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Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill [HL]

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:50 pm on 19th November 2007.

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Photo of Baroness Warnock Baroness Warnock Crossbench 6:50 pm, 19th November 2007

My Lords, I greatly welcome the Bill. It is timely and necessary to update the 1990 Act. Like other noble Lords, I am especially pleased that the Government have decided to keep the HFEA—whose creation was the cornerstone of the 1990 Act—in being as a separate entity, thus preserving its continuity and its authority.

It is worth remembering—as many noble Lords have remembered—the history of the Bill, and the changes that have taken place since 1978 when the first IVF baby was born. I shall not bore your Lordships with the familiar details. However, it is worth remarking that when the committee of inquiry that I had the honour to chair was set up in 1982, we were concerned primarily with IVF and other remedies for infertility. It was in that context that the question of the moral status of the early embryo in the laboratory became the centre of moral controversy. Such an entity—a live human embryo outside the human body—was wholly new to the lay public, though not to the scientists who had been working for many years to make such an embryo possible. It was because of that novelty that regulation seemed necessary at that time and has continued to seem necessary to many people. I share the view of the noble Lord, Lord Winston, that it should not be heavy-handed but, as a result of the history of the legislation, we are in a position where regulation will continue. It is futile to suggest that we now go back and have no regulation, nor would I advocate that.

The centre of our report was the regulation of remedies for infertility, but we ventured to put in a single chapter listing the possible future uses of the new embryology in the wider context of genetic disease. In those days, we had no concept of stem cell research. In the more or less six years that passed between the publication of the report and the passage of what became the 1990 Act, the emphasis shifted considerably, and during the passage of the Bill in your Lordships' House many of those who voted in favour of it did so on account of the wider applications of the benefits. Although they are perhaps more distant now than seemed probable then, they have so vastly increased that they constitute a positive moral imperative upon government to allow research to continue, to be properly funded and to be regulated with not too heavy a touch. The passionate commitment to the research shown by the noble Lord, Lord Walton, did a lot to change the minds of many Members of Parliament at that time.

It is often remarked that since 1990 there have been huge changes not only in knowledge and technology but in social and moral attitudes among people at large. The passage of the Human Rights Act may be taken as symbolic of those changes. There has certainly been a change in the readiness of society and government to countenance a variety of different forms of family, including same-sex partnerships. It seems consistent with such attitudes to remove from the Bill the requirement that, for assisted conception to be offered, account must be taken of the need of the child for a father. However, this is already highly controversial. It is a clause that is capable of being interpreted as discriminatory, and with that I have a certain, rather mild, sympathy. However, judging by the huge piles of correspondence that I, like other noble Lords, have received, it has been taken to be a statement that the old forms of family are no longer necessary and, particularly, that men have no use in the procreation of children. That does not seem the intention of the Government, but if that is how it is widely interpreted it ought to stay in the Bill, partly because it has always been a pretty ineffective bit of legislation. That and the reference to the welfare of the child seemed pretty wishy-washy in 1990 and still do now, and I doubt whether that consideration has ever caused a change in a decision on whether to offer in vitro fertilisation. On the committee, we used to spend many happy hours inventing cases where we would think it wrong to allow a couple who wanted IVF to have it—known child abusers or people who were more interested in their own careers for whom the child would be an accessory—so we put the stuff about the welfare of the child in the report. It has done no harm. I do not think the bit about the need for a father has done any harm either, but I very much doubt it has made any difference. Therefore, I would be quite happy to see it still there.

At the centre of the moral thinking behind the 1990 Act was a broad utilitarianism. Changes may have come about, and we may all be much more rights-oriented than we were before the passage of the then Human Rights Bill, but in that moral thinking there was very little consideration of human rights. It was much more a broad utilitarian consideration, and I must say a few words in favour of utilitarianism as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans spoke rather slightingly about it. As legislators, parliamentarians have to be utilitarian in the broadest possible sense. 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. It is a morality that gives thought to the common good in so far as it can be ascertained. That is an important principle. On the committee, we thought that utilitarianism in this broad sense was the philosophy that must lie behind any legislation—weighing up harms against benefits, which in the sphere of animal experimentation is rather misleadingly called cost-benefit analysis.

The fact that there was no emphasis on human rights—there is none in the Bill—is one reason why it would be so deplorable to confuse the issues before your Lordships' House if an amendment concerned with abortion policy were tabled. Although it is true that the Abortion Act and the Bill are concerned, in different ways, with the status of the embryo, in the case of abortion the question of rights seems inevitably about to arise. Some of your Lordships will remember that in 1990 the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, reminded the House that we were in danger of losing the Bill altogether because of the amendment referring to abortion that was tabled at a very late stage.

At this stage, I must in justice call attention to the enormous part that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, played in getting the 1990 Bill through this House and on to the statute book. When I was in Cambridge teaching about this issue, all I used to do was read aloud the speech that he made from the Woolsack when he was putting the issues before the House in the clearest possible way. Ever since, I have had the greatest admiration for that bit of parliamentary procedure.

We must resist any attempt to foul the waters now with talking about the Abortion Act, even though we may passionately feel that it needs to be revised. We must, in fact, continue to do as we did in 1990, with our admirable philosophical practice of distinguishing things that differ.