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Last Updated: Tuesday, 16 August 2005, 00:46 GMT 01:46 UK
Q&A: Fertility laws overhaul
IVF sample
The review will consider many aspects of embryo research
The government is launching a review of the laws governing fertility research and embryo treatment.

BBC News looks at why the existing legislation is being reviewed.

What is the existing situation?

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act became law in 1990.

It has provided a framework for the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) ever since.

What has changed?

A great deal has happened in the last 15 years in terms of both scientific developments and social changes.

There are many areas of fertility treatment and embryo research which were not even dreamed of when the Act was written, including the ability to detect genetic conditions in embryos before they are implanted.

Scientists also have the ability to select an embryo which is a genetic match for an existing child with a life-limiting condition - as in the case of Zain Hashmi who has a rare blood disorder.

It is also possible to clone human embryos, and the HFEA has issued two licences allowing UK researchers to do this, decisions deplored by some campaign groups.

Are the issues which will be considered purely about the science?

No. But the scientific developments have raised ethical and moral questions.

One example is pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD).

While PGD is currently allowed for genetic conditions, such as Huntington's disease, the HFEA only last week launched a consultation on whether the procedure should be allowed for conditions where the presence of a gene in an embryo means the resulting child might only develop conditions such as breast cancer late, if at all.

There are also social issues which have arisen around IVF, such as the requirement under the HFE Act for a child's need for a father to be considered.

Currently, some clinics will offer IVF to single women or lesbian couples provided the child would have a male role model, but others refuse.

The review will consider if the wording of the Act should be changed to take such social changes into account and not require clinics to consider the role of the father.

Is there agreement about what should happen next?

No - and that is why the government is launching this consultation on the future shape of the HFE Act.

The HFEA - and some clinicians - want a new Act which sets out broad principles, allowing it to adapt as new technologies and techniques emerge.

But critics, such as the group Comment on Reproductive Ethics (CORE) and some clinicians, feel the authority is not the right body to oversee all aspects of fertility care and regulation.

Josephine Quintavalle of CORE said the HFEA should act as a regulator for clinics, while a separate body should be set up to consider ethical issues.

And last year, fertility expert Lord Robert Winston suggested the HFEA should be scrapped, branding it "incompetent".

Fertility laws set for overhaul
16 Aug 05 |  Health

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