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UK fertility laws to be reviewed

16 August 2005
By BioNews
Appeared in BioNews 321

The UK's Department of Health (DH) is inviting views on the way that some assisted reproductive technologies (ARTs) are regulated in the UK. Its review forms part of a wider consultation on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology (HFE) Act, passed in 1990, which some say has become out-of-date, 'outstripped' by medical advances - for example in PGD (preimplantation genetic diagnosis) - as well as social and market changes.

Areas under consideration will include the screening of embryos for inherited disorders; sex selection; the requirement to consider the welfare of the potential child before treatment is authorised; what happens when couples disagree about an embryo's use; the regulation of web-based gamete donation services and of potential future technologies, such as the development of artificial gametes from other body cells. In addition, the role of the sector's independent regulator, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), will be reconsidered.

One thing that will be under question is how to regulate UK-based websites that trade in fresh human sperm and eggs. While the HFE Act regulates and licenses clinics that store and use human gametes, fresh sperm and eggs kept and traded outside of licensed clinics are not subject to the law at present. This has prompted claims that people who use website services are afforded lesser protection than people who use licensed clinics, as samples are less likely to be rigorously tested for disease or go through the same safety or quality processes than they would in a clinic. Neither would customers receive adequate information, counselling or legal protection, it is thought. Another major difference is that gamete donors who donate through website services would, in law, be regarded as the parents of any offspring - whereas this is not the case when donation takes place under the licensing procedures of the HFE Act.

The public consultation, launched today via the DH website (see link below), will ask whether the HFE Act should be amended in order to either ban these companies altogether, or regulate them under the terms of the Act, so that the same quality standards are maintained across the board.

Another issue that the consultation invites views on is the requirement in the Act that clinics providing fertility services must take the welfare of the potential future child into consideration when making their decisions, including 'the need of that child to have a father'. While some clinics will treat single women and lesbians, others have used this provision to deny them treatment.

Suzi Leather, chair of the UK's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, which oversees the regulation of ARTs in the UK, has already publicly stated that this provision is 'a nonsense'. And the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, which has already held its own review of the legislation, called it 'offensive' and potentially discriminatory, as have a number of academic commentators. The review asks for views on how medical judgements and patients' desire for a child and freedom to make choices are balanced against the interests of the child to be born.

However, a spokeswoman for the DH has been quoted as saying that even if the Act was changed, state-funded fertility services are still unlikely to be available to single and lesbian women as they would remain prioritised. It would just mean that such women could not be denied private treatment on the basis that there was no male partner involved.

Public Health Minister Caroline Flint described the 1990 Act as a 'landmark' piece of legislation, but accepted that it would need updating. 'We never expected the Act would remain forever unchanged in the face of major developments in science and medicine', she said, adding that the benefits of the latest developments needed to be contained within a system that continues to inspire public confidence'.

John Paul Maytum, of the HFEA, said the current system was 'broadly working', but that 'clarifications in some areas' were needed. The HFEA want an Act that has more scope for amendment, he said: 'That would mean we could tweak legislation when new developments came along, and we would not have to go back to primary legislation'.

SOURCES & REFERENCES
Fertility laws set for overhaul
BBC News Online |  16 August 2005
Q&A: Fertility laws overhaul
BBC News Online |  16 August 2005
Review into fertility laws unveiled
The Independent |  16 August 2005
Review of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act:A public consultation
Department of Health |  16 August 2005
Sperm-by-post websites facing ban over HIV risk
The Observer |  14 August 2005
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