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Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill [HL]

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:54 pm on 19th November 2007.

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Photo of The Archbishop of York The Archbishop of York Bishop 5:54 pm, 19th November 2007

My Lords, I have said previously in your Lordships' House that the severance of law from morality and religion has gone too far. Religion, morality and law were once intermingled, which helped to shape both the common law and the statutes of this land, and greatly influenced the way in which judges interpreted them. However, the law is now regarded purely as an instrument for regulating our personal affairs and as being completely severed from morality and religion. Provisions in the Bill demonstrate just how far the severance has gone and its unintended consequences.

The Government's proposal to remove the need-for-a-father provision from Section 13 of the 1990 Act creates a false dichotomy at the heart of the Bill which places the welfare and needs of the child against their need for a father. Since when did they become competing requirements? Is it not self-evident that the welfare and needs of a child are enhanced and met when there is a father present, as against there being no father at all? Such a view is surely not controversial and would be shared by many who find themselves, through bereavement or relationship breakdown, as the single parents of children. However, there is all the difference in the world between children who find themselves in a single-parent family through bereavement or breakdown of parental relationship, and those who find themselves in that situation by design. That is precisely what the Government propose in the Bill: the removal, by design, of the father of the child.

We know already that there are men who have been moved by legal circumstances to form Fathers 4 Justice. When one overlooks the movement's pranks and purported attempts to kidnap Leo Blair, one discovers that its founder was forced into campaigning because he was denied access overnight to a child whom he dearly loved and whom he believed loved and needed him. It took a long time for access to be restored. We now have a Bill whereby the Government are set to remove, as a statement of public policy, the requirement for the need of a father. How much stronger then might the campaign of Fathers 4 Justice become?

There seems to be some confusion in the mind of the Government over the importance of fathers. First, in 2004, they made regulations to encourage parental responsibility and visibility by removing donor anonymity and allowing donor- conceived children to access the identity of donors involved in their conception. Secondly, they have rightly emphasised in their policies the need for male role models for social cohesion, to reduce underachievement, and to avoid increasing violent crime and gang culture. We are now faced with a Bill which seeks formally to remove in its entirety the need for the ultimate male role model, that of the father. Set out in paragraph 54 of the Government's response to the Joint Committee's report is a bizarre proposal to replace a child's need for a father with a delegated system of substitutes, based on HFEA licence-holders' assessment of whether prospective mothers know anyone who may be a good role model. Such is the value placed on a father by this legislation: it is reduced to a role where any substitute will do.

The Government posits their argument on the view of the Science and Technology Committee, expressed in its report of 2005, that the need for a father is "unjustifiably offensive". To whom is it unjustifiably offensive? Is it unjustifiably offensive to the child who will be dependent upon the love and care of the father? Are the Government really saying that they are basing their response on whether the need for a father gives offence?

The same report concluded that we cannot expect consensus on this issue because, on the one hand, we are a multi-faith society and, on the other, we are largely secular. The previous population census indicated that 85 per cent of the population described themselves as people of faith. However, statistics aside, it is far from clear to me that my brothers and sisters of faith, and indeed of no faith, feel less keenly than me about the importance of a father's role in the life of a growing child. The Joint Committee called for an ethical framework to be established at the heart of this Bill so that decisions are based not on the potential offence rendered but on the highest ethical standards in conjunction with considerations of the welfare of the child. Such a framework is sadly missing. I support the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans in calling for an ethics committee to be set up as a matter of urgency. What we have in the Bill, rather than those high ethical standards, is, on the contrary, a signal being sent that everyone has a right to a child and that this right overrules consideration of the child's welfare. The rationale given in the White Paper for removing the need of a child for a father was so as to appear not to discriminate against same-sex couples or single mothers who wanted to have a child through IVF. The Government's response is based not on the welfare of the child but on the desire of those who feel that they should have a child as of right, without the need of a father.

The right of a prospective parent to have a child by any means necessary must not triumph over the welfare of children brought into the world as a result of the treatment authorised under the current legislation. The Government are bowing to the argument that, if single people and gay and lesbian couples can legally adopt, the same permission must therefore be given if they wish to commission a child using IVF. That is a non-sequitur, because the situations are markedly different; in adoption, the hospitality of a home is being offered to already existing children who have had the misfortune, through circumstances or necessity, to lose or be removed from the constant love of their own parents. Bringing the care of an adoptive home to a needy child is a wholly different circumstance to deciding in advance to use IVF technology to bring into the world a child who will, by design, never have a father. If discrimination is indeed the issue here, surely the greater discrimination is in ensuring that a child will never have any chance of knowing its natural father—a question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin. While I have sympathy with the evidence given by the chair of the Infertility Network UK for those who feel that they are denied access to childbirth under these treatments through a lack of a father, if we are to be serious about the paramount place of child welfare in this Bill, that means such welfare taking precedence over the desires of those who want a child as of right. The child's right not to be deliberately deprived of a father is greater than any right to commission a child by IVF.

As the Government have previously acknowledged,

"the welfare of children cannot always be adequately protected by concern for the interests of the adults involved".

The Government have often championed the slogan of "rights and responsibility" and the need to recognise the duty and responsibility that goes alongside any talk of rights. How does such talk fit with the proposals before us? What responsibility are we encouraging in the sperm or egg donor? While there is recognition of the need to treat embryos with due responsibility elsewhere in this legislation, do we absolve those who created the embryo of all responsibility for their child? There is an unhealthy theme of rampant indifference at the heart of this Bill, rooted in a consumerist mentality in which the science that allows something to happen is transformed into the right to have it. The "cogito ergo sum" of Descartes—"I think therefore I am"—becomes the consumerist mantra, "I shop therefore I am" or "Tesco ergo sum". The competing individualist arias of "I, I, I" and "me, me, me" provide the mood music for an individualism that posits the right of a wannabe parent over the welfare of a child. This virus of individualistic consumerism which informs a rights-based mentality is alien to those of us who come from another place—Africa—where they say, "I am because we are: I belong therefore I am".

The laws that are passed in this your Lordships' House are more than mere regulation. The law is a statement of public policy. This is not about messages which are sent out about what is or is not acceptable in terms of family arrangements, but more fundamentally about the roles of parents, and in particular the need for a father where possible. In Clause 14 of this Bill, the Government run the risk of fundamentally altering the paramount importance of the welfare of the child, as set out in legislative terms almost 20 years ago in the Children Act 1989, and to place the interests of adults, in the form of prospective parents, above those of the child. Together with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, the noble Lords, Lord Alton, Lord Jenkin and Lord Hastings, and the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, I urge the Government to drop Clause 14 of this Bill. The rest is very good but I do not think that this is. We shall not be content with this clause.