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Tuesday, 10 July, 2001, 13:00 GMT 14:00 UK
Fertility: a regulatory minefield
Scientists are constantly developing new ways of helping couples have a baby
Scientists are constantly developing new ways of helping couples have a baby
It is estimated that one in six couples have difficulties conceiving and the boundaries of what is possible are constantly being pushed forward.

In recent days, techniques that raise the possibility of choosing your baby's sex or even fertilising a egg without sperm have captured the headlines.

But can those who regulate fertility treatment keep up with the scientific juggernaut? BBC News Online investigates.


When the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) was set up 10 years ago, part of its remit was to license and monitor human embryo research.

It has over 70 licensed clinics in the UK where couples can go for help when they are trying to conceive.

The body has committees of scientists, ethics experts and lay people, who it can consult about proposed developments.


The HFEA doesn't make decisions - they just sit on the fence

Dr Mohamed Taranissi,
Fertility expert
But science is moving so fast that the HFEA is struggling to keep up. None of the current regulations cover the development of "sperm sorting" - where sperm that will produce a female embryo is separated out.

And an HFEA spokesperson admitted that the law governing assisted conception in the UK had not foreseen the possibility of fertilisation without sperm.

Recent developments have led to discussions between the HFEA and the government over what new legalisation might be necessary.

But some say the HFEA fails to react quickly enough to developments.

Peter Garrett, research and education director of the pro-life charity LIFE said: "The HFEA needs to be scrapped and rebuilt from scratch. It is already creaking at the seams."

Dr Mohamed Taranissi, who runs London's Assisted Reproduction and Gynaecology Centre, said: "The problem with the HFEA is that whenever there is a new development, because of their position, we expect them to make decisions.

"But the HFEA doesn't make decisions - they just sit on the fence."

Dr Taranissi says it can take three of four years for an issue to be addressed.

James Yeandel, a spokesman for the authority, said the codes by which the HFEA abides are robust enough, and legislation flexible enough to deal with most new advances.

And he said where new legislation was needed the government had demonstrated its will to act.

"I think the legislation has been incredibly robust over the last 10 years. It has been flexible when required," he said.

Modernisation call

However, Professor Ian Craft, of the London Fertility Centre, says the Act which governs what the HFEA needs to be revisited.

"That was passed in 1990. Now we're in 2001. Why are they trying to approach things from 1990 in 2001?"

He added: "But I would like to think they had a flexible system, because there are new developments all the time."

Concerns have been raised about the moral implications of pushing the boundaries of technology.

But Professor Craft said that, despite recent developments, there was no need to set a limit on what could happen.

He feels each clinic, as part of its HFEA license, should have an ethics committee, to decide in which cases treatment should go ahead.

Hope

He said his clinic did treat single women, lesbian couples and did offer surrogacy, but in each case, counsellors talked to the patients to ensure that the welfare of the child was guaranteed.

Professor Craft added the scientific world had to be careful about telling the public about new techniques.

"We don't want a backlash, if further down the line in the research, something goes wrong.

"To give infertile couples hope is one thing. To give them false hopes is quite another."

Dr Taranissi said he felt a body, which should be the HFEA, should set down the moral guidelines in which doctors and scientists could operate.

"The role of the scientist is to work on new processes, and then it's up to the society to say how you can use them."

And Peter Garrett, of LIFE, said in the rush to develop new techniques, people failed to think about the ethical or moral implications.

He added: "I think they are a serious threat to natural reproduction. Soon, that will become just one of many choices."

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See also:

10 Jul 01 | Health
Eggs fertilised without sperm
05 Jul 01 | Fertility conference 2001
Concern over baby sex 'guarantee'
05 Jul 01 | Health
Why choose a baby's sex?
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