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UK MPs reconsider artificial gamete ban

18 March 2008
Appeared in BioNews 449

A cross-party group of MPs is planning to support an amendment to relax the existing ban on using artificial gametes for human conception, adding yet another ethically divisive issue to the already heated debate surrounding the Human Fertilisation and Embryology (HFE) Bill before the House of Commons. The proposal would provide Parliament with the legislative power to create future regulation under the HFE Bill, which could allow the therapeutic application of advances in artificial gamete production to help infertile couples have children.

Without the amendment the HFE Bill preserves the current law, which permits the creation of artificial gametes - sperm or eggs produced from an individual's other cell types - for research purposes but bans their use for human reproduction. Yet such innovation could profoundly benefit infertility treatment, sperm/egg donation shortages and reproductive autonomy. 'There is no good explanation for not allowing this option for people who have survived cancer and cannot have children', said Liberal Democrat Evan Harris, who led the government initiative and will table the amendment.

Public Health Minister Dawn Primarolo, is consulting on the issue but conceded that there is a 'powerful argument' for the benefit of allowing the use of artificial sperm derived from stem cells in fertility treatments to solve the sperm donation shortage once the technique is safe and effective. She also acknowledges that the use of artificial gametes raises 'profound ethical questions' that should not be overlooked.

The move is opposed by the director of Comment on Reproductive Ethics, Josephine Quintavalle, who fears that the permissive use of artificial gametes in fertility treatments could lead to 'the ultimate incest' - when sperm and eggs are created from the same individual and combined to produce a child whose genetic mother and father is one-in-the-same person. However, the proposed amendment will require that eggs and sperm in the same procedure be from separate individuals and will expressly maintain the ban to outlaw any single parent becoming both mother and father to the same child.

Scientists are lobbying in support of the amendment in hopes it will lead to swift regulation to relax the ban so that researchers can cite a tangible therapeutic purpose to attract funding for their research. According to Dr. Allan Pacey, secretary of the British Fertility Society, if the blanket ban remains unaltered then researchers face a funding nightmare because 'nobody is going to be able to convince a UK funding organisation to fund research in this area' when its results cannot be used in treatment. Like Harris, he believes that MPs have not substantiated a reason for a ban that could potentially deny, for example, cancer victims, the future medical benefit of producing their own 'artificial' sperm or eggs. The British Medical Association, the Medical Research Council and the Royal College of Obstetrics and Gynaecology are expected to endorse the amendment.

SOURCES & REFERENCES
Artificial sperm use plans ignite embryo row
The Daily Telegraph |  10 March 2008
Ministers consider 'ultimate incest' allowing babies to be conceived with sperm and eggs made from one person's tissue
The Daily Mail |  9 March 2008
MPs back artificial sperm for childless
The Guardian |  9 March 2008
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