The widely reported story of the twins separated at birth who, with their true biological origins unknown to them, later married, has led to a timely rekindling of the 'need for a father' debate in the UK. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology (HFE) Bill 2007 is currently going through Parliament and, as it stands, is set to overhaul the guidelines regulating the provision of IVF to make it more easy for lesbian couples and single-mothers to obtain treatment.
The twins, who have not been named, were separated at birth and adopted by different parents. Neither knew that they had a twin. By chance, they met in later life, starting a relationship and ended up marrying. Under UK law, a marriage between a brother and sister would be considered void and the twins were forced to have their marriage annulled.
The ensuing debate has been sparked by fears that in an age where many babies are born through IVF and, as the current law stands, it is not obligatory to inform a person of their true biological origins, the chances of another tragic case like that of the married twins happening again may be higher than before. Lord Alton, who opposes sections of the HFE Bill, has relied upon the twins' case to illustrate his calls for the Government to ensure a child has a right to know the identity of his or her biological parents. 'I think there needs to be more clarity in public records. A birth certificate is a historical document, it is not about your social circumstances', he said. A registry that records every IVF babies' true identity would allow children to search for their genetic parents and make contact if they wished.
Evan Harris, the Liberal Democrat MP who is vociferously backing the Bill's progress through Parliament, has said that he is 'disappointed' that Lord Alton is using such an extremely rare 'million-to-one chance personal tragedy' to back up his calls for creating some sort of open donor identity registry. He said that the twins' case has 'absolutely nothing to do with the regulation of fertility treatment' and emphasised that under the current law a child, once he attains the age of 18, is entitled to seek information about their biological origins and the identity of their biological parents since donor anonymity was removed.
Donated sperm may be used in a number of different IVF arrangements and it is possible that a donor could be the biological father to many children - although there are legal limits. In the UK, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, who regulates the provision of IVF, only permits donated gametes to be used to create up to ten donor-conceived children.
The HFE Bill has been under fire in the House of Lords for the including a proposal to remove the current requirement that in providing IVF a clinic must take into account 'that child's need for a father'. The phrase is contained in section 13(5) of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 and can be used to potentially deny IVF treatment to lesbian couples and single parents. In their opposition to the proposal, some of the Lords raised concerns that if the requirement were to be removed, it might undermine the importance of the role of the fathers in a child's upbringing. Evidence is very unclear over whether a child's psychological wellbeing requires a paternal figure in their upbringing, however the 'need for a father' is, by those that support the requirement, equated with the welfare of the child principle.
Meanwhile, the Government is going even further with proposals to consider reintroducing plans to allow lesbian couples receiving IVF the option of creating a child with no biological father. Under this procedure, a foetus would be created from cells other than sperm or eggs. It would also give many women who have left it too late to have children to have their own biological child. Not surprisingly, many religious leaders and fathers' rights campaigners have criticised such proposals in the past.