On Thursday 14 December, UK Public Health Minister Caroline Flint announced the publication of the British Government's proposals for a major overhaul of the law on assisted human reproduction and embryo research. The proposals, contained in a new 'White Paper', follow an extensive public consultation exercise on the current law, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology (HFE) Act 1990.
The White Paper states that the statutory functions currently performed by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) and the Human Tissue Authority (HTA) should be combined under one new body, the Regulatory Authority for Tissue and Embryos (RATE). In the run-up to RATE, Health Ministers propose to appoint a single individual to separately Chair the HTA and HFEA to move the Authorities further towards working as an integrated body. Launching the White Paper, Ms Flint said that 'the current law, which has served us well, is in need of revision', adding that 'technology has changed, and so have attitudes'.
One of the major proposals contained in the White Paper states that the 'need for a father' clause should be removed from the provisions of the law. Currently, the HFE Act stipulates that fertility treatment providers should take into account the welfare of the potential child to be born, including that child's need for a father. If the new proposals become law, it would mean that clinics would not be able to refuse treatment to single women or lesbian couples on that basis alone. In fact, it is also recommended that the parenthood provisions within the legislation are to be extended to include civil partners and other same-sex couples. However, the other welfare of the child checks should be retained, says the White Paper, even though this part of the existing law has faced heavy criticism since 1990, mainly because couples who can conceive naturally do not face similar checks or investigation into their suitability as parents.
It is also proposed that Internet sperm donor services be brought within the ambit of the regulation and that the use of sex selection techniques for 'social' reasons - either using PGD (preimplantation genetic diagnosis) or sperm sorting methods - be formally banned, even for the purpose of 'family balancing'. Deliberately 'screening in' a disease or disorder (for example if two deaf parents wished to have a deaf child) will also be banned, although the screening of embryos for serious genetic diseases, as well as to see if they could be a tissue match for an existing sick sibling, will continue to be permitted under licence. However, in terms of embryo research, the creation of chimeras will be banned, at least initially, although scientists will be allowed to alter the genetic structure of reproductive cells - though they will be banned from implanting such an embryo created using these into a woman in order to make a baby.
In relation to the use of donor sperm, eggs and embryos, no changes are proposed to the law - which was last changed in 2004 anyway - on the anonymity of donors. In fact, some of the recent changes are to be incorporated into and developed within the new law: donor-conceived children will be allowed to find out the name of their donor and also if they have sisters or brothers also conceived through donation, when they reach the age of 18. Donors will be informed if a donor-conceived child is seeking identifying information about them.
Following from some recent high-profile cases, such as that taken by Natallie Evans, the statutory storage period for embryos is to be extended from five to 10 years, while a 'cooling off period' of up to one year will be put in place if consent to embryo storage by one of the couple involved is withdrawn.
Comment on the proposals has tended to focus most on the welfare of the child provisions. Josephine Quintavalle, of Comment on Reproductive Ethics, criticised the removal of the 'need for a father reference' saying that it is 'a dreadful statement to make about the role of men' and adding that 'fatherhood is much more than the donation of sperm'. However, Liberal Democrat MP Dr Evan Harris welcomed the removal of the 'need for a father' clause, calling it 'unjustifiable, discriminatory and vindictive' and adding that 'it was also unsustainable in human rights and equality terms'. Anna Smajdor, researcher in medical ethics at Imperial College London, agreed, saying that the 'removal of the specific reference to a need for a father is on balance a good thing', but adding that 'it still remains utterly bizarre that fertility clinicians should be responsible for making judgements about the suitability of people to be parents'.
The HTA has welcomed the White Paper, saying that 'bringing all matters concerning human tissue, gametes and embryos under a single framework will ensure consistency of approach in these closely related areas'. Shirley Harrison, Interim Chair of the HTA said: 'We have worked to establish the HTA as a regulator that uses a modern and creative approach. We are fully supportive of RATE and want to see the new Authority combine the best of both the HTA and the HFEA to become a model of better regulation'.