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Use of Gametes and Embryos in Human Reproductive Research: Determining Policy for New Zealand

23 December 2006
By Ian Hicks
ACART Analyst
Appeared in BioNews 390
Should human gamete and embryo research be undertaken in New Zealand and, if so, under what conditions? These are important questions for New Zealanders to consider.

Use of Gametes and Embryos in Human Reproductive Research: Determining Policy for New Zealand is the first major piece of work produced by New Zealand's Advisory Committee on Assisted Reproductive Technology (ACART). Released on 15 December 2006, the discussion paper examines the issue of human reproductive research from a variety of perspectives. 

As we know, reproductive technologies have expanded greatly in the last 30 years, and there has been increased interest in the use of human gametes and embryos in research - including fundamental biological research, reproductive research, and as a source of stem cells. These developments further our understanding of various disease states as well as our understanding of normal growth and development. New Zealand researchers would like the opportunity to contribute to this work. However the use of gametes and embryos for research raises ethical, spiritual and cultural issues, which must also be taken into consideration.

Accordingly, ACART has prepared its discussion paper to provide background material that will assist New Zealanders in their thinking. The paper discusses: embryo growth and development; the possibilities for gamete and embryo research; the needs, values and beliefs of Maori; other ethical, spiritual and cultural perspectives; regulation in New Zealand; and an international overview of gamete and embryo research, policy development and legislation. The paper concludes with a summing up of the issues raised in the discussion paper. Although both gamete and embryo research are covered, the paper is weighted towards a discussion of issues in embryo research. This is because ACART considers that embryo research raises more complex issues and is of greater concern to New Zealanders.

In New Zealand, until 2004, clinical care and research in this area were regulated through a combination of professional self-regulation and indirect institutional and legislative requirements that necessitated ethical review. The Human Assisted Reproductive Technology Act (HART) Act, which came into effect in 2004, establishes a legal framework for human assisted reproductive procedures and human reproductive research. The Act defines human reproductive research as 'research that uses or creates a human gamete, a human embryo or a hybrid embryo'. The HART Act prohibits certain uses of human embryos. For example, it is prohibited to artificially form and implant into a uterus a cloned embryo or a hybrid embryo. It is also an offence to do anything to cause the development of an in vitro embryo outside the body beyond 14 days from its formation.  

Established under the HART Act, ACART is required to provide the Minister of Health with advice on the use of gametes and embryos in research and must also hold public meetings on any advice that is considered 'significant'. ACART must advise the Minister of Health on whether research using gametes and embryos should be allowed, and if so, whether limits should be placed on that research.  In preparing their advice ACART must take into account the views of New Zealanders.

ACART will hold three public meetings during February 2007 in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. The first of these meetings will be held in Wellington on 8 February 2007 and further details will be notified publicly once arrangements have been confirmed.

In addition to holding public meetings, ACART will host hui around New Zealand to specifically engage with Maori (the indigenous people of New Zealand). When developing its advice to the Minster of Health, ACART is required to consider the needs, values and beliefs of Maori. However, as in other communities, Maori perspectives are diverse and may differ not only between but also within iwi (tribe), hapu (sub-tribe), and whanau (family). It is unlikely that there will be a single Maori view on the use of gametes and embryos in research, although there may be concerns that are common arising from within te ao Maori (the Maori world view). Consequently, ACART seeks to foster debate in the Maori community by tentatively outlining some of the concepts and perspectives that may be relevant to the issue.

ACART's advice to the Minister of Health will be based in part on the submissions arising from this consultation. However, the submissions will be considered alongside other considerations such as existing policy in New Zealand, scientific and ethical analysis and the principles of the HART Act.  ACART will advise the Minister by 30 June 2007. The Government will make the final decisions about New Zealand's policy on gamete and embryo research.

The HART Act requires ACART to hear oral submissions if it considers that a significant number of people wish to make an oral submission. Making an oral submission provides New Zealanders with an opportunity to explain their point of view to ACART in person. It also provides ACART with the opportunity to ask supplementary questions during an oral submission.

ACART will be holding further consultation in April 2007 on the clinical application of assisted reproductive procedures. It will cover such issues as surrogacy, embryo donation for reproductive purposes and PGD (preimplantation genetic diagnosis).

Submissions on the use of gametes and embryos in human reproductive research close at 5 pm on Friday 2 March 2007. More information can be found on ACART's website or by emailing

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