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Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill [HL]

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:14 pm on 19th November 2007.

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Photo of Baroness Masham of Ilton Baroness Masham of Ilton Crossbench 7:14 pm, 19th November 2007

My Lords, I and many people outside your Lordship's House are concerned about some aspects of the Bill. It warrants serious scrutiny, which I am confident your Lordships will provide. We are living in a very fast-moving scientific era.

The Bill seeks to revise the regulation of embryos and makes provision to ban the selection of embryos on the ground of sex. It does not, however, offer the same safeguards for disability. What logic is there in banning sex selection on the one hand when, on the other, disabled people could be terminated because they are not perfect?

Does the Bill open doors which may cause a morally dangerous strand to life? Mixing animal and human life is disturbing as it is so against nature. Both human and animal life should be respected.

I am one of your Lordships who feel that, where possible, there should be a mother and father in the life of a child. The importance of fathers has been well illustrated by some of the children who have recently lost their fathers in the tragedies of war. The Bill does not respect the importance of fathers. For some time, when people have become paralysed by breaking their backs or necks and they may not be able to father children in the future, it has been possible for sperm to be taken, stored and used at a later date with the agreement of both partners. I welcome that and it shows the importance of fathers.

Like my noble friends Lord Alton and Lady Emerton, I am concerned about the ever-increasing use of abortion. It is not only this Bill that would allow for selection against disability; the Abortion Act 1967 already selects who will be born and who will not. As someone who has sought to defend disability rights and promote disability awareness, I can think of no greater affront to equal opportunities for those who are disabled than the denial of the right to life itself. It is a source of great shame and reproach for us all that in this country we discriminate against disability, even before birth.

A paediatric plastic surgeon told me that he needed about 29 babies with hare lip defects each year to keep his hand in practice so that he was expert at his job. He is not getting them as he used to because so many are being aborted. When I related this to my secretary, who had been born with such a defect which had been corrected, she was horrified.

Perhaps noble Lords would argue that people with disabilities should not be brought into the world. What, then, of babies aborted as late as childbirth itself for rectifiable disabilities as minor as a cleft palate or a club foot? Your Lordships may remember the case of Joanna Jepson in 2003. She began a legal challenge after police refused to prosecute doctors who carried out a late abortion on a woman who did not want a baby with a cleft palate. Mrs Jepson herself had had corrective surgery on a congenital jaw defect, and she believed that a cleft palate was not a serious handicap. She sought to change a law which said that she should not be alive.

Modern medicine can alleviate these conditions with relative ease. In my view, aborting foetuses with these minor, curable disabilities contravenes the Abortion Act in its own terms. Section 1(1)d of the 1967 Act allows the termination of a pregnancy at any time if there is significant risk of the baby being born "seriously disabled". Many of these conditions are not serious. The law is being abused, even in its own terms.

Equal value is something we must seek to defend and promote: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights requires as much. But the law as it currently stands imposes a perfection test on life. None of us is perfect; we all have our constraints and our strengths. The Government's own disability rights watchdog, the Disability Rights Commission, as it formerly was, is opposed to abortion on the grounds of disability. In 2001, the DRC stated that the section of the Abortion Act which permits abortion on the grounds of disability is,

"offensive to many people; it reinforces negative stereotypes of disability and there is substantial support for the view that to permit terminations at any point during a pregnancy on the ground of risk of disability, while time limits apply to other grounds set out in the Abortion Act, is incompatible with valuing disability and non-disability equally".

The commission continued:

"In common with a wide range of disability and other organisations, the DRC believes the context in which parents choose whether to have a child should be one in which disability and non-disability are valued equally".

The Disability Rights Commission has an official policy opposing abortion on the grounds of disability which it regards as the worst form of discrimination against disabled people. They are completely supported by the Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation which, as the leading network of disabled groups, takes an absolute stand against abortion on the grounds of disability.

One of the most difficult things for people with disability to contend with is the attitude of the able bodied, who obviously think it is better to be dead than disabled. Disabled people should be accommodated, treated where possible, and, above all, valued. It is clear that the current law and the provisions contained within this Bill do not value disabled people. It instead allows them to be got rid of, in the case of the 1967 Act, right up until birth. This is why in Committee, I intend to move amendments at least to stop abortion taking place on the grounds of rectifiable disability in the hope of wider debate about the routine use of eugenics. I hope your Lordships will consider supporting this in respect of equal opportunities to life.

I read with interest in yesterday's Sunday Times that the man who created Dolly the sheep is abandoning cloning in favour of a new technique that produces stem cells without an embryo. Professor Wilmut at Edinburgh University will switch to a revolutionary and less controversial technique pioneered in Japan, in which cells have been developed from fragments of skin.

Also yesterday I was dismayed to hear a statement which said that the budget for animal health might have to be cut. I could hardly believe that this had even been thought of with the state of the drains at the animal health laboratories which deal with live viruses, with the need for development of animal vaccines and with the disasters connected with foot and mouth disease, blue tongue virus, avian flu, tuberculosis in cattle and badgers, dangerous E.coli, equine flu in Australia which might come here, BSE or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, CJD or Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, the National Scrapie Plan and even the ever-increasing dangerous stings from bees and hornets. If the budget were cut at this of all times, it would be false economy in the long run, affect research and development and increase the risk of dangerous infections. The Bill before us has many different strands. We need a safe and acceptable society to live in where government departments work together for the good of mankind.