Legislation has effectively dismissed the contribution of half the population to the upbringing of the next generation, says Ruth Deech, the chairman of the Bar Standards Board.
Published: 3:08PM GMT 16 Mar 2010
Over the last half a century there has been a sea change in society’s attitude towards same-sex relationships, marriage and the family. Homosexuality has moved from criminal status to legalisation, from legalisation to acceptance and the same respectfulness as heterosexual relationships. We have now reached the stage where, in the event of an election victory, the Conservative leader has promised that civil partners will benefit from extended paternity and maternity leave (in the case of adoption or artificial insemination babies). David Cameron has also promised that proposals to extend flexible working and married couples’ tax breaks would be granted as well. He has stated that the party is no longer hostile to same sex couples.
While changes to the law which have given homosexual couples the same rights and responsibilities as heterosexual couples are welcome, there are two issues involving modern society’s attitude towards children which give me unease.
One is the new possibility of birth certificates for children born to couples of the same sex, which name two persons of the same sex as their parents. This is logical following on the extension of rights to same sex couples, but there is an issue of principle here, which is the truth. Sections of the 2008 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act (HFEA) even allow a dead woman, never known to the baby and not related, to be named with her previous consent on the birth certificate by the choice of the birth mother, while preventing the child from having a father. Birth registration is about genetic inheritance (albeit that sometimes the truth is not told) and about the welfare of the child, not about the relationship, legal or otherwise, between the adults whose will gave rise to it. The birth certificate that names two female parents will disclose to anyone perusing it that the child was necessarily born from donor sperm or a donor embryo or a surrogate mother. It could even result in deception to exclude the natural father where the mother conceived naturally but uses this provision to cut him out of the child’s life.
There are other ways for two adults of the same sex to gain parental responsibility over a baby, and it should not have to be through the birth certificate. It puts the demands of the adults ahead of the rights of children to know and benefit from both sides of their genetic makeup. It sits uneasily with the ending of donor anonymity in reproduction generally, and for the call for mothers to name fathers on birth certificates. This is not a moral issue; it is about disguising true facts, and it is about confusing biological parenthood with legal and social parenthood. Civil partnerships do still differ from marriage a little, and this is an area where the difference ought to be preserved with justification.
The other area of regret for me is the removal from the law of the provision in the 2000 HFEA that when a doctor is considering whether or not to give infertility treatment to a woman, he or she had to consider the welfare of the potential baby, “including the child’s need for a father.” It was removed on the ground that it was discriminatory against single mothers and lesbians, and replaced by the need to check for “supportive parenting”, whatever that may mean. Reproductive services are in fact quite readily available to single women, and it is thought that about 25 per cent of lesbian couples have children. I regret the downgrading of the father as a person of importance – the legislative dismissal of the contribution of half the population to the upbringing of the next generation. The removal of the requirement to consider the need for a father is to make a fresh statement that the child does not need a father, no matter how liberally the old law’s requirement was interpreted. It sends a message to men, at a time when many of them feel undermined as providers and parents, contrary to government policy in this field.
Government policy is that men should take financial responsibility for their children and stay in touch with them after separation; that they should take paternity leave and be involved. There is a wealth of research showing that children need fathers, not just two parents. Children need to see complementary roles, the relationship between the sexes, a microcosm of society, as they grow up. Recent reports have placed Britain at the bottom of international league tables for the welfare of children and we know that boys without fathers do worse at school and turn to worse role models. Research shows that their presence gives girls as well as boys advantages in educational and social development. The limit to same sex relationships is that they cannot be a reproductive unit in a way that is best for the welfare of the child if they cut out all contact with members of the other sex or falsify the birth registration. Tolerance of both types of parenting has to be ensured.
Baroness Deech is the chairman of the Bar Standards Board.