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Regulators and embryologists aren't buddies

31 January 2011
By Dr John Gillott
Researcher at the ESRC Innogen Centre
Appeared in BioNews 593
The UK's regulator of human embryo research regards itself as a worldwide model for protecting patients' interests and public morals while permitting world-leading treatment and research. Indeed, it believes advances in research were driven by regulation. Baroness Ruth Deech, former Chair of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), puts this way: 'From this period (2001) the UK has led the world in both advancing and monitoring stem cell research. The basis on which it does so is that established by the HFEA in 1991 for the regulation of IVF and embryo storage'.

Some prominent scientists also praise the UK system of governance for embryo research. During the Progress Educational Trust (PET) debate on 17 January 'The End of the HFEA: Are We Throwing the Baby Out with the Bathwater?' Professor Robin Lovell-Badge, while not enthusiastic about the HFEA's work, claimed it was the envy of the world and better than the alternatives. It is common to find scientists identifying with the regulator, talking about 'us' rather than 'us and them'. Professor Lovell-Badge also said he looked to the HFEA to lead public debate.

This presentation of a public consensus and common purpose between regulator and scientists needs critical scrutiny. In reality, some of the claims made to support this consensus are vigorously contested. Among them is Baroness Deech's bold claim that the UK leads the world in embryo research because of its approach to governance.

While there is some common purpose between scientists and regulators, there is also tension and antagonism. Professor Lord Robert Winston, for example, argued in 2007: 'America has an unregulated scientific community and yet it is producing by far the most effective and most published and most respected papers in stem cell biology in the world, even though of course it has a President who is set against it'. Professor Lord Winston polarises opinions among researchers as well as regulators. But some researchers concur that, in the UK during the past decade, it has become more difficult to pursue innovative and controversial research.

Partly for this reason, questions continue to be raised about the UK governance of human embryo research. Baroness Deech has complained, writing about Robert Edwards and other researchers: 'Edwards was perhaps committed to the facilitation of science rather than to the imposition of restraints based on public concerns… scientific and medical support for regulation fluctuates in relation to what the scientists may regard as the imperative for freedom in research'. Her criticism could be turned into an observation then viewed from a different perspective to the one she holds.

During Professor Alison Murdoch's presentation to the PET debate, she took issue with the self-satisfied way the HFEA suggested it was responsible for patient safety and many other desirable things. And, as James Lawford Davies reminded us from the floor, this attitude informs more than the issuing of leaflets and consultations. He gave the example of the HFEA's hounding of Mohamed Taranissi. In her conclusion, Professor Murdoch pointed to the way the HFEA issued guidance that has to be obeyed.

Professor Murdoch hopes the abolition of the HFEA and adoption of the system of regulation advocated by the Academy of Medical Sciences will lead to greater freedom for clinicians and researchers. Everyone would benefit, she argued, if IVF was recast as a standard medical procedure no more dangerous or morally problematic than other areas of medical practice.

Is Professor Murdoch right? The implications of regulatory change depend in part on what those proposing the change intend to do. And it's not clear what the Government is up to. Maybe it doesn't know. Maybe it doesn't make sense to use such phrases as 'it' and 'know' when thinking about the issue.

Unlike in 2006/7 when the HFE Bill (as was) was in the UK parliament, the law governing embryo research is not up for discussion. In debates in 2006/7, discussion of regulatory reform was combined with a discussion of legal reform. Today everyone assumes the law will remain unchanged, except for possible modifications to allow the abolition of the HFEA.

In debate, those arguing for and against abolition argue the unchanging law supports their case. But is it impossible to modify the law? Supporters of the HFEA still hope that it ain't over till it's over, quietly noting the UK Government isn't proposing to conclude the abolition until later in this parliament. That time period also allows proponents of a different regulatory framework to explore all the options.

Deech, R. and Smajdor, A. From IVF to Immortality; Controversy in the Era of Reproductive Technology, Oxford
Oxford University Press, p. 28 - 29 |  2007
Joint Committee on the Human Tissue and Embryos (Draft) Bill
Human Tissue and Embryos (Draft) Bill Volume II: Evidence, p. 66 |  2007
The End of the HFEA: Are We Throwing the Baby Out with the Bathwater?
Progress Educational Trust |  17 January 2011
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'...
19 September 2011 - by Sandy Starr 
The UK's fertility regulator, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), has published a long-awaited review of its conduct in relation to IVF specialist Mohamed Taranissi and related legal proceedings....
21 February 2011 - by Damian Adams and Dr Marilyn Crawshaw 
By one of those strange coincidences, Australia has just completed its review of donor conception services while the UK is just embarking on one. While many of the areas that they look at are similar, there is much to ponder about their very different ways of approaching it. The Australian Inquiry was conducted at federal level while in the UK the regulatory body, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA)is involved...
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