HFEA head speaks out on older mums and SET
Dr Jess Buxton
Progress Educational Trust20 October 2006
The interim chairman of the UK's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), Lord Harries of Pentregrath, has said that there should be no upper age limit for women seeking IVF treatment. In an interview with the Times newspaper, the former Bishop of Oxford, Richard Harries, said that there should be no legal barrier to prevent older women seeking treatment, and that it should instead be 'a clinical judgement'. Lord Harries also said that the HFEA will be encouraging clinics to move towards single embryo transfer (SET), to cut the numbers of multiple births associated with IVF.
Earlier this year, a 62-year old woman become the UK's oldest woman to give birth to a child. Dr Patricia Rashbrook underwent fertility treatment in Eastern Europe using donor eggs to conceive her son - an event that sparked a debate over whether an upper age limit should be imposed on women seeking IVF treatment. Currently in the UK, the National Health Service (NHS) will not pay for women over 40 to have fertility treatment, and many private clinics will not treat women over 45. But speaking to the Times, Lord Harries said of Dr Rashbrook that he 'respected her choice', adding that 'men can conceive at a vast age'.
Lord Harries, who succeeded former HFEA head Dame Suzi Leather last month, is acting as the authority's interim chair until its amalgamation with the new Human Tissue Authority next year. His appointment comes at a crucial time for the HFEA, as it coincides with the current review of the 1990 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act.
As part of that review, Health Minister Caroline Flint recently told an evidence session of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee (STC) that there is 'probably not a case' for maintaining the part of the law that says that clinics must take into account the potential child's 'need for a father' before providing fertility treatments. Lord Harries agrees that it should go, saying 'I don't think its very useful because I think studies have shown that two people of the same sex can be good parents'. On the 'welfare of the child' clause in general, he said that 'clinics would be expected to make further inquiries only if they had serious concerns about, say, child abuse or drug addiction'.
Lord Harries also told the newspaper that he believes the health risks of conceiving twins and triplets are greater then the emotional and financial cost of increased cycles of IVF. 'This is quite a controversial thing in the HFEA', he said, adding 'we probably will be encouraging people eventually to go to one embryo transfer. That's not policy yet but there is quite strong scientific evidence that there is a greater risk of disability'. An independent expert committee, commissioned by the HFEA to review this issue, is expected to recommend SET for women under 35 who have not previously tried IVF.
Reproduced with permission from BioNews, an email and online sources of news, information and comment on assisted reproduction and genetics.