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Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill [HL]

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:32 pm on 19th November 2007.

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Photo of Baroness Emerton Baroness Emerton Crossbench 6:32 pm, 19th November 2007

My Lords, I speak, having heard the erudite contributions from the House this afternoon, feeling very much a novice and lacking depth of information. I have carefully read the Bill and the findings of the Joint Committee and the Select Committee, and I have listened carefully to the Minister's excellent introduction to the Bill this afternoon, but I still have concerns which I wish to express.

The findings of the Select Committee and the Joint Committee illustrate that there is not only dissension, including a minority report, but a lack of scientific backing to some of the statements and an absence of bioethical views, which the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans very clearly expounded this afternoon, on this extremely complex and important subject, which concerns human life. The Bill requires detailed scrutiny to ensure that these core issues, which affect human life, are given the widest consideration. The draft Bill published in May 2007 allowed a consultation period of only three and a half weeks. The noble Baroness, Lady Jay, referred to the need for public consultation. I agree, because it seems that the public and patient groups have had very little opportunity to voice their views on a subject that has far-reaching consequences for society as a whole and touches the very roots of human dignity.

Many speakers have already mentioned the welfare of the child. UNICEF recently drew attention to the well-being of children, and stated that Britain's position is very low compared with that of other developed nations. It is hard to see how the Bill can remedy this when, instead of proposing greater access for the child to the father in IVF treatment, Her Majesty's Government show no proper regard for the child. How could a child ever be able to discover his or her genetic identity? Is it not the right of every human? This requires special scrutiny.

As I said, I in no way profess to be an expert in this subject, but I am concerned that this legislation might lead to a significant change in the Abortion Act. Although the Bill does not mention abortion, it replaces the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990, which changed the Abortion Act 1967. That could open up the Abortion Act to possible amendment. Here I declare an interest as a retired nurse and midwife. Abortion is always a contentious issue, with one lobby for further liberalisation of the law, including abortions on demand and abortions performed by nurses and midwives not solely medically but by surgical intervention. The other view is that it is time to review the Abortion Act because abortion rates in this country have rocketed to an all-time high of 200,000 a year—roughly 600 a day—which gives rise to the growing concern of the public and indeed of parliamentarians.

We live in an era of social change and medical and scientific advances in understanding the development of the unborn child. European statistics on social abortions show that we have the highest rate in Europe, where the average upper limit is 13 weeks. Ours is 24 weeks. We have greater knowledge of the medical and psychological effects of abortion on the woman and an ever-increasing number of teenage pregnancies, many for the second time or more. Does this not point to the urgent need for an audit of the options presented to women going to an abortion clinic, such as whether they are ready for an abortion or will consider adoption, and whether they have had proper contraceptive advice? Surely there is an opportunity for a committee to consider the information if we move towards a review of abortion.

Nurses and midwives are regulated by the Nursing and Midwifery Council within the current legislation. Neither nurses nor midwives can carry out abortions; it is against the law. There is also the conscience clause, which allows the nurse or midwife not to take part in the process of abortion. Both nurses and midwives can progress through post-registration education and training programmes to become advanced practitioners, but there is currently no register for advanced practitioners and no formal mechanism for regulating their practice. The absence of regulation would put the public at risk. If the law changed to allow nurses or midwives to carry out abortions, this would pose a risk to the woman in these circumstances. In addition, the role of the midwife would present a conflict of interest in that the midwife is the professional with responsibility for the safe antenatal care of mother and baby, culminating in the safe delivery of a baby and a well mother, not for taking part in the abortion process.

As the Bill passes through its various stages in Parliament, there will be opportunity for noble Lords to scrutinise very thoroughly the wide range of changes that the Bill brings, and I look forward to participating in its passage.