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September 2007 Update on Human Tissue Embryo Bill

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5th September 2007


The Parliamentary Committee considering the Human Tissue and Embryo (Draft) Bill have recently published their findings. Although their report contains some positive recommendations (such as abandoning the proposal to have a single body regulating both human tissue and embryology), there are also some very concerning issues.

One thing that seems clear from the report is that the Committee did not feel that the issues in the Bill were issues that the public either knew about or felt strongly about. They certainly did not feel there had been any public outcry against the contents of the Bill.

It is imperative that when this Bill comes before Parliament in the Autumn members of both houses know that people do care very deeply about these issues, which strike at the very heart of our understanding of family structures and what it means to be human.

Please take time to read the summary provided below, which sets out some of the concerning aspects of the Bill and the Committee’s report. Please use this information to write to or call your MP and/or peers so that when the Bill come before them they will know that people do oppose certain aspects of the Bill.


Summary of the Joint Committee’s Report

The Human Tissue and Embryo (Draft) Bill constitutes a complete review of the law surrounding fertility treatment and embryology. Other areas of law are also covered, for example, abortion law will no doubt be debated during the passage of the Bill. However, this summary deals only with issues addressed within the Bill and considered by the Joint Committee in their report on the Bill. This summary covers the following areas:

  1. Lack of an ethical framework

  2. Deliberate flexibility in the Bill

  3. Inter-species embryos

  4. Saviour siblings

  5. Sex selection

  6. Altering embryo cells

  7. Welfare of the child

  8. The need for a father

  9. Parenthood in cases involving assisted reproduction

  10. Sperm sorting kits

  11. Surrogacy

  12. Sperm distributing internet companies

1. Lack of an ethical framework: the Committee noted that the Bill had no foundational ethical principles behind it. They recommended that Parliament should establish an ethical framework within the Bill so that the regulators and those applying the Bill have some ethical guidance to follow. It is imperative that any ethical framework recognises the special status of the human embryo as an entity worthy of greater protection. Otherwise a utilitarian approach may be adopted whereby embryos could be used and abused in any way that researchers consider to be in the interests of science.

2. Deliberate flexibility in the Bill: for years prolife organisations have been concerned about the flexible approach the HFEA (Human Fertility and Embryology Authority) have taken to the law. This has led to an incremental liberalisation of the law in the fields of both embryonic research and reproductive technologies. The new Bill was viewed by many as being deliberately flexible, allowing the regulatory bodies far too much room for interpretation of matters that should be decided by Parliament. However, the Committee recommended that the Bill be made more flexible and open to interpretation, in order to devolve regulation further, and giving the regulating bodies greater scope for granting licences for treatments not currently foreseen, without the need for recourse to Parliament.

3. Inter-species embryos: The Committee recognised this was a contentious issue and could not reach a consensus on it. They therefore recommend that the issue be put to a free vote in both houses. Therefore it is important that as many people as possible write to their MPs about this issue, making it clear that it is ethically unacceptable to create an embryo which is part human and part animal. This would violate the sanctity of the human and embryo and blur the distinctions of what it means to be human. Even if there were scientific gains to be made from such experiments (a proposition which is highly questionable in itself) that would not justify legalising this type of action.

A further worrying development since the Committee published their report is that the HFEA today announced that they believe they can legally consider licensing applications to create animal-human hybrid embryos for research purposes. This move clearly usurps the democratic process, as they are acting before Parliament has even had the opportunity to debate and vote on whether such research should be legal. It is doubtful whether the HFEA have the legal remit to make such a decision. They are expected to consider the license applications they have already received in November.

4. Saviour siblings: The Committee declined to consider whether tissue typing for the purposes of creating a ‘saviour sibling’ should be prohibited, as the law already allows this in some circumstances. However, they urged Parliament to extend the draft Bill by allowing such treatment in more widely defined circumstances i.e. not only when the existing child has a life threatening condition, but also when he or she has a ‘serious condition’. This practice is concerning not only because it would entail the destruction of embryos that don’t match the sibling, but there are concerns about seeing the child as a resource.

5. Sex selection: Whilst the Committee agreed that sex selection should not be allowed for social reasons (as opposed to medical reasons), they did not base this decision on a belief that social sex selection would cause any harm if it was allowed. They noted that the public were overwhelmingly against social sex selection, but also noted the evidence they had received that claimed this was a matter of human rights and ‘reproductive autonomy’. This is indicative of the philosophy behind issues of reproductive technology and abortion, the idea that everyone has the ‘right’ to decide whether they will have children (IVF and abortion), when they will have children, how many children they will have (selective termination of multiple foetuses, particularly after multiple implantations using IVF), and what ‘type’ of children they will have (sex selection, preimplantation genetic diagnosis). So called ‘reproductive rights’ and ‘reproductive autonomy’ are useful instruments in justifying this type of treatment.

6. Altering embryo cells: Currently there is a prohibition on altering the genetic structure of the cell of an embryo. There has been no call from the scientific community to be allowed to alter embryos in this way. Nonetheless, the Draft Bill omits any reference to prohibiting this practice. The Committee declined to criticise this omission, and simply recommended that the Government clarify their intention.

7. Welfare of the Child: The Committee agreed that when considering whether to allow somebody to undergo IVF treatment the welfare of the child should not be the paramount concern; it is sufficient for it to simply be one of the considerations. (This is despite the fact that in placing a child for adoption the welfare of the child must be the paramount concern.) The Committees reasoning seemed to be based on the idea that the welfare of the child was not the normal reason for having a child. However, this ignores the unique nature of IVF treatment. This is no longer a private act which the Government should leave to private individuals. Like adoption, IVF involves the intervention and agreement of a third party, making it a social or public act. The Committee also approved of the HFEA’s policy of having a presumption in favour of treatment unless there is evidence that ‘serious harm’ will be caused, rather than putting the burden on those requesting treatment to show that harm is unlikely to be caused to any resulting child.

8. The need for a father: One of the most controversial parts of the Draft Bill was the removal of the requirement to consider a child’s need for a father when considering the child’s welfare in an IVF application. Again, the Committee recommended this be put to a free vote in both houses due to it’s contentious nature. This move by the Government seems to be a reaction to the legalisation of gay adoption and civil partnerships, whereby the Government have seemingly decided that it is not important for a child to have a parent of either sex. Although the recommendation of a free vote is good news, the Committee also recommended an amendment of their own. They recommended that the provision regarding the need for a father be retained, but in a form that made it clear the ‘father’ role could be filled by a person of either sex. Basically, they felt the need for two parents was important (although not so important that single people should be denied IVF treatment), but it was not important whether these two parents were male and female, both female, or (in the case of surrogacy) both male. This completely removes any value placed on the unique and different impact that mothers and fathers have on their children’s lives and denigrates both the role of a mother and the role of a father in claiming that either can be fulfilled just as well by a member of the opposite sex.

9. Parenthood in cases involving assisted reproduction: The Committee talked about the Draft Bill seeing parenthood as a legal responsibility rather than a biological relationship, calling it a ‘new approach’ or ‘concept’ to parenthood. There are provision in the Bill so that unmarried or samesex partners of the person receiving treatment can be conferred with legal parenthood when they are ‘treated together’. The Committee also agreed that, whilst parents of children who were donor conceived should be encouraged to tell their children of the fact, there should be no legal requirement for them to do so. These decisions are hard to reconcile with the Committee’s recommendation that the age of access to the donor register should be lowered to 16, because it is important for young adults to know who their parents are during this period of development. The Committee also recommended that anybody planning an intimate relationship should be able to gain information about their partner to check they are not unknowingly related through a donor (in order to avoid an incestuous relationship). This provision is presumably of little use to those who do not know they were donor conceived.

10. Sperm sorting kits: The Committee recommended the removal of the provision making it an offence to advertise or supply a ‘sperm sorting kit (used for sex selection), not because they disagreed in principle, but because they thought enforcement may be unworkable in practice. (Of course, the same criticism could be levelled against domestic burglaries considering the detection rate.)

11. Surrogacy: The Bill liberalises the law concerning surrogacy, allowing advertising and the payment of a range of fees. The Committee did not feel this was a step towards the commercialisation of surrogacy, but felt it struck the right balance, maintaining an ‘appropriate response to infertility for some couples.’

12. Sperm distributing internet companies: The Committee also approved of the provision that brought certain internet companies under the regulation of the HFEA. These internet companies deliver donated sperm to women at home for self-insemination. The Committee declined to discourage such practices.