HC Deb 23 February 1993 vol 219 cc769-72 3.40 pm
Mr. David Amess (Basildon)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to prohibit the use of techniques designed to influence the sex of a foetus at conception; to amend the Abortion Act 1967; and for related purposes. The House will be relieved to know that the Bill is not about Basildon and that I do not intend to mention my constituency in my speech. It has come to my attention that there is confusion about the intentions of the Bill which I seek to introduce. Let me say immediately that it is not a Bill to stop sex. Contrary to what some of my hon. Friends think, I am not that much of a spoilsport.

It is also not a Bill to interfere with the time limit in which an abortion can be obtained. It has come to my attention that the preamble to the Bill has caused controversy. I am seeking today to create all-party support. Accordingly, I give a firm undertaking that, if I am allowed to proceed with the Bill, I shall not seek to amend the Abortion Act 1967.

I welcome, and will take careful note of, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority public consultation on sex selection. The sole intention of the Bill is to stop the grubby little practice, which we witnessed on television the other day, of a doctor selling his services on the premise that he could enable people to select the sex they wanted for their child. I am a strong supporter of the enterprise culture, but the practices of that doctor are commercialism taken too far.

The Bill is entirely to do with the dignity of human life itself. It would prohibit the use of techniques designed to influence the sex of a foetus at conception. It would not in any way alter the present arrangements for dealing with sex-linked genetic diseases.

There is much that I would like to say on the whole issue, but suffice it to say, when life has never been so cheap, with child killing child and all the rest of it, that I hope that the House will agree that, however the arguments are deployed, it cannot be right to influence the sex of a child. Do we really think so little of ourselves? Is our self-esteem so low? Do we not care about anything any more? I hardly think that it is the view of the overwhelming majority of the general public that sex selection is right and proper.

Many of us are blessed with children. I thought that my circumstances were particularly suitable to one who wished to introduce such a Bill. First we had a boy, followed by a girl. When number three came along, people naturally asked what we would like, to which we answered that it did not matter as long as the child was healthy—it happened to be a little girl, and a right little madam she is. The pressure really started with numbers four and five. Everyone was interested and delighted, but the message was clear: "Won't you be disappointed if you don't have a boy this time?"

I was present throughout the labour and delivery of all my children's births. It is not much fun for someone to lie there thinking, "Everyone is expecting it to be a boy, what do I say if it is a girl?", which it was on the fourth occasion.

By the fifth occasion, pressure was mounting. What a lot of rubbish I had to listen to—all the old wives' tales about the way in which my wife was carrying the child, her shape and even a metal ring dangled by a string above her tummy. There she lay, just about to give birth, knowing that everyone, whoever they were, expected her to have a boy. She did not. We had another girl, and what a delight she is.

Every time that we had a child, we were not bothered about its sex, but were concerned about its health. If we have another one, its sex will not matter: we just hope that it will be healthy. We have observed that it does not matter whether one has a boy or a girl—in our case, they are all rather badly behaved.

What is my real argument against sex selection? I have never believed in the equality of men and women—they are quite different, and if pressed I would say that women are superior to men. Nature has a mystical way of balancing the sexes. I do not know what it is called, so let us call it the mystery of life, and I think that it works quite well. I have no doubt that sex selection would probably discriminate against women, and it is especially offensive to women and to feminists.

I do not think that I am being too fanciful in imagining the day when sex no longer matters. One will be able to make a phone call and nine months later order a blonde-haired blue-eyed little girl. The practice of sex selection appears to have come from across the Atlantic, and I deplore it. The success rate of the technique is questioned by many leading medical authorities. Are we certain that the egg would not be rejected?

Finally, it is not acceptable to interfere with the natural balance between the sexes. Nature is best left alone; so let us take this opportunity to restore dignity to life itself. Let legislators and public representatives proclaim our humility at a time when so much that we hold dear has become grubby, and let us leave Mother Nature to take her own course when determining the balance between women and men on our planet.

3.47 pm
Ms. Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate)

I rise to oppose the Bill presented by the hon. Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess), on the grounds that I believe it to be both misguided and premature. I could also argue that it is flippant in the extreme, and that it makes a mockery of the subject under discussion and the debates and decisions reached by the House, not least the creation of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority which, unlike the hon. Gentleman, has issued a public document on sex selection, in which it has asked for the widest ranging responses to the issues raised, not least the consideration of the ethical, social, legal and practical issues surrounding sex selection". The hon. Member for Basildon told the House that he has dropped the amendment that appears on the face of the Bill regarding changes in the Abortion Act 1967. I presume that he has done that because he has recently learnt that it is already illegal to obtain an abortion solely on the ground of foetal sex. A legal abortion is dependent on there being medical reasons, such as a mother tragically being a carrier of a disease that expresses itself only in the male line. Of the 200 such genetic diseases that medical science has discovered, the most obvious examples are haemophilia and Duchenne muscular dystrophy.

The basis of the hon. Gentleman's argument is that there should be no human intervention in deciding the sex of a child. Yet over generations and centuries, the human animal has placated the gods in some form in the hope that they would be able to produce male issue. The ancient Greeks believed that a male child would be born if the left testicle was bound. Why that should be regarded as an old wives' tale is beyond my comprehension. Even today, couples are advised to go to bed with boots on or with boots off, to make love when a north wind is blowing, when the moon is full or when the sun is going down, or to use liberal applications of lemon juice. Those ideas are as flippant as the hon. Gentleman's arguments in favour of the Bill.

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority published its public consultation document in January this year. The Bill is premature, because the authority will not publish the results of that consultation until June. It seems absurd for the House, having set up an authority whose basis is the ethical issues surrounding human fertilisation, to dispense with the debate, argument, concern and compassion that went into setting up the authority before it has reported to the House and to the country at large.

It is given to few individuals to make a difference, to make a change and to leave the world a better place than they found it. Among that elite pantheon will undoubtedly be the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Sir D. Steel). There is also a place for the House in that, in passing the Abortion Act 1967, it released women from the dark cage of fear into which the possibility of an unwanted and an unplanned pregnancy had plunged them. The House should remember the care, compassion, consideration and quality of debate that brought the Act into being. The House should dismiss the Bill out of hand.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 19 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of public business):—

The House divided: Ayes 87, Noes 106.

Division No. 160] [3.52 pm
Alexander, Richard Elletson, Harold
Alison, Rt Hon Michael (Selby) Evans, Jonathan (Brecon)
Alton, David Evennett, David
Amess, David Faber, David
Ancram, Michael Fenner, Dame Peggy
Anderson, Donald (Swansea E) Fox, Dr Liam (Woodspring)
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham) Fox, Sir Marcus (Shipley)
Atkinson, David (Bour'mouth E) Fry, Peter
Banks, Robert (Harrogate) Gallie, Phil
Beith, Rt Hon A. J. Gill, Christopher
Bendall, Vivian Greenway, Harry (Ealing N)
Benton, Joe Grylls, Sir Michael
Bowden, Andrew Harris, David
Boyson, Rt Hon Sir Rhodes Hawksley, Warren
Brazier, Julian Hughes, Simon (Southwark)
Browning, Mrs. Angela Jessel, Toby
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE) Kellett-Bowman, Dame Elaine
Campbell-Savours, D. N. Kilfedder, Sir James
Channon, Rt Hon Paul Knight, Mrs Angela (Erewash)
Churchill, Mr Knight, Dame Jill (Bir'm E'st'n)
Clappison, James Lawrence, Sir Ivan
Colvin, Michael Lidington, David
Congdon, David Lord, Michael
Coombs, Anthony (Wyre For'st) Lynne, Ms Liz
Dafis, Cynog McAvoy, Thomas
Davies, Quentin (Stamford) Macdonald, Calum
Day, Stephen Maitland, Lady Olga
Deva, Nirj Joseph Marshall, David (Shettleston)
Dicks, Terry Marshall, Sir Michael (Arundel)
Duncan, Alan Martin, Michael J. (Springburn)
Molyneaux, Rt Hon James Spicer, Sir James (W Dorset)
Montgomery, Sir Fergus Sumberg, David
Neubert, Sir Michael Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Nicholson, David (Taunton) Thomason, Roy
Pawsey, James Tracey, Richard
Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth Trimble, David
Porter, David (Waveney) Tyler, Paul
Powell, William (Corby) Waller, Gary
Robathan, Andrew Waterson, Nigel
Roe, Mrs Marion (Broxbourne) Whittingdale, John
Ross, William (E Londonderry) Winterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)
Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)
Skeet, Sir Trevor Tellers for the Ayes:
Smith, Sir Dudley (Warwick) Mr. Cheryl Gillan and
Smyth, Rev Martin (Belfast S) Dr. Robert Spink.
Speed, Sir Keith
Abbott, Ms Diane Hill, Keith (Streatham)
Allen, Graham Hoey, Kate
Armstrong, Hilary Home Robertson, John
Austin-Walker, John Hood, Jimmy
Banks, Tony (Newham NW) Hoon, Geoffrey
Barnes, Harry Hoyle, Doug
Barron, Kevin Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)
Bennett, Andrew F. Hughes, Roy (Newport E)
Blunkett, David Hutton, John
Bottomley, Peter (Eltham) Jackson, Glenda (H'stead)
Bradley, Keith Jackson, Helen (Shef'ld, H)
Brown, N. (N'c'tle upon Tyne E) Jones, Lynne (B'ham S O)
Burden, Richard Jowell, Tessa
Byers, Stephen Keen, Alan
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge) Kennedy, Jane (Lpool Brdgn)
Chisholm, Malcolm Khabra, Piara S.
Clark, Dr David (South Shields) Kilfoyle, Peter
Clwyd, Mrs Ann Kirkwood, Archy
Cohen, Harry Lait, Mrs Jacqui
Connarty, Michael Lestor, Joan (Eccles)
Cook, Frank (Stockton N) Lewis, Terry
Corbyn, Jeremy Livingstone, Ken
Corston, Ms Jean Llwyd, Elfyn
Cox, Tom Loyden, Eddie
Cryer, Bob McKelvey, William
Cummings, John Madden, Max
Cunliffe, Lawrence Michie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley)
Cunningham, Rt Hon Dr John Milburn, Alan
Dalyell, Tam Morley, Elliot
Darling, Alistair Morris, Estelle (B'ham Yardley)
Davidson, Ian Mowlam, Marjorie
Davies, Bryan (Oldham C'tral) Mullin, Chris
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli) O'Neill, Martin
Denham, John Pickthall, Colin
Dobson, Frank Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lew'm E)
Etherington, Bill Primarolo, Dawn
Evans, John (St Helens N) Quin, Ms Joyce
Ewing, Mrs Margaret Roche, Mrs. Barbara
Fatchett, Derek Rooney, Terry
Fisher, Mark Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)
Flynn, Paul Ruddock, Joan
Foster, Rt Hon Derek Sedgemore, Brian
Fraser, John Skinner, Dennis
Garrett, John Smith, C. (Isl'ton S & F'sbury)
George, Bruce Soley, Clive
Gerrard, Neil Steel, Rt Hon Sir David
Golding, Mrs Llin Straw, Jack
Gorman, Mrs Teresa Tipping, Paddy
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend) Walley, Joan
Gunnell, John Winnick, David
Hain, Peter Wise, Audrey
Hall, Mike
Hardy, Peter Tellers for the Noes:
Herman, Ms Harriet Ms. Angela Eagle and
Henderson, Doug Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody.

Question accordingly negatived.