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UK committee split over reproductive technology report

24 March 2005
By BioNews
Appeared in BioNews 301

The UK House of Commons Science and Technology Committee (STC) is deeply divided over its inquiry into Human Reproductive Technologies and the Law. Only half of the ten committee members put their names to the summary report, published today alongside a Special Report detailing the committee's disagreements. The dissenting MPs say the report adopted 'an extreme libertarian approach from the start', and claim that it is 'unbalanced, light on ethics, goes too far in the direction of deregulation and is too dismissive of public opinion and much of the evidence'.

The report follows over a year of evidence-gathering by the committee, both from expert scientists, clinicians, ethicists and other interested parties, as well as an online public consultation. On the basis of its findings, the committee has published 104 conclusions and recommendations, on subjects ranging from the welfare of children conceived using IVF to the regulation of PGD (preimplantation genetic diagnosis), embryo research and social sex selection. Much media attention focussed on the recommendation that on balance, the STC found 'no adequate justification for prohibiting the use of sex selection for family balancing'.

As well as concluding that sex selection for social reasons should be permitted, other controversial recommendations included lifting the ban on research into germline gene therapy, and permitting the creation of hybrid or 'chimeric' human-animal embryos for research purposes. It also recommended scrapping the current legal requirement that clinics take into account the welfare of any children born following assisted reproduction, concluding that such measures 'discriminate against the infertile'. In addition, the report calls for changes to the regulation of PGD, which is currently licensed on a case-by-case basis, saying that it sees 'no reason why a regulator should seek to determine which disorders can be screened out using PGD'. However, it stresses that clinical decisions 'should operate within clear boundaries set by Parliament and informed by ethical judgements'.    

The summary report was released by MPs Evan Harris, Andrew Murrison, Brian Iddon, Desmond Turner, Robert Key and Ian Gibson, the committee's Chairman. The dissenting MPs were Paul Farrelly, Kate Hoey, Tony McWalter, Geraldine Smith and Bob Spink. There was reportedly disagreement over the basic thrust of the report - with its emphasis on evidence-based decision-making by patients and their doctors, rather than a regulator - as well as over specific issues. It called for the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority to be disbanded, and replaced by a proposed Regulatory Agency for Fertility and Tissues, which would focus on setting technical and management standards for IVF clinics and embryo research laboratories.

The five MPs also recommend that a new Human Genetics, Fertility and Tissue Commission be set up, to expand the remit of the existing Human Genetics Commission. This body would provide advice and recommendations on issues which it considered had societal implications - such as embryo selection for social reasons and preimplantation tissue typing - but would not provide clinical guidance. The STC's report will feed into a second review and consultation, which is being undertaken by the Department of Health (DH), and will be followed by a public consultation this autumn.

SOURCES & REFERENCES
Ethics row as choosing baby's sex splits MPs
The Guardian |  24 March 2005
Human Reproductive Technologies and the Law
House of Commons Science and Technology Committee |  24 March 2005
Let parents choose sex of their children, say MPs
The Times |  24 March 2005
UK ponders fertility reforms
The Scientist |  23 March 2005
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