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Last Updated: Tuesday, 16 August 2005, 12:07 GMT 13:07 UK
How fertility laws might change
image of ICSI
Scientific advances might make some of the current rules outdated
The government is launching a review of the laws governing fertility research and embryo treatment.

BBC News website looks at the laws and how they might change following the review.

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.

The HFEA's principal tasks are to license and monitor clinics carrying out in vitro fertilisation, donor insemination and human embryo research.

However, because it is 15 years old, there are many areas of fertility treatment and embryo research which were not even dreamed of when the Act was written.

That is why the government has decided to ask the public how the law should change. The main issue the review has considered appear below.

THE ROLE OF THE HFEA

The HFEA has overseen the provision of assisted fertility services in clinics since 1991, and has regulated the work those clinics do.

But lobby groups such as the Comment on Reproductive Ethics has questioned whether the HFEA has the power to make ethical decisions.

Many want such tricky issues left to parliament.

It has been proposed that the HFEA and the Human Tissue Authority will merge by April 2008 to become a single body with responsibility across the range of human tissues and cells, including sperm, eggs, blood and organs.

The new body would be known as RATE (Regulatory Authority for Tissue and Embryos).

USE AND STORAGE OF EMBRYOS

Ministers will ask what should be done with embryos stored after couples undergo IVF treatment but then split up and disagree about their use.

SEX SELECTION

The right of parents to choose the gender of their children will also be discussed.

Currently, sex selection is not allowed for non-medical reasons. Parents can select to have a boy or a girl if they know that they carry genes that affect a specific sex and that they could pass on to their offspring.

A controversial Commons Science and Technology Committee report said more decisions on fertility treatment should be made by patients and their doctors.

Some say parents should be able to select sex for family balancing.

However, ministers were split on these issues.

The public will be asked whether sex selection should be allowed for family balancing purposes.

SCREENING FOR DISEASES

Screening for genetic conditions, called preimplantation genetic diagnosis, or PGD, was first introduced in 1990 as an experimental procedure.

It involves removing a cell from an embryo at the eight-cell stage of development, when it is around three-days old, and testing it for genetic disorders so that an unaffected embryo can be implanted into the mother's womb.

The HFEA has already given licences for screening to people carrying the genetic form of cystic fibrosis, Huntington's disease and a type of bowel cancer that runs in families.

But there have been claims for it to be expanded for other conditions, even if they are not present from birth.

The review will aim to gauge opinion on this.

SAVIOUR SIBLINGS

The creation of "designer babies" to treat sick siblings will be discussed. Currently the HFEA reviews each case.

It says all other possibilities of treatment and sources of tissue for the affected child must have been explored and the child's condition must be severe or life-threatening.

Embryos must not be genetically modified to provide a match. Each couple using these techniques must receive counselling and the parent cannot be the intended recipient.

Government is asking whether stricter laws are needed or if it should be up to the patients and their clinicians to decide.

WELFARE OF THE CHILD

According to the current guidance, fertility clinics are expected to take into account a number of factors which could have an impact upon the welfare of the child who might be born as a result of treatment.

Clinics are also expected to write to the individual's or couple's general practitioner to ask whether, from the patients' medical records, the GP has any reason to believe that any child resulting from the treatment might be at risk.

There have been calls for ministers to make changes to rules which can make it more difficult for lesbians and single women to have IVF babies. Some clinics will treat any woman provided the child would have a male role model, but others refuse.

Also, people argue that no such checks and rules apply when a couple conceive naturally.

Government said it wants to find out public opinion before deciding whether to tighten, relax or leave unchanged the current rules.

INTERNET SPERM BANKS

Officials are concerned about the health risks posed by firms which despatch fresh sperm donations to women for DIY home inseminations.

The fear is that the donations may not be properly screened for infections such as HIV, which is always done in registered clinics.

The review may lead to a ban or tighter controls for online sperm banks.

FUTURE DEVELOPMENTS

It is likely that we will see more scientific developments in the future that will raise ethical and safety concerns.

For example, one day it might be possible to make sperm and eggs (gametes) from other bodily cells. In theory, this might allow two women to create a child that is genetically theirs.

The public will be asked for its views on how the law should be updated to take into account new and future technological developments such as these.

The government said it had no plans to allow artificial gametes to be used for assisted reproduction and envisaged that any use would be for research purposes only at present.


SEE ALSO:
Lesbian couple want 'rare IVF'
19 Apr 05 |  Health
Woman has dead husband's IVF baby
30 Sep 04 |  Wiltshire


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