Commons debate: from born again to born with two mummies

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There were a range of views on display during yesterday’s second reading of the Human Fertilisation and Embrology Bill.

There were measured arguments about the rights of single women, the efficacy of lesbian parents, and the need for a father figure.

Then there was Iris Robinson. The only female DUP MP, she told the House that a higher power guides her actions as a politician.

Not for her the views of her Stangford constituents for Iris, whose husband will tomorrow become the First Minister of Northern Ireland, has God on her side.

In a display worthy of our American friends, she told MPs:

“I make no apology for speaking as a born-again Christian. I represent the voice of those who look to a higher authority—one to whom we will all one day answer for the decisions that we make in the House.

“Indeed, 1 Corinthians 15 provides us with a clear statement of the difference between humans and animals in God’s order. Verse 39 reads:

“All flesh is not the same: Men have one kind of flesh, animals have another, birds another and fish another.” I stand by that.”

From the religious to the vicious.

Another Belfast-born MP, Geraldine Smith, who at times represents the Labour party, managed to be the most insulting towards lesbians.

After a long litany of why she feels she should vote against her own party, she showed ignorance of the bill and arrogance towards her same-sex loving constituents:

“My final point on this matter relates to the Government’s intention to airbrush out of existence the biological fathers of the children of lesbian couples.

“I believe the measure is unfair to the child and potentially harmful. It smacks of the state colluding to fulfil a fantasy of parenthood and should be removed from the Bill.”

In fact, the new law is likely to increase the information available to the child of a lesbian couple about their biological father, but no matter.

Morecambe and Lunesdale is her constituency, for those of you interested in such matters. 4,768 majority.

Ms Smith was immediately followed by John Bercow, always a favourite.

He is the sort of Tory David Cameron probably wishes he could clone – articulate, sensible and respectful of others. He did not disappoint.

“The whole question of the so-called need for a father is writ large in our considerations,” he told MPs.

“My view, for what it is worth, is that the Government’s proposal is perfectly reasonable.

“I am not convinced that the insertion of the phrase “supportive parenting” was necessary. It was a compromise that was reached in the other place, but the earlier formulation seemed perfectly satisfactory.

“However, I shall not castigate the Government for attempting to meet reasoned—if, in my view, incorrect —criticism.

“They have come up with a form of words that is unobjectionable.

“My view is that we should not discriminate. We should not have class actions. We should not have the dogmatic exclusion of whole categories of people. We have equality legislation with which these provisions should be compatible.

“My anxiety is that the call to reinsert the need for a father is not grounded in evidence but driven by preconceptions and, in some—although not all—cases, by rank prejudice. That is wrong. Judgments should be made on the basis of the individual case, not on the strength of a theory.”

It should be pointed out that all Tory and Lib Dem MPs were free to vote how they liked on this bill. Next week during the committee stage, Labour MPs will be given a free vote on three matters, including “need for a father.”

Kevin Barron, the Labour MP for Rother Valley, backed his party’s position.

“I do not think that the Bill is about ‘doing away with fathers,’ or about being politically correct,” he said.

“I think the Government are right to recognise the important role that fathers play in their children’s lives.

“There is a range of policies designed to strengthen that role, and to underline fathers’ responsibilities. In fact, the Bill will bring conditions into line with legislation already passed by the House on civil partnerships.”

Gary Streeter, a former Conservative minister, expressed the confused if honestly-held opinion of several MPs in relation to this “need for a father.”

“Although the practical implications of the clause are slight—we must accept that—its symbolic magnitude should not be underestimated.

“If society desires responsible fatherhood—which we do—the most detrimental act would be to send the male population the message that they do not matter.

“As we all know, family structures are an interdependent triad of relationships between father and child, between mother and child and between father and mother, each performing separate and complementary roles in the socialisation and normalisation of each party.

“We need to start affirming the position of fathers in parenting, families and society in general, and the Bill tugs us in the wrong direction. In this hierarchy of rights, it should be the child who triumphs.”

Others were convinced of the existence these signals that many MPs think are being sent by this bill.

Chris McCafferty, a Labour MP, was succinct.

“My personal view is that a child benefits from having a mother and a father and that fathers are intrinsically valuable.

“However, I also believe that the most important aspect of the upbringing of any child is a loving and supportive environment where their welfare is paramount.

“Whether that is provided by a conventional family, a single-parent family or any other type of family should not be a matter for Parliament to decide by statute.

“Early research into the welfare of children born to single women or lesbian couples who choose to start a family by assisted conception shows that those children fare just as well as those born by assisted conception to heterosexual parents.”

Emily Thornberry, another Labour member, spoke of her constituency.

“I speak as the representative of Islington, South and Finsbury, where there are 3,640 single parents. If there were a league table of single parents with dependent children, Islington would be in the top 20.

“In Islington, there are a great many gay marriages; there is at least one gay marriage a day, and a very large number of gay people in my constituency now live together in legally recognised, loving relationships.

“It is the experience of my constituents that heterosexual couples do not have a monopoly on good parenting.

“I accept that single parents have a difficult, demanding job, but they are fed up with being demonised by some Conservative Members.

“Children need consistent parenting, clear boundaries and, most importantly, a loving home.

“It is claimed that if we replace “the need for a father” with a need for “supportive parenting,” it would fundamentally undermine fatherhood.

“Supportive parenting” and “fatherhood” are hardly mutually exclusive—well, not in the majority of cases, anyway.

“Honourable Members should look at the other side of the coin: allowing the phrase “the need for a father” to remain would expressly discriminate against single women and lesbian couples.

“Frankly, that will not do. It is discriminatory and unfair.”

As lesbians across Islington nodded in agreement, there were attacks on all sides.

Iris Robinson opined that “children flourish when nurtured in a family with two parents of the opposite sex who work together and complement each other. That is God’s design and intention.

“We see from research that the pattern that God has laid down for fatherhood is necessary, because the lack of a father figure has a high cost indeed.”

A first perhaps: scientific research used to back “God’s plan.”

Tory MP David Burrowes was equally baffling:

“How can it be right that the Bill will not only remove the need for a father in terms of IVF treatment but permit the deliberate creation of a child with the intention of removing from them the chance of ever having a father?

“Is it in the best interests of the child’s welfare to deliberately and permanently write the biological father out of their life?

“At a time when the Government and voluntary sector initiatives are looking at how best to encourage fatherhood, it is ironic that the Bill, in effect, authorises state fatherlessness.”

Labour’s Claire Curtis-Thomas tried to face both ways, claiming she is against gay discrimnation but intending to vote to discriminate.

“The Bill will not only allow for designer babies, but for designer artificially created families. Such registration of children on birth certificates will result in the creation of two-father and two-mother families. No account is to be taken of the child’s right to a mother and a father.

“The effect on the child’s identity, or their gender confusion, has not even been considered.

“There are genuine religious concerns, and plenty of biblical passages support the family.

“They should not be constantly devalued or perceived as old fashioned. It is not old-fashioned homophobia to support the traditional family. I oppose unjustified discrimination against homosexuals, but I must protect the traditional notion of a family.

“Homophobia means a fear of homosexuals and the term is not appropriate in our current discussion.

“Opposition to the creation of same-sex parented families does not imply a fear of homosexuals or rejection of homosexual relationships; it is the simple assertion of the rights of a child.”

Dashing Lib Dem Dr Evan Harris spoke with his usual common sense. He was worried about lesbians.

“I think that this is the Government’s view as well, and it should be the view of Parliament—discrimination against lesbian couples, such as making them jump over extra hurdles, is not justified by the evidence that we have heard about.

“That evidence comes from research into how well children do when they are born to lesbian parents and solo parents—women who specifically seek to become single parents.

“If that is the research finding, the onus is on people who want to put a discriminatory hurdle in the way of such people to justify doing so by showing that there is evidence of harm.

“It is not enough to say, “People can get treated if they go to enough clinics,” or that because no one has been willing to go through the publicity of a legal case, instead of getting on with their life, there has been no harm.

“We should start from the position that unjustified discrimination, such as placing extra hurdles before certain people, should not be allowed.”

For the government, Dawn Primarolo closed the debate.

“To retain the reference to the need for a father would be inconsistent with other legislation that has been passed by Parliament to recognise civil partnerships and to remove discrimination on the ground of sexual orientation.

“In addition, Parliament would be seen as sending out the message that clinics must consider the need for a father.

“The code of practice, on which they rely at the moment, could not be relied on to amend that practice in future, because of the clearly stated views of Parliament.

“My honourable Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) explained eloquently and in great detail why that change is necessary. There are further issues to do with the welfare of the child.

“If women are discouraged from approaching legitimate services, they might be encouraged to make their own arrangements.

“A loophole in the 1990 legislation was that it did not prevent the rise in the amount of sperm supplied by internet-based firms. We have already acted to bring those activities under regulation. Properly licensed services can give the necessary assurances of quality and safety, along with important access to future requirements with regard to identifying parents.”

MPs voted 340 to 78 in favour of the bill. The real fun starts next week, when it comes before a committee of the whole House. Labour MPs, such as Ms Smith and Ms Curtis-Thomas, will be given a free vote.

Both defied their party last night to vote no.