At its open meeting held on 10 May in Belfast, the UK's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) announced that it will 'prepare a proper consultation programme' on oocyte (egg) donation so that it could assess the whole range of views and ethical issues that the process raises. However, the consultation - and any subsequent guidance - will not affect any research projects already licensed under the current rules.
At the open meeting, where the HFEA also announced that PGD (preimplantation genetic diagnosis) for lower penetrance genetic diseases could now be undertaken under licence, the authority also discussed whether women should be permitted to donate eggs for research that could lead to treatments for other diseases. Such 'altruistic' egg donations can already take place when it is done to help infertile women, but eggs for research can currently only be taken, with consent, from women already undergoing fertility treatment or those being sterilised. The authority was also considering the appropriateness of allowing donation from women in 'egg-sharing' schemes, who receive discounted fertility treatment in return for donating some of their eggs. However, the end result of the meeting's discussion was inconclusive and, having failed to reach a decision, the authority decided to consult on the issue instead.
Giving reasons for the indecision, Dame Suzi Leather, chair of the HFEA, said that more information that has come to light since the HFEA first considered altruistic egg donation, such as the Korean embryonic stem cell scandal, where eggs were procured for research unethically, and the dangers of ovarian hyper-stimulation syndrome (OHSS). She said that there was 'particular concern' among those at the meeting about 'the availability of proper information for women about the donation process and how to ensure there was properly informed consent'. She continued: 'The authority heard today that there are international concerns that could limit the potential of research if there were concerns about how eggs are donated. We also need to make sure that there is a proper whistle blowing policy to ensure that researchers are able to make concerns known as quickly as possible'.
Dr Kirsty Horsey is Contributing Editor at BioNews. She is coeditor of Human Fertilisation and Embryology: Reproducing Regulation (buy this book from Amazon UK or Amazon USA) and coauthor of Tort Law (buy this book from Amazon UK or Amazon USA) and Skills For Law Students (buy this book from Amazon UK or Amazon USA).