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A new era for the HFEA

28 September 2009
By Professor Lisa Jardine
Chair of the UK's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority
Appeared in BioNews 527
When it comes into force on 1 October the new Human Fertilisation and Embryology (HFE) Act will herald the single greatest change to affect the UK fertility sector in nearly two decades, since we - the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) - came into being as the UK regulator.

We were the world's first fertility regulator, set up to deal with the myriad issues that are raised in an area that mixes ethics, health, science and family life. The approach we have taken has allowed the UK to become one of the most open-minded countries in terms of who is eligible for treatment, the types of treatments on offer and, within strict bounds, research using human embryos.

In 1990, when the original HFE Act received Royal Assent, no-one envisaged how the fertility sector would change and grow. Nor did they envisage the progress science would make. As a regulator we have had to take decisions and make policies about technologies that were not even dreamt of when the 1990 Act was drawn up. The rapid progress of PGD, the creation of hybrid embryos and the development of stem cell research are just some of the cutting edge technologies the HFEA has considered and consulted on in order to create an environment for their use which maintained public confidence.

We are now on the brink of introducing the new HFE Act, which builds on the wealth of experience and expertise the HFEA has developed in the last 18 years, enshrining some of our decisions about ethical issues in the law.

Society has changed, social attitudes have moved on. What was not acceptable 20 years ago is now more commonplace. Families are no longer always the traditional groupings - the new Act gives same sex couples the same rights as heterosexual couples to be recognised as the legal parents of children born as result of fertility treatment. The 'need for a father' requirement has been replaced by a recognition that children need 'supportive parenting'.

Back in 1990 the debate focused on keeping quiet about fertility treatment, in particular conception using a sperm or egg donor. Now we understand the importance of telling donor-conceived individuals about their genetic origins. This is now so important that it is emphasised within the new legislation.

The new HFE Act enables us to open up our Register of data, allowing the wealth of information we hold about fertility treatment to be used as a valuable research resource. Researchers will be able to access one of the oldest and most comprehensive sources of historical data on fertility treatment in the world. There is much we still do not know about the long term implications of fertility treatment and it is an area crying out for thorough investigation.

The new legislation reflects these changing attitudes and retains the flexibilities needed to allow the development of technologies that, even now, we can't yet imagine. Preparing for the new Act has given us the opportunity to thoroughly improve how we work, how we inspect and how we license alongside how we provide useful information for those seeking fertility treatment.

Key to this has been making better use of the data we hold about clinics and the treatments they carry out. Our new 'Choose a Fertility Clinic' website gives patients a much greater insight into the treatments, services and outcomes of clinics across the country, helping them to understand the treatment they need, their chances of success and to choose the clinic that's right for them.

Let's not underestimate the impact of this. The changes taking place on 1 October present major challenges for the clinics and research centres who will have to put them into practice. But we worked hard to reduce the burden of regulation and we will be working with them to ensure a smooth transition. Our inspection process will be more transparent, focused and risk-based, and will operate alongside a robust and streamlined decision making process.

This Thursday marks the beginning of new era for the HFEA and for the UK's fertility sector, and it opens up a world of possibilities.

To read more about what's changing go to website.

 

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