Members of the House of Lords have expressed concern about a Government Bill that might compel the UK's fertility regulator, the HFEA, to consider economic growth when making its regulatory decisions.
The wide-ranging Deregulation Bill was originally conceived as part of the Government's Red Tape Challenge, an initiative to reduce the burden of regulation. Earlier this month Lord Philip Hunt, a Labour Peer, tabled an amendment to the Bill that would exclude the HFEA and other regulators from having to 'consider the importance for the promotion of economic growth of exercising the regulatory function'.
Introducing his amendment, Lord Hunt said: 'There is no provision in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act for the HFEA to have regard to the imperative to promote economic growth when making its decisions. If a clinic does not meet statutory requirements, it cannot grant a licence or allow a certain activity to take place, regardless of how economically desirable it might be thought to be.'
Lord Hunt went on to draw a connection between the Deregulation Bill and Regulations permitting the use of mitochondrial donation in treatment. He said: 'If the Regulations are passed by Parliament on 24 February, the HFEA will be expected to introduce a robust regulatory process, as it has in other areas of fertility treatment.... The decision about mitochondrial donation is of huge importance. It must be made in the absolute certainty of the regulatory process.'
Supporting Lord Hunt's amendment, the fertility expert Professor Lord Robert Winston said he was concerned about the exploitation of fertility patients, arguing that the Bill as it stood would 'encourage what is already a disgraceful market in this important area'. Baroness Mary Warnock, Patron of the Progress Educational Trust (PET, the charity that publishes BioNews), agreed with Lord Winston: 'It seems to me a disgraceful possibility that individual private clinics might be allowed to exploit these vulnerable people.'
Unusually, Lord David Alton - a staunch Catholic - found himself in agreement with Lords Hunt and Winston and Baroness Warnock. He said that Lord Hunt's amendment was supported by 'an interesting coalition of voices which would not necessarily always agree on some of the substantive issues raised in the context of human fertilisation and embryology'.
Lord Alton quoted criticisms of the fertility sector that Lord Winston had made at PET's 2014 conference 'The Commercialisation of Life', and also comments made by PET Trustee John Parsons, who 'argued at the same conference that simple greed had made profits, rather than compassion for patients, the top priority of many fertility clinics today'. Lord Alton asked: 'Are the Government proposing that the HFEA should emulate those whom it is failing to regulate?'
Lord William Wallace, who speaks for the Cabinet Office in the House of Lords, argued that those supporting the amendment had misconstrued the Bill as insisting 'that economic growth should override other functions', whereas in fact 'in a very large number of areas of medical and biomedical concern, the question of economic growth - let alone of commercialisation - will have to be treated either as not relevant to the subject, or as one of the factors but certainly not one of the most important ones'.
Lord Hunt was ultimately persuaded by Lord Wallace to withdraw his amendment, but he remained concerned about the Bill, arguing that 'however effective or not the HFEA is at the moment, the one thing that unites us all is that we do not want to see its regulatory function weakened'.