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Should the need for a father be enshrined in law?

29 January 2008
By Dr Jess Buxton
Genetics Editor, BioNews
Appeared in BioNews 442
Those offering IVF and associated techniques in the UK are currently required, by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990, to consider the welfare of the child who might be born as a result - including the child's 'need for a father'. However, the new Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill currently being debated in Parliament proposes to remove the reference to the 'need for a father' from this area of law. A debate organised by Progress Educational Trust (PET), held on 14 January in the Houses of Parliament, sought to explore the issues raised by this proposed law change - namely, do children need fathers? Furthermore, is it necessary or desirable that the need for a father be enshrined in law?

A diverse audience gathered to hear three experts address these questions at this standing-room only debate: Ruth Deech, UK Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education, former Chair of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA); Fiona MacCallum, Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Warwick; and  Natalie Gamble, solicitor and mother of two donor-conceived children.

Baroness Ruth Deech began the discussion, arguing strongly in favour of maintaining the status quo, as she believes  it sends out a strong message that mothers and fathers should play equal roles in parenting. As former Chair of the HFEA, Baroness Deech added that she thinks the UK public wants a watchdog in this area of medicine, to ensure 'certain boundaries are not crossed'. Sticking to the principle that children need fathers would, she felt, help ensure public confidence in all areas of assisted reproduction.

Baroness Deech also expressed concerns that removing the 'need for a father' from the HFE Act would risk 'dehumanising' reproductive technologies, advances in which may reduce men to 'genetic blobs' with only a biological role to play in parenthood. She went on to cite evidence that boys need male role models when they are growing up, and studies showing the benefits of having two, rather than one parent. Finally, Baroness Deech argued that since approximately 2000 single and lesbian women received fertility treatment last year, the current law does not prevent such individuals from having children.

Psychologist Fiona MacCallum began by acknowledging that when fathers are present in a family, the evidence shows that children benefit when he is involved with their upbringing, and are adversely affected if the father leaves. Studies show that the effects on a child's development and emotional wellbeing are, on average, worse if their parents divorce than if they experience the death of a parent. This is thought to be because the children of divorced families are more likely to be affected by financial difficulties and 'inter-parental conflict' than bereaved children.

However, Dr MacCallum went on to cite several studies that suggest the situation is quite different for the children of lesbian couples and so-called 'solo' mothers (single mothers by choice). It seems that such mothers are typically highly committed to parenthood, and that the quality of parenting in both groups is generally as high, or higher that of heterosexual couples. Dr MacCallum said that fears that the children of solo or lesbian mothers might grow up with confused ideas about men and gender roles also appear unfounded, based on the evidence of the studies carried out so far. She finished by saying that although the legal requirement to consider the welfare of the child when offering IVF treatment 'rightly remains' in the draft Bill, the latest psychological research shows that single women and lesbian couples are able to provide warm and supportive parenting.

As a solicitor and parent of two donor-conceived children that she is raising with her civil partner, Natalie Gamble brought both a professional and personal perspective to the debate. She began by arguing that in general, women planning to conceive children by donor insemination (DI) put 'enormous thought' into motherhood, and that there were many other children whose welfare was of more concern. Furthermore, she fears that if the UK law forbids solo and lesbian women from having children in this way, then they may seek to do so in other, more risky ways, such as by having one-night stands or travelling abroad.  

Ms Gamble continued by arguing that in practice, the current HFEA guidance states that where the child will have no father, doctors offering fertility treatment are asked to assess how women will meet the needs of a child - in other words, to consider her wider social circle. This, said Ms Gamble, effectively adds nothing to the general 'welfare of the child' consideration. A change in the HFE law, removing the 'need for a father', is also required to reflect change in society, she argues, and also to remove any inconsistency regarding new legislation that forbids discrimination (the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007).

The presentations were followed by a lively debate, sparked by many thoughtful and wide-ranging questions from the floor. The relative importance of social and biological parenthood was discussed, as was the question of whether the 'need for a father' requirement was part of wider discrimination against infertile people when they wish to start a family, compared to those who conceive naturally. This raised the issue of whether IVF treatment must be considered differently since it involves public funds.

This timely debate was organised by PET and sponsored by Evan Harris MP, Robert Key MP and Dari Taylor MP.  PET is grateful to Lester Aldridge and the London Women's Clinic for their support in organising this event. If your organisation is interested in supporting future events, then please contact PET director Sarah Norcross for further details of sponsorship opportunities. You can also support our work by becoming a Friend of PET. Finally, don't forget you can donate securely at any time to BioNews using your credit or debit card. Or, if you prefer, you can send a cheque, payable to Progress Educational Trust, to: Progress Educational Trust, 140 Gray's Inn Road, London, WC1X 8AX.

SOURCES & REFERENCES
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