tumours. The reason may have been the powerful oncogene that was used as one of the factors to induce pluripotency into the skin cell.
We cannot conduct such chimeric experiments in humans. Details of research were published just yesterday where a skin fibroblast from a human was converted into a pluripotent, rather like ES cells. Such experiments would not be permissible. We need to understand how embryonic stem cells behave to be able then to understand how to manipulate cells that we have derived from human skin to behave like pluripotent embryonic stem cells. Embryonic stem cells are the gold standard against which other pluripotent cells derived from human skin will be tested. That is the holy grail that every scientist chases, and it is why we must not stop research at this stage on any aspect of any stem cell research—adult, embryonic, umbilical, cold-blood, on the cord itself or any other adult cells. We must not try to block other aspects of the Bill, including those which concern fertility treatment, because it would also block research. We must allow the Bill to pass.
My Lords, I was a member of the pre-legislative scrutiny committee that was fortunate enough to have had the brilliant insights of the noble Lord, Lord Patel, which the House, too, has been able to experience today. I very much welcome the Bill. It devolves regulation, subject to the 14-day rule and the no-implantation rule, under the HFEA, which affords that blend of careful scrutiny and scientific head space which is probably the nearest in this world that we will get to being able to see around corners.
I shall speak very briefly—that is why I originally put down my name in the gap on the speakers’ list—about an issue that has been widely referred to: whether the Bill should continue to carry a clause or a phrase referring to the need for a father. I hold what my sons would probably tell me are conservative views about the family. I say that because I regret not some of the views, which I very much respect, but some of the language used in this debate. To suggest, as did the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York, that we need to include such a phrase in the Bill to placate Fathers 4 Justice is profoundly unwise. Families Need Fathers I respect and Fathers Direct is an admirable organisation, but Fathers 4 Justice? I think not.
Should reference to the need for a father be in the Bill? Let me be clear. Do I think that the welfare of a child is usually best ensured within a loving, stable family of a mother and father? Yes, I do. Do I also think that a single parent or a gay or lesbian couple can be a loving, stable family, as my noble friend Lord McIntosh said? Yes, I do. Do I think that fathers should offer sustained emotional and financial support to their children? Yes, I do. Do I value their contribution, especially in providing a role model for sons, as the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, eloquently described it? Yes, I do. Do I think that many children will want to know who their father is? Yes, I do. Do I therefore believe that the need for a father should be a consideration for the clinician and the phrase reinstated in this Bill? No, I do not.
I emphasise that to say that the phrase should not be in the Bill is in no way to underplay or undermine the role of fathers. The matter simply belongs to a different debate—and let me say why. Either the need for a father contained in a phrase or clause in the Bill carries meaning or it does not. Currently it is in the Act and I understand that it has become meaningless, vacuous, empty rhetoric. Single women receive IVF. We have been told this by the Minister and by clinicians, and the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, has emphasised the point. It is not usually germane to the decision to offer IVF treatment. Instead the assessment is made on whether the woman is in sound physical and emotional health—or, in more conventional parlance, not “flaky”—and has family support.
If we reinsert the phrase, we are doing so because it should be meaningful; otherwise there is no point, and why bother? It would mean that clinicians would and should question the whereabouts of the putative father. If there is no such person, what then? Will they still permit treatment, in which case the question was intrusive but irrelevant, or refuse it, which means discriminating against and denying single women and lesbian partners the right to IVF? Even if they are young and fertile enough and may have unassisted births and even though, after the most intense and rigorous scrutiny, they may have adopted a child, they may not receive IVF.
Fathers belong in children’s lives—I firmly believe that. It is just the phrase that does not belong in the Bill. Either the wording is meaningless, as it is now, in which case it should not be there; or it is meaningful but the answer ignored, in which case it is irrelevant; or it is meaningful but got around and manipulated, and we end up with doctors deciding which families are desirable and which are undesirable, with some families and some children being judged second-class but perhaps smuggled under the ropes. If it is meaningful and upheld, it is utterly discriminatory.
What do we want? Do we want a question in the Bill which is meaningless but not asked, a question that is asked but the answer—whatever it may be—ignored, so it is irrelevant, or a question that is asked and is meaningful, is acted on and in consequence denies treatment in a discriminatory way? I suggest to the House that if we go down that path we will end up in an unnecessary legislative mess. However much we personally may prefer conventional families for children, these words do not belong in the Bill, and I hope that the House will not seek to insert them.
My Lords, with the leave of the House, I would like to speak briefly in the gap. I scrubbed my name from the speaking list on Monday because I was not sure that I could be here for the winding-up speeches. I will not say all that I had it in mind to say there because many others have said it very well. I want to suggest one thing: there may be more room for compromise than has yet been apparent in the contentious question of the need for a father.
We are all clear that this legislation does not in any way abolish the biological reality of fathers. Cloning remains and in my view should remain illegal. The question arises about the social need for a father. Many noble Lords have spoken eloquently about the importance of fathers in the lives of their children. I wholeheartedly agree. If the views of the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, about the family are conservative, mine must be ultra-conservative, because I think that children need about five parents. That is based on the experience of being a parent on my own and of living most of my life in some way or another in the extended family.
Fathers are needed. Biological fathers are not touched by this legislation but we must face the reality that the social father is very often not the biological father. The social father may indeed be a stepfather, close friend of the family or an uncle. The role of the father is indisputably essential and it must be fulfilled for every child and, I would contend, while especially so for young boys, also for young girls.
We must protect that, but in doing so we may be unwise to leave the need for a father in the legislation. It is a highly ambiguous phrase which has not proved practical in the way in which IVF clinics operate. I also believe that we may have reason to remove the phrase “agreed fatherhood”. Being a father is a deeply understood notion in our and every culture. Fatherhood is not something that is up for legislative redefinition. We would do much better to put the emphasis on the notion of the agreed parent and the second agreed parent and, if I had my way, even the third agreed parent. We need not challenge in a way that many of our fellow citizens find offensive the importance of fathers in fixing with legal certainty the parental rights of those who actually bring children up.
My Lords, I also wish to convey to the family of the noble Lord, Lord Brennan, our best wishes for a speedy recovery. I would also like to say to the noble Lord, Lord Darzi, that when his fitness to practice review occurs, my noble friend Lady Tonge would like to be there to give a testimonial.
My noble friends Lord Carlile and Lady Williams of Crosby cannot be here today for different reasons although at different stages they will take part in the Bill. It is always a difficult job to be a Front-Bencher summing up on a debate of this kind, but I am glad to do so for two reasons. It allows me to set forward the position of the Liberal Democrats formally and to make some points that have not yet been made in this debate.
In the Liberal Democrats, we have a deliberative and inclusive policy-making process and it is open to all members. It is our party's policy to support the use of embryos for research designed to improve reproductive medicine and to find cures for disease. However, in recognition of conflicting and very deeply held religious and moral views, we, like the Conservatives, believe that this should be open to a free vote. It is also our party's policy that individual women and lesbian and gay couples should not face discrimination when they seek fertility treatment. I will explain why later.
My school bus used to go past an old Victorian building every day. Nobody paid it very much attention until 25 July 1978 when Louise Brown was born there. I remember thinking that the world had changed radically on that day—there were new and interesting complexities and an overwhelming sense of joy and hope. Not until five years later did the groundbreaking report of the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, set the ethical and moral principles which took on board the enormity of those changes. Those five main principles continue to inform democratic debate and legislation on assisted reproductive medicine. The principle of the developing moral status of the embryo has not been accepted universally but I believe that it forms the cornerstone of good governance, appropriate legislation and ethical practice in this most difficult of areas.
This House with its scientific, ethical and religious expertise of the highest order has an unrivalled opportunity to go behind some of the simplistic and pejorative headlines to look at the legal and social evidence—I stress the word “evidence”—which should enable us to set the ethical boundaries for these matters. Since 1984, legislation in this area has followed in the wake of scientific discovery and on each occasion it has been the responsibility of politicians to set the boundaries within which research is deemed necessary and acceptable. As we do so we should recognise the increasing rapidity with which scientific knowledge is being developed.
I listened to the many noble Lords who invited us to consider a standing national committee on bioethics. I would be happy to do that. However, it is important that it should not duplicate the work of local research ethics committees nor the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, and that it should work closely with the Science and Technology Committee of this House to look towards developing technologies and to consider their ethical implications.
If only one message goes out clearly from our debate, I hope that it will be that the creation of interspecies embryos is solely for the purpose of research and that such embryos cannot be used for reproduction and will not exist beyond 14 days. I hope that the Government will agree with the suggestion made by my noble friend Lady Williams the other day that there is a need for them to press for a similar ban around the world so that the high standards in this country to which many noble Lords alluded are universal.
In the time available to me I shall not attempt to replicate the speeches of the noble Lords, Lord Walton and Lord Patel. I simply thank them for the way in which they cast light and clarity on some extremely complex areas. However, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, voiced the concern of many of us that the Bill should have absolute clarity with regard to terminology. Exactly what does the term “permitted embryo” mean and how can it be used? The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Newcastle was absolutely right to ask for clarification of the terms “cytoplasmic” and “true hybrid embryos”. We will support him in that.
Much has been said about the development of adult stem cells. As we have heard increasingly over the past few days, it is a very promising and hopeful line of research which holds out the possibility of developing immunologically compatible cells with the host. That is a truly exciting development. However, I do not think that any speaker in this debate has made it clear that the technology still involves harvesting human female eggs, a procedure that is not without its dangers.
I listened very carefully to the exposition of the noble Lord, Lord Walton, about the necessity for continuing cell line research for the foreseeable future if we are to find cures for dreadful diseases. But more than anything I noted the statement made by Professor Wilmut yesterday, and repeated on the “Today” programme, that, notwithstanding his decision, we are years away from finding research answers and cures. Therefore it is of the utmost importance that all lines of research continue. I invite the Minister to address another of the questions posed by my noble friend Lady Williams about research funding. Will he confirm that there will be no bias in the research funding for the different types of research?
I turn to the topic of parenthood as it is addressed in the Bill. The Joint Committee summarised the approach taken in the Bill as,
“moving towards the concept of parenthood as a legal responsibility rather than a biological relationship”.
I was tempted to say that this is a reflection of modern life, but perhaps it is more a reflection of family life, which is, and always has been, complex and messy. I believe that Clause 28 of the 1990 Act talks about how the husband of a woman who receives fertility treatment shall be treated as the father of the resulting child, not the donor of the sperm with which the child was created. To use the phrase used by some noble Lords during the debate, that is a lie. It is not true. But we saw and understood in 1990 the concept of social parenthood; it was expressed in that way too.
Since the report of the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, not only science and scientific knowledge but families have changed. It was the considered view of Parliament and this House that there should be legal recognition of civil partnerships. I say to those noble Lords who have said throughout the debate that they do not wish to be discriminatory in any way that some of the statements that have been made about fatherhood and parenthood can only be that.
When heterosexual people agonise long and hard and decide that adoption is not the right course for them or for the children, we support them through the physical and emotional trauma of fertility treatment and we rejoice with them when it is successful. But when single or gay people make that same difficult considered decision, we are suddenly surrounded by phrases like “children are accessories” and “nobody has the right to a child”. Of course nobody has the right to a child, but nothing in the Bill suggests that they do. All that is suggested is that people are given the same consideration as potential parents.
The noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, said the other day that legislators have to be utilitarian in the broadest sense of the word. She said:
“They have to consider the consequences of any legislation they propose and carry through and, in considering the consequences, they have to weigh up the harms that may be done to society as a whole against the benefits to society as a whole”.—[Official Report, 19/11/07; col. 721.]
We invite noble Lords to think about the consequences of removing the words set out. Under the 1990 Act, the HFEA is required to provide guidance. The current guidance states:
“Where the child will have no legal father the treatment centre is expected to assess the prospective mother’s ability to meet the child’s/children’s needs and the ability of other persons within the family or social circle willing to share responsibility for those needs”.
On Monday the noble Lord, Lord Winston, spoke movingly about the powerful emotion that leads people to want to have children, and the lengths to which they will go in desperation if they cannot. He talked about the fact that if people are refused fertility treatment they will go abroad, make private arrangements, or put themselves into the hands of unscrupulous practitioners. I suggest that in seeking to make the changes that noble Lords have indicated, we risk eliminating those single women and gay people who have taken a responsible attitude towards parenthood, who are willing to subject themselves to the intrusive questioning that is quite rightly conducted when people present themselves for this sort of treatment and who are the responsible parents we should be encouraging.
I noted the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill. Other countries such as New Zealand have taken a different approach and allow more than two people’s names to appear on birth certificates. I challenge those noble Lords who have said that they do not wish to be discriminatory but that they wish to see the recognition of fathers to consider that approach. Why? Because it is our role and duty, in this House of all places, to demonstrate to the outside world not only that we have mastered some of the most difficult scientific concepts—I was delighted when the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, confessed that she would not like to sit a test on it either—but that we are capable of going beyond pejorative headlines to understand such ever-increasing social complexity. Then, we will be able, just as others have tried along the way, to recapture the feeling that was abroad in 1978 that the world had changed, that knowledge had increased and that with the powers that are now open to us we have the ability to make that a force for good, for change and for the benefit of adults and all children.
My Lords, we are almost at the end of a debate which, by any standards not least those of this House, has been one of remarkable quality. That fact is as it should be because, as almost every noble Lord has remarked, the matters before us in the Bill are of exceptional social and ethical importance. While the opinions expressed by noble Lords have been wide-ranging, we can all agree that as a House of Parliament we have been tasked with addressing issues of the utmost gravity, which the British public rightly expect us to examine forensically and with due sensitivity.
The phrase “from these Benches” is not one that I shall be using during the passage of the Bill. Any views that I may express will be my personal views and no more than that. The Conservative Party, deliberately, has taken no position on the matters in the Bill because, as with the 1990 Act, they are issues that should be left to individual parliamentarians to decide for themselves in a free vote. Therefore, but for the fact that it is the custom of the House to have an Opposition spokesman winding up, my presence at this Dispatch Box is not of significance.
This Bill has been long in gestation. It comes to us following a House of Commons Select Committee report in 2005, a public consultation, a government White Paper, a draft Bill, pre-legislative scrutiny of that Bill by a Joint Committee of both Houses and a government response to the Joint Committee’s report. By no stretch of the imagination therefore could this Bill be regarded as having been fashioned in haste. All that should give us reassurance but, at the same time, the history of the Bill is no reason for saying that what it contains is necessarily perfect. It is for Parliament as a whole to decide on its merits or failings. I have absolutely no doubt that we shall wish to debate every issue thoroughly and very often from first principles.
However, while the Bill may break important new ground, it is for all that an amending Bill. As such, it seeks to build on an inherited corpus of thought and public policy embodied in existing legislation. As has been said by many speakers, we owe much to the work done by the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, and her committee in the 1980s, which gave us much of the ethical and practical underpinning for our present regulatory regime. Perhaps the defining feature of that underpinning was the balance which the Warnock committee sought to strike between utilitarian considerations about treatment and research and strongly held, often absolutist, beliefs about the sanctity of life and the status of the human embryo. The balance was struck by acknowledging on the one hand the legitimacy of the medical and scientific case, but on the other hand insisting on a system of strict regulation, tight codes of practice, an outright prohibition on certain sorts of activity and the adoption of a gradualist ethical position on the status of the developing human embryo, based on science.
From this emerged the concept of the special ethical status of the human embryo—a concept that means, put at its simplest, that anything done in a laboratory with or to a human embryo may be done only for compelling and benign reasons, as defined in law, never frivolously, lightly or wantonly. This approach was adopted by Parliament in the 1990 Act and sought to reconcile as far as was possible two diametrically opposed camps. Full-scale consensus between the two camps was never going to be achievable. That is perhaps the first key point to make in the context of this debate. For Parliament there is no unequivocally right answer to the questions we are addressing, nor can we reasonably expect to do other than debate those questions within the broad framework of principles laid down by the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, and the 1990 Act. It is entirely possible that we will end up drawing lines in the sand that are substantively different from the lines currently drawn in the Bill; but those individuals who wish to see the entire structure of law in this area overturned—that is the manifest desire of many who have written to Members of this House in sometimes passionate terms—need to understand why we are not in that territory.
Having said all that, there is a troubling feature to the Bill, or rather, to Part 1 in particular. This point was made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans and by the noble Lord, Lord Brennan. The Bill lacks the equivalent of a Warnock report establishing the ethical values and evidence-based pointers that should guide Parliament and the regulator in these novel areas of decision-making. Perhaps the most obvious manifestation of this lacuna relates to the question of whether or not to legalise the creation of hybrid embryos. A number of witnesses to the Joint Committee regretted the fact that that question was made more difficult by the uncertain and vague ethical status of such hybrids. No group of informed men and women has yet sat down to form a considered view of these issues; and the Bill itself is silent about them. As the Joint Committee commented, the fact that the Government initially proposed one set of provisions for hybrid embryos and then another—each time expressing surprise that there could be any other viewpoint but theirs—only then to change their minds again, is a graphic illustration of how rudderless they were, and perhaps still are, on the issue. Perhaps the Minister thinks that that does not matter, provided that Parliament places a clear and unambiguous set of provisions in the Bill. Even if that is his position, I still believe that we owe it to the regulator to articulate a set of fundamental guiding principles that are relevant to the exercise of his discretion in making licensing decisions. That is perhaps a task which we can begin to tackle in Committee.
The provisions relating to hybrid embryos are perhaps the most controversial from an ethical perspective. Many people regard the very idea with revulsion and many have expressed outright hostility on religious grounds. I am sure that noble Lords have been right to say that those views are ones which we have a duty to respect. On the other hand, the reasons that researchers wish to create cytoplasmic hybrid embryos have been well rehearsed in this debate. They are essentially reasons of expediency and pragmatism in the cause of pursuing potentially beneficial science. Until now, the creation of interspecies embryos has been prohibited by law, with the sole exception of the hamster test to assess the performance of human sperm. The Joint Committee recommended that the matter be put to a free vote of both Houses, and I believe that that is what we should do.
We will debate these matters in Committee but, as we do so, we need to be careful about clarity of thought and language. It is surely not enough to say, as some do, that the mixing of human and animal genetic material is inherently degrading to humanity. What exactly do people mean by that? If researchers are to be denied by Parliament the freedom to conduct certain kinds of research, then parliamentarians, in turn, have a duty to define precisely the alleged harms to society that would ensue from such activity. The Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 already sanctions the mixing of human and animal genetic material. It is far from self-evident to me that the creation of a very few cells of a hybrid nature which would soon be destroyed would of itself degrade the human condition or engender disrespect for humanity among either scientists or society at large.
Nor can I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Alton, that the recent emergence of techniques which may one day make embryonic stem cell research unnecessary is reason enough now for Parliament to make embryonic stem cell research illegal. All the available scientific advice, including that from the MRC, is that, of the three possible routes to the applied use of stem cells, including the reprogramming of adult stem cells, there is no conclusive evidence which of them will ultimately prove the most effective. The noble Lords, Lord Patel and Lord Walton, re-emphasised that point. In my view, it would be highly premature for Parliament to close off one or more of those options. In any event, the regulator already has to be satisfied that the use of human embryos is necessary for the purposes of a given piece of research.
Many noble Lords spoke about the proposal to remove from the conditions of treatment licences the requirement that clinics must take account of the future child’s need for a father. I was particularly struck by the speech of my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern on this subject, as I was by the speeches of the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York and the noble Baroness, Lady Deech. Equally, this afternoon I was extremely impressed by the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis. Certainly, Parliament needs to be guided by the evidence; and there is some evidence that the presence of a second parent rather than the gender of that parent counts more in terms of a child’s welfare. At the same time, many of us are instinctively uncomfortable with the notion that the presence or absence of a father in a child’s life should be completely irrelevant to any assessment of its likely welfare. Again, I have no doubt that this is a matter which in Committee we shall wish to explore thoroughly.
Equally difficult are the questions surrounding the definition of parenthood where a child has been donor-conceived. The concept in the Bill of parenthood as a legal responsibility, rather than a biological relationship, is one that many find unacceptable. Personally I have yet to be persuaded that what the Bill proposes is misconceived. The laws around adoption already provide a model in this area. In the normal way, a child regards as his parents the people who nurture and bring him up. A different question arises, however, over a child's right to know about his or her genetic origins. At the moment, the Bill merely gives a child, when adult, the right to inquire about them. My noble friend Lord Jenkin of Roding was absolutely right: we need to ask whether that is enough. The issue of what information should be included on the birth certificate of a donor-conceived child is one about which the Joint Committee was considerably exercised; and I believe that in Committee we need to confront that issue.
Not all the other issues of importance in the Bill have been referred to in any detail: for example, the rules that should apply to saviour siblings—the noble Lord, Lord Alton, spoke about that— storage times for embryos and the difficult issue of the storage of gametes on behalf of someone lacking mental capacity. Our Committee deliberations will no doubt make up for that. For now, I think it is right for me to end on an upbeat note by congratulating the Government on bringing this Bill forward. Whether Parliament accepts it in its entirety is a question for the future. However, the Government can take credit for their assiduousness in shaping proposals, consulting on them, listening to views and bringing them forward in their final version for our consideration. That measured process bodes well for our deliberations, a process to which I, for one, look forward.
My Lords, I take this opportunity to remind the House that I am a member of many royal colleges and the Academy of Medical Sciences. More important, I remain an active clinical scientist and I am a recipient of funding from research councils.
We have had a wide-ranging and extremely stimulating debate. We have heard some excellent speeches from all sides of the House. The issues raised demonstrate both the profound nature of the subject matter and the importance of proper scrutiny. We have seen a wide span of issues raised, including promising avenues of medical research and the welfare of children. As I have said previously, the United Kingdom has a good record of innovation and effective regulatory oversight, thanks in large measure to good parliamentary debates such as this. I shall do my best in the time available to answer as many as possible of the points that were made. I will not be able to do justice fully to all those issues in the space of one debate, but I am sure that there will be further in-depth discussions as the Bill progresses.
On the need for public debate, a number of noble Lords, including the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans and the noble Lord, Lord Hastings, raised concerns about the pace of change and the Government rushing ahead with the legislation. We also heard concerns from my noble friend Lord Winston that we are falling behind. Several noble Lords mentioned the great importance of informed public debate on these complex and emotive issues.
The Government agree that there should be a full public debate on complex ethical, moral and social issues, but we have tried to take as inclusive and as deliberative an approach as possible in our review of the legislation and the development of our proposal. As the noble Earl, Lord Howe, suggested, it is important that legislation keeps up with scientific advances and that the ethical implications are fully taken into account. The existing legislation is 17 years old and has served us well. It is, however, in need of updating and we have conducted a lengthy review process, resulting in the Bill before the House. There remains a general desire for a scheme of regulation with clear boundaries, but with a light touch.
The noble Lord, Lord Winston, raised important points about HFEA regulation, particularly the need for streamlined regulation of embryo research. The Government agree that it is important that research is not unduly delayed by the consideration of licence applications. The Bill gives the HFEA scope to introduce arrangements to enable licence applications to be dealt with more quickly. As the noble Lord indicated, these issues will no doubt be discussed in detail in Committee. On the filling of the vacant clinical academic chair previously held by my noble friend Lord Winston, I am sure that noble Lords will acknowledge that he is a mighty hard act to follow. Nevertheless, we will continue to strive to do so.
Many speakers have talked about how bioethical issues are considered and debated. The noble Lord, Lord Brennan, spoke powerfully in favour of an independent bioethics commission. The noble Baronesses, Lady Neuberger and Lady Hooper, among others, raised the idea of a parliamentary standing committee to consider these issues. The Government have considered the idea of an independent commission on several occasions and have expressed their view that the present system, whereby a number of bodies are able to consider and advise on various ethical issues, is preferable. The Joint Committee that scrutinised the Bill also found that it could not support the idea of a bioethics commission. However, the Government share its view on the value of debating bioethical issues and the benefits of addressing complex issues in Parliament. As I hope noble Lords will appreciate, however, whether to establish a standing bioethics committee of both Houses, or whether the current structure is preferable, is ultimately a matter for Parliament itself.
Beyond the domestic sphere, the noble Baronesses, Lady Williams and Lady Neuberger, asked about the Government’s position on attempts by the United Nations to ban reproductive cloning. The Government are prepared to support a worldwide ban on human reproductive cloning provided that it can be achieved without at the same time attempting to ban therapeutic cloning for legitimate research. Previous attempts at forming a UN resolution have foundered on this point. I say in response to the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, that the UK has not ratified the Council of Europe Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine. One problem is that that convention does not allow the creation of embryos for research and would therefore conflict with UK legislation.
On adult stems versus embryonic stem cell research, there has been a significant debate—particularly from the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Williams and Lady O’Cathain—around why we need to use embryonic stem cells in research when we can use adult stem cells. Several speakers referred to the work of Professor Wilmut, who has made a great contribution to stem cell research, which has also been eloquently described by my noble friend Lord Patel. He is, of course, right that all avenues of research should be explored.
Let me be clear: the Government wish to see research using all sources of stem cells, including adult, umbilical cord and embryonic stem cells. Stem cell research offers the potential to deliver numerous new treatments for diseases as diverse as Parkinsonism, diabetes and heart disease. It is far too early to know from where useful results will come. This position is supported by the published scientific findings and informs the legislation and the decision-making of the HFEA. The noble Baronesses, Lady Williams and Lady Barker, asked about the funding of adult stem cell research. From 2004-05 to 2005-06 the Medical Research Council provided funding of £14.7 million for adult stem cell research and £16.5 million for embryonic stem cell research.
Several noble Lords, including the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Newcastle and the noble Lord, Lord Elton, raised the issue of the creation of interspecies embryos for research. The 1990 Act provides a legislative framework for the regulation of research projects, including human embryos, in accordance with the legal limits. One of those limits is the prohibition of the mixing of human and animal gametes that could result in the creation of true hybrid embryos. Otherwise, the current legislation does not explicitly mention any form of interspecies embryo. The Government have sought to address that.
In the 2006 White Paper, following the development in the potential creation of interspecies embryos for research, the Government stated that the revised legislation would clarify the extent to which regulation would apply to embryos containing both human and animal material. The report of the Joint Committee that scrutinised the draft Bill very helpfully moved this debate forward. The committee recommended greater scope for discretion for the regulator and that the creation of a range of interspecies embryos, including true hybrid embryos, should be brought clearly within the regulator’s licensing remit. The Government have revised the Bill in order to put the proposal to Parliament for wider debate.
The Bill brings some interspecies embryos within the scope of the regulator where licences may permit their creation subject to the requirement that the project is necessary or desirable for the purposes described in legislation. Additionally, subsection (5)(e) in proposed new Section 4A contains a regulation-making power to extend the definition of interspecies embryos. This will provide future flexibility to ensure that the law keeps pace with technological developments. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, asked what the Government mean by interspecies embryos. The definitions in the Bill are intended to ensure that embryos at the human end of the spectrum of research involving the mixture of animal and human material are clearly within the HFEA regulatory remit. The Government have discussed the available approaches with representatives from a number of professional bodies, including the Academy of Medical Sciences, the Royal Society, the Medical Research Council and the Wellcome Trust.
On a more technical drafting point, the noble and learned Lord asked whether Clause 4(2) and Clause 3(2) are both needed. Clause 4(2) prevents any embryo other than a human embryo being implanted in a woman. This is to prevent animal embryos being implanted. Clause 3(2) limits the type of human embryo that can be implanted to a permitted embryo created by the fertilisation of a natural egg by natural sperm. The clauses prevent different things to make it clear that no animal embryo can be implanted in a woman and that only certain types of human embryos can be implanted.
Many speakers, including the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York and the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, have mentioned the child’s need for a father. I hope that I may be able to address some of the concerns through further explanation of the Government’s thinking. Many of the concerns raised appear to be motivated not by any practical effect that the clause may have in relation to assisted reproduction but by a general concern for the perceived signal or message that may be derived from its removal. I understand that concern.
Let me say at the outset that the proposal is not motivated by any attack on fathers or on the concept of fatherhood. Nor is it motivated by a simplistic desire for political correctness. The Government recognise clearly the extremely important role that fathers can and do play in their children’s lives and the consequences that can follow where a relationship breaks down. Many measures taken by this Government are aimed at strengthening the role of fathers and ensuring that they are aware of their responsibilities.
However, today’s debate deals with a very specific context: a fraction of the fewer than 1.5 per cent of births in the UK that result from licensed assisted conception treatments. Hence, we are talking about a few hundred children. The issue is what duties the state imposes on clinicians regarding whom they may or may not treat, or whether access to services—including those purchased privately—should be easier or harder for certain groups of people. Naturally, that will involve us considering our own individual views, to which we are well entitled, on the desirability of different family forms. However, unless the law is to be purely rhetorical, we must look at what is the intended outcome and whether it is justified by evidence.
The duty to consider the welfare of the child is subject to the HFEA guidance, which states:
“Where the child will have no legal father the treatment centre is expected to assess the prospective mother’s ability to meet the child’s/children’s needs and the ability of other persons within the family or social circle willing to share the responsibility for those needs”.
There is no ban on single women or same-sex couples receiving assisted conception treatment. There is no requirement in the law as it stands that there must be a father or any man involved in the upbringing of the child. The outcome intended to be achieved by the current law is therefore extremely unclear—or, as the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, said, ineffective and wishy-washy.
Undoubtedly, we want anyone contemplating having children to think through the implications. Given the nature of the procedures in question, we are talking about people who will almost invariably have considered very carefully their decision to approach treatment services and who will have decided to act responsibly. In addition, the law requires the provision of information and an offer of counselling.
We must also remember that from a medical standpoint there may be no need to involve the services of a clinician at all. Informal arrangements for artificial insemination can take place. We must be careful that there is no perverse incentive for some people to avoid regulated services and the quality and safety assurances that they provide. The Government propose to retain the overarching requirement to consider the welfare of the child, which in practice, following consultation by the HFEA, focuses on the likelihood of serious harm to the child.
In relation to fathers, there is clear evidence of poorer outcomes for children where a marriage or partnership breaks down and the father is then absent. It is right and proper that that should be addressed. However, in the context that we are discussing today, the available research evidence suggests that it is the quality of parenting that is the factor of prime importance, not the gender of the parent per se—a point strongly emphasised by my noble friend Lady Hollis.
Elsewhere in the Bill there are provisions to extend legal parenthood in cases that recognise the family forms that already exist in practice, if not in law. The Government came to the view that, on balance, the reference in the 1990 Act to the need for a father should be removed in favour of the general duty to consider the welfare of the child. This does not prevent us from valuing the role of fathers in their children’s life, but it recognises the crucial role played by all parents.
The noble Earl, Lord Howe, talked about saviour siblings, where the issue of children’s welfare arises very clearly; the noble Lord, Lord Alton, mentioned the definition of other tissue in relation to saviour siblings; and the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, mentioned the advances in the pre-implantation genetic diagnosis. The Bill does not limit which tissue can be used in the treatment of a sibling. However, the HFEA retains the control of tissue typing via licensing, and the Human Tissue Authority must approve any transplants involving organs from living donors and children who are too young to give consent. The noble Lord also asked why the Government changed the criteria from life-threatening conditions to serious ones. The pre-legislative scrutiny committee recommended that the Bill should not be limited to life-threatening conditions but should also include serious conditions.
There has been some debate around abortion. I thank the noble Baronesses, Lady Tonge, Lady Emerton and Lady Williams, and the noble Lord, Lord Alton, who acknowledged that abortion is a separate issue and that it would not be appropriate to use the Bill to amend the law on abortion. I recognise that different views are held, and held strongly, but we do not want to cloud the debate or hinder the passage of this important Bill by debating matters that are unrelated to its substance.
This has been a very good and illuminating debate. The Bill has already benefited greatly from the pre-legislative scrutiny and I am glad that so much experience and expertise are being brought to bear to ensure that the legislation is as good as it can be. I look forward to the debate to follow on the very important issues that it covers. I commend the Bill to the House.
On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.