HC Deb 06 June 1989 vol 154 cc200-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Chapman.]

5.27 am
Mr. Ken Hargreaves (Hyndburn)

Even at this late hour I am grateful for the opportunity to raise my concerns about the proposed United Nations convention on the rights of the child. I apologise to the Minister for any inconvenience caused to him by being here at this late hour. I welcome to the debate my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe) and the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton).

The recent events in China have filled us all with sadness, horror and anger, because the most basic of all human rights—the right to life itself—has been taken away from more than 7,000 young people. Our sadness, our horror and our anger are justified. No one has the right to destroy innocent human life in that way.

Those of us in the pro-life movement, who believe that life begins at conception, feel the same sadness, horror and anger about the 170,000 children in this country who are killed by abortion every year. Their lives are sacred and should not be forfeited because they are inconvenient to their parents, any more than the lives of the Chinese students should have been forfeited because they were inconvenient to the state.

The right to life is paramount and must be recognised as such from the moment that new life begins, at conception. That right embraces the entire process of human growth and development. The constantly increasing numbers of abortions and the growing social and legal acceptance of terminating the lives of handicapped children show that the child needs special protection before as well as after birth. I am concerned that the proposed United Nations convention on the rights of the child will not fully recognise the right to life.

The proposed convention is meant to update and upgrade the 1959 United Nations declaration on the rights of the child, but, unlike the declaration, the convention will have the force of law. Its purpose is to enumerate the rights of children and to secure a commitment from states that they will endeavour to bring their laws and practices into conformity with those rights. The 1959 declaration made two references to the child before birth. The preamble stated: Whereas the child by reason of his physical and mental immaturity, needs special safeguards and care, including appropriate legal protection before as well as after birth. Principle 4 of the declaration said: Special care and protection shall be provided both to him and his mother, including adequate pre-natal and post-natal care". The proposed convention, drafted by a working group of the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva, which had been working on the text for some 10 years, made no mention of the unborn child. Attempts specifically to protect the unborn child in the convention were made in 1980, but opposition from some countries with liberal abortion laws prevented the inclusion of any reference to the child before birth.

Article I of the draft now contains the following definition of a child: For the purpose of the present convention a child means every human being below the age of 18 years, unless under the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier". There is no reference to the point at which childhood begins. This ambiguity on the beginning of childhood was clearly approved by the working group to allow states with differing laws governing the rights of the child before birth to interpret article 1 in different ways. The great opportunity to challenge states to improve the legal protection offered to the child before birth by using objective criteria to identify the point of commencement of childhood was not utilised.

Following international protests about the failure of the convention to protect the child before birth, last November's meeting of the working group reopened the issue. On 29 November, a reference to the child before birth was inserted in the preamble to the draft. It now reads: Bearing in mind that as indicated in the declaration of the rights of the child adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on 20th November 1959, the child, by reason of his physical and mental immaturity, needs special safeguards and care, including appropriate legal protection before as well as after birth. That is the only reference to the child before birth in the convention and even that was inserted only in exchange for the states which wanted such protection for unborn children agreeing to a comment being added as follows: In adopting this preambular paragraph the working group does not intend to prejudice the interpretation of article 1 or any other provision of the convention by state parties". It is clear that the interpretation of the word "child" leaves the way wide open for countries where abortion is legalised to interpret the convention as excluding the child before birth. Their adoption of the convention will not therefore be inhibited by the fear that by doing so they will have to amend existing abortion laws.

It is unfortunate that, solely because of their abortion laws, the majority of the delegates of the working group should have decided to omit the important words "from the moment of conception" from article 1. The great increase in medical knowledge about the nature and development of the child before birth in the 13 years since the declaration would, in the ordinary course of events, have made it natural to stress the importance of medical care for children before birth. All countries now recognise the importance of that and make provision for it in their medical services.

It is disgraceful that, in 1989, because, for the purpose of abortion laws, children are treated as chattels rather than people, an important convention on the needs and rights of children should deliberately exclude mention of their needs and rights before birth. Due to the present abortion laws, the convention was unable to deal with the specific duties and responsibilities of parents towards their children before birth.

The effect on children of the behaviour of their parents during the nine months of development in the womb is increasingly recognised in medical circles. It would have been of benefit to all human beings if that had been explicitly recognised in the convention.

The new convention should contain within its preamble a statement on the need to provide legal protection before, as well as after, birth. It should reaffirm the principles, contained in the current declaration, that the best interests of the child shall be the paramount consideration in the enactment of laws. It should reaffirm the principle that a child who is physically, mentally or socially handicapped should he given the special treatment, education and care required by his or her condition.

I welcome the Government's commitment to the family and the importance of family life. However, such commitment will not ring true with the general public unless the Government are seen to be doing everything in their power to protect the weakest and most vulnerable member of that family: the unborn child. Therefore, I hope that the Government will seek to ensure that the text eventually agreed for the proposed convention will recognise that a human child is human, both before and after birth, and that human rights—rights which attach to a being by virtue of being human—will attach to a child before and after birth.

Unless that clarification to the proposed convention is made, the impression will be given that the United Nation's commission regards some humans as not being entitled to human rights, and that the commission may decide which humans are so entitled, and which are not. Such an attitude would discredit the commission, the convention and the Government if they were seen to support it.

5.38 am
Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill)

That hon. Members on both sides of the House have stayed throughout the night and are here at just after half-past 5 in the morning to debate this important issue demonstrates that neither the issue nor the Members who are concerned about it will go away, and that it is a matter that the Government must face. I and I am sure many millions in this country are grateful to the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Mr. Hargreaves) for having used his Adjournment debate to raise this important matter. I am grateful to the Under-Secretary of State for Health for having persevered through the night to be here to answer the important points which have been made this morning. I wish to underline those points in my brief contribution, and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Hyndburn for allowing me to intervene.

Going back, not just to 1959 but to 1948, to the immediate aftermath of the second world war, when we had experienced such massive atrocities on a scale never before experienced by humankind, the United Nations passed a declaration which asserted unequivocally and unambiguously that everyone had the right to life. Over the intervening 40 years that commitment has been watered down, eroded and evaporated as successive Governments in different parts of Europe have become more and more edgy about providing a substantive assurance on the right to life.

During the past 20 years in this country we have allowed 3 million abortions of unborn children. I do not believe that anyone who was in this Chamber in 1967 when the original legislation was passed ever believed that the taking of life would occur on such a massive scale. There are 174,000 abortions annually and about 600 abortions every working day. That is the heedless plunder of our creation and it is not only happening here. In the United States of America, there are about 1.5 million abortions annually, and in China, to which the hon. Member for Hyndburn referred, there were 5 million abortions last year.

In my view, abortion is the ultimate form of child abuse. We should not be surprised that so many terrible things happen to the child on this side of birth when we allow the destruction of the child before it can be born. When we consider some of what takes place in this country's private clinics and hospitals, it seems that we have turned them into charnel houses. Abortions can take place legally as late as 28 weeks into gestation. The fact that a child that is perfectly viable, or even a child without viability that is clearly human, can be destroyed by being torn apart piece by piece demonstrates that our claims to call ourselves civilised are not justified.

This is happening on an horrific scale, but it has been politely placed out of sight and out of mind. The Minister should not underestimate the potency of the issue. Britain took a lead, some 150 years ago, in ending the international trade in slaves, and the United States quickly followed our example. If today we take the first steps back from this ugly trade in abortionism—if we turn the tide, take the fight to the United Nations and reassert the statements made in 1948 in the UN declaration of human rights that everyone has the right to life, and the 1959 declaration that life begins at conception—I believe that we will be performing a major service to mankind.

This question is far too important to be left to obscure debates held in private Members' time, and be relegated to "conscience questions", which is shorthand for preserving the status quo. The pro-life amendment to the United Nations convention would be a first step towards restoring a rational sense of balance to the debate and away from the status quo. It would recognise that no one has the right to end the life of another. To say that it is our right to choose to take another person's life is a spurious assertion: it is never our right to make that choice. It is merely the ultimate refuge of a selfish society.

The House will wish to thank the hon. Member for Hyndburn for initiating this debate, and I look forward to the Minister's reply.

5.41 am
Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone)

Let me also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Mr. Hargreaves) on securing this important debate, and thank the Minister for having lasted through the night. If if falls to his lot to reply to my Adjournment debate on Thursday, I hope that it will be at a slightly more congenial hour.

The fact that two Adjournment debates this week deal with the subject of abortion demonstrates the level of parliamentary concern and, indeed, determination that the issue will not go away and must be resolved. When my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn made the point that there was no proper definition in the United Nations convention of where childhood began, he put his finger on the main weakness of the case for not defining the rights of the child.

If we had defined when childhood began, the case of the Carlisle baby would not have come about. It is popular among our opponents to talk merely about the woman's right to choose, and to refer to "the foetus", never the baby or the unborn child. It is difficult to see that the Carlisle baby, whose case I shall be raising on Thursday, could possibly be described as anything other than a child or a baby. That baby was no different from babies all over the world in incubators, being loved and cherished with all the resources of medical science placed at their disposal. Had there been some definition of where childhood began, it would have been impossible for its case to occur. If we recognise the rights of children before birth, as we do to a limited extent in this country—that is, we recognise their rights at 28 weeks—there is no way that we can ignore so comprehensively their rights after birth.

There is a second parallel between the Carlisle baby case and the United Nations convention. My hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn rightly pointed out that, by its refusal to define where childhood begins and to give rights to the unborn child, the convention allows nations to interpret it as widely as they choose. In other words, it condones the cover-up. Instead of doing what most international treaties do—set standards to which everyone must adhere—it says that everyone can do what they like.

The most massive cover-up, which I shall be speaking about on Thursday, occurred at Carlisle general hospital in the summer of 1987, when the mother concerned was not even told that her child of six months had lived; the priest who brought the matter to public attention had his contract terminated or at any rate not renewed; a request for a coroner's inquest, which is usually a formality, was turned down; and a live child was not registered at birth. That is the kind of situation that could arise from the United Nations convention—and I see you, Madam Deputy Speaker, rising to tell me that my remarks are too wide of the debate.

Once we say that there is no need to define the rights of the unborn child and that nations can do what they like, we are saying that the born child also has restricted rights and that politicians, doctors and coroners should be left to interpret the law as it stands instead of setting objective standards and punishing very severely those who transgress them.

5.45 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Mr. Roger Freeman)

My hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Mr. Hargreaves) graciously apologised for any inconvenience caused to me by participating in the debate at a quarter to 6 in the morning. There is absolutely no inconvenience to myself, but it would be fair and courteous to apologise to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to all the servants of the House, for keeping you up so late.

The hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) rightly said that abortion is an important national issue. I believe that it is worth debating at 5.30 in the morning just as much as at 5.30 in the afternoon. I have no doubt that we shall be returning to these important issues many times, and my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdicombe) gave me a trailer of the debate on Thursday, in which I shall certainly participate.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn on choosing such an important topic for his Adjournment debate. He drew attention both to important United Nations negotiations now under way and, more specifically, to the sensitive issues of abortion and embryo research on which right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House have sincere and deeply held views. Although a Minister serves to express the Government's view in the hope of enlightening the House as to the facts of the case in question, we all of us—myself included—have deeply held views on abortion and embryo research, and we shall express them at the appropriate time.

I listened very carefully to my hon. Friend's remarks in the context of the draft United Nations convention on the rights of the child. It may be helpful if I say a few words about the convention, which was prepared by a working group established by the United Nations commission on human rights in 1979. The United Kingdom was a member of that working group and played a leading role in the drafting of the convention. As a member of the working group, the Government always sought to ensure that the draft reflected our national policies and the principles of the 1959 United Nations declaration on the rights of the child.

The working group has completed its work on the text of the convention, which is now in its final form after almost nine years of detailed discussion. The draft is due to go to the United Nations General Assembly in New York for adoption later this year. It is the Government's intention to sign and ratify the convention soon after its adoption, because, in our view, it is right for this country to be associated with that important statement of international commitment to improving the health and welfare of children throughout the world.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn rightly drew attention to one or two articles of the convention, but it is an extensive draft covering some 40 articles dealing with children's rights over a very broad range of issues. I am sure that he would wish to lend his support to the convention in that sense.

Once adopted, the convention will be the first international treaty to deal specifically and over a wide field with the human rights and fundamental freedoms of children. The convention will establish minimum standards for the survival, protection and development of children. The Government warmly support the convention's aims.

The working group has been engaged in considerable debate on many of the issues tackled in the draft convention. Among these have been questions about the extent to which it applies to the unborn child. This of course is closely related to the points my hon. Friend has most eloquently drawn attention to this morning. Participating countries have inevitably adopted widely differing positions on this issue. It was the working group's practice to proceed by consensus, and the views of all contributing countries had to be taken into account in drafting this international instrument. That may seem a trite comment, but this is the way in which international treaties and conventions are prepared, as perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone knows.

It is, in the Government's view, esential that the convention should not affect the right of Parliament to decide on appropriate legislation in the fields of abortion and embryo research. In this we are of course at one with many other countries and the issues which are of concern to us must also be exercising their minds. The extent of legislative protection that should be given to human embryos and foetuses is a matter of great debate and difficulty in many countries, not just in the United Kingdom. We must all recognise that on these issues there are deep and sincerely held, but widely differing, views. It is for this reason that in this country Governments have traditionally taken a neutral stance on issues such as abortion and human embryo research, regarding them as matters of individual conscience.

As regards the law on abortion, the House is well aware that our present legislation dates from 1967 when Parliament decided to build on an existing framework of criminal law on this subject. Parliament decided on these arrangements on a free vote. The 1967 Act sets out the circumstances in which termination of pregnancy may legally be performed if statutory arrangements are satisfied. The Abortion Act has to be read alongside the Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929, whose basic purpose is to protect the life of the unborn child except where termination of pregnancy is necessary to save the life of the mother. It is open to Parliament to alter some or all aspects of this legislative framework. I know that many hon. Members have strong views on the subject, and the matter has been frequently debated since 1967. It is this complex and controversial position which the Government have to take into account in considering the draft convention.

I am very well aware of the strong and conflicting views hon. Members and others have expressed on the whole issue of abortion. There was a long and valuable debate in the House on 16 December 1988 about the unborn child and my hon. Friend has made good use of the opportunity to draw attention this morning to the issues discussed on that and many other occasions.

The conflict of opinion on abortion applies equally to research involving human embryos. Advances in science and medicine over the past few years have made practicable a whole range of procedures and treatments which could not even have been contemplated previously, but as we all recognise, such scientific advance brings with it problems as well as benefits. In particular, as the Warnock report emphasises, it gives rise to many profound and difficult questions of rights and duties, both ethical and legal on which each of us will have our own view. There is, however, one thing on which I am sure we all agree—the need to provide a clear legislative framework in which future developments can take place.

In our White Paper, "Human Fertilisation and Embryology: A Framework for Legislation", we set out our proposals in this field. Two are particularly relevant to this debate; first, the establishment of a statutory licensing authority to control centres engaged in such procedures as in vitro fertilisation; secondly, to have a free vote on alternative clauses on embryo research in the Bill. One would outlaw it altogether; the other would allow it under strict controls. In that way Parliament will be able to reach a decision on this particularly sensitive issue on the basis of individual conscience.

Mr. Alton

I am grateful to the Minister for that important assurance that there will be a vote on embryo experimentation. Is he prepared to give the House an assurance that the same opportunity to vote in Government time on late abortions will also be provided?

Mr. Freeman

As the hon. Gentleman well knows, that is a matter not for me but for my right hon. Friend the Lord President and others. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I will draw to my right hon. Friend's attention hon. Members' comments in this brief debate. He is in no doubt about the strength of feeling on the issue, and I can do no more than convey to him the feelings of hon. Members who have participated in this debate and their views on the subject. We have made a firm commitment to bring forward legislation on these matters within this Parliament, and I should like to reaffirm that commitment.

I am aware that many hon. Members would like to see changes in the abortion law included in the forthcoming legislation. Their arguments will be carefully considered when the legislation is prepared. I am sure that in the debates on the legislation there will be much discussion on the issues ably raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn.

The central subject of the debate is the draft convention on the rights of the child. It has been helpful to have hon.

Members' views and I hope that my reply has shown that in considering the position on the final text of the work on the draft convention the Government are fully seized not only of the importance of the subject as a whole but of the sensitivity which some aspects of it hold for hon. Members. We shall certainly bear these closely in mind in bringing into harmony the convention and the legislation in this country.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at five minutes to Six O'clock.