The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008: A Multidisciplinary Workshop
St John's Land, University of Edinburgh, Holyrood Road, Edinburgh EH8 8AQ, UK
Thursday 20 January 2011
When the invitation to this event dropped into my inbox, I immediately replied 'yes please'. This academic workshop of around 30 participants covered the legislative and policymaking process, and subsequent impact of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology (HFE) Act 2008. Organised by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Genomics Forum in Edinburgh on 20 January 2011, the event attracted participants from disciplines including politics, media studies, law, bioethics and sociology.
The introductions were fascinating. So many different strands of the HFE Act are being studied by the participants that BioNews could use many for
comment pieces. I wanted to get everyone's contact details and put them on our database of comment authors. I was envious that the academics could scrutinise specific topics - in my job I have to know as much as possible about a lot in the shortest possible time.
Many of the attendees were academic lawyers. One of the workshop organisers Dr Christine Knight, Genomics Forum Policy Research Fellow, had joked the session I was chairing would be ok so long as I was not a 'closet' lawyer. I had to confess I am a lawyer by background and used to practise as a barrister.
I gave the group an overview of 'The End of the HFEA: are we throwing the baby out with the bathwater?' an event the Progress Educational Trust (PET) and Anne McLaren Memorial Fund had staged two days earlier. Several of the group had attended, including Professor Alison Murdoch who had been on the panel. The group listened kindly to my descriptions of how the event was put together, how the speakers were selected and my digest of what the speakers had said. I also gave them an overview of the questions and comments from the floor.
I am in danger of reviewing myself so can only thank Joan Haran, Caroline Jones, Alison Murdoch and Steve Sturdy for adding their perspectives to the discussion. After my session were four papers with discussion after each, all quite different but linked by the HFE Act.
The first paper was 'Selling Science? Source struggles, public relations and newspaper coverage of hybrid embryos' by Dr Andy Williams. He discussed the media coverage of human admixed embryos and how a media management campaign of this contentious issue was managed by the Science Media Centre (SMC). He examined the impact of this so-called 'war campaign', touching upon the problems of weak science journalism, and strong PR and 'churnalism'.
By analysing media coverage, Dr Williams concluded the SMC's 'tactics' and coordination of charities, learned societies and research councils were effective. I had gained an insight into these via PET's communications officer, Sandy Starr, who had been a 'private' in this battle and attended some of the 'war campaign' meetings My perspective was this was a professional group of press officers from various organisations led by Fiona Fox director of the SMC, doing their job effectively and professionally without the hope of a medal.
The second paper was entitled 'Abortion and the HFE Act 2008: the substantive representation of women', but Professor Sarah Childs modified her subtitle to 'Quicker than a consultation at the hairdressers?' to reflect in her title whatshe thought was the inadequate amount of parliamentary time taken to discuss abortion. She was cleverly using a quote from the debate in the Commons by Labour's Claire Curtis-Thomas who said that, in one case she is aware of, a 'consultation at the hairdresser's would have taken longer than the consultation to have an abortion'. This was a lively and thought-provoking presentation reviewing voting patterns and emphasising the importance of considering how the debate is debated.
Dr Julie McCandless used a fairy tale in the title of her presentation 'Cinderella and her Ugly Sister: parenthood and welfare in the HFE Act 2008', but this was no bedtime story to lull us to sleep. She questioned why - during 80 hours of parliamentary debate about the HFE Act - eight were about removing of 'the need for a father', but only one was spent on the changes to the parenthood provisions. Dr McCandless argued the crucial question of what is parenthood was not unpicked and the law still tries to steer families into set or traditional models.
She argued what was not discussed during the debates was as, if not more, interesting than what was. Kinship studies were not considered - there was no analysis, just a 'common sense' approach. She also said the importance of genetics to parenthood was muted in some cases but bolstered in others and this inconsistency is worthy of further study.
I chaired the final session 'Restrictions to IVF and pre-implantation tissue-typing for the creation of 'saviour siblings': an examination of the UK regulatory approach from a harm perspective' this paper was presented by Dr Malcolm Smith, who co-organised this event. Dr Smith considered whether there is any justification for restricting access to IVF with the aim of creating saviour siblings.
He examined the underlying factors which guided the development of the UK regulatory approach. He discussed the 2008 legislative changes that have impacted on this issue and evaluated them on the basis of the harm principle. The question left hanging was how the abolition of the HFEA will impact on future regulation of the saviour sibling issue.
The workshop concluded by discussing future collaborations and outputs from the workshop, and there is a role for PET to play. PET is always looking for new opinion writers for BioNews and I look forward to commissioning many of the attendees.
I am grateful to those at the Genomics Forum in Edinburgh who made it possible for me to attend by awarding me a Bright Ideas Fellowship.