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HFEA up for the axe?

6 September 2010
By Josephine Quintavalle
Director of CORE (Comment On Reproductive Ethics)
Appeared in BioNews 574
The inaugural meeting of CORE in 1994 was entitled, 'Human Reproduction  - Who Decides?' and the key speech was by an ex-HFEA (Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority) committee member, Professor Robert Snowden. Focus was specifically on assisted reproduction and the controversial issue of whether or not human embryos should be created using eggs from dead adults or aborted fetuses. The HFEA was engaging in one of what has turned into a long series of consultations of this kind, and not surprisingly given the controversial nature of this issue, the response was colossal.

Not even the recent HFEA exercise to canvas public opinion on the equally controversial issue of creating embryos combining animal and human gamete elicited such a response. 

Most respondents to the 1994 consultation were not in favour of creating embryos from cadavers, either at the adult or fetal stage, whether for research or pregnancy. But undeterred, the HFEA refused to bow to public opinion and did approve the creation of embryos in this way. With the proviso that the public was not quite ready for using such embryos for full reproduction, so that particular proposal was put on temporary hold. With the current human egg shortage that horror will possibly be revisited.

CORE is not in favour of creating embryos from cadavers, aborted fetuses or other animal gametes, but what must be obvious to even the most utilitarian or libertarian observer is that these are very controversial proposals raising issues of great ethical and moral concern. And the question 'Who Decides?' is as acute as it was in 1994, and CORE's answer remains unchanged - 'Definitely not the HFEA'.

It is an unelected body set up to implement the regulations of the 1990 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, and no more than that. When the then Chair of the HFEA, Baroness Deech, in May 2002 suggested to the Science and Technology Committee that the HFEA was making ethical decisions to save Parliament any direct involvement, an almost apoplectic Bob Spink MP rebuked her stating that it is for 'Members of Parliament who are elected to make difficult decisions on behalf of society as a whole', and CORE believes certainly not the HFEA.

News that the HFEA is up for the chop is most welcome and was not unexpected. At the 7 July public meeting of the Authority, it was intimated that there were major changes ahead, and there was a sense of deflation amongst the usually ebullient members.

This did not, however, distract from the business to hand and CORE marveled at the Committee's surreal discussion of how many foreign languages HFEA patients' guides should be translated into.  Budgetary constraints ensure that such debates are probably now academic, but it was certainly more enlivening than business projections, licence application directions, standing order revisions and the like that followed.

Over the years the HFEA has followed the trajectory of most 'quangos', with staff increases, more meetings and sub-committees, glossy publications, literature thick with management-speak, and a fashionable commitment to transparency, accountability, and trends such as Twitter.

It is more than time to ask if this is necessary, particularly in these penny- pinching times. With a Government so committed to economic cuts, who could possibly complain if the HFEA were to go?

Certainly not Professor Robert Winston, who argued in a recent letter to The Times that there was no justification for singling out one medical treatment 'for unique regulation', and that IVF should not be accorded any special status.

CORE is not often in accord with Professor Winston, but in this instance we agree that much of what goes regarding the technical practicalities of IVF could be dealt with easily by a body such as the proposed Care Quality Commission.

Where we part company with Professor Winston, however, is in his dismissal of IVF's need for special status. The human embryo can never be considered as just another organ or tissue of the human body. UK Human Fertilisation & Embryology legislation in principle rightly acknowledges this, even if the nature of this status has never been adequately defined or upheld.

Decisions on complex ethical issues in the field of assisted reproduction should ultimately be taken by Parliament, but in the first instance should be deliberated by a democratic 'National Bioethics Committee', acting in a purely advisory capacity. This would have the standing of an independent statutory body, with a membership encompassing professionals, patient groups, major religious and ethical groups, fairly representing the diverse positions within society. Core believes that the creation of such a committee would bring the UK into line with most of the democratic world.

Absolutely no CORE tears for the demise of the HFEA.

19 December 2011 - by Sandy Starr 
The Public Bodies Bill - which empowers the UK Government to transfer the functions of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), the country's regulator of fertility treatment and embryo research - has received Royal Assent and has become the Public Bodies Act. This Act represents the realisation in statute of the Coalition Government's longstanding plans for a 'bonfire of the quangos'...
6 December 2010 - by Ben Jones 
Lord Rees, outgoing President of the Royal Society, has raised concerns over the abolition of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) saying that it may affect the Government's ability to make well informed policy decisions...
18 October 2010 - by Matthew Smart 
Former members of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) have spoken against proposals to axe the UK’s fertility watchdog...
4 October 2010 - by John Parsons and Michael Savvas 
The Government is considering dismembering the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) and dividing its responsibilities between the Care Quality Commission, a proposed new research regulator and possibly an expanded Health and Social Care Information Centre [1]. We believe that, although the HFEA is not perfect, such changes would be a retrograde step and should be resisted...
24 September 2010 - by Dr Vivienne Raper 
The UK's fertility regulator is on a Government 'hit list' of quangos facing abolition, according to a letter leaked this week. The letter, dated 26 August, supposedly from Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude to other ministers lists the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) among 177 quangos due to be axed...
23 August 2010 - by Professor Eric Blyth, Dr Marilyn Crawshaw, Dr Lucy Frith, Dr Caroline Jones and Dr Jennifer Speirs 
The UK government's review of Arm's Length Bodies (ALB) in the National Health Service has indicated that the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) has had its day as a free-standing regulatory body...
16 August 2010 - by Professor Alison Murdoch 
The UK's new government plans to divide the responsibilities of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) between different existing organisations to reduce the cost and burden of regulation. This would see the end of the HFEA as we know it...
9 August 2010 - by Baroness Ruth Deech 
Of course we are all against unnecessary regulation: and one of the areas of policy put forward by the new coalition government which has seemed to attract widespread support, even from those who hold no brief for them, is the abolition of superfluous quangos....
2 August 2010 - by Dr Evan Harris 
In its quick review of Arm's Length Bodies, published last week, the Government announced the HFEA would be disbanded. The news was welcomed by some, criticised by others and the HFEA put out a fairly terse statement...
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