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UK fertility laws to be reviewed

Dr. Kirsty Horsey

Progress Educational Trust

15 August 2005

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[BioNews, London]

The UK's Department of Health (DH) is to invite views on the way that some assisted reproductive technologies (ARTs) are regulated in the UK. Its review forms part of a wider consultation on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology (HFE) Act, passed in 1990, which some say has become out-of-date, 'outstripped' by medical advances - for example in preimplantation genetic diagnosis - as well as social and market changes.

One of the areas expected to be considered is the regulation of UK-based websites that trade in fresh human sperm and eggs. While the HFE Act regulates and licenses clinics that store and use human gametes, fresh sperm and eggs kept and traded outside of licensed clinics are not subject to the law. This has prompted claims that people who use website services are afforded lesser protection than people who use licensed clinics, as samples are less likely to be rigorously tested for disease or go through the same safety or quality processes than they would in a clinic. Neither would customers receive adequate information, counselling or legal protection, it is thought. Another major difference is that gamete donors who donate through website services would, in law, be regarded as the parents of any offspring - whereas this is not the case when donation takes place under the licensing procedures of the HFE Act.

The public consultation, to be launched this week via the DH website, will ask whether the HFE Act should be amended in order to either ban these companies altogether, or regulate them under the terms of the Act, so that the same quality standards are maintained across the board.

Another issue that the consultation will invite views on is the requirement in the Act that clinics providing fertility services must take the welfare of the potential future child into consideration when making their decisions, including 'the need of that child to have a father'. While some clinics will treat single women and lesbians, others can use this provision to deny them treatment.

Suzi Leather, chair of the UK's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, which oversees the regulation of ARTs in the UK, has already publicly stated that this provision is 'a nonsense'. And the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, which has already held its own review of the legislation, called it 'offensive' and potentially discriminatory. The review will ask for views on how medical judgements and the patients' desire for a child and freedom to make choices are balanced against the interests of the child to be born.

However, a spokeswoman for the DH has been quoted as saying that even if the Act was changed, state-funded fertility services are still unlikely to be available to single and lesbian women as they would remain prioritised. It would just mean that such women could not be denied private treatment on the basis that there was no male partner involved.

Public Health Minister Caroline Flint said that the purpose of the consultation is to ensure that legislation keeps up with the latest scientific and technical developments in ART. Although the HFE Act had served its purpose well, she said, 'we never expected the Act would remain forever unchanged in the face of major developments in science and medicine'. She added: 'we want to ensure that we can continue to reap the benefits of the latest scientific developments within a system that continues to inspire public confidence'.

© 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: 15 August 2005   Date Updated: 15 August 2005
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