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
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.