Over the course of the next two days, the ‘Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill’ will be debated in the HofC. Tonight, the creation of hybrid embryos was given parliamentary consent. Details on this aspect of the bill plus others are laid out below
· The creation of hybrid embryos: These are mixes of animal and human tissue. Scientists say it would help tackle diseases such Parkinson’s. Opponents say it is tampering with nature and is unethical. Debate from 1530 BST Monday, vote due at about 1830 BST.
This is the topic that has attracted most coverage in recent days, although, personally, this is the least controversial aspect of the bill. This work is championed in the best traditions of medical research – the good that it could do, the pain and suffering it might alleviate – and the possible benefits more than outweigh the problematic ethics of combining 0.01% of animal DNA with 99.9% human. Although I can perfectly understand others might diseent. I doubt, however, they are related to Lily Shepherd, who is the seventh member of her immediate family to contract motor neurone disease.
· Saviour siblings: These are babies born from embryos selected because they are a tissue match for a sick older brother or sister with a genetic condition. Supporters say it helps children who have exhausted all other hope of treatment. Opponents fear children are created as saviour siblings alone, not because they are a wanted child. Debate on Monday from about 1830 BST, with vote at about 2200 BST.
Again, I have little quarrel with this. Parents ‘want’ children for a myriad of reasons that extend beyond the desire to produce offspring just for the sake of it. Whether it’s to ensure little Johnny/Janey has a sister/brother, or because the family business needs an heir. Indeed, thousands of parents every year give birth to children that they didn’t originally ‘want’ at all, but this doesn’t impair their ability to provide the love and nurturing children require. This may be eugenics of a kind, but it’s a long way from gender and eye-colour selection for purely lifestyle or cosmetic reasons.
· The upper limit for abortion: Amendments have been put down to the bill to cut from 24 weeks the time limit for abortions. Supporters say babies born at 24 weeks are increasingly likely to survive. Opponents says studies do not support that. Debate on Tuesday from 1830 BST, with votes at about 2200 BST.
A reduction in the abortion time limit to 20 weeks would still leave us way above the 12-14 week limitation applied in most European states, but I’d support any move in this direction, especially if it was accompanied by legislation that made it easier for women to seek an abortion and did away with the need for 2 GPs to give their consent. Many of the states where the lower limit is in operation have an official abortion on demand policy. Either way, this subject has been debated many times and I’d rather this thread focused on the aspect of the bill that causes me the most concern.
· Role of fathers in fertility treatment: Would end the requirement for IVF clinics to consider the “welfare” of any child created in terms of need for a father. Those in favour say it would end bar to lesbian couples and single women. Opponents say it denigrates the role of fathers in a child’s life. Debate from 1530 BST Tuesday, with vote at about 1830 BST.
It’s worth pointing out at this stage that I don’t doubt for one nano-second that 2 lesbians, 2 gay men, or indeed 2 heterosexuals of the same sex who just happen to be cohabiting can all provide loving homes for their children and the children of others. All reasonable people should be able to agree this. Unlike the other aspects of the bill, however, this issue really is about legislating to deliver lifestyle choices. Nobody is going to needlessly die and stay sick if this legislation does not pass. Obviously, the same is true of all fertility treatment programs, including those that help a traditional mother and father couple have children they otherwise would not be able to produce. But isn’t there are difference between using medical science to right the wrongs of a sometimes cruel nature, and reversing the naturally occurring consequences of being born male or female? Heterosexual couples who cannot have their own children are suffering a disability of sorts; gay and lesbian couples are not.
Now, people are free to spend their money any way they see fit. Changing the physiologically-determined destiny of the individual as a matter of preference is fine if we are talking about an adult opting to have a tummy tuck, penis extension or boob job. Or even a sex-change. I don’t see it as the business of the state to interfere in such choices. But there is someone else involved here. Existing legislation demands that IVF clinics consider the ‘welfare’ of any child produced as a result of fertility treatment and currently that means considering the need for a father. This has not and should not mean that single women or lesbian couples are denied access to fertility treatment as a matter of course, rather, it simply means that the presence/absence of a father – along with the stability of a relationship and any number of other relevant factors – is taken account when assessing the suitability of prospective parents for fertility treatment.
The two main arguments against the legal status quo are:
1 – it discriminates against lesbian couples and single women
2 – the presence of a father should not qualify as a default benignant influence.
The first objection has some validity. The question is, should this bother us? It’s entirely true, for example, that those of meagre income and unfortunate enough to be in tempestuous relationships, not to mention those whose jobs require them to relocate family at regular intervals, are all discriminated against in the matter of fertility treatment. None of these should be the single determining factor, but each is one of many. It’s impossible to practice a policy which means decisions are taken in the best interests of the child and not discriminate against different subsets of prospective parents. There will always be men and women who fall foul to such a policy and often for reasons well beyond their immediate control. The hope is that all factors are considered and decisions taken on the basis of all positive and negative influences. The only way to avoid this is to do away with the provision that decisions are always taken in the best interests of the child, which is no way for a civilized society to operate.
The second objection is, in my view at least, borderline wilful ignorance. Again, I must stress that I don’t need to be convinced that some fathers are utter bastards and/or that some non-traditional families can provide equal if not better child-rearing environments than the traditional. That said – and however difficult it is to generalize in these matters – we must anyway and the optimal arrangement for rearing a child is a mother and father. Darwinism has taught us that even if years of social studies have not.
Before we get cracking in the comments, please keep in mind that I am not arguing for the denial of access to fertility treatment for lesbian couples or single women. I’m arguing that we continue to place some value on the presence of a father during a child’s formative years. To relegate fatherhood to a sub-trivial status whereby it’s not even considered a ‘nice to have’, is a new low watermark in concessions to the ‘I want’ culture that pervades modern society.