Depoliticisation and the Father’s Clause parliamentary debates

Stephen Bates, Laura Jenkins and Fran Amery
Stephen Bates, Laura Jenkins and Fran Amery

Stephen Bates, Laura Jenkins and Fran Amery, from the University of Birmingham, use work on in vitro fertilisation to think through depoliticisation. The full article  on the subject – (De)politicisation and the Father’s Clause parliamentary debates – along with the rest of the special issue of Policy & Politics on depoliticisation, is available free throughout May.

Depoliticisation, in simple terms, involves disavowing political responsibility, or persuading the public that one is no longer responsible for particular decisions, with the result that deliberation and choice are restricted. Crucially, as the literature has identified, choices are still being made – e.g. politicians may retain mechanisms for indirect control – but they are concealed.

Studies of (de)politicisation often conceptualise it as a function of government and tend to focus on economic and monetary policy (a classic example is the devolution of monetary policy to the Bank of England). Our article argues that (de)politicisation may occur outside of formal governmental arenas and should not be regarded simply as a form of statecraft. Specifically, we explore in vitro fertilisation (IVF) and the parliamentary debates surrounding the addition and eventual removal of the Father’s Clause of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology (HFE) Acts.

Our first point is that new reproductive technologies such as IVF may themselves be seen as politicising, allowing greater intervention into areas of life previous considered subject to fate, and thereby expanding the capacity for the exercise of human agency. This is not to suggest that human reproduction was never touched by social intervention before IVF – surrogacy, for example, has existed for almost as long as recorded human history – but the birth of Louise Brown, the first ‘test-tube baby’, in 1978 brought with it unprecedented new possibilities. IVF involves the creation of an embryo outside the female body without the need for sexual intercourse, and consequently allows for new distinctions to be drawn between biological and social parenthood.

In some senses, subsequent political debates on IVF may be conceptualised as reactions to its politicising potential. Partially owing to its controversy, there was a substantial time lag between the birth of Louise Brown and the eventual regulation of IVF, but the latter came in 1990 in the form of the HFE Act, which also covered other issues surrounding treatment of the embryo such as stem cell research. While the issue of embryo research came to dominate parliamentary debate on the HFE Act, another prominent issue was the welfare of any child created by IVF, in particular the child’s ‘need for a father’.

As a result of two amendments successfully appended by the Conservative MP David Wilshere, the eventual Act required ‘a child’s need for a father’ to be taken into account before treatment, potentially barring same-sex couples and single women from accessing IVF (although the effect that this ultimately had on clinical practice is debateable). In parliamentary debate, the need for this clause was justified in terms of the need to maintain ‘natural’, ‘normal’ and ‘common-sense’ – that is, traditional – family forms, and not to ‘upset the natural order of things’. This, we argue, represents a depoliticising reaction to the politicising potential of reproductive technologies, rejecting the possibilities for increased human agency and choice these technologies open up, and attempting to conceal the contingent nature of traditional family forms.

In 2008, after a review of the regulation surrounding human reproductive technologies, the Father’s Clause was removed from the Act. A number of amendments to the 2007 Draft Bill were tabled proposing the re-introduction of explicit reference to the need for a father, but these were rejected in favour of an amendment which simply expressed ‘the need for supportive parenting’. In the article, we argue that this represents a formal repoliticisation, once again opening up the possibility of a plurality of family forms and challenging traditional understandings of gender roles and reproduction. However, this repoliticisation is only a partial one – the parliamentary debate was premised on essentialist assumptions about gender, and the potential harmful effects of IVF were not debated.

While the article focuses on IVF, in particular its potential to challenge traditional understandings of the family, there are obvious parallels to other areas in which doctors and scientists may be perceived as ‘playing God’ or ‘interfering with nature’. We might expect to see similar depoliticising responses to other areas of human life in which new technologies – reproductive or otherwise – have opened up new possibilities for the exercise of human agency, or exposed the contingent nature of traditional or ‘common-sense’ ways of doing things: genetic engineering, human enhancement and sex reassignment therapy, to name a few.

The special issue of Policy & Politics on depoliticisation, is available free on Ingenta until the end of May.

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