Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill [HL]

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:32 pm on 21st November 2007.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Clarke of Hampstead Lord Clarke of Hampstead Labour 4:32 pm, 21st November 2007

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".—[Hansard, 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.