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Embryo mix-up need not be an unmitigated disaster

Juliet Tizzard

Progress Educational Trust

17 July 2002

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[BioNews, London] The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) is not having a good week. First came the Sun newspaper's scoop that an embryo mix-up had led to the birth of black twins to a white couple. Then New Scientist magazine published an article suggesting that IVF clinic league tables encourage bad practice. Then came the news that the HFEA may face a legal challenge to its decision to allow embryo selection for tissue matching. And finally the parliamentary Science and Technology Committee will this week make public its criticisms of the HFEA for overstepping its regulatory role.

This concurrence of events and reports must have led some media commentators to think they were in seventh Heaven. Many journalists have been unable to resist the temptation to make a link between all these developments and draw the conclusion that the HFEA and the IVF sector it presides over are ripe for a serious review.

Some criticisms of the HFEA and IVF clinics are legitimate. But in the case of the embryo mix-up, it's hard to see how a mistake that has been put down to human error could have been avoided. If it was a system error that had caused the mistake (suggestions range from HFEA under-funding to poor labelling protocols), the system needs reviewing. But if it was human error, the only solution would be to take humans out of the process!

Without wanting to appear flippant, human error in IVF is likely to be far less damaging than human error in other public services, such as transport or sanitation, where lives would be at risk. There seems to be almost universal agreement that the birth of these twins is an unmitigated disaster. But is it a tragedy for children to grow up with people who are not their genetic relatives? No. Is it a tragedy for children to grow up with parents of a different race? No. It must have been terribly upsetting for the white couple to discover the mistake. But they have two children; children that they planned and wanted and, despite the mistake, are no doubt delighting in. After all, these are things that make people parents, not the fact that they share the same genes.

© 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: 17 July 2002   Date Updated: 12 September 2004
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