HC Deb 26 November 1991 vol 199 cc884-92

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

10.28 pm
Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill)

I am grateful for the opportunity of raising on the Adjournment tonight the methods of disposal of the human remains of aborted babies. It is the subject of early-day motion 79, which is jointly sponsored by myself and Members in all parts of the House, including the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Sir P. Duffy) and the right hon. Member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine).

I know that it is the intention of the Father of the House, who is the president of the all-party Pro-Life group, to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I hope that it will also be possible for the hon. Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton), the chairman of the group, and other hon. Members to participate in the debate. I am grateful to the hon. Members who have supported me by being here this evening to show their abhorrence of current practices in abortion clinics and national health service hospitals.

To place the debate in context, it is worth recording that, this year alone, abortionism will be responsible for more deaths than malnutrition, hunger and poverty combined. In Britain, it totals 184,000 deaths—some 600 unborn babies killed each and every day. Apart from the ethical questions raised by that massive number of abortions, there is also the practical question of the disposal of their remains.

Earlier this year, I complained to the chief environmental health officer of Liverpool city council, Mr. Glyn Thompson, about the use of an incinerator at the Parkfield road abortion clinic in Sefton Park in my constituency. In answer to my inquiries about the incinerator, he replied on 19 November: This incinerator does not meet current standards and so there is no question of the facility being used with the Council's approval. Residents in the area had complained about the high level of air pollution.

In September, new regulations were introduced to control the use of incinerators. When the incinerator no longer seemed to be being used, I went with Councillor John Livingston, a local Labour councillor and Pro-Life supporter, to ask the public health investigators what methods were being used to dispose of the remains of aborted children. It was then that the public health inspectors notified me that a macerator was being used. For hon. Members who do not know what that entails, I shall explain. A macerator is a grinding machine. The remains of aborted babies are placed in a macerator, pulped and ground down and then discharged into the neighbourhood's sewers and drains.

I wrote to the National Rivers Authority. Dr. Leeming, the environmental quality manager, replying to my constituent, Mr. Cooney of Hadassah grove, who also wrote complaining, said that he shared my concern, but that the matter was entirely for North West Water. I then wrote to Mr. Brian Alexander, the managing director, who said: We would normally seek to use our influence to prevent or stop a practice which we believed might offend our customers or the community. As you know, this is the action we were proposing in this particular case, and there was an immediate cessation of the practice. I also tabled questions to the Minister, who unfortunately is unable to be here this evening. I am pleased to see the Under-Secretary who will reply to the debate.

I received a further letter from Mr. Brian Alexander, again via Mr. Cooney, dated 18 November. In it, Mr. Alexander said: I doubt the existence of such evidence and therefore our ability to sustain any action. In answer to the question whether it was possible to prosecute those responsible for discharging the remains into the local sewers, he said: It is clear that the present legislation with which we arc concerned is not designed to deal with this type of issue. In the circumstances we have expressed these views to the Department of Health. Meanwhile, in answer to the questions I tabled, the Minister said of maceration: This method has been used in a small number of private sector approved places since the early 1970s."—[Official Report, 5 November 1991; Vol. 198 c. 105.] It is extraordinary that North West Water says that it did not have sufficient evidence to prosecute and that the Department, having been notified by North West Water, admitted that this method has been in use since 19'10 but it had been unable and sufficiently unconcerned about the problem to do anything whatever about it.

Although the Minister promised an immediate cessation, that will not be implemented in some cases until next January. Nor do we know how it will be enforced. I hope that the Under-Secretary will turn his mind to that when he replies.

Although I was told in a parliamentary reply on 8 November that that method of disposal was no longer considered appropriate, the Minister told me that compliance would be further monitored through regular, unannounced inspections by the Department's medical, nursing and investigative officers. But if the same methods will be used as have been for the last 21 years, it is difficult to have much confidence in that watchdog carrying out the monitoring exercise. The very people who have been responsible for allowing those practices will, we are told, be responsible in the future.

What now'? If incineration is to be the preferred method, as I was told on 5 November in answer to another parliamentary question, and if incineration is to replace maceration, what issues does that pose? This clinic, Parkfield road, has hired a waste disposal company, Quick Ways Waste of Coburg dock, which every day takes shipments of unborn babies—about 500 in the last month from that clinic alone—to Walton hospital in Liverpool, which in turn charges the national health service 50p per sack of human remains, which are then incinerated on the premises at Walton hospital.

I wish to quiz the Minister on the conscience clause, a matter to which, I understand, the hon. Member for Congleton will refer in due course. In a letter dated 13 November of this year, the district general manager of South Sefton (Merseyside) health authority, said: The 'conscience' clause in the Abortion Act applies only to those staff who might be participating in treatment. In other words, ancillary staff—porters and operators of furnaces and incinerators—have no protection whatever in this matter. When does the Minister intend to do something about the recommendations of the Select Committee on Health—the Chairman of which, the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton), I am glad to see in his place—which recommended last year that the conscience clause should be extended to cover ancillary workers?

When will the recommendations of the Polkinghorne committee be implemented'? That committee reported to the Department during consideration of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990. Polkinghorne said: A foetus is entitled to respect, according it a status broadly comparable with that of a living person. Who can honestly believe that the grinding and pulping of the unborn child and the discharge of its remains into the public sewers like human excrement constitutes dignity or respect?

In many countries—for example, Sweden, Italy and the United States—there is legislation requiring the unborn to be treated with respect. Fifteen states in America require that the unborn who are aborted or miscarried shall be buried or cremated and not tossed into an incinerator with hospital waste, which is precisely what is happening at Walton hospital. I hope that the Minister will address that point too when he replies. There are in the United States 90-day jail sentences and $700 fines for people found breaking that law.

What are the health implications for the communities living in and around the locations where incinerators are located'? That is another matter that must be addressed by the Department, for I became interested in the issue in the first place because of complaints from people living in neighbourhoods near clinics which were using what the chief environmental health officer described as "unsatisfactory incineration methods".

In the last 24 hours, I have heard from Merseyside hospital workers and NUPE officials that they have been asked to handle and incinerate the remains of babies who have been perfectly formed. They question why they should be forced to do other people's dirty work.

All life is precious. If, on these supreme human rights questions, this Parliament does not insist on the dignity and respect to which the unborn are entitled, what right will we have to be taken seriously on any other occasion when we demand that human rights must be respected?

10.39 pm
Sir Bernard Braine (Castle Point)

The House is deeply indebted to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) for raising a matter that so far has been dealt with behind closed doors. Now that it is out in the open, it will truly shock the nation. There can be no doubt that, without the hon. Gentleman's initiative, the House would never have heard of the manner in which aborted babies were being disposed of at the Parkfield road clinic in Merseyside, run by the Pregnancy Advisory Service, which on many occasion I have heard spokesmen of the Department of Health referring to as a charity.

The Minister for Health is not here to answer the hon. Gentleman's grave charge. No doubt the Parliamentary Under-Secretary will confirm that she changed the guidelines earlier this year. Henceforward, incineration in abortion clinics would be upgraded, since those in use previously were no longer considered adequate for their grisly task. Inquiries revealed that the Merseyside nursing home had followed instructions and has discarded its incinerator. Instead of upgrading the equipment, it was replaced with a macerator which minced to pieces the aborted babies and sluiced them down the local sewer.

Can the Parliamentary Under-Secretary possibly imagine the horror of those in Liverpool when they discovered what was being done with the connivance of my hon. Friend's Department? I hope that the Parliamentary Under-Secretary realises that that practice offends against every conceivable standard of human decency. I feel bound to ask him, therefore, a number of questions.

First, what follow-up inquiries were made by the Department of Health to ensure that the Minister's instruction about incineration had been carried out? We know that no inquiries were made in Merseyside, but I want to know what was done in every other health authority in the country. We are entitled to know.

Secondly, what was the reason for ordering abortion clinic incinerators to be upgraded? Was it anything to do with the fact that the existing incinerators might no longer be adequate for the disposal of late aborted babies, where a recognisable little human would be thrust into the flames? What was the reason for the so-called upgrading? Let us be told.

Thirdly, it is bad enough that daily we destroy the lives of 600 unborn babies, but now, by treating their remains like effluent or sending them up in smoke, we show the depravity and the degradation that are the hallmarks of the abortion industry.

It appears that the Merseyside clinic had not invested in an upgraded incinerator, but had instead hired the services of an industrial waste disposal company, which collects the aborted babies and takes them to be incinerated at Walton hospital—which, ironically, does not carry out abortions. I am told that, for that service, the company charges the hospital 50p for each bag to be incinerated. Is that an improvement on macerators? Is this the pattern elsewhere in the country? This House wants to know. We need to know what is going on.

The hon. Member for Mossley Hill reminded us that the Polkinghorne committee said that the remains of the unborn were entitled to the same treatment as human cadavers and were to be treated with respect and dignity. The Polkinghorne committee also said that mothers should be asked in advance how they wanted their babies to be treated. I hope that the Under-Secretary will say whether the mother will in future be asked that question, and whether proper burial arrangements will be made in future, as they are in the United States. I hope too that he will say whether an independent watchdog will be established, and what action will be taken to prosecute those who have been responsible for these degrading practices.

This is a shameful story, and nothing but a full inquiry and a truthful report to the House will suffice. If I were the Under-Secretary—I once held that office—I would resign.

10.43 pm
Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton)

I am most grateful to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) for allowing me to contribute briefly to this evening's debate. As chairman of the all-party Pro-Life group, I can say that the subject is of great concern to many right hon. and hon. Members.

In 1989 deep concern was also generated by the news that the brain cells of aborted babies were being used in controversial new treatments for Parkinson's disease. As a result, the Secretary of State for Health commissioned the Rev. Dr. John Polkinghorne, Dean of Trinity hall, Cambridge, to chair a committee to consider the ethical questions that that raised.

Dr. Polkinghorne and his committee studied the matter and made several recommendations which, although lacking the force of law, nevertheless bear consideration now. The committee observed: Central to our understanding is the acceptance of a special status for the living human fetus at every stage of its development". The committee went on to say that respect for the living foetus carries over in a modified fashion to the dead fetus, in a way analogous to the respect we afford to a human cadaver on the basis of its having been the body of a human person. It is hard to envisage a mother consenting to the remains of her unborn child being ground to pieces and flushed into the public sewer. Such a method of disposal of foetal remains flies directly in the face of the spirit of respect for the dead foetus which the Polkinghorne report espoused. It is gruesome in the extreme.

My feelings of deep concern are aroused both for the mother, who may subsequently realise the horror of what was done with the remains of her child and suffer unspeakable anguish as a result, and for the ancillary workers who face the task of carrying out the procedure. The Government have refused to bring ancillary workers within the scope of the protection afforded by the conscience clause of the Abortion Act 1967, despite the recommendation of the Social Services Committee which in its 10th report of the 1989–90 Session recommended: The Department of Health considers extending the provisions of section 4 of the 1967 Act to cover some Ancillary staff".

Mr. Ken Hargreaves (Hyndburn)

My hon. Friend will be aware that the complaint which led the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) to raise the matter was made by NUPE hospital workers who do not want to be placed in such a position. Perhaps we should be doing something for them.

Mrs. Winterton

That is precisely why the committee recommended that those workers should be included under the conscience clause. Most ordinary people are revolted by what those workers have to do. A woman's right to choose is lauded throughout the land, but if people realised that others had to clear up the remains of the dead babies they would think more clearly about it at the beginning.

The Department of Health is responsible for protecting ancillary workers against pressure to be involved in procedures to which they conscientiously object. It was unacceptable and cowardly of the Minister to respond to the Select Committee's recommendation by hiding behind a facade and arguing that matters relating to abortion should be left to private Member's legislation.

10.48 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Mr. Stephen Dorrell)

Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine) and my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton), I express my gratitude to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) for raising this subject, not only this evening but in correspondence with my hon. Friend the Minister for Health, giving her the opportunity to deal with the maceration aspects. Her action clearly has the support of the three hon. Members who have spoken in this debate and reflects the view that would be held by any right-thinking person approaching the problem.

As the hon. Member for Mossley Hill rightly said, the issue before the House is not the main issue of the law governing the availability of abortions, but the practical consequences of the decisions that the House has taken over the years on the formulation of abortion law. The practical consequences are as distasteful to anyone considering the implications of the subject under discussion as the subject of abortion itself.

We must deal with the relatively narrow issue of how to deal with the unavoidably distasteful consequences of abortion laws, to which all hon. Members who have spoken are vehemently and passionately opposed. The correspondence of the hon. Member for Mossley Hill provided the Minister of State with an opportunity to change the public standards enforced on those responsible for carrying out the distasteful task of disposing of foetal remains.

The hon. Gentleman asked why a small minority of water authorities had allowed the maceration process to continue over a period of years. I am advised that no narrowly defined health hazard arises from the process. However, that in no way invalidates the proposition that an issue of public taste and standards arises from that method of disposal, and it was the acceptance of that which led my hon. Friend the Minister for Health to intervene in the way she did.

My hon. Friend's intervention was motivated and governed by precisely the approach adopted by the Polkinghorne committee—that the disposal of foetal remains should be governed by the principle that foetal remains had before abortion the potential for developing into fully fledged human life and are entitled to the respect that any common-sense approach—not to mention any vaguely religious approach—to the subject must require public authorities to observe.

As a consequence of the correspondence with the hon. Member for Mossley Hill, my hon. Friend the Minister for Health imposed a new public standard on the disposal of foetal remains—precisely the approach that has been pressed upon me by the hon. Gentleman and by my right hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point and my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton, that that disposal should be informed by the approach adopted by the Polkinghorne report. That is not in dispute.

I was asked how the changed public standard that my hon. Friend the Minister for Health introduced would be enforced. The answer is twofold. First, as it concerns NHS institutions, it is enforced by guidelines issued by the NHS Management Executive, a copy of which I have before me, which is headed: Action. As soon as possible and no later than 1 January 1992, NHS authorities and trusts must ensure that"— then there are three propositions, first account is taken of any personal wishes which have been expressed about the disposal of the foetus". That answers the point put to me about the concern of the mother.

Mr. Alton

It does not entirely answer that point. It says that if wishes are expressed by the mother they will be taken into account. The right hon. Member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine) asked whether the mother would be asked.

Mr. Dorrell

I would not give the assurance that in every case the mother will be asked. We should remember that mothers who go for an abortion do not take the same interest in the subject as perhaps the hon. Gentleman and every other hon. Member might. None the less, where a personal view is expressed the guidance is clear—that the NHS has an obligation to take that into account.

Secondly, the guidance says that, subject to the views expressed by the mother about the disposal of the foetus, all foetuses and foetal tissue from the termination of a pregnancy must be incinerated. Thirdly, prior to incineration, all foetuses and foetal tissue must be stored in a secure and opaque container in a safe place.

The enforcement mechanism is the management guidance issued by the Management Executive for NHS hospitals.

Mr. Alton

What about the issue of separation and the conscience clause for hospital workers? Surely the remains of unborn children should be removed from the garbage that is in the incinerator or which may be put into the incinerator at the same time. Surely the Minister would accept that.

Mr. Dorrell

I am coming to the point about the conscience clause, but I wish first to deal with enforcement in relation to the private sector institutions, which is obviously a large part of the issue raised by the question. As to that, a letter was addressed to all approved places and registered bureaux under the abortion law. I will not read it to the House in its entirety, because if I do I shall be unable to cover the other points. However, the key paragraph states categorically: Compliance with this letter is a requirement for continued approval under section 1(3) of the Abortion Act 1967. Both as regards NHS management guidance and the licensing system for approved places for abortions, action has been taken to ensure that the raised public standards that my hon. Friend the Minister of State introduced will be observed and met.

As to the conscience clause, it was correctly stated that the Select Committee pointed out that the existing state of the law provides a conscience clause for medical staff but not for non-medical staff in regard to the disposal of foetal remains. The Government's response has already been published, and states clearly that the Government consider that the changes in primary legislation on that subject should be carried forward by private Members' legislation—

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)


Mr. Dorrell

—just as the original conscience clause was put on the statute book by private Members' legislation.

Sir Bernard Braine

That is cowardly.

Mr. Dorrell

My right hon. Friend may regard that as cowardly, but the House has a long tradition of approaching such issues on the basis of private Members' legislation. Effective, even half-sensitive management in the health service should ensure that people who have a conscience clause as a management action are not required to undertake the disposal of foetal remains or to be involved in the necessary consequences of the abortion decision taken by the House.

Proposals to change statute law—primary legislation —on the conditions surrounding abortion is something that the House has always dealt with by private Members' legislation. That cannot come as a surprise to the Chairman of the Select Committee on Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton), because it was clearly stated in the Government's response to that Select Committee.

Mr. Ken Hargreaves

I tried to introduce a private Member's Bill to allow the conscience clause for ancillary workers, but it was killed by the Government.

Mr. Winterton

What about that?

Mr. Dorrell

If my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Mr. Hargreaves) secured time for such a Bill in a private Members' ballot, I am surprised to hear that the Government took action to kill it. If, on the other hand, my hon. Friend introduced a ten-minute Bill at the end of a Session, he will know that other considerations will have informed decisions taken at that time.

If any right hon. or hon. Member draws a place in a ballot for private Members' Bills in seeking to introduce legislation to provide a conscience clause for ancillary staff in the health service of the kind that we are debating, that matter would be dealt with by a free vote on which the Government would not take a view.

Mr. Winterton

Who is pulling the wool?

Mr. Dorrell

I must tell my hon. Friend that I am not sure. I am stating clearly that the Government would not seek to intervene in a decision taken by the House on a proposal of the kind just suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn.

Sir Bernard Braine

I mentioned American law on the subject. Why do the Government not have the courage to follow the example set by our American cousins—or, for that matter, by any civilised country?

Mr. Dorrell

I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn that, as a private Member, I would certainly support a measure of the kind that he proposed. As a Government Minister, we have a long tradition in this country—separate from the tradition in the United States, that matters relating to abortion are handled by private Members' legislation——

The motion having been made after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at two minutes to Eleven o'clock.

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