A new Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill was published last week by the UK's Department of Health. The Bill is designed to update and reform the existing laws on assisted conception and human embryo research in the UK, established by the 1990 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, although it will not alter the existing model of regulation and will remain based on the basic foundations of the law as it currently stands.
New legislation has become necessary in the light of technological developments in the area since 1990, along with corresponding changes in public attitude. Health Minister Dawn Primarolo, who issued the new Bill, said that regulation had to be 'fit for purpose' and needed to ensure that the UK maintained its position as a world leader in reproductive technologies and research.
The Bill will govern the creation and use of all human embryos outside the body - however they are created - and ensure that this continues to be subject to regulation. However, it also contains potentially controversial provisions to extend the scope of legitimate embryo research activities, including the regulation of 'inter-species embryos' (which combine human and animal genetic material).
The Bill maintains the contentious duty of treatment providers to consider the 'welfare of the child' which may potentially be born when deciding if people can access fertility treatments. However, the reference within this duty to consider 'the need for a father' has been removed and there are new provisions that will give same-sex couples recognition as the legal parents of children conceived through the use of donated sperm, egg or embryos - although this doesn't seem to extend to two men who may father a child using a surrogate. A ban on sex selection for 'non-medical reasons' within assisted conception is also proposed. Current restrictions on the use of data collected by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) will also be changed, in order to make it easier to do follow-up research on the children born following assisted conception.
Speaking at the publication of the Bill, Ms Primarolo said that it would 'allow legitimate medical and scientific use of human reproductive technologies for research to flourish in this country, while giving the public confidence that they are being used and developed sensibly with appropriate controls in place'. She added: 'I believe this Bill will provide clarity and assurance to patients, researchers, the medical profession, and the public for years to come'.
Responding to the introduction of the Bill, Dr Tony Calland, Chairman of the British Medical Association's Medical Ethics Committee, said that the BMA was happy that the Bill confirmed the Government's decision not to merge the HFEA with the Human Tissue Authority, as had been previously proposed, and that doctors were keen to work with the government to develop the proposed legislation. He also commented that 'we are also very pleased that, unlike in the draft bill, the government is now proposing that the creation of human/animal embryos can go ahead for research purposes, with strict controls', adding: 'This research is essential to the investigation of many serious and debilitating diseases, including Parkinson's and Alzheimer's'.
The Bill, which was, like its predecessor, introduced to the House of Lords rather than the Commons, needs to move through both Houses before it can receive Royal Assent. If this happens, it is expected to be in force from early 2009. The Second Reading of the Bill has been scheduled for 3pm on Monday 19 November in the House of Lords. However, the Bill may not necessarily pass smoothly through the legislative process. Forty-three MPs, including 11 Labour MPs, are already reported to have signed a Commons motion stating that the Government's reforms are 'profoundly misinformed' and that they 'clearly undermine the best interests of the child'. Heywood and Middleton MP Jim Dobbin, who is a former NHS microbiologist, said a 'significant number' of Labour MPs were prepared to back amendments opposing some of the Bill's central provisions.