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4.39 pm

Geraldine Smith (Morecambe and Lunesdale) (Lab): I welcome this extremely important debate. The matters before us are complex and they raise numerous deep moral and ethical principles that are highly emotive, as we have already seen, controversial and often divisive—so much so that the Science and Technology Committee was split down the middle when it discussed the report. Five members were for the report and five were against. I was unable to support many of the report’s recommendations. In their response, the Government adopted a much more measured and cautious approach, which I welcome.

I find the attitude adopted by some representatives of the scientific community quite chilling. They appear to believe that the only restrictions that should be placed on their activities are the limitations imposed by their own scientific capabilities. They display a total lack of concern for the moral, ethical, religious and social issues involved, and view those who seek to restrict their activities as modern-day luddites out to wreck their scientific looms. In return, I view those people as 21st century Dr. Frankensteins. They reaffirm my conviction that we must have a strict regulatory regime in place to govern their activities.

I said earlier that this is an important debate. We are discussing the creation, the scientific manipulation and the taking of human life, and the laws applicable to those activities. I shall restrict my remarks to one aspect of the report, which I feel has not been adequately dealt with by the Select Committee or the Government in their response. There is so much in the report that I could speak for three hours on the various recommendations, but I choose to restrict my comments to one area about which I have concerns—the destruction of human life by means of abortion.

Let me make my personal position clear. I would never have an abortion, or I hope I never would, but I do not want to drive women back to back-street abortions. I realise that one cannot have simplistic views; the issue can be complex. Women can be under huge pressures to have abortions. Sometimes it is not an informed choice. It is not the woman’s right to choose. She is often under pressure to have an abortion.

As has been said, there is growing concern about the abortion law in the UK. Our current law is out of date and is in urgent need of reform. I know that there is widespread public support across the country for that
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view, not least among those in the medical profession who have the task of killing perfectly formed, healthy foetuses, particularly when they perform abortions close to the 24-week limit.

Dr. Iddon: For the record, does my hon. Friend accept that there is so much in the report for discussion that the Committee decided deliberately to avoid abortion as one of the topics?

Geraldine Smith: Yes, there was so much to discuss. We see today the emotions that are aroused when abortion is mentioned. It is sometimes difficult to have a sensible debate because the pro and anti-abortionists are at each other’s throat, but it is time to have that debate.

The legalised taking of human life under the current legislation has not been debated or amended for the past 16 years. Recommendation 77—

Dr. Desmond Turner (Brighton, Kemptown) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that this debate concerns human reproductive therapies and the law, not abortion? Abortion is covered by entirely separate legislation. It is fine to debate abortion, but it is a separate debate and should be kept quite separate.

Geraldine Smith: I will come to my reasons for mentioning abortion. Recommendation 77 of the Select Committee, on which my hon. Friend served, states:

Recommendation 78 states:

I have no problem with that. However, I think it fair that I should comment, given that we mentioned abortion and the need for a Joint Committee in our report.

The Government say in paragraph 106 of their response that they accept recommendation 78, but their response to recommendation 77 is unsatisfactory. Paragraph 105 states:

Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): The hon. Lady might remember that the initial legislation, the Abortion Act 1967, was introduced as a private Member’s Bill, but the Government of the day gave it time in order that it could be enacted. Does she accept that during the passage of that Bill and of the Human
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Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990, huge pressure was put on people on both sides to come to a certain conclusion?

Geraldine Smith: I think that the Government should be leading this debate, because there is concern across the country. It is not just about allowing parliamentary time if a private Member’s Bill comes up—they should be making time properly to discuss the issue. Before doing so, they should of course have all the available scientific and medical evidence on the changes that have taken place in society since the Abortion Act 1967 and the most recent amendment to the legislation in 1990.

The current law on abortions was established in the Abortion Act, with a time limit for abortion set at the 28th week of pregnancy. That was reduced to the 24th week by amendment to section 37 of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act. The central criterion underpinning the time span was that the foetus would not be able to survive outside the mother’s womb at that stage of its development. Following advances in technology and medical care, there is now strong evidence that foetuses are far more developed at a much earlier stage than was previously thought, so that they are able to survive outside their mother’s womb as early as 18 weeks. That undermines the key principle in relation to the formulation of the time limits. When life can be carried on independently of the mother, surely the foetus, or baby, has human rights of its own.

The Government state in their response, however, that they have

Does that mean they have already considered the available evidence and concluded that they are perfectly happy with the current legislation and see no need for change? If so, they should be honest and say so, giving their reasons for reaching such a conclusion. Or do they believe that all the issues surrounding this matter need to be more fully examined? If so, why have not they supported the Committee’s recommendation on the establishment of a Joint Committee? Or do they believe, as they seem to suggest at the end of paragraph 105 of their response, that this is nothing to do with them and that it is up to Back Benchers to sort it out because that is what happened in the past? If so, I would accuse them of abrogating their responsibilities on this issue. While they are correct in their judgment that it is a matter of personal belief and conscience, and must therefore be decided by a free vote in both Houses, that does not absolve them of their responsibilities and prevent them from leading the debate.

I am sure that Ministers and Back Benchers are well aware that this issue will not go away and that pressure for a review of the law on abortion will continue to grow. I would welcome the Minister’s response to the points that I have outlined.

4.49 pm

Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): I am grateful to be called in the debate, which takes me back to 1990 and all the issues that were debated then. I went underground for the next 10 years, having had rather too much of them because they were exceptionally
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difficult and took a lot out of one as well as much time. However, they are exceptionally important and evergreen.

I want to focus on two issues in relation to the Science and Technology Committee’s consultation and report. I begin by commending the fact that the consultation’s terms of reference were comprehensive and rigorous. The Committee consulted extensively— online, through oral submissions and by encouraging written submissions. It was a truly committed initiative, which extended far beyond the usual time schedules involved in such consultation exercises. A little bird told me that the Committee even went to Rome to consult the Vatican. I thought that that was a good move, and I do not speak as a Roman Catholic. It must have been the first time in history that a Select Committee took evidence from the Vatican.

The report is, sadly, not to be universally celebrated and it is worth remembering from the start the amount of internal and public disquiet that surrounded its publication. The Committee was split down the middle, as the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith) said. I commend her bravery in raising an issue that perhaps other hon. Members would have preferred her not to raise. It was right and proper that she did so. Only the vote of the distinguished Chairman, the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson)—

Dr. Gibson: The Chairman would have loved to vote but he did not need to do that. The majority of Committee members voted for the report.

Ann Winterton: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making his position clear.

Geraldine Smith: To add further clarification, the vote on the report took place in the last days of the previous Parliament, in the run-up to the general election. Many of the members who opposed the report could not be present at the vote. I am sure that the Chairman accepts that five members supported the report and five opposed it.

Ann Winterton: Again, I am grateful to the hon. Lady. We all know what pressures are on Committees to reach a conclusion, and the period just before a general election is perhaps not the best time to do so. The hon. Lady has made what happened clear.

The formal minutes of the meetings that cover the approval of the report are a record of the dissent. In the days that followed its publication, the nation and media were almost unanimously up in arms over issues such as animal-human hybrids, germ-line manipulation, reproductive cloning, social sex selection and other hugely controversial proposals, which form part of the report’s recommendations.

Further to the validity of the recommendations—104 in all—the next point to consider is the extent to which they reflected the thrust of the evidence that the Committee received during its year’s extended consultation. For those who attended the oral evidence sessions—I am the first to admit that I did not—read
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the written evidence and followed the online consultation, it is impossible to accept that the Committee’s controversial recommendations relate in any way to the evidence that it received from the vast majority of participants.

A trio of postgraduate students took time to analyse the material and concluded that the weight of evidence was, for the greater part, conservative in its content and in favour of maintaining the status quo, not deviating significantly from the consensus reached in 1990 on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act. The rationale behind the report was the intention to bring the Act up to date in the light of scientific advances. Technology might move fast, but that does not mean that our ethical concerns or the philosophical underpinnings of society and the law have altered radically—as the report would have us believe—if, indeed, they have altered at all. The Act needs to be reconnected not with modern science but with the interests and values of society at large. Some would even argue that those values have become more restrictive than they were at the time of the Warnock report, not least because many developments that were not anticipated at the time have been received with huge distaste by the public. Social sex selection is a classic example. While it attracts support in the maverick Science and Technology Committee report, 85 per cent. of public opinion polls register total opposition to such a proposal.

Warnock is cited by the report, but defended on a cherry-picking basis. The protection for the embryo enshrined in the original Act, for example, has been completely bypassed. On what justification? It is on the opinion of five Members of Parliament. Cherry-picking is applied even more openly to ethical opinions and citations. The continued references to John Harris, Julian Savulescu, Emily Jackson and others who hold similar beliefs are nothing more than a blatant endorsement of libertarian minority opinions.

The philosophical basis of the report is a selective mixture of some rights and harm principles. The rights, however, are limited to the reproductive rights of the adult, and leave little space for the rights of children, let alone the broader rights of society as a whole. The harm principle is limited exclusively to physical harms, and there is no wish to engage with broader, deeper concerns. That is to be regretted.

I wish to speak about the rights and welfare of children, not least because the matter has been in the news recently, perhaps because of the publicity given to the statements made by the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris), who is now in his place, having not been present earlier in the debate. I understand that he wishes to remove from the Act part of section 13(5), which refers to the welfare of the child. I have to admit that I was one of those responsible for the inclusion in the original Act of the need of a child for a father, and I shall read that subsection to the House:

3 July 2006 : Column 541

It was I who encouraged my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) to table a very small amendment on that issue. It was the only one that we on this side of the argument managed to get accepted by the House on that occasion. I might add that that was the only time that I have been a Teller and been on the winning side. In fact, from that point of view, the whole of my parliamentary career has been an absolute disaster. However, I was very proud of that one small amendment, because it meant a great deal.

Perhaps that is why the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon is now trying to get the provision removed. He is, in effect, recommending the deliberate creation of fatherless children, whether to single or lesbian women, on the basis that

is a discriminatory phrase that should not have been included in the Act in the first place. However, it was obvious, when the Act was passed, that the wise intention of Parliament was to place the welfare of the child at the centre of our focus. The welfare of the child obviously extended to his or her right to a father. That is what the House voted on and for in those days.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): I am sure that the hon. Lady was not chastising me for not being present in the Chamber, as I had told both Front Benches and the Speaker’s office that I was voting in a Select Committee. What evidence does she have that the welfare of the child is protected by this measure? Can she cite studies that show that children of lesbian couples, conceived by donor insemination, or of solo parents—women who specifically seek pregnancy when they do not have a partner—are damaged in that way? The Select Committee found that the evidence was on the other side, and that the provision was therefore unnecessary.

Ann Winterton: My earlier comments were not meant as—

Mr. Walker: Admonishment.

Ann Winterton: I thank my hon. Friend. I am grateful, however, that the hon. Gentleman has made his position clear. I could produce evidence, and evidence has been provided, but I do not have it with me this afternoon. As a mother of three and grandmother of seven, I, like most of my constituents and the majority of people in the United Kingdom, believe that it is better and right that a child has a mother and a father wherever possible, and that it is wrong to create a new life artificially without a mother and a father who will be in that child’s life from the very beginning. We all know of examples of children who have been brought up by single parents, either male or female, who have done a splendid job, and I do not knock that in any way. However, the artificial creation of such a situation is wrong. As we are allowed to express our view in the House, I hope that I have done so clearly.

I believe that the child is discriminated against by writing out the need for a father. Were we to take the hon. Gentleman’s position to its extreme, it could be argued that a preference for a mother is also discriminatory.
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Will we also see attempts to write out the child’s need for a mother from the Act? Will we next ask for the reproductive rights of single men to be protected? Do they, too, have a right to have children, without the need for a mother? I ask all those questions with my tongue in cheek.

Geraldine Smith: Does the hon. Lady agree that it is not just a question of evidence but of common sense? Most people in the country would think that it makes sense to start a child’s life with a mother and a father. Of course, there are terrific single parents who do a wonderful job. If we are looking for a basis to create a child, however, surely it should start with two parents—a mother and a father.

Ann Winterton: The hon. Lady has put far better than I ever could exactly what I and the majority of people in this country believe.

Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a deep strain of antipathy towards co-parenting on the Government Benches? When we debated the Children and Adoption Bill some weeks ago, the Government set their face completely against the principle of co-parenting, even when we argued strongly for the paramountcy of the welfare of the child. From birth through to adulthood, co-parenting is being opposed by the Liberal Democrats and the Government.

Ann Winterton: My hon. Friend has made his point clearly. I agree that, in any arrangements made, the rights of the child must be paramount at all times.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Will the hon. Lady correct the suggestion that the points of view that she expresses in this regard are confined to the Conservative Benches? Such views also find voice on the Labour Benches, and the picture is not as simplistic as the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson) suggests.

Ann Winterton: I agree 100 per cent. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have worked closely on these issues for a long time. I was chairman of the all-party pro-life group for 10 years, which is a genuinely all-party group. These matters go far beyond party politics. I hope that that reassures the hon. Gentleman.

We must move outside the parameters of absurd political correctness and gratuitous gender politics, and acknowledge once and for all that a child benefits from the security of a father and a mother within a stable family environment. The original Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act enshrined many concerns about the welfare of children in that regard.

Emily Thornberry (Islington, South and Finsbury) (Lab): Is not the main requirement for the welfare of children, which is paramount, that they be born into a loving family—that they be wanted children, eagerly anticipated? Is it not true that children have the best chance in life, whatever the type of home into which they are born, if they are born into a home that wants them?

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