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Event Review: Playing God - Who Should Regulate Reproductive Medicine?

24 October 2011
Appeared in BioNews 630

Playing God: Who Should Regulate Reproductive Medicine?

Organised by the University of Cambridge

Institute of Continuing Education, Madingley Hall, University of Cambridge, Madingley, Cambridge, Cambridgeshire CB23 8AQ, UK

Monday 3 October 2011

'Playing God: Who Should Regulate Reproductive Medicine?', organised by the University of Cambridge, Monday 3 October 2011

Should women who choose their career first, and children second, be allowed to receive IVF on the NHS at an age when some would consider it 'unnatural'? Now ask whether it's acceptable for young soldiers fighting in Afghanistan to store their sperm in case they don't come back. And the questions surrounding reproductive medicine don't end there: after insemination, how much screening or manipulation of genetic material is reasonable? Is it alright if it gives individuals a higher quality of life, albeit at the cost of destroying 'bad' or 'unwanted' embryo? More specifically, who should have the power to regulate these issues, and how?

Baroness Deech of Cumnor, DBE, tackled exactly these sorts of thorny issues in the first of this year's Madingley Lectures at the University of Cambridge. As an academic lawyer, specialising in family and property law, who chaired the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) for seven years, she undoubtedly holds the credentials to talk on the subject. Nevertheless, as I walked up the grand driveway, I couldn't help but wonder whether this lecture would be more academic – a tribute to paper tiger legislation to appease the masses – than a sharp examination.

I was pleasantly surprised. In a time when, politically, everyone seems to play the middle ground, Baroness Deech is not shy about voicing her opinions. Nor does she shirk controversy, meeting challenges head on, freely admitting both her own weaknesses (she does not have a scientific background) and those of existing policies.

'Who do you think you are, playing God?' one MP allegedly challenged, with regard to her role as chair of the HFEA. We were about to find out.

Baroness Deech set a tone for a lecture that was anything but dry; simultaneously fierce, forthright and full of amusing anecdotes. Establishing her own credentials, Baroness Deech noted she came in at number 107 in a list of the UK's most influential people - not surprising considering the impact the HFEA has on people's daily lives. It not only indirectly affects thousands of lay people through its regulation of IVF and egg, sperm or embryo storage, it affects hundreds of researchers hoping to advance medical knowledge in these fields. While lamenting the loss of 'blue skies' research, Baroness Deech emphasised how proud Britain should be of its position as a leader in stem cell legislation and research.

She pointed out that a multitude of factors were to blame for people's misunderstandings about stem cell research and therapeutic cloning. She berated the press for too often confusing the subject; showing the picture of a fetus rather than an embryo, for example. On the other hand, referring to the recent Simon Singh case, she worried that stricter libel laws risked gagging the public discussion of key issues.

Her unflinching attitude continued as she lashed out at US legislation, or lack thereof. The Dickey Wicker Amendment means that there are virtually no regulations on stem cell research – simply because it is against the law for the Federal government to provide funds for it. She argued that this creates a climate with far more conflicting and fuzzy ethical boundaries than in the UK, where regulations are in force.

At the same time Baroness Deech did not deny that the public may have lost trust in regulatory bodies following the Alder Hey and Bristol heart scandals. Nevertheless, she remained adamant that having bodies which monitor such issues responsibly are far preferable to the current Government plans to merge public bodies such as the HFEA into mass units, or the chaos that would be created by completely scrapping such bodies.

Some in the audience may have frowned, or even gulped, as she sternly pointed out that, for her, IVF treatment was not a lifestyle choice and that therapeutic cloning was the way forward. However, in general I think Baroness Deech put people at ease. They might not have agreed with everything she said, but if nothing else, she made a very convincing argument as to the role of the HFEA and the House of Lords.

Surely it is better, she concluded, to have the 'Lords of science', such as Robert Winston, Martin Rees and Bob May, investigating the ins and outs of these issues without political ties, than those in the House of Commons, who are forever preoccupied by votes and image?

She convinced me too. Much as I don't like red tape and bureaucracy, I would prefer to have a public body that can be questioned and held accountable for regulating such issues, rather than leave private companies, ultimately out for financial reward, in control.

28 September 2015 - by Brendan Foht 
Compared to the frenzy over human cloning a decade ago, in recent years the issue has received very little political attention. But as the ongoing fights over CRISPR and mitochondrial replacement show, some of the underlying debates are still with us...
7 July 2014 - by Dr Molly Godfrey 
A doctor by training and a researcher at the forefront of fertility studies, Professor Lord Robert Winston, pioneer in the field of IVF and PGD, discusses the implications of new techniques for genetically modifying embryos in the Physiological Society's 2014 annual public lecture...
29 October 2012 - by Petra Nordqvist 
Assisted conception gives rise to some truly fascinating questions about human reproduction. Conception enabled through donated sperm, eggs, embryos and surrogacy, in particular, open up a vast number of new possibilities...
30 April 2012 - by Amy Simpson and Marcus Longley 
No medicine is 100 percent safe. Medicines regulators need to decide whether the advantages of taking the medicine outweigh the disadvantages, and ask if the side effects are acceptable. Analysis of the risks and benefits associated with new medicines is very complex – what risks and benefits are we talking about, and how should they be weighed? Where the condition is serious and/or rare, these decisions can be even harder...
24 October 2011 - by Sandy Starr 
The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority has decided that donors should be paid fixed sums, and that these sums should be £35 per clinic visit for sperm donors and £750 per cycle of donation for egg donors...
30 September 2011 - by Dr Kamal Ahuja 
The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) has already made two decisions following its public consultation and review of gamete donation policies in the UK: first, intra-familial gamete donation can continue as before (subject to certain provisions); and second, the number of families which a single donor might help create remains limited to ten. The bigger question on compensation and benefit in kind to donors will not be answered until later this year...
26 September 2011 - by Jessica Ware 
The Human Fertility and Embryology Authority (HFEA), the UK's fertility regulator, has admitted breaches of the sperm donation limit have occurred, following news that one donor has fathered 17 families...
18 July 2011 - by Sandy Starr 
The UK's fertility regulator, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), has made its first set of decisions following the outcome of its recent consultation on sperm and egg donation, known as the Donation Review...
16 May 2011 - by Chris Chatterton 
The UK's fertility regulator published a report last Thursday that it says indicates its success at reducing multiple births from fertility treatment by promoting elective single embryo transfer (eSET)....
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