The checks that couples wanting IVF have to undergo to ensure they are fit to be parents are being overhauled.
The law requires doctors to consider the welfare of any child conceived
The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority is launching a public consultation on how far clinics should probe potential parents.
Legally, clinics must consider the welfare of any child born through fertility treatment, but protocol varies.
The updated guidelines due this summer should unify the process, it is hoped.
Fertility experts hope that the process will be made less bureaucratic.
The consultation process will continue until April to inform the summer guidance, which will be the first revision since 1991.
It will focus on three main areas:
- The kind of enquiries to be made of prospective parents - whether medical or social and which other professionals should be involved
- The factors to be taken into account in the assessment - whether these should include medical risks, physical risks, psychological risks and social factors
- Whether patients undergoing different kinds of treatment need different checks and information - such as those using donor conception
Currently, clinics judge who will have parental responsibility for the child, whether the parents-to-be are physically fit and any risk of harm, neglect or abuse to the child.
When donated sperm or eggs are used, clinics are expected to consider the child's potential need to know about their origins and the family attitudes towards such a child.
Some do this by interviewing the infertile couple, while others also check with the couple's GP and social services.
How rigorous the process is depends on the individual clinics.
The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 also requires doctors to consider the need for a father for the child.
Angela McNab, chief executive of the HFEA, said: "From speaking to patients and clinics we know that there are some specific areas in the current system where there is scope for improvement.
"Some clinics find it difficult to get GPs to respond to the welfare of the child assessment form, either because the GP does not fully understand what is being asked of them or because they are unwilling to complete the questionnaire.
"Some patients feel unfairly treated compared with those who conceive naturally.
"By involving all the people concerned with the process...we hope to learn more about what works well at the moment and where the system could be improved."
Suzi Leather, chair of the HFEA, said: "We have to strike a difficult balance between the interests of prospective parents and the needs of children."
Dr Richard Kennedy, secretary of the British Fertility Society, welcomed the revision, but said ultimately the law should be scrapped and the decision whether to treat left to clinical judgement.
"The current provisions for the assessment for the welfare of the child are now outdated.
"They were drawn up over 15 years ago at a time when public attitudes and concerns about IVF were quite different.
"The current provisions are over-bureaucratic and in need of change. They seem to single out infertility couples.
"Couples without a child and who don't have infertility do not have to go and seek permission and have an assessment to ensure that they are able to be a parent.
"The assessment should be part of good medical practice. We believe good medical practice is sufficient to meet the welfare requirements of the child.
"I do not think we need a law over that."
Parliament is reviewing the need for such legislation over the next few years.
Dr Simon Fishel, fertility expert and director of Care Fertility, said: "There is confusion and concern.
"One clinic may turn a couple away. They are free to go to another clinic.
"Another clinic may review the parameters and say OK, she has had serious postnatal depression but now it is under control, we'll treat them
"Different clinics are making different value judgements on these sort of social parameters and that's why I think it needs to come out of the IVF context."
Clare Brown, chief executive of Infertility Network UK, said: "We are hoping that this review will produce clear guidelines that will both protect the welfare of the child and also respect the dignity of the couples concerned."