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Human embryos may lose legal protection, UK fertility watchdog claims

10 January 2011
Appeared in BioNews 590

The chair of the UK's fertility regulator has said a principle governing how human embryos are used in research may be undermined by proposed changes to UK research governance. Professor Lisa Jardine warned the 'safeguarding of the 'special status of the embryo'' could be lost if the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA)'s power to grant licences for embryo research is transferred to a centralised body. The HFEA is at risk of being scrapped or amalgamated under UK Government proposals.

The safeguards prevent researchers using embryos in trivial or non-vital research due to ethical considerations. Professor Jardine said about her claim the safeguards could be lost: 'I very much doubt that the general public, let alone those groups who are fundamentally opposed to such research on moral grounds, would wish to see this happen without full debate'.

Professor Jardine spoke in advance of a report to be published by the Academy of Medical Sciences on 11 January 2011. The report is expected to endorse the creation of a clinical research regulatory body, which could take on some of the HFEA's current functions. Former health secretary, Andy Burnham, last year commissioned the report, which is chaired by Sir Michael Rawlins, chairman of the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence.

The embryo's 'special status' was first laid down in 1984 after a report chaired by Baroness Mary Warnock, patron of the Progress Educational Trust, concluded: 'the embryo of the human species ought to have a special status and that no one should undertake research on human embryos the purposes of which could be achieved by the use of other animals or in some other way'. The report formed the basis of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 which, as amended, governs the use of embryos in research today.

Professor Jardine's comments come as the House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee criticised the Government's handling of its proposals to abolish and reform 192 arm's-length bodies, including the HFEA. The Committee said the plans were 'poorly managed' and would not save money. Bernard Jenkin, chairman of the Committee, said the reform process was 'botched'.

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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...
26 July 2010 - by Dr Vivienne Raper 
The UK's fertility watchdog, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), could be split up as the Government's 'bonfire of the quangos' continues....
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