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  • Britain's HFEA Is Caught in the Middle
  • Alastair V. Campbell

The publication in March of this year of Human Reproductive Technologies and the Law, a report by the House of Commons' Science and Technology Committee, provoked a powerful reaction in the British press. More extreme reactions described it as a "Frankenstein" report, while less violent comments saw it as excessively libertarian, or simply as lacking any substantial ethical basis for its conclusions.

The reactions stemmed from three of the report's conclusions: that a total prohibition on reproductive cloning has not been justified by ethical arguments (although the current concerns about welfare and safety warrant a temporary ban), that the welfare of the child provision in the current Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act is discriminatory against the infertile and should be dropped, and that sex selection of embryos should be considered for social, not only for medical, reasons. The report also recommends that a recent ruling on removing the anonymity of gamete donors should be revisited and that the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, which oversees all reproductive technology and embryo research in the United Kingdom, should be reduced to a technical regulatory authority. Ethical policy issues would become the domain of a new parliamentary ethics committee.

These are certainly radical suggestions, most of them echoing the well-publicized views of some British bioethicists, notably John Harris and Julian Savulescu. But a closer look at the report suggests that any fears that the parliament has turned radically libertarian are premature. House of Commons select committees, such as the Science and Technology Committee, are made up of representatives of the main parties in the House, with the majority on the committee (and the chair) drawn from the party in power. The Science and Technology Committee has eleven members—seven Labour, three Conservative, and one Liberal Democrat. Of these, one Labour member took no part in the proceedings because of government duties, and five of the remaining ten members (four of whom were Labour) dissented from the report. In any case, select committee reports do not define government policy (though they may help to inform it), and the Labour Government has made it clear that this report does not reflect its views.

So what is the report's significance? Paradoxically, it poses a threat, not to conservative, but to moderate and liberal opinion. Britain has been a pioneer in the careful regulation of reproductive technology, following the early identification of the ethical issues by the Warnock Report in 1984. It still holds a unique place in Europe, providing a template for many other regulatory regimes and yet representing a liberal position on key issues, such as the creation of embryos for research and the use of embryonic stem cells, including those coming from cloned embryos. In recent years this position has been under heavy fire from groups in the European Union who want to see member states unite in a ban on embryo creation and embryo research. The United Kingdom has resisted this, pointing to the moderating position held by the HFEA, whereby account is given to what Warnock called "respect" for the human embryo while permitting some carefully regulated uses of embryonic material. This is perhaps a typical British compromise—some would say a fudge!—which prevents a free-for-all in reproductive medicine (like the relatively unregulated market in the United States) yet enables the government to support and encourage key areas of research currently banned in the United States and in parts of Europe.

The rulings of the HFEA have not always been popular. They sometimes seem to support public opinion (as in their stance against sex selection), but have sometimes been at odds with it. An example of the latter was the refusal to allow Diane Blood to use her dead husband's sperm, as he had not given his written consent. The HFEA simply applied the law, but the public saw it as inhumane. Throughout, the HFEA has consistently tried to balance considerations of child welfare against procreative autonomy, in the spirit of the legislation under which it was established. Now it finds itself under fire, not just from the conservative lobby on these issues, but...


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Archived 2012
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