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Welfare and the need for a father

13 August 2007
By Baroness Ruth Deech
Crossbencher, Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education and former chair of the Human Fertilisation & Embryology Authority
Appeared in BioNews 420
The current legislation regarding IVF is under review. The issue that uncovered the deepest feelings in the evidence received by the parliamentary scrutiny committee is the rather mild provision in Section 13(5) of the 1990 Human Fertilisation and Embryology (HFE) Act that 'a woman shall not be provided with treatment services unless account has been taken of the welfare of any child who may be born as a result of the treatment (including the need of that child for a father)'. The Government proposes to remove that requirement (Review of the Human Fertilisation & Embryology Act, Cm 6989, 2006, para. 2.26).

The provision was originally inserted in the HFE Act as a compromise. There were those in Parliament and outside who would have preferred to limit IVF treatment to married couples, and there were those who would have extended it to any person or couple, regardless of status and gender. The compromise has held over 17 years, a period in which IVF has become almost commonplace, and acceptance of all types of family units has grown. The requirement is only to consider the need: it is not an absolute ban on treatment, by any means, and it is well known that many single women and gay couples receive IVF treatment at clinics, although not all clinics will be willing to treat them.

The argument for removing the requirement is that it is now public policy to treat all families equally, to avoid any discrimination between persons on grounds of gender and sexual orientation, and because there are inconsistencies and unknowns in the way in which the provision is applied. There is no need for a father, it is said, especially given that there is provision in the current draft Human Tissue and Embryos Bill for two women to be the legal parents of a child.

Does a child really not need a father? (The need for a mother remains unchallenged.) I maintain that every child needs a father and that to pretend otherwise is to turn common sense, research and policy on their heads.

First, we are where we are. Our law states that the child's need for a father should be considered: to remove that requirement is to make a fresh statement to the effect that a child does not need a father. It sends a message, insofar as legislation does that, to men at a time when many of them feel undermined as providers and parents, a message contrary to government policy in this field.  The Child Support Agency may have foundered in its pursuits, but it has never been argued that men should not pay for their children nor that they should not take responsibility, both financially and socially. Divorce law judges hold that contact with a father after parents separate is a good thing and that every effort should be made to maintain it. The Government has recently sought to encourage single women to name the father of their babies on the birth registration certificate for financial and social reasons. We are told that children who find out that they are adopted or conceived by donor sperm need to know their fathers. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child says that every child has the right to know and be cared for by their parents. And anonymity has recently been removed from sperm donors.

Second, the current law is not a prohibition; it does no more than cause potential patients and their clinicians to reflect on the situation that has presented itself and ask whether all will be well, or as well as can be predicted, if a baby is born. The early versions of the HFEA Code of Practice proposed questioning on the responsibility which might be shared by others within the mother's circle for help with raising the child, and how the child's later inquiries into his or her origins would be answered. The latest version of the Code has changed to emphasising the risk assessment that is to be undertaken in some circumstances and the possibility of serious harm to the baby as the important considerations. These are meaningful and worthwhile factors to be considered, and cannot be described as serious or discriminatory impediments to access to IVF. Moreover, it is not true to say that all families are treated, or should be treated the same in English law. We still do not accept underage marriage or polygamous or incestuous marriages. It is the hallmark of a civilised society that it lays down certain conditions for family formation, in order to protect mother and children.

Third, there is a wealth of research that shows that children need fathers, not just a parent or parents. They need to see complementary roles and the relationship between the sexes, a microcosm of society, as they are growing up. True, there is also research that shows that children deliberately conceived and raised by a single mother or two parents of the same sex do well; but it is limited, most of it carried out by one researcher in the UK, and of necessity the children are very young. There is also some research showing that these children suffer from the inevitably confused and secretive family relationships. Recent reports have placed Britain at the bottom of international league tables for the welfare, education and happiness of children, and this is associated with single parenthood and the lack of a role model, and not with poverty alone. This is not to stigmatise single parents who do a very good job raising their children. Nevertheless the optimal conditions are two parents. It is rather like saying that we all need a minimum income. Many people manage with less and make an excellent life, but that does not negate the need for a certain level of resources as a goal.

We should not let fear of being accused of being politically incorrect detract from standing up for what is best for the child and for society - the 'need for a father' provision should remain.

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