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Standardising European fertility regulation

4 July 2007
Appeared in BioNews 414

It is essential that fertility regulation be standardised across Europe, according to Professor Paul Devroey of Brussels Free University. Speaking in Lyons, France at the annual meeting of the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology - of which he is chair - Professor Devroey made a provocative contribution to the ongoing debate about 'reproductive tourism'.

There are wide disparities between European countries on diverse aspects of fertility regulation - including the cost and success rate of fertility treatment, the availability and anonymity of sperm and egg donors, the amount that donors are allowed to be paid, the maximum number of embryos that can be implanted in a woman's womb, and whether and when embryos are allowed to be genetically screened. Reproductive tourism tends to be criticised from one of two perspectives - either as an indictment of overregulation in the tourist's home country, so that women are forced to travel unnecessarily in order to receive treatment; or as an indictment of under regulation in the tourist's destination country, so that women are tempted to undergo procedures that are overly risky and should be restricted.

Professor Devroey's comments encompass both perspectives. His key point is that the universality of human reproductive biology should be reflected in a universal set of laws governing fertility treatment. 'There is only one human body and human reproductive system', he told The Times newspaper. 'It is quite astonishing that well-proven treatments are not allowed in some countries, some of which also have laws on embryo transfer that are not in the best interests of patients' health.' He contrasts the 'rational and liberal approach' of certain European countries to the policies of countries that 'dismiss or misuse scientific findings'.

Professor Devroey proposes to establish a new taskforce to redress the situation. This taskforce would draw up a set of standards for fertility regulation, and would work alongside the European Commission and the European Parliament to harmonise such regulation. Others in the field are more sceptical about the scope for such an initiative, pointing out that harmonisation risks allowing those countries with the most restrictive fertility laws to set the universal standard. Furthermore, the disparity of European fertility regulation is underpinned by a disparity of cultural attitudes towards fertility issues, and these underlying cultural differences can be difficult to negotiate.

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