Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill clears House of Commons

24 October 2008

The UK Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill had its long awaited report and third reading in the House of Commons on 22 October 2008 (see BBC news). Although MPs from all parties were given a free vote on the amendments, there was general frustration at the lack of time devoted to the Bill (less than four hours) and the way in which amendments had been timetabled, which effectively prevented substantive debate on clauses relating to abortion, or the need for a father.

Although a number of amendments went to a vote, there were comfortable Government majorities rejecting all amendments seeking to limit the scope of the Bill. There were particularly heated exchanges regarding the repeal of the Human Reproductive Cloning Act 2001 which established the ban in the UK on human reproductive cloning. Dawn Primarolo explained that although the Bill continued to provide ‘a clear prohibition on human reproductive cloning and the genetic modification of gametes or embryos that are to be used for treatment purposes’, an exception might be made in the future for the processing of embryos and eggs to avoid the risk of serious mitochondrial diseases (a wide range of rare diseases including certain types of dementia, stroke and brain atrophy).

Before such regulations are enacted, a further wide ranging consultation will take place, not least because the use of these technologies raise issues about the status of a woman who donates only mitochondria. The Bill now provides that in certain cases, the requirement for donor consent can be waived where embryos are to be used for research, so to provide that existing holdings of tissue taken for research can continue to be used for that purpose. This is particularly relevant where disability or disease is likely to result in mental incapacity or where it affects children who are never able to consent for themselves.

These final amendments to the Bill now need to be ratified by the House of Lords before the Bill can gain Royal Assent. No date has yet been set for its return to the House of Lords.