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Call for overhaul of UK fertility laws

1 September 2003
By BioNews
Appeared in BioNews 223

The head of the UK's fertility watchdog, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), has said the legislation governing fertility treatment and embryo research needs updating, according to a newspaper report last week. In an interview for the Times, Suzi Leather said that although the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act of 1990 still works relatively well, its inadequacies are becoming increasingly obvious.

Ms Leather cited the recent cases of the Hashmis and Whitakers as examples of the need for a change in the laws. Both families wanted to use PGD (preimplantation genetic diagnosis) to conceive a child that would be a potential cord blood donor for a sick sibling. The HFEA granted the Hashmis permission to go ahead with the procedure, as they wanted to test their embryos for the genetic disease affecting their son, as well to select a tissue-matched embryo. However, no genetic test is available for the condition that affects the Whitaker's son, so the HFEA turned down their request to carry out PGD for tissue typing only. Ms Leather said that she stood by the authority's decision in each case, but that society's position on what was morally acceptable needed to be determined by parliament.

Other developments that Ms Leather felt were not covered by current laws are gamete intra-fallopian transfer (GIFT), intra-uterine insemination (IUI) and a new sex-selection technique that involves sorting fresh sperm. She also called for the authority to be given more power to fine fertility clinics that breach regulations, saying it 'would be helpful to modernise the hierarchy of enforcement measures that we have available'.

Ms Leather also welcomed last week's draft NICE (National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence) guidelines recommending NHS provision of up to three cycles of IVF for women under 40. She said that increased public funding would reduce the demand from couples to have more than two embryos implanted in the womb, which raises the risk of multiple births. The guidelines have provoked media debate following their publication, with several commentators asking whether the NHS can afford to fund additional fertility treatment at an estimated annual cost of £40-100 million.

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