3 MAY 2008, Page 20

Not even science fiction foresaw the end of fathers

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill seeks to end the child’s right to a father figure, writes John Patten, ignoring all sound research in its obsession with ‘discrimination’ ‘D own with Clause 14(2) (b)’ is hardly a snap py slogan. It is not even as succinct as ‘Abolish Clause 28 now!’, the phrase that so resonated back in the days of the furore over the teaching of alternative lifestyles. But this dense little bit of the parliamentary counsel’s art, buried deep away in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill soon to go to the House of Commons, contains the only attempt anywhere in the world by a government to abolish fatherhood. A first for Gordon Brown, then.

For this provision would explicitly forbid fathers to some children conceived by artificial means. Yet earlier in the House of Lords, discussion on this destructive proposal was overshadowed by the evermounting concern about animal/human hybrids. So much so, that more than once sitting on the red benches I thought that I sensed the spectral presence very nearby of Lord Feverstone. An all-too-lifelike ‘medical peer’, engineered by C.S. Lewis in 1945, his lordship had set up the deliciously titled ‘National Institute for Co-ordinated Experiments’, with the aim of a little selective breeding himself.

This is exactly the approach that the government favours, for sometimes you can, but sometimes you must not. For example, ministers appear stalwart to prevent deaf couples from ensuring that they have deaf children. They state, ‘Outside the UK, the positive selection of deaf donors in order deliberately to result in a deaf child has been reported. This provision would prevent selection for a similar purpose’ (Explanatory Notes to the Bill, para. 110).

That sentiment is worth a quick ‘Hear, Hear’. Much less so is the government’s wish permanently to damage the life chances of other less fortunate embryos, who are to be barred at conception from having a father (down with these curious creatures!). Rather bring on something called by ministers ‘supportive parenting’. This is a brand new piece of signature workhorse cant, ranking high up there with the parameaningless, alongside the likes of ‘stakeholder’ — but it is not just irritating. For the government is busily deconstructing the very meaning of fatherhood, relegating it to some postmodern anachronism. This flies full in the face of the dictum in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child that they all have ‘the right to know and be cared for by his or her parents’, apart from anything else.

Such discrimination against men who are fathers thus fails to give either respect or equality of esteem to one of the sexes. So malign signals are to be deliberately sent out about the lack of value fathers may provide to an artificially conceived girl or boy. We should signal rather that fathers are vital to the health and moral wellbeing of the next generation, to affirm that this timeless role must not be written out of the parenting equation incrementally. Above all that the state must not conspire against a child in its inherent state of weakness.

We all salute and admire mothers — and a bit more rarely, fathers — who have to bring up families alone. Voluntary organisations, local authorities, government and the churches strive to offer support. But finding oneself or choosing to be a single parent is very different from deeming as father unnecessary. Our rulers are trying to railroad through a provision by the force of the Whips that ensures children may be brought into being by science but then promptly denied a father by politicians. This example of what we might politely term ‘misthinking’ is cheered on by the usual bunch of jobbing philosophers. They have dreamt up a brand new construct called ‘broad utilitarianism’, a.k.a. anything goes that satisfies the wishes of adults or the thrilling excitements of science, uncomfortably reminiscent of H.G. Wells’s animal and human hybridist on The Island of Dr Moreau murmuring. ‘I went on with this research just the way it led me. . . ’. Yet there are hosts of other clinicians, sociologists and criminologists who laud the role of fathers, who stress the necessity of a ‘father figure’ as a vital part of a child’s upbringing. Bizarrely, some suggest that the very idea of a child having a father would be discriminatory of itself. Even if it were, then that measure of discrimination is justified by the welfare of the child, which makes it proportionate.

It is in turn more than justified by both current judicial and social policies which stress the spiritual and practical benefits that fatherhood brings to offspring. It is equally justified by the rare and unusually settled research-based academic consensus that shows the benefits of having a father or male role model in a way that even a government might notice. The list is formidable, with life chances being enhanced in every way, from better health, education and future earning power to far less criminal behaviour.

One does not have to be some demented familista to assert this, for not only does ‘research prove... ’, it does so from left to right and back again. And oh yes, there are bad, evil and abusive fathers — but then there are mothers who are cut from the same length of behavioural cloth. Even the Equal Opportunities Commission of blessed memory had research since the beginning of this decade that shows that children whose fathers had been actively involved in their lives not only do demonstrably better with achievement and personal satisfaction, but end up with better relationships.

While fatherhood is not some universal panacea or miracle nostrum for all known personal or social ills, it is very important for boys. Of often entirely understandable necessity because of circumstance, the real world role model in a family sans father is the caring mother, aunt, grandmother, plus or minus some other co-residing female. In such settings, the key element in forming boys’ mental maps of what they are or who they should be too often comes from some video game or film, in their turn larded with violence or studded with ‘heroes’ whose relationships with the opposite sex are not exactly of the finest. Girls benefit in parallel.

Even an H.G. Wells or a C.S. Lewis accurately predicting the dominance of the hybridising tendency among the scientific and governing classes never dared foretell the incipient death of fatherhood by some government fiat. Rather like the child questioning his mother on the purposes of Randolph Churchill, spotted out canvassing during an election, they never dreamt up 21st-century children out for a stroll with their supportive parenting network pointing and asking, ‘What is that man for?’ Lord Patten is a former Home Office minister and secretary of state for education.