The Prime Minister’s announcement that Labour MPs will be allowed a free vote on legislation designed to ensure equal treatment for gay and lesbian people has dismayed gay rights groups and angered many in his own party.
The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill currently before Parliament aims to make it easier for lesbian couples to access NHS fertilisation services and ensure that a lesbian or gay couple can become the legal parents of their children.
Tory MPs will be given a free vote on the bill, while the Lib Dems are expected to vote in favour of gay equality in this area, as explicitly promised in their 2005 general election manifesto.
At present the law requires that NHS fertility clinics take account of the “need for a father” when assessing women for treatment.
In practice this can lead to clinics deciding not to accept lesbians and those women instead using “DIY” methods in order to conceive.
“Lesbians tend to be refused service or made to pay for it under the current arrangements,” explained Ruth Hunt, head of policy at gay equality organisation Stonewall.
“Some clinics have a blanket ban on same-sex couples and ultimately it is down to the clinicians.
“That leads many lesbians to have to use informal methods, which can lead to legal difficulties.
“Lesbians should have a choice.”
The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill contains new rules that will allow gay and lesbian couples to become the legal parents of a child conceived through donated sperm.
The provisions also mean that lesbians will have equal access to fertility services, which could mean IVF but is much more likely to mean assisted conception.
“In that context the lesbian would receive the full support and advice on her decision to become a parent and that is why we are very keen on equal access,” said Ms Hunt.
At the moment if a lesbian couple have a baby, one partner has to formally adopt the child in order to be a parent, even if the child is conceived through a fertility clinic.
The new rules would mean that civil partners will automatically become the legal parents of the child, even if the child is conceived ‘informally’ ie: not through a clinic.
The two people named on the birth certificate would also be legally responsible for the child.
On dissolution of a civil partnership the current law allows the courts to consider maintenance payments for the child.
DIY sperm donation will still be legal but under the proposed laws the non-birth mother not in a civil partnership could not be on the birth certificate.
The advantages of using a fertility clinic mean that the donor is registered, and cannot be legally held responsible for the child’s welfare or upkeep.
His name does not appear on the birth certificate.
Details of the donor, such as his last known address, name and medical information are kept and can be shown to the child when he or she reaches 18, or before if the legal parents consent.
For men who may be asked by a lesbian friend to donate sperm, there is the legal reassurance that they can donate informally if they want, become a registered donor, and know that they will not be legally responsible for the child’s maintenance.
The bill passed the Lords after much discussion around the need for a father versus that of supportive parenting.
While Labour MPs will be allowed to vote freely when the legislation first comes before them, they will be expected to ultimately vote with the government to ensure the bill as a whole becomes law.