Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill – Report and Third Reading

[To read the official record in Hansard click here]

And so it came to pass that the final stages of the HFE Bill reached the floor of the House of Commons on Wednesday 22 October 2008.  The process had already been halted on 10 July when the Government abruptly announced that this debate would be delayed for three months.  It was an ominous move, but nothing like the menacing tactics that were to come.

During the interregnum numerous amendments had been tabled – some were good, like insisting that no alternatives exist before human admixed embryos are created and women are properly counselled before abortions; and some were bad, like extending the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland.  It was clear that not all these amendments could be debated, but few believed that debate would be curtailed after little more than 5 hours.

Thus it all started at 13.36 with Dawn Primarolo (the Minister of State, Department of Health) moving a programme timetabling motion.  There was disbelief, disagreement and even rage from all sides.  Why was there no time to discuss key features of the Bill, like saviour siblings, the need for a father in IVF and above all, abortion?  For example, Diane Abbott (Lab., Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) was hopping mad that her proposal to extend the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland (despite the fact, as was pointed out later, that she had never set foot in the Province) would now not be debated.  From an entirely different political perspective, Ken Clarke (Con., Rushcliffe) called the curtailment a ‘particularly cynical’ move by a ‘control-freak Government who regard the House of Commons as an embarrassing nuisance to be silenced on all suitable occasions.’  He could see no reason for not having an extended debate, even over two days, because there was plenty of time in the Government’s timetable.

This wrangling continued for the best part of an hour until the Speaker brought the House back to Dawn Primarolo, who was in charge of getting the Bill through the House.  She claimed that there had already been an adequate 81 hours of debate, and she confirmed that the Government had no plans to introduce a subsequent bill on abortion, nor to set up any committee of enquiry into abortion.  The House divided on the Government’s proposed timetable, which was carried Ayes 322 versus Noes 157.

So, for the next 4 or so hours a number of amendments to the definition, production and use of admixed human embryos were raised and debated. John Pugh (Lib Dem., Southport) moved several amendments that would ban the introduction of human gametes into animals. ‘Scientists should not self-regulate’, he warned, ‘Parliament should set the boundaries.’  David Drew (Lab./Co-op., Stroud) spoke against the issue of allowing genetic modification of human beings, such as cloning.  He contended that, ‘This country is an outrider on this issue in the world, and certainly Europe.  Many European countries have ruled out the process.’  ‘Why’, he asked, ‘had the Government made illegal the ‘ends’, but not barred the ‘means’?’

David Burrowes (Con., Enfield, Southgate) took up the cudgels of his amendment by declaring that he was against the production of admixed embryos in principle and against their results in practice.  He continued, ‘The Government are marching us up to a false summit.  Many of us sought to oppose the move [to allow the creation of admixed embryos] because we felt that there were ready alternatives that are producing therapeutic treatments.’  However, he accepted that these entities would now be authorised, but he wanted to plug a hole in the Bill by defining them more tightly.  He asked what would qualify as human, and what as animal?  Was it, for example, human when it contained more than 50% of human genetic material, and how could this be measured (was it to be half of the genes or half of the total mass of DNA?), even though it could change as the embryo developed.  There followed a complex presentation of ‘tetraploid complementation’ embryos, which could be created and which would be outside the provisions of the Bill.  Dawn Primarolo maintained that the Bill already covered these ‘new’ forms of embryos.  David Burrowes doubted that was so, and retorted, ‘… which is why we need amendment No. 47 to plug the gap.’

The next up was Nadine Dorries (Con., Mid-Bedfordshire), who spoke to her amendment, which would ban the insemination of human sperm into an animal.  She contended that the Department of Health says that it will never lead to a viable fetus, but her question was this: ‘How can they know?’  As if to underline this air of uncertainty, John Gummer (Con., Suffolk Coastal) interjected at this point and stated that he suspected that, ‘Some in this Chamber want to include in this Bill something that is not explicit.’

Kevin Barron (Lab., Rother Valley and chairman of the influential Health Select Committee) spoke against several amendments using all the old arguments, like, blithely accepting the opinions of the scientific community, halting Britain’s premier place in world science, deficiencies of NHS infertility provision, support for the HFEA, and so on.

Edward Leigh (Con., Gainsborough) drew attention to ‘a significant drafting error’ in the Bill which would allow human reproductive cloning.  It pitted Subsections (2) to (4) of proposed new section 3ZA against Section 3ZA(5). Furthermore, clause 3(6) repeals the Human Reproductive Cloning Act 2001, which established the United Kingdom’s complete ban on human reproductive cloning.  [Yes, I know it can be bewildering!]  However, he concluded, ‘There is something very dangerous in what we will undoubtedly do today.  We are making ourselves less than human, in a sense, by viewing one part of human creation as a thing, a spare part, which I believe is extraordinarily dangerous.’

It had to come – Evan Harris (Lib Dem., Oxford West and Abingdon) got to his feet with the unlikeliest of words, ‘I was not going to speak in this debate, but …’  He began by supporting a previous amendment, but concluded that the Government had done its best in defining the Bill and he at least was content to leave it to the HFEA (!!).  This frightening prospect was supported by Sally Keeble (Lab., Northampton North), who also believed that the Bill was based on ‘sound ethical principles’.  As a user of IVF she told the House that she had seen ‘… such groups of my own cells up on a screen, and I know that they will never come to anything and they are not at a stage where they are human.’  Furthermore, she argued that, ‘We must understand that the people engaged in this work will have the most profound respect for life …’

The Northern Ireland voice came from both Jeffery Donaldson (DUP, Lagan Valley) Mark Durkan (SDLP, Foyle), who pointed out that the Bill had obvious loopholes and that in practice these rarely get smaller.  They should be defined and tightened now, they agreed.

John Hayes (Con., South Holland and The Deepings) spoke profoundly, ‘We should not deliberately distort the lives, or expedite the deaths, of fellow humans, whether those fellow human beings are born or unborn.  There has been too little debate in this House about that definition of human life in relation to the Bill, too little clarity about the nature of human life.’  He insisted, ‘It is not self-consciousness, capacity for reason or autonomy that make us human, but something altogether more fundamental.  Of course science matters, and of course scientific research is important, but, frankly, morals matter more.’  He concluded that, ‘The Bill marks the malign abandonment of those values [of compassion, love and defiance of despair].  By confusing or avoiding the definition of what is, or what is not, human, and by blurring the fundamental and profound ethical divide between ourselves and animals, it does immense damage to our humanity.’

It was now 17.30 and Mark Simmonds (Con., Boston and Skegness and Shadow health minister) was called to make his winding-up speech.  He began with, ‘The programme order is a disgrace and a misuse of parliamentary procedure, given that many significant amendments that should have been considered have been completely negated.’  He then summarised the need to close the Bill’s potential loopholes, the need to ensure that primary legislation and regulation was effective rather than leaving it to secondary legislation, and that the, ‘special status of the embryo must be put above everything else.  That must not be lost in our debate.’

The droning Dawn Primarolo finally rose and spoke against most of the amendments which had sought to define or restrict research.  In her view, everything in the Bill is adequate, there are no loopholes.  In the end, she addressed the Chamber, ‘Every Member of the House has a free vote tonight.  I urge them to support the Bill and to reject the amendments, as the best way forward to ensure that science prevails in an ethical framework that is acceptable to the House.’  The House then voted on the amendments.  At one point Bill Cash (Con., Stone) intervened with, ‘A complete disgrace the way that we have been treated by the Government.’  All the ‘pro-life’ amendments were lost, and all the Government amendments were won.

At 18.50 the Third Reading was moved by Dawn Primarolo who still maintained that the Bill had been given ‘careful consideration’, though Bill Cash still denied this by several interventions.  Mark Simmonds speaking on behalf of the Opposition declared disappointment that the proceedings of the day had come to ‘this unfortunate end’ for the Bill.  He continued, ‘It is important to understand that the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 - an extremely robust piece of legislation - retains much of its significance and value because it was thoroughly debated in this House and in the other place.  It was originally the Minister’s hope, and it is my hope, that this Bill will be similarly enduring. However, after today’s performance, I have to question whether it will be.’  Others opined that the Government had constrained and manipulated the debate, others were deeply saddened that issues, such as the need for a father, had not been debated.  Nevertheless, at 17.10 there was the Third Reading vote.  It was Ayes, 355 versus Noes, 129.

On Wednesday 29 October, the Bill went through the quaintly-named Ping Pong stage, whereby the Bill passes back and forth between the two Houses debating amendments.  It then receives the Royal Assent and becomes the 2008 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, probably before Christmas.

So that was that.  We are now one of the few countries to allow the production of human admixed embryos, plus an extension of the use of saviour siblings, and with no regard for fathers for IVF children.  On the other hand, abortion law is no further liberalised – it remains as savage as before.

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