Who needs parents?

When the body that regulates UK fertility treatment asks 'what are fathers for?', it is really questioning the point of parents.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

The chair of the HFEA, the UK body that regulates fertility treatment, has argued that the law stipulating the need for IVF children to have a father figure should be changed, to allow single women and lesbians access to fertility treatment. This has sparked a debate about ‘what are fathers for?’, with fathers’ groups uttering bitter complaints.

But the focus on fathers misses the point. What is really being undermined here is the need for parents at all. As a host of professional government and quasi-non-governmental organisations exists to provide official child-rearing advice and intervention from pre-conception through to adulthood, parents are increasingly finding themselves squeezed out of their roles by a society that seems to think that, when it comes to raising your beloved son or daughter, parents just are not up to the job.

Suzi Leather, the HFEA’s chair, claimed last week that it is ‘nonsense’ that the law requires women seeking IVF to provide a father figure. It is nonsense – but not for the reasons that she suggests.

It is nonsense that society has the technology to help infertile couples, yet restricts access to it through an over-prescriptive law. It is nonsense that a committee such as the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority exists to enforce this law, and is charged with all manner of powers to make decisions about the kind of people who should have children, and the lives they should lead – decisions that no committee ever makes about people who have children naturally. It is nonsense that such a committee thinks itself capable of deciding, in advance, the wishes and best interests of a child that has not yet even been conceived.

But Leather seems quite comfortable with this kind of nonsense. Not only is she chair of the HFEA; she is continually pushing for the regulators to have more control over who might have fertility treatment for what kind of reasons. In the two years since her appointment, states a recent interview in the Independent, Leather has ‘stood firm against the mavericks in the fertility business who believe doctors should be free to offer whatever treatment they think fit to anyone who walks into their consulting rooms’ (1).

She has ‘declared a ban on sex selection and limited the number of embryos transferred to the womb to a maximum of two in women under 40, to reduce the incidence of multiple births’, and she ‘now wants to see tougher measures to protect children born through IVF’ (2). The HFEA has famously – and for reasons nobody can understand – ruled against couples using reproductive technology to help save the lives of their existing children.

So why, given her record of pushing for more regulation, would Leather now be calling for a liberalisation of the law, apparently moving it away from prescribing the kind of relationships people should have? The answer is simple: she isn’t. Ditching the clause in the 1990 Human Fertilisation and Embryology (HFE) Act that stipulates the need for a child born by IVF to have a father figure might represent a relaxation of the idea that a child needs a particular type of (heterosexual, married-for-life) family. But that’s only because the HFEA feels that it can do a better job itself than any family.

Leather justified scrapping the father-figure law on the basis that it discriminates against same-sex couples, at a time when the government is moving to recognise a form of gay marriage, and that it is out of kilter with the lived reality of many ‘natural’ parents’ lives and relationships, given that one in four families is apparently now headed by a single parent (3). Both these claims are true enough. It does seem unfair that women seeking IVF treatment should be forced to conform to a steady-couple lifestyle not lived by many parents who conceive naturally, and that conversely, the very technology that can help lesbian couples to get around the natural barrier to parenthood should be denied to them.

But Leather is not advocating that either same-sex couples or single women should be treated like ‘natural’ parents, and left to determine for themselves whether and when to have children and with whom. Rather, she said that it was more important to assess women on their ‘medical and social circumstances’ than the exact arrangement of their relationships (4). In other words, the HFEA is more concerned that a woman seeking IVF treatment is the right kind of individual with the right kind of a life to be allowed the privilege of parenthood. What matters is less the individuals’ relationship with each other, than the mother’s relationship with the HFEA.

This committee-knows-best approach to fertility treatment undermines much of what should be positive and liberating about reporductive technology – namely, that it enables people to navigate around natural barriers for social reasons. By treating applicants for fertility treatment as though they were seeking to adopt a child, the HFEA creates another social barrier for every natural one that it transcends. So if a woman is deemed too old, too poor, too pushy or too picky, she can find herself denied help to do what the majority of women can do without consulting anybody. Why should a committee be able to sit in judgment like this upon individuals’ most personal decisions and desires? Who says the committee knows best?

More disturbing is the extent to which the official attitude to IVF couples undermines parenthood in general. A combination of the HFEA’s power and its focus on abstract moral and legal principles occasionally sends it off in some bizarre directions – and this latest ‘Who needs fathers?’ campaign is no exception.

While it is, as Suzi Leather says, ‘nonsense’ that the law can dictate the need for a father figure for IVF children, most parents recognise the actual need for a father in reality. This is not because women sit around worrying about the need for a positive male role model in their child’s life, but because they love somebody and want to have a baby with them. No doubt the same goes for the vast majority of IVF applicants. In society, one in four families may be headed by a single parent, but you can be pretty sure that they didn’t start out planning single parenthood – it just happened, and they got on with their lives and raised perfectly fine children, as people tend to do. Again, IVF families can expect to do likewise.

This is testament to the robustness of children and the importance of spontaneous, loving family relations, not some kind of evidence that fathers have become superfluous. But when Suzi Leather’s attitude to the importance of couple relationships is summed up by a practical ‘I think having two parents is better than one, largely on energy grounds’, this indicates a peculiarly mechanistic attitude towards child-rearing. Parenthood is seen as a matter of having the money and energy to provide for a child, who will be brought up within the caring auspices of official advice and guidance.

Isn’t is strange that the HFEA’s campaign to ditch the dads comes at the same time as the UK government announced a change in the law on anonymity for sperm donors, so that IVF children will have the legal right to find the identity of their father? Not really. This encapsulates the way that official sections of society are increasingly coming to see parents – as a potential source of biological problems that must be known about for medical reasons, and a potential source of social problems that must be dealt with by moving parenting further into the orbit of professionals.

While a man cannot give away some spare sperm without receiving counselling and signing a birth certificate, in case his DNA contains some crucial medical deficiency, loving parents are kept at arm’s length from their children by an army of health workers, children’s charities and community organisations who insist that professionals know best.

Reproductive technology is liberating people from their biology, while the regulation emphasises the importance of biology. Official bodies scrutinise people’s social circumstances while estranging them from the social aspects of parenting, in favour of the doctrine of child-rearing-by-committee. It’s not the petri dishes that should remind us of a Brave New World, but the creeping suspicion that parents aren’t up to the job.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Parents and children

(1) ‘It’s the relationship’s quality that counts, not people’s sex’, Independent, 21 January 2004

(2) IVF ‘father figure’ law attacked, BBC News, 21 January 2004

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Topics Politics


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