The House of Commons has rejected a proposed amendment to the new Human Fertilisation and Embryology (HFE) Bill, requiring fertility clinics to consider the 'need for a father' prior to IVF treatment. After a lengthy debate, MPs voted 292 to 217 against the amendment, a majority of 75. MPs also rejected the need for 'supportive parenting and a father or male role model' by 290 to 222 votes. The Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who rejected the amendment, gave Labour MPs a free vote on the issue. Under the new legislation, fertility clinics will only need to consider the child's need for 'supportive parenting'.
Section 13 of the 1990 Human Fertilisation and Embryology (HFE) Act required IVF clinics to consider the 'welfare' of any child that may be created, including the 'need for a father', prior to IVF treatment. This requirement was debated in the House of Commons and reviewed by the parliamentary Science and Technology Committee in 2006. It was suggested that the requirement discriminates against lesbian couples and single women seeking IVF treatment, but noted that clinicians and fertility counsellors recommended retaining a reference to the parenting needs of the child.
Under the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) 2005 'Tomorrow's Children' guidelines, refusal of fertility treatment on the basis of sexual orientation is prohibited. The guidelines currently propose primarily taking into account factors in the medical and social history of the patient that may cause 'serious harm' to the child - such as criminal convictions relating to child harm, serious violence within the family, drug or alcohol abuse - and any risk of medical conditions to the child, prior to IVF treatment, but not 'broader social factors'.
The new Bill will reflect the HFEA guidelines and will be brought into line with the Human Rights Act. Health minister Dawn Primarolo said, 'this is about ensuring that this law reflects current practices and family setups and current legislation referring to human rights'. Emily Thornberry, the Labour MP for Islington, reiterated, 'the important point is to give legal rights to lesbian couples and single women.'
The amendment to retain the 'need for a father' in the new HFE bill was proposed by former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith, who argued that removing the 'need for a father' would send a message that 'fathers are less important than mothers' in parenting. Labour MP Geraldine Smith appealed to 'common sense' in the need for a father figure. Mr Duncan Smith and his supporters said that fathers play an important role in parenting, and pointed to evidence that children from single parent families were less likely to do well at school and more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol. In practice, they said, there was little evidence that lesbian couples and single mothers were being denied fertility treatment.
During the debate, Labour MP George Howarth asked Mr Duncan Smith if he agreed that not all fathers had a positive influence in a family. The Liberal Democrat science spokesman Evan Harris also asked if he considered lesbian couples to be 'broken families'. Emily Thornberry said to Mr Duncan Smith, 'you will not, as a result of this amendment, bring any more fathers into any more families'.
The latest psychological research, discussed at a public debate hosted by the Progress Educational Trust at the House of Commons in January 2008, suggests that children benefit when a father is active in parenting, and are adversely affected when a father leaves the family. There is also much evidence that 'solo' single mothers by choice and lesbian couples are highly committed to parenthood and able to provide supportive parenting.
The Bill will also allow both partners in a lesbian couple to be designated parents when they conceive with donated sperm. This reflects the situation of a heterosexual couple seeking fertility treatment with donor sperm, where the man is deemed the legal father despite having no biological relation to the child. The legislation represents the greatest extension to the family rights of homosexual couples since gay adoption.