The House of Lords debates the revised Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill

21 December 2007

Following scrutiny by the Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament over the summer, the re-named Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill was introduced into the House of Lords in early November. Previous plans to merge the regulation of tissue and embryos and form a single regulatory authority, RATE, have now been scrapped and the significant reforms introduced by the Bill include extending the regulatory scope of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority to cover all human embryos created outside the body. Thus inter-species embryos may be created for research, provided that such use is justified as being necessary and desirable, that the proposed use is licensed and appropriate safeguards adopted (such that embryos cannot be retained beyond 14 days of development or allowed to continue developing in either a woman or animal). The Bill imposes a statutory ban on sex selection for non-medical reasons and codifies the basis for screening and selecting embryos both for treatment and research. This is significant given technological advances which enable fetal sex to be identified in the first trimester using non-invasive techniques.

Since the Bill will take effect by amending the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 (HFEA), there was substantive debate at second reading concerning proposed amendments to existing abortion law (since the HFEA amends the Abortion Act 1967). This is relevant because the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee recently considered whether the extent of technological change since 1990 warranted changes to the time limits for, and reform of the process of termination of pregnancy, the majority report concluding that there is a strong case for reform. Other widely debated areas at second reading concerned the removal of the ‘need for a father’ provisions from existing legislation. There was also questioning of the need for regulatory reform of embryo research, particularly interspecies hybrids (so to facilitate the production of stem cells) given recent reports of research which bypass the need for embryonic cells by reprogramming adult somatic cells to convert to stem cells.

All these topics were revisited in the more structured committee stage debates. Amongst the topics covered were the regulation of cell lines by the Bill; the regulation of human/animal hybrids and difficulties around framing a workable definition of interspecies embryo; the extent to which saviour siblings can and should be created to treat serious disease in a sibling and the extent to which this is ethically justifiable; whether cells or embryos from a child not able to give consent can be used for research, and mandatory counselling for prospective parents of donor conceived/IVF children.

Significantly the Government agreed to reconsider the definition of animal/human hybrids and the regulation of cell lines. An updated version of the Bill is likely to be published in advance of the Lord’s Report debate on 15 January 2008.