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Department of Health review of the HFE Act

16 August 2005
By Ted Webb
Assisted reproduction policy, Department of Health
Appeared in BioNews 321
On 16 August 2005 the Department of Health launched a consultation on the review of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology (HFE) Act 1990 - the law regulating fertility treatment, gamete donation, and embryo research in the UK.

When it came into force in 1991 the HFE Act was a landmark piece of legislation. It has stood the test of time well, but it was never expected to remain forever unaltered in the face of major developments in science and medicine and changes in public attitudes. The review of the Act is to ensure that it properly reflects assisted reproduction and embryology in the 21st century, so that we can continue to reap the benefits of the latest scientific developments within a system that continues to inspire public confidence.

The consultation addresses many of the recommendations made by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee's report on 'Human Reproductive Technologies and the Law', the Government's response to which was also published on 16 August. We are now seeking the views of a wider audience on many of the issues the Committee's report raises.

The consultation poses a wide range of questions about how the law might be updated. These include how it deals with issues such as the rules on embryo screening for inheritable disorders; assessing the 'welfare of the child' who may be born following fertility treatment and possible future technologies such as gametes developed from bodily cells ('artificial gametes').

These are just a few of the complex areas on which we are seeking views. Doubtless there will be a range of deeply-held opinions on them. Many of the issues around the use of reproductive technologies go to the very heart of our existence, and people naturally have strong views about them.

The consultation document largely poses questions rather than making firm proposals. But we have also consistently made clear that the fundamental aspects of the Act - such as the fact that research on embryos is allowed - are not within the scope of the review. This also applies to those aspects of the Act that have been resolved conclusively in Parliament such as the ban on reproductive cloning, and the removal of donor anonymity.

We also give more detail in the consultation document about our proposal to replace the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority and the Human Tissue Authority with a single regulatory body to be called the Regulatory Authority for Tissue and Embryos (RATE). This is part of a wider review of the Department of Health's agencies and regulatory bodies.

The consultation runs until Friday 25 November 2005. We want to receive a wide range of views from stakeholders, patients, practitioners and members of the public, as the issues raised are of interest to everyone. We want people to debate and discuss these difficult, but vital, questions and tell us what they think. The consultation document and a pro-forma for responses can be found on the Department of Health's website. Responses should be sent to our mailbox.

Some interested individuals and groups may like to contribute in a more informal way by discussing their views with others. With this in mind, the DH has funded Progress Educational Trust to run an online discussion forum on issues raised by the review of the HFE Act. A report detailing the posts made to this forum will be submitted to the DH after 25 November as evidence going towards the review.

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