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After the tyranny of the embryo?

17 June 2013
By Dr John Gillott
Visiting Research Fellow, Innogen Institute
Appeared in BioNews 709

In her commentary in BioNews 707, Professor Alison Murdoch highlighted what she described as cultural problems affecting fertility treatment in the UK:

'The culture of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) is now one based on self-aggrandisement and self-preservation. But cultural problems with fertility treatment in England and Wales do not stop there and other stakeholders must also be called to account. The Department of Health and commissioners maintain the cultural view that infertility is not part of the routine NHS agenda'.

These problems, she fears, will be harder to tackle following the Government's decision not to abolish the HFEA. In this commentary I consider some related cultural and governmental issues for embryo research.

At the start of the process leading up to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology (HFE) Act 2008, Professor Martin Johnson expressed the hope that researchers might be 'escaping the tyranny of the embryo'. In some ways they have achieved this, although it is hard to be definitive for three main reasons: first, there is a degree of opacity to the governance framework; secondly, the stated basis of the framework is today the same as it was back in the 1980s, the special status of the embryo (bolstered now by the retention of the HFEA); thirdly, based on the first two points, participants in the debate could choose to accentuate or play down aspects of the framework for instrumental reasons.

Nevertheless, it is clear that in the time between the 1990 Act and the 2008 Act there was a significant weakening of opposition to embryo research originating from the pro-life quarter, reflected in Parliamentary votes on research from 2001 to the present. In particular, the categories of permitted research were extended in 2001 through a modification to the HFE Act 1990, and then extended further as part of a more general overhaul of the legislative framework in the shape of the HFE Act 2008. The 2008 Act also removed some specific prohibitions, most notably the prohibition on the genetic modification of a research embryo contained in Schedule 2 of the 1990 Act.

With the 2008 Act it seems clear that the Government tried to ensure that most foreseeable research projects using embryos could in principle be licensed. Add to this the fact that the Labour Government at the time and the current one often talk about providing the funds to place the UK at the forefront of biomedical research globally, it is easy to understand why opponents of embryo research of different kinds feel that researchers are driving the agenda.

And yet, the persistence of criticism from non pro-life as well as pro-life quarters, the continuation of regulatory structures that remain formally restrictive even if the permitted categories of research are broad and comprehensive (research must fall within a category and be necessary or desirable), and the influence within Government and regulatory circles alike of 'new modes of governance' that incorporate a highly consultative approach to policy making, has in combination created some new and, for natural scientists, not entirely positive, outcomes. This is particularly the case for novel and/or contentious kinds of research that attract critical attention and present an opportunity for Government and regulators to demonstrate that they are listening to real or perceived concerns.

A combination of the above three factors is perhaps the best explanation of the Chief Medical Officer's recommendation in 2000 to support fully human embryo stem cell research, but at the same time to ban hybrid embryo research, and the Government's commitment to enact such a prohibition in primary legislation – a striking hostage to fortune as it turned out.

In the end it would appear to be peer review rather than opposition groups that put an end to hybrid embryo research in the UK (perhaps for the moment only). It is hard to predict how future research and debates will play out, but in terms of the consequences for research performance, a summary might be that the UK continues to 'punch above its weight', as Ruth Deech, former chair of the HFEA, put it. However, perhaps now the UK is better set up to develop work in the mainstream than it is to promote innovation at the edges of knowledge, where speed and freedom from bureaucratic delays is important.

It would of course be naïve to think that there could ever not be criticisms of specific kinds of research or a regulator that didn't seek to locate itself within political and policy conflicts. But to address some of the contemporary issues from a research perspective, reviving some older ideas associated with science as a specialist, professional activity, based on a large degree of autonomy and freedom to research, might be useful. Whether or how this could be done within the framework of the HFE Act 2008 is another matter.

21 December 2015 - by Wendy Suffield 
At PET's recent conference, Professor Azim Surani claimed that permission to carry out experiments on embryos beyond the 14-day rule could make a huge difference to research. It may be time to review the ethical reasoning behind this time limit...
3 June 2013 - by Professor Alison Murdoch 
The culture of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority is now one based on self-aggrandisement and self-preservation. But cultural problems with fertility treatment in England and Wales do not stop there and other stakeholders must also be called to account...
24 September 2012 - by Cait McDonagh 
'Quangoing, going, gone', a debate organised by the Progress Educational Trust and the Anne McLaren Memorial Fund highlighted the diverse viewpoints on just what should happen to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority as the government seeks to streamline health regulation...
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