The debate was opened at 3.36pm by Alan Johnson and finished with the division at 9.59pm. This link takes you to the beginning of the report in Hansard. If you have five and a hours to spare you can watch the Parliament TV recording. I have read the debate and simply offer here a few notes and observations.
Alan Johnson referred to the bill as a "flagship Government bill" and it was clear throughout that although much rhetoric was used about the importance of scientific progress, this is fundamentally a debate about the validity of secular humanist philosophy.
So, for example, John Bercow said (Col 1100):
I take an empiricist, pragmatic, instrumental view, rather than the view that some abstract principle should inveigh against the possibility that such research should be allowed or extended.There was plenty of criticism of the speeches of Catholic bishops opposing the bill, accusing them of misrepresentation. (Would it have helped if they had made it clear that we are talking about very small monsters?) Dr Brian Iddon (col 1104) valiantly managed to introduce the Galileo case. At the same time, Johnson and others made it quite clear that the removal of the "need for a father" clause was motivated by the concern for lesbian couples. The bill envisages the non-birth-giving woman in a lesbian partnership being identified on the artificially conceived baby's birth certificate as "parent".
Sadly, Andrew Lansley, the Shadow Secretary of State for Health did not provide much hope for the future. He did use the slightly pro-life-sounding soundbite about there being "too many abortions" (how many abortions is just about right?) but then showed that there is scarcely room for a rizla paper between Labour and Conservative policy:
We have the highest rate of teenage pregnancy in western Europe […] We must look at the effectiveness of sex education and of contraceptive services. Personally, I also believe that many more young women—women of any age, for that matter—should be made aware of, and offered, long-acting reversible contraception through the national health service.Pro-abortionist Labour MP Chris McCafferty repeated the mantra:
As I have said many times in the House, the best way of reducing the number of unintended pregnancies and abortions is to improve women’s access to contraception as well as educating women and men about sexual health. It is not rocket science.Well it is the sort of rocket science where you put the rocket on the launch pad upside down and when it drives into the ground and blows up, you put more rocket fuel in and try again, and again without ever asking yourself what is going wrong.
Mrs Iris Robinson of the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (led by Ian Paisley) gave a cracking speech which began:
I make no apology for speaking as a born-again Christian. I represent the voice of those who look to a higher authority—one to whom we will all one day answer for the decisions that we make in the House. Each one of us is an individual of amazing worth. I approach the Bill through the central fact that we are all created in the image of God. Much science will be discussed and debated, but I want to remind us all that we need to consider the case fully—both biologically, through the logical argument of our God-given minds, and with respect to the mind of God.she eloquently appealed to the duties of those in public life:
Too often the House and this country have suffered from woolly liberal thinking. Unless we stand firm on certain matters, the United Kingdom will become utterly morally bankrupt. As Members of the House, we should not be engaged in bringing society to its lowest common denominator. Instead, we should seek to raise standards across society.Strangely, nobody interrupted during her speech or made any reference to it subsequently.
Labour MP Desmond Turner made a point that will be of interest to those of you in the USA:
We have experienced a reverse brain drain in stem cell research. Top American scientists have come to work in the UK because they can work with surety, knowing that they will not be subject to legal challenge for their activities, whereas in many states in America they are actively discouraged and prevented from carrying out that research. A President who shall be nameless stops any federal funding going into embryonic stem cell research.He also threw in a point about the Catholic Church and a reference to some mysterious discussions at the Vatican only to be interrupted by Mrs Robinson:
I remind the hon. Gentleman that not only the Catholic Church but evangelicals across the whole spectrum of Christianity oppose the Bill.There was considerable opposition voiced to any change in the current 24 week time limit for abortion. Of course, we should remember that as a result of the last change in the law on abortion, there is no time limit for disabled children - who are referred to less politely when it comes to abortion. A chill went down my spine when I read the words of Dr Desmond Turner:
Cutting the time limit would mean more births of deformed children. Do we want that? I think not.Evan Harris of the National Secular Society was, of course, on hand with many interventions in support of the bill. There was one amusing exchange when Alistair Burt was defending the right of Christians to speak as such in the public square. He quoted the remark of Evan Harris warning politicians against making "references to deity" in public life. Harris interrupted to say that the quotation (on the BBC website) was only partial and offered clarification, concluding "otherwise, I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman that people should have a right to give their view, from whatever perspective, in the public sphere." Burt rejoindered:
I am grateful for the clarification. The hon. Gentleman will not be the first colleague not to have been entirely accurately represented by the BBC. I am also delighted that the honorary president of the National Secular Society now welcomes the opportunity for politicians in the public square to put forward a defence of their views based on faith.There will be further debates next Monday and Tuesday when key clauses will be debated by the whole house at the committee stage.
See also the posts on John Smeaton's blog: HFE Bill: the next steps and Urge MPs to vote against pro-abortion amendments.