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Media (mis)conceptions: Assisted conception in the spotlight

1 November 2010
By Dr Amel Alghrani, Professor Margaret Brazier, Dr John Coggon and Dr Muireann Quigley
Institute for Science, Ethics and Innovation/Centre for Social Ethics and Policy, University of Manchester
Appeared in BioNews 582
'Occasionally science makes procedures possible that are so radical that those at the interface between science and society are called on to define moral standards for society' (1). In a democratic society it will often fall to Parliament to act as the ultimate arbiter of those standards. Parliamentary debates about medical law and bioethics take place in the bright light of media attention. Thirty three statutes were enacted in 2008; few (if any) generated the same publicity as the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act (HFE Act) 2008. A cursory search of the print media brings up a numerous stories related to reproduction and the HFE Act (2). This phenomenon is nothing new. Any proposed law reform or decision of the courts relating to matters such as IVF, saviour siblings and surrogacy attracts much more public attention than suggested changes in the law relating to regulation in other less ethically controversial areas.

Whilst fertility experts and scientists may promote media coverage of new uses of such technologies, often heralding them as radical new breakthroughs (3), part of the reason for this is a fascination with anything to do with medicine itself. Health and 'morals' make a potent mix. That many minds are brought to bear on these issues is good. Wider debate should lead to better solutions. There may be problems, however, with the nature of some debates that take place in the public domain. If polarisation is the order of the day, then in some cases it might cross into the political and legal arena resulting in bad laws. Where debate is conducted in the media spotlight might judges in controversial cases feel undue pressure? Is sensible debate often obscured by presentation in the media? Or are such questions on our part mere academic 'prissiness'?

As an example, take the amendments on parenting in the HFE Act 2008. The 1990 HFE Act required all fertility clinics to consider the welfare of the child who may be born before offering treatment (including the need of that child for a father).The 2008 Act does not remove the need to consider the welfare of the child. The reference to the need for 'a father' is substituted with 'supportive parenting'(4) in recognition of the range of different family models that exist. Although a fairly modest change, it met with strong objections in some parts of the media; objections sometimes phrased in inflammatory and exaggerated language.

An article in the Daily Mail, claimed that removing the 'need for a father clause' would 'help destroy our understanding of human identity' because '(a) child needs to be brought up by a mother and father for the fundamental reason that the child's identity was created by a man and a woman, and is only safely nurtured in a household that embodies that fact'(5). There is no mention of the continued requirement for 'supportive' parenting. Instead the article focused on the supposed immorality of a child having two mothers or two fathers. It disregarded other forms of families that children born without assisted conception are brought up in: single-parented, grand-parented, foster- and adoptive-parented. It also ignored the point that even if the 'need for a father clause' had been retained it did not in practice bar anyone not part of a heterosexual couple from fertility treatment. All that had been required was consideration of the issue and many clinics were already working to the 'supportive parenting standard'.

Another potent example is the creation of human/animal hybrids. It cannot be doubted that a number of people retain serious objections to any form of embryo research and in particular any mixing of human/animal gamete. But the provisions of the HFE Act 2008 pertaining to this were subject to considerable drama amounting to misrepresentation in the media. A headline from The Sun warned 'Half-man, half-beast fear over fertility bill'. The headline was dramatically accompanied by a picture of a Minotaur (6). This is an example of how, at times, both the science and the law were misrepresented. Quite apart from the current scientific impossibility of creating a Minotaur, there was never a possibility that it could legally be done within the provisions of the Act. This is because the growth of any embryo (hybrid or not) is prohibited beyond 14 days or the appearance of the primitive streak. The fundamental issues relating to the development of stem cell therapies were buried under a scare story.

Yet, while certain aspects of science and law can be misrepresented, the media has also become an important and effective platform for scientists. The use of embryos for stem cell research is a notable instance where groups of scientists have been very effective in using the media for their own purposes. Here they campaigned on a particular point regarding the amendments while the HFE Bill was passing through parliament in order to influence policy. An example of how this played out in the media can be seen in a letter to the editor of the Times which was published with 58 signatories, including leading figures from the science community (7).

It is clear from both incarnations of the HFE Act that regulation of assisted conception operates in a context shaped by the media, political institutions, special interest groups, other organisations, and individuals. This context changes the texture of debate. Science and society also change in ways not envisaged when legislation is initially drafted. Yet the effect of the media on policy formation has been relatively neglected in academic legal and ethical discourse. Ought such fundamental societal matters as reproduction and reproductive liberty to be subject to extemporised influences? How can policy-makers satisfactorily discern and define moral standards for society - what are legitimate influences to inform law and policy?

It is such questions that our forthcoming conference 'Medical Law and Ethics in the Media Spotlight' (to be held in London on the 8 and 9 November 2010) seeks to address. Discussions will examine how the formulation of law and policy in this area and bioethics/medical law in general, is being/has been influenced by the media and pressure groups, and the degree to which the institutions, organisations and individuals can be engaged or consulted in a more informed manner. This is a vital step towards attaining effective, responsive and representative regulation of contentious bioethical issues.  

For more information on the conference please visit our website. Or alternatively contact Betty McGrath at

1) M Warnock, The Ethical Regulation of Science
450 (20) Nature 615 |  2007
2) LexisNexis
A news search using the search term 'Human fertilisation and Embryology Act' returned 52 articles in the last 12 months which discussed the HFE Act in one form or another. The search was performed with the high similarity function switched on to exclude duplicate articles. |  23 January 2022
3a) From foetus to full term - without a mother's touch
The Times |  30 August 2005
3b) Womb transplant baby 'within three years'
BBC News |  1 December 2003
3c) Men redundant? Now we don't need women either
The Guardian Unlimited |  10 February 2002
4) Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008
Section 14(2)(b) |  23 January 2022
5) Fatherless families, a dangerous Bill and a dilemma for David Cameron
Daily Mail |  19 November 2007
6) Half-man, half-beast fear over fertility Bill
The Sun |  23 October 2008
7) Stem cell research is vital and can save lives
The Times |  21 January 2008
4 April 2011 - by Kyrillos Georgiadis 
Britain's first 'gay-only' fertility centre has opened in Birmingham offering to help match potential parents with sperm or egg donors and surrogates....
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