The need for a father? What the Lords said
In January during the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill’s Report stage in the Lords there were strong objections from bishops and some Tory peers, but an amendment by Tory peer Baroness Deech seeking to retain the “need for a father” was defeated by 164 to 93.
The Bishop of St Albans and the Archbishop of York both spoke in favour of the amendment.
Health minister Lord Darzi explained the government’s position:
“It is generally considered to be beneficial for a child to have a mother and a father, and many fathers play a significant and important role in their children’s lives,” he told the House.
“We also recognise that same-sex couples and single mothers can, and do, offer loving and supportive environments for raising children.
“Parliament has passed legislation allowing the legal recognition of civil partnerships and preventing discrimination on the grounds of sex and sexual orientation.
“In line with this government policy, the Bill provides for civil partners and same-sex female couples to be named as the parents on birth certificates. We feel that retaining the need-for-a-father provision, or indeed any other provision that mentioned a mother and a father, would be inconsistent with the wider government policy of promoting equality.”
Baroness Deech said her position was a point of legal principle:
“Speaking as an academic lawyer, I think that the principle in law is very important, almost regardless of what has happened in practice.
“To remove the need for parents sends an unfortunate signal. Moreover, the Government, rightly, have encouraged paternity leave as well as maternity leave.
“They encourage child support from fathers. They, as do the judges, encourage contact with fathers after divorce. They encourage the registration of a father’s name on the birth certificate. They have ended the anonymity of sperm donors. Why, if they are not important?
“With all the drawbacks of reduced numbers of donors, why has anonymity been ended? Why is there a drive to tell children who their fathers were, if not for the simple reason that to know your father is a good thing?
“As the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child says, the child has a right to know and, if possible, to be cared for by its parents. That is the one basic ethical principle that I believe should be in our law.”
Lord Tebbit, the former Tory Cabinet minister, was one of those opposed to removing the responsibility entrusted to IVF clinics to consider the need for a father from legislation and replacing it with “supportive parenting.”
“A child’s life prospects are better if it grows up in a family, with a father and a mother, than if it lacks either of them. In general, these are indisputable facts,” he said.
“This Bill, as drafted, tends to marginalise fathers. That is true, but it is not the worst of it.
“This Bill concentrates so much on the alleged right of a mother to have a child that it forgets the right of a child to have a pair of parents-a mother and a father.
As for human rights law, do not children have human rights? Does not an unborn child have rights?
“Indeed, perhaps one could extend it to the concept that a child not yet conceived, has a right? I think it does. It has a human right to a father and a mother. We should ensure that we do all we can to see that that is carried through.”
Lord Alli, one of two openly gay peers, spoke in favour of lesbian and gay parents:
“The consideration of the potential need for a father should not outweigh the assessment of whether potentially a lesbian gay couple would make good parents or whether a single woman would make a good parent,” he said.
“No one is trying to substitute the biological father. The Bill is simply trying to allow same-sex couples and single women to have equal access to fertility clinics instead of taking alternative informal routes.
“It is with some regret that I read some of the claims made during Second Reading about the endurability of same-sex relationships and the suitability of lesbian and gay people as parents.
“This Bill will, for the first time, enable two women in a committed relationship to consider starting a family with, and this is the important point, the support of the fertility clinic.
“The Bill would allow the women to start their family with the support of the fertility clinic. The present requirement upon such clinics is to support the potential need for a father before granting the treatment.
“That can encourage some women to make informal arrangements outside the protection of formal healthcare and that should be avoided.
“This is a narrow and specific question, not a broader one of fatherhood. No one is trying to replace the father. It will not deter many of these women from having children. It will simply drive them away from the services they pay for and have a right to expect.”
Perhaps the most impressive speech was from Lib Dem peer Lord Carlile. He spoke about his daughter, who is in a civil partnership and has two children.
“The daughter in question, my middle daughter, is a solicitor, and her partner is an accountant. They are – if they will forgive me – as square as a box,” he explained to his fellow peers.
“They live in a provincial town in England, in a splendid semi-detached house with double-glazed new windows and a Vauxhall Zafira sitting in the drive.
“Their child, my grandson, is the picture of health and his parents are morally exemplary. They happen to be married to each other through a civil partnership and they are both female.
“I hear the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, unhelpfully muttering from a sedentary position. I do not expect to persuade him, and I am sure that he will do me the politeness of giving me a quiet and fair hearing.
“My daughter and her partner became parents by going to a well run, highly respected fertility clinic. Their second child will be a full sibling of their first child, my existing grandson by that marriage.
“The child is clever and articulate; I suspect that he may be the brightest of my grandchildren, but do not tell the others. My daughter and her civil partner have many friends who have been through the same process, and I have met several of them.
“They are typical of such couples: respectable, decent, honest and rather squarer than the prejudices held by many about such couples.
“They abhor the idea of people going on the black market to dishonest fertilisers-sperm donors-who already exist in this country. I know from pretty reliable anecdote that there are people in London who are prepared to be sperm donors informally, in their bathroom or kitchen, in the most disgusting way.
“They are unregulated, the health risks are enormous, and they can be accessed via the internet. If same-sex couples like my daughter and daughter-in-law are driven on to the black market for sperm donors, we will have a health disaster on our hands.
“But they may well feel driven to do that if the law is drawn in the way suggested in the debate.
“I urge your Lordships to hold back from imposing what are really old prejudices, however conscientiously felt, on the modern world of civil partnerships.
“To those of us who have walked in and out of prisons, in and out of courtrooms whether as advocates or judges, who have been Members of the other place and have had large numbers of people coming to see us week after week privately about their personal problems, I say this: in the real world, what is offered by conscientious same-sex couples probably exceeds in quality the majority of what is offered even by heterosexual couples.
“There is no reason to discriminate against them. So I invite noble Lords to remember that we are in 2008. We need to recognise the reality of our modern age.”
The Lords voted to defeat the amendment by 164 to 93.
MPs will be debating and voting on the Bill today, with Labour MPs getting a free vote on the issue of the “need for a father.”