MPs clash over fathers, lesbians, and what people in the pub think is natural

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In the Commons yesterday afternoon former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith proposed an amendment to retain the requirement for doctors to consider the need for a father when assessing women for fertility treatment.

He presented a battery of statistics relating to children without fathers, presumably the result of heterosexual liaisons.

“Research that we published recently, which was drawn from more than 3,000 evidence sessions, showed that the effect on those broken families is remarkable,” he told MPs.

“75 per cent. of the children are more likely to fail at school, 70 per cent. are more likely to succumb to drug addiction, 50 per cent. are more likely to have serious alcohol problems, and 35 per cent. are more likely to experience some form of unemployment or welfare dependency.”

Mr Duncan Smith also emphasised the role fathers play in the lives of girls:

“We always hear of the effect of a father’s absence on young boys in respect of the whole issue of role modelling and giving them a stable beginning.

“However, in Britain we have some of the highest levels of under-age sexual activity, particularly among young girls, and there is very strong evidence to suggest that the effect of an absent father is to distort that further.

“That is because young girls more often learn empathetic and non-conditional love—something important and profound—from their fathers. They learn that it is possible to have a relationship that does not necessarily involve sex.”

Lib Dem MP Evan Harris was not impressed:

“We are dealing with the duty on clinics when they consider applications from lesbian couples and solo parents.

“Does he consider that lesbian couples with children are broken families, to some of which he attached the litany of concern that he rightly has?

“If he does, what evidence does he have that children with lesbian parents are going off the rails?”

Mr. Duncan Smith was careful to say he not consider them to be broken families.

“We do not have enough data to understand exactly what the nature of the outcomes is,” was his response.

“Some in the gay and lesbian community will feel uneasy about the original guidance on the father, and they will have made representations.

“They will probably feel some unease about the amendment.

“I am sympathetic to that, but the key point is that unease does not mean that there is discrimination. To what extent is there discrimination?

“Is there simply a sense of unease that does not change any outcomes?

“The Government’s position is that they need to remove the original clause, which referred to the father, because they perceived it as discriminating against gay or lesbian couples.”

Labour MP Geraldine Smith, who has angered many in the party with her insulting comments about lesbian parenting, intervened, claiming that the whole issue was about “common sense,” a theme she returned to repeatedly.

“To most people outside the House, the right honourable Gentleman is simply talking common sense—they must wonder why we are even having this debate.

“Is it any wonder that people think politicians are out of touch with ordinary people when we have such debates? It is nonsense to suggest that we should not take into account the need for a father.

“We are not insisting that single women or lesbians do not have IVF treatment; the only thing we are saying is that there should be a father figure somewhere, who may be a grandfather or another relative.

“Many single parents depend on father figures, whether they are grandparents or other relatives. It is just pure common sense, and the fact that we are even debating it is ridiculous.”

A spirited Emily Thornberry, the Labour MP for Islington South and Finsbury, accused Mr Duncan Smith of presenting “many reasons for discriminating against single parents or lesbian couples where no father is in the picture.”

Utter nonsense, replied the former Tory leader.

“Those who signed up to the amendment and who agree with me are simply saying, ‘Come on, this is common sense.’

“All we are saying is that we should take into consideration the need of a child for a father, not ‘If you do not have a father, you will never get treatment.’ We are suggesting only that that is considered.”

Ms Thornberry got a chance to expand on her thoughts slightly later in the Commons debate.

“Frankly, why, in the 21st century, are we doing this? she asked MPs.

“Why are we putting ourselves in such a position?

“Why are we saying, ‘We are not really overtly discriminating against lesbians or single women, but if we are, the Human Rights Act will sort it out, even though the Human Rights Act does not apply at the moment’?

“I always worry when people say that they are applying only common sense, because all too often common sense is a cover for discrimination, narrowness and an inability to face the 21st century.

“The difficulty is that lesbian couples or single women who wish to have children will be influenced by the current confusion, which will be perpetuated by the amendment suggested by the right honourable Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith).

“Those people will continue to be confused and will end up believing that IVF is not for them.

“In that case, they may well go out to a pub and get pregnant or try other informal means of doing so.

“The disadvantage is simply this: there will be no details of the biological father on the register, yet that will become increasingly important as time goes on.

“As a result of the amendment, no more fathers will be brought into any more families.

“That is the central point. It is important to give legal rights to lesbian couples and single women.

“As far as lesbian couples are concerned, we will then at least have two legally recognised parents instead of just one. What is wrong with that?”

Geraldine Smith intervened to accuse Ms Thornberry of “a very patronising attitude towards lesbian women.

“I do not think they will be that confused by someone saying that if they go for IVF treatment they will have to take into consideration the welfare of the child and the need for a father.

“I would have thought that that was pretty easy to understand; my honourable Friend may think that that is difficult, but surely most reasonable people could understand it.

“Most people, including lesbians and single women, might well think that that would be a good thing.

“Unless they absolutely hated men, they might well like a positive male role figure in the child’s life. It is good to have a father figure in a child’s life. Do colleagues think that it is nonsense to have a male figure involved in a child’s upbringing?”

Ms Smith was told off by the chair for talking too long, and Ms Thornberry continued her defence of gay and lesbian parents.

“In my experience, based on the lesbian mothers whom I know, before they make the very serious decision to have children in what is not, in all circumstances, the most liberal of worlds, they look to the welfare of the child and to how they can best bring that child up.

“They do not need a doctor who is not trained in and has no particular experience of these matters to give them counselling on what sort of father figure they should seek, how long that father figure should be involved in their lives, and exactly what “father figure” means in what circumstances.

“It is not for a doctor to make that sort of decision.

“We should trust the good sense of parents—of women—who do not need to be patronised by anyone, or told how they should bring up children.

“Motherhood is a serious matter, as is fatherhood, and we should allow parents to make serious decisions themselves.”

The tone of some Tory interventions led another Labour woman, Sandra Osborne, to comment:

“What purports to be common sense is reminiscent of the ‘back to basics’ campaign of the past.

“Is not the insistence on a male role model for lesbian couples tantamount to saying that lesbian families are not proper family forms?”

She was proved all too correct just moments later, when Tory grandee Sir Patrick Cormack rose to his feet to intervene on Ms Thornberry. They had words.

“I am extremely grateful to the honourable Lady for her generosity in giving way,” he smiled from the Tory benches.

“Whatever may be the case in Islington, in Staffordshire it is actually thought normal for a child to have a mother and a father. Does the honourable Lady think it is equally normal for a child to have two mothers?

Emily Thornberry: “I think it is wrong to make judgments about families, and to tell one family that they are normal and another family that they are abnormal.

“I think it wrong for a seven-year-old to be pushed to the edge of a playground and teased or vilified; I think it wrong to vilify single parents; and I think it wrong for the law to discriminate against lesbian couples.

“In this day and age, we should pass the Bill unamended.”

Des Turner, Labour MP for Brighton Kemptown, told MPs that “we no longer live in a ‘Janet and John’ world” where everybody has an ideal father and an ideal mother.

“Let us be honest and admit that many fathers have been damaging.

“How many single parents are left without a supportive father for their child because that natural father has deserted them, often with associated domestic violence? I know of far more cases in which that is true than of lesbian couples having IVF.

“If we follow the provisions of the Bill, we stand to guarantee supportive parenting. We are almost assured that that child will have two parents.

“Not only that, but should anything happen to one of those parents, there will be another clearly identified parent with parental rights to look after the child. I can see nothing wrong with that: it is entirely logical.”

Tory MP Mark Simmons disagreed:

“We have to admit there is a problem in this country, where familial breakdown has led to many serious social problems such as crime, truancy, an over-reliance on the state and poor parenting skills.

“Social research has found that the involvement, or lack of it, of the father, not the mother, is the key determinant of teenage behavioural problems.

“Unbelievably, 24 per cent. of children in this country are growing up in families without a live-in father.

“These amendments are not anti same-sex couples, nor anti single mothers.

“It is right for clinics to have the right to refuse treatment under some circumstances, whether it be mental instability or a history of child abuse or drug abuse.

“Members have argued, that the retention of the reference to a father would drive people away from regulated services and the quality and safety assurances that those provide.

“As evidenced earlier, single women and same-sex couples have not faced barriers, and I do not see why the amendments proposed by me or by my right honourable Friend will change that.”

As Health minister Dawn Primarolo was setting out her case for replacing the “need for a father” with the need for “supportive parenting,” Gerald Howarth bravely showed how David Cameron has not yet changed the attitudes of many on his own benches.

“What research has been carried out by the Minister’s Department or anyone else into the likely effect on children of being brought into the world in what some of us would regard as an unnatural relationship?” he asked.

“In the ‘Dog and Partridge’ in Yateley or ‘The Thatched Cottage’ in Cove, a natural relationship is considered to comprise a mother and father.

“What evidence does the Minister have that children brought up in the unnatural environment in question will prosper or suffer as a consequence?”

“I am grateful for the honourable Gentleman’s intervention,” said Dawn Primarolo.

“In his opening remarks, the right honourable Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) made assertions about behaviour in all families on the basis of evidence from families that had broken down.

“With no support or evidence, the right honourable Gentleman sought to advance the argument that the children whom we are discussing would suffer a certain fate.

“The evidence, however, is available.

“Social research from Murray, Golombok and Brewaeys shows that children of same-sex couples develop emotionally and psychologically in a similar way to children born of heterosexual donor-inseminated couples. What counts is the quality of parenting.

“The right honourable Gentleman (Mr Duncan Smith) cannot have it both ways.

“He uses so-called evidence about family structure, which is not relevant to this debate. However, when the evidence that such families involve good parents and that the children have no problems is put to him, he does not want to consider it.

“Then he asserts that there is no discrimination in respect of the need for a father and that that provision should be put back in the Bill because it is important—even though he says that it is completely ignored in the debate, a contention that I dispute.”

Iris Robinson, the voice of literalist, fundamentalist Christianity in the House of Commons, who is DUP MP for Strangford, intervened.

“I note that the Minister places great importance on the quality of parenting.

“Can she envisage, down the road, a child going to primary school and being collected by two females or two males, and the bullying and abuse to which those children will be exposed; or going into their parents’ bedroom, as is natural for a child to do, and finding two women or two men making love?”

“With respect, I do not think that those comments have any place in the debate,” the minister replied diplomatically.

“Children are loved by many adults in families, extended families and neighbourhoods. It is crucial to consider the safety and nurture of the child.

“The Bill requires a clinician to take into account the welfare of the child, including that child’s need for supportive parenting.

“That is based on the fact that, as I have repeatedly said, the quality of parenting makes the most difference, not the gender of the parents per se.

“That is why the Bill requires the consideration of the child’s need for supportive parenting, not the gender of the parents.

“The Bill strikes the correct balance between protecting the interests of the child to be born by requiring that their welfare is considered and the right to supportive parenting.

“It is nonsensical to say that it is better for a child to have a mother and a father, while also arguing that the amendments would not prevent people from accessing treatment.

“The need for a father provision would be discriminatory, if it were reinserted.

“In order to protect the interests of same-sex couples and single women, and their donor-conceived children, it is important that this legislation should be passed unamended, to ensure that it is fair, that it offers equitable access and that it recognises the complexities of the Britain we live in today.”

The Lib Dem Evan Harris made a considered defence of the proposals.

“I just do not understand why anyone believes that young men who act irresponsibly and abandon their partners and families are suddenly going to read the statute on IVF treatment—these men are usually fertile—and decide to mend their ways. I have to say that I cannot see that happening,” he told MPs.

He then laid out cases of actual discrimination.

“In an e-mail, Natalie Gamble, a fertility lawyer dealing with discrimination cases, has stated: ‘to say that no lesbian couples are denied treatment as a result of the need for a father provision is simply untrue.

“‘I have had five clients in the past year who have got in touch for advice after being denied access to treatment. In one case at a private clinic a couple were told that the waiting list for donor sperm was very long and they could not even be put on it because they were a same sex couple.

“”In another case a primary care trust eligibility criteria for NHS funding stated explicitly that, due to the duty to consider the need for a father, lesbian couples were not eligible for funding even if they were infertile.’

“The NHS eligibility criterion was discriminatory, which it should not have been because that is unlawful.

“Many clinics used to refuse lesbian couples, until they realised that they need the money.

“However, they no longer need the money, as lesbian couples are forced to pay because they cannot obtain NHS treatment.”

Geraldine Smith, the Labour MP who has opposed much of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, said her piece.

“We have heard some third-hand evidence of cases where there may have been discrimination, but I have never been presented with the name of a woman or a specific case where someone has said, ‘I’ve been refused fertility treatment because of the need for a father.’

“I find it strange that we have had the Joint Committee and witnesses have been called, yet no one has come forward and said, ‘I’ve been discriminated against,’ and that instead we only have vague third-hand examples.”

This angered many MPs on all sides, as Stonewall had provided them all with extensive briefings on actual cases of discrimination.

Labour’s Andrew Slaughter said:

“I do not think any Member is going to get up and start naming names. My honourable Friend recently heard the honourable Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) give many examples from legal practitioners in the field of solo women and lesbian couples in that situation.

“We have all received those briefings, so my honourable Friend must have done so as well.”

Ms Smith insisted that as no-one had come forward and spoken to her first-hand, therefore there is no evidence of discrimination.

Lib Dem MP Stephen Williams, who is gay, wasn’t impressed.

“Acts go unreported in many fields. Rape is an example; that goes unreported. The rape statistics are understated. Does the honourable Lady think that that means that we should not seriously deal with the issue of rape?”

Ms Smith ignored his point and went on to make claims for Lancashire lesbians:

“Most people will think that this issue is about not discrimination, but common sense. I am sure that if we were to ask lesbians and single women, a great many would agree with my point of view and would not see a problem with it. This issue is more to do with vocal lobby groups making points.”

Another out MP, Labour’s Chris Bryant, intervened:

“I have a great deal of respect for my honourable Friend and she often speaks good common sense, but I have to say that in this one instance she must understand that if she were to talk to most lesbians in this country about the amendment she is supporting she would discover that they find it profoundly offensive, because effectively it is saying, ‘You’re not enough. You’re not sufficient. Your family is not complete.'”

Geraldine Smith replied:

“It might surprise my honourable Friend to know that I do talk to many lesbians, and quite a few of them have a great deal of common sense and would not find any problem with this.

“So it depends who we talk to; maybe lesbians in Lancashire are a bit more down to earth than lesbians in London.”

Tory John Bercow tackled her again:

“The honourable Lady said at the outset of her remarks that she accepted readily that there were plenty of good and loving lesbian parents.

“However, she then went on constantly to reiterate the alleged need for the father.

“For the avoidance of doubt and in pursuance of the intervention of the honourable Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), is she therefore saying that they are good parents only if a third person is introduced as well?

“If she is saying that, that is profoundly insulting, as well as having the disadvantage of being wrong.”

“No, I am saying that it is common sense just to take into consideration the need for a father,” Ms Smith replied.

“And if a child has not got a father to realise that it might be a good thing if there were a father figure—a male figure—in their life, because that is important.

“Men and women are different; that is just a fact of life. They bring different things to parenthood.

“Sometimes when there are two same-sex parents, it is a good idea also to have someone who can act as a male role model. That is not discriminating against anyone.

“That is just enhancing the upbringing of the child—that is just helping. At the end of the day, this is not about discrimination; it is about the child.”

Sir Patrick Cormack, an old-school Tory, was unafraid of causing offence when he made his remarks.

“I have listened to this afternoon’s debate with profound depression,” he told MPs.

“When I entered this House in 1970, if somebody had told me that nearly 40 years thence, the House would debate the need for a father, I would have thought that that person had taken leave of his senses.

“What we are talking about is the natural order of things, and I make no apology for standing up for what I believe to be the natural order of things.

“Although I have many friends who are lesbian or gay, I nevertheless do not believe that a lesbian pair of women or a gay pair of men can provide the same degree of balance, harmony and domestic comfort as parents of the opposite sex can.

“We are talking about families—the Government have even elevated the word ‘families’ into the title of one of the Departments of State. If we are intent on promoting the concept of the family, why do we run away from the importance of the role of the father?”

New Tory Ed Vaizey interrupted, which was not well-received:

“Given the logic of my honourable Friend’s case, if a mother and a father had treatment, the mother became pregnant and the father then left the mother, should the mother then be made to terminate the pregnancy?”

“That is a most fatuous intervention,” blustered Sir Patrick.

“I have never heard such a ridiculous intervention from a so-called intelligent man. Of course not, and the honourable Gentleman almost abuses himself by asking the question. It is a ridiculous question to ask.

“There can be domestic problems between any people—of course there can. Within our own family in Parliament, there are those who have strong marriages and those who do not have marriages at all.

“We represent all sorts of conditions of men and women, but I make no apology for saying in this House that I believe that the natural family unit is the man, woman and children.

“A child who is deliberately brought into the world with no desire that there should be a man and a woman as the parents is brought into it with a disadvantage.”

Tory Tim Loughton said the proposals for lesbian equality, “is about the power of political correctness and it is about a misconceived notion of equality and fairness, which has been behind many of the objections that we have heard from those on the Labour Benches.

“There are echoes of the Bill on same-sex adoption from many years ago. I think that we have moved on a long way since then, but I should point out an essential difference.

“That Bill dealt with children in care who were born of, and may have spent time with, two parents but then needed to be given the opportunity for a stable upbringing.

“We are dealing with children who will, by design, never have a father.

“We are talking about artificially creating life that will become a child who will, under these terms, know no father and have no father’s influence in his or her upbringing, and whose only connection with a father will have been a momentary collision of gametes in a test tube at the point of conception.

“That is what will happen if the Government get their way.”

Chris Bryant, watched by Leader of the House Harriet Harman (he is her PPS), said the debate so far had been confused, and said that “declamatory statements” about the need for fathers “will not have the slightest effect on a young gentleman on a Friday night, when he has had a few pints.

“He will not say, ‘Oh, I remember. That Bill that Parliament passed last week said that there has to be a father, so I’m not going to have any unprotected sex tonight.’

“Nor will it ensure that a single father participates in the raising of his child.

“Many honourable Members on both sides of the Committee passionately want to ensure that the interests of the child are protected, but the amendment would do nothing to protect the rights of children.

“However, it would send the message out to lesbians and single women that they should not apply for IVF.

“It may be that many lesbians have been allowed to have IVF over the past few years, and we have had evidence presented that that has been the case, but in some areas IVF clinics have told them that they do not qualify simply because of their sexuality and because a father would not be involved.

“Both the honourable Members for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) and for Stone (Mr. Cash) referred to what they believed to be ‘normality,’ and the views in the ‘Dog and Duck’ in Yateley or wherever it was and in Staffordshire.

“They also referred to the natural order and what is natural.

“The truth is that IVF is not, in the strictest sense, natural.

“It is assisted conception, and it is one of the great joys that doctors have been able to bring to many families around the country.

“I do not believe that lesbian couples or single women who have gone through the difficult process of deciding that they passionately want a child to bring up in a loving and caring environment are the problem that the right honourable Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) mentioned.

“When we start to impose our understanding of what is normal or natural on others, we are treading a very dangerous path.”

There was just time for this short speech from Iris Robinson before MPs voted.

“I speak tonight saddened by the approach taken by right honourable and honourable Members who wish to airbrush out the role of fatherhood.

“I notice that there are many grins on faces, but I stand by my faith and the word of God that man was created in the image of God and that woman was created from the rib of Adam to be his helpmeet and companion. That is the natural progression of procreation.

“I am so sorry that honourable Members are abusing my position as a Christian and that they will not listen to me or give me due respect.

“I ask where the rights of the Christian people of this country are, because they have spoken. A recent poll reported in the press here showed that 80 per cent. of people recognise the need for the traditional family.

“Honourable Members can all breathe sighs of relief or indignation, but I am telling the House that the word of God says that procreation is through a man and a woman.

“We are moving mountains to facilitate immorality and to bring the rights of lesbians above all others in this country.

“It is a shame, and honourable Members ought to hang their heads in shame.”

Instead of doing that, they voted down the Duncan Smith amendment by 292 votes to 217.

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill has already passed the Lords, and Labour MPs will be whipped to support its final stages in the Commons.