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UK fertility law to drop 'need for a father'; ban sex selection?

17 July 2006
Appeared in BioNews 367

UK Health Minister Caroline Flint has told an evidence session of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee (STC) that there is 'probably not a case' for maintaining the part of the law that says that clinics must take into account the potential child's 'need for a father' before providing fertility treatments. The evidence session came as part of an ongoing review of existing fertility laws by the UK Government.

Currently, section 13 of the 1990 Human Fertilisation and Embryology (HFE) Act states that a woman should not be offered fertility treatments 'unless account has been taken of the welfare of any child who may be born as a result of treatment (including the need of that child for a father)'. This means that many clinics have been able to use this provision to justify refusal of treatment to single women and lesbian couples. Suzi Leather, chair of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), which regulates the provision of fertility services in the UK has previously publicly stated, in January 2004, that the 'need for a father' requirement is 'nonsense' - however, no specific mention was made of this provision when the HFEA reviewed its guidance on the assessment of the welfare of the child in November last year. In its review of the existing law, the STC called the 'need for a father' requirement 'offensive' to unconventional families.

Giving evidence to the STC, Ms Flint said that the government is 'considering whether the need for a father is something we need to have' adding that it does not believe that fathers are unimportant, but that what was most important is that 'children are going to be, as far as we know, part of a loving family'. Some have speculated that the wording of the HFE Act will simply be changed to state 'including the need of that child for a family', or similar.

Ms Flint also indicated that the Government will propose to formally ban the use of pre-implantation sex-selection techniques, except for medical reasons. A new law will also outline a broad set of principles about when it will be acceptable to use genetic screening on embryos. Last year, the STC recommended that sex-selection for 'family balancing' should be allowed. However, Ms Flint said that the Government feels that there should be a specific ban, because 'I think on family balancing, the problem is it is a slippery slope in terms of people deciding one gender is more important than another'.

Evan Harris, Liberal Democrat MP and member of the STC, welcomed the proposed change to the welfare of the child requirement, saying that removing the 'need for a father' provision would end '16 years of licensed discrimination against solo mothers and lesbian couples'. However, in relation to the potential ban on non-medical sex-selection, he said that 'the State should be giving good reasons before restricting the reproductive choice of adult citizens'. Ms Flint indicated that detailed proposals about other changes to the law are likely to be unveiled 'later in the year', in the form of a White Paper.

SOURCES & REFERENCES
Ban expected on choosing sex of baby
The Scotsman |  13 July 2006
Fathers are out of the picture as lesbians get IVF
The Times |  13 July 2006
IVF hurdle for single women and lesbians to be overthrown
The Guardian |  13 July 2006
IVF 'need for father' rule may go
BBC News Online |  13 July 2006
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