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Book Review: The Law of Assisted Reproduction

13 July 2020
Appeared in BioNews 1055

The Law of Assisted Reproduction

By Seamus Burns

Published by Bloomsbury Professional

ISBN-10: 1526508192, ISBN-13: 978-1526508195

Buy this book from Amazon UK


In this updated second edition of The Law of Assisted Reproduction, author Seamus Burns, Senior Lecturer in Law at Sheffield Hallam University, aimed to highlight the major features of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology (HFE) Act 2008 just over a decade since its inception, and eight years since the first edition of his book was published.

My background is in the law of assisted reproduction generally, but specifically issues relating to surrogacy, parenthood, gender and birth registration. I am embarking on a PhD incorporating these issues later this year and so for me this book was essential reading.

Burns clearly and concisely deals with the law of assisted reproduction's major topics, controversies in tow. The second edition has been updated to include discussion of mitochondrial donation (leading to, what in some cases has been dubbed, a 'three-person child'), the new ninth edition of the HFEA's Code of Practice, and the abortion landscape in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. In addition, the book covers a range of topics from the creation of 'saviour siblings', to human admixed embryos; from changes in parenthood provisions and discussion of the paramountcy of the child's welfare, to sex selection under the HFE Act 2008. It also, refreshingly, includes some comparative perspectives, looking at stem cell research in the USA and EU.

One aspect of the book's layout I particularly liked - and which I think sets it apart from other textbooks - was the inclusion of dedicated sections to House of Commons and House of Lords debates, where relevant. While some might dismiss these as regurgitated Hansard (an online report of all parliamentary debates), Burns' categorisation and sub-divisions of the debates makes it easy to navigate what would otherwise be immensely dense text, allowing readers to locate key themes with minimal effort. In relation to the debates on the birth registration system following the HFE Bill (which mostly concerned the ability for same-sex couples to be registered as legal parents on the birth certificate), for example, it was easy to discern two main camps. Those who thought the proposed changes either: (1) threatened the child's ability to uncover their 'origins', rooted in the idea that the birth certificate should reflect a child's biogenetic family, alongside concerns that such an inability could lead to consanguinity, or (2) reflected current ideas of 'family' and that the law was simply keeping pace, disputing the idea that the birth certificate was for the benefit of recording biogenetic parents alone. 'Biogenetic' here refers to a child's biological/genetic parents and, for the purposes of the birth certificate, these aspects would have to vest in the same people so as to not disaggregate parenthood beyond 'biogenetic' ties.

Assisted reproduction is notoriously an area in which the law moves quickly and so it can be hard to keep up with specific changes. As a result, Burns sensibly stipulated that he was stating the law as it stood on 19 December 2019. Despite this, there are some consistency issues. For example, no mention is made of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008 (Remedial) Order 2018 (which came into effect on 3 January 2019), enabling single people to become sole legal parents following a surrogacy arrangement (prior to this, it was restricted to couples). This is despite Burns discussing, in depth, the 'Birth of the New Parenthood Regime' following the HFE Act 2008 and taking the reader step-by-step through the law on surrogacy.

In a similar vein, it would also have been nice for reference to be made to trans parent families, especially the current on-going litigation involving Freddy McConnell (a trans man who gave birth - see BioNews 1045) and his quest to be registered as his child's 'father' on the birth certificate. Such discussions would have enriched Burns' critiques on the law's prevailing fixation with the 'traditional' family and his considerations of the birth registration system.

In light of this book's topics, It is especially interesting to look at the effect COVID-19 has had on assisted reproduction; even more so considering this book does not consider the law after 19 December 2019 (and the first COVID-19 case is believed to have occurred in that month). As a result of COVID-19, we have seen the storage limit for eggs, sperm and embryos extended by two years (complimenting a pre-existing wider campaign to extend the limit for social egg freezing - see BioNews 1021). We have also seen the explicit introduction of telemedical abortion services in England, Wales and Scotland for early medical abortion. While abortion was decriminalised in Northern Ireland in October 2019, it is still difficult to access, leading the British Pregnancy Advisory Service to offer telemedical abortion services that allow professionals to consult and supervise abortions virtually, while the medication is delivered by post. Finally, we have also seen a number of international surrogacy arrangementsdistorted by COVID-19, with families either stranded in foreign countriesunable to return home due to passport services being restricted or other travel-related issues, or unable to enter the country in which the surrogate was giving birth. These examples, if anything, show how malleable topics within assisted reproduction, and healthcare more generally, are to external pressures, and how things can become outdated - or change - very quickly.

Looking to the future, the book perhaps raises more deficiencies or pitfalls with the current (updated) law than were perhaps addressed by the HFE Act 2008. As Burns points out, efficient regulation is still left wanting in a number of areas concerning assisted reproduction, such as the 'IVF lottery' which sees vast disparities in the number of IVF treatment cycles available within each Clinical Commissioning Group. More recently, given COVID-19, there are also pertinent questions to be asked about how best the law of assisted reproduction can future- and pandemic-proof itself.

Overall, this book is certainly a must-have for those interested in assisted reproduction. Its ability to concisely summarise complex legal and ethical issues make it a worthy addition to any library for students, teachers, and lay-people alike.


Buy The Law of Assisted Reproduction from Amazon UK.

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