HL Deb 19 March 1991 vol 527 cc521-2

2.50 p.m.

Lord Blyth asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will take steps to discourage the vasectomy operation in view of the possible harmful effects in the long term.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Social Security (Lord Henley)

No, my Lords. The decision as to whether or not a vasectomy should be performed in any particular case is one for the patient and doctor concerned, taking full account of all the clinical issues involved. The patient is entitled to have sufficient information on which to make a balanced judgment. It is for the doctor, as part of the counselling process, to decide what risks, if any, the patient should be warned of and the terms in which any warning should be given.

Lord Blyth

My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister for that reply. Is my noble friend satisfied that men are given adequate advice and counselling before they take this pretty serious step? Does my noble friend consider that the advice and counselling that men are given is as good as that given to women when they attend family planning clinics? I believe it is accepted that women receive extremely good advice from the clinics.

Lord Henley

My Lords, we are satisfied that men are being given adequate advice. Obviously risks may exist, however small, in any operation. Similarly, there may be risks for a woman in a pregnancy which might result from a man not having this operation. In the end the decision whether or not to have the operation must be for the patient concerned to take after receiving advice from his doctor.

Baroness Robson of Kiddington

My Lords, will the Minister inform the House of the comparative dangers of a man undergoing vasectomy and a woman over 35 continuing to take the pill or having a sterilisation operation? Does the Minister agree that if two partners decide not to have children that should be a joint responsibility?

Lord Henley

My Lords, the noble Baroness is quite correct. This should be a joint decision and the wife or partner of the man concerned should be offered some counselling. However, the final decision on the operation must be for the man to take. I accept the point made by the noble Baroness that the risks in pregnancy for a woman over 35 would be greater than those arising from a vasectomy. Risks are involved in any pregnancy, as the noble Baroness will be aware. Fortunately, however, mortality in pregnancy has fallen dramatically over the past 30 years. I cannot give the comparative figures requested by the noble Baroness. I also accept that there are some risks in taking the contraceptive pill, but they are small risks and individual women take those risks into account.

Lord Mason of Barnsley

My Lords, as far as I am aware, my potency is as good as ever and I have no need for a vasectomy. However, will the Minister answer the Question on the Order Paper: what are the harmful effects of the vasectomy operation?

Lord Henley

My Lords, as I have said, there will always be some small risk involved in any surgical operation. There is some research from America which indicates that there is a possible causal link between vasectomy and prostatic cancer. We shall examine that evidence to see whether there is any substance to it. Some research has also been carried out in West Lothian as regards an increased level of testicular cancer. However, doubt has been cast on the reliability of that evidence.

Lord Winstanley

My Lords, is not the Minister aware that this suggested possible link between a vasectomy and subsequent prostatic cancer is based on entirely speculative evidence and has not been confirmed by authorities in this country? If there is evidence of harmful effects from this comparatively minor operation, whether in the short or long-term, should not the chief medical officer of the department inform general practitioners of that fact? As he has not taken that step, am I entitled to assume that there are no such dangers? If that is the case, is it not regrettable that a question of this kind should appear on our Order Paper, thus causing unnecessary anxiety to a great many people?

Lord Henley

My Lords, the noble Lord makes the point that I sought to make. Research has been conducted in America and in West Lothian. I said, in effect, that we did not think much of the research carried out in West Lothian because only a small group was considered and there was no suitable control group. We shall reconsider the study carried out in America, but the researchers themselves acknowledge that more research is needed.

Lord Ennals

My Lords, I welcome what the Minister said about the importance of counselling. However, he appeared to refer only to medical advice. Does he not agree that there are important psychological factors involved in this operation which should be taken into consideration by both men and women when taking this decision?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I certainly hope that everyone takes such factors into consideration before having the operation.