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Do the UK embryology laws need updating?

Dr. Kirsty Horsey

Progress Educational Trust

29 October 2003

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[BioNews, London] The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee has recently announced that it will conduct an enquiry into human reproductive technologies and the law. Concerned about a number of recent legal challenges to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology (HFE) Act 1990, the committee feels that the legislation is getting quickly out of date and needs to be updated to take account of new developments in reproductive and genetic science.

This isn't the first time the committee has considered reproductive and genetic technologies. Only last summer, the committee published a report, 'Developments in Human Genetics and Embryology', which recommended to the government that new developments such as preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) with tissue typing need to be considered afresh by parliament. However, Science and Technology Committee chairman, Ian Gibson MP, said that the government 'wants to let the Courts make decisions which are rightly those of Parliament'. According to Gibson, politicians want their say.

The courts certainly have been kept busy of late by challenges to the HFE Act. First, there was a challenge to the HFEA's ability to license research using cloned embryos, on the basis that the legislation does not cover embryos created by nuclear transfer. Then came a challenge to the HFEA's ability to license PGD with tissue typing, arguing that this was beyond the scope of the original act of parliament. Finally, the recent court battle over two women's frozen embryos challenged the consent provisions under the act.

These challenges, and the frequent calls for a review of the legislation, do make the act look vulnerable. But what is interesting about them is that the challenges all failed. In the cloning case, the House of Lords ruled that the original act does give the HFEA powers to license the use of cloned embryos. In the tissue typing case, the Court of Appeal ruled that the HFEA can decide whether or not such a use of PGD is acceptable. And in the frozen embryos case, the High Court ruled that the consent provisions in the act are unambiguous and are working as was originally intended.

So, if the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act is able to withstand such legal challenges, why do we need a review of the legislation? Those who are calling for a review often say that the law is unable to cope with new developments. But the driving force here is not so much new science, but new politics. It's been nearly 14 years since parliamentarians had an opportunity to fully debate assisted reproduction and genetics. And there seems to be a desire - if not a pressing need - to debate the ethical issues again in the light of new developments and new applications.

Even the HFEA itself seems keen to review its role. After conducting an enquiry into sex selection, the HFEA is likely to recommend in a few weeks' time that their regulatory powers be extended to cover the use of fresh eggs and sperm (and thereby sperm sex selection). Suzi Leather, chair of the HFEA, has also suggested that a parliamentary review of PGD and tissue typing is needed, despite the recent court ruling. A policy announcement about the future of donor anonymity is also expected from the Department of Health in the near future. Most of these changes in policy, if they go ahead, will require some kind of amendment to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act. So perhaps the Science and Technology Committee will get its review of the law after all.

© Copyright Progress Educational Trust

Reproduced with permission from BioNews, an email and online sources of news, information and comment on assisted reproduction and genetics.

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Date Added: 29 October 2003   Date Updated: 12 September 2004
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