Failed attempt to block UK hybrid embryo licences

11 December 2008

UK campaign groups the Christian Legal Centre (CLC) and Comment on Reproductive Ethics (CORE) have lost their bid against the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA). They sought leave from the High Court to bring a test case application for judicial review over the HFEA’s approval in principle of the use of animal eggs in the creation of cytoplasmic hybrid embryos for stem cell research (see previous news), and its subsequent decisions to grant licences to researchers Newcastle University and King's College London allowing them to create cytoplasmic hybrid embryos for stem cell research (see previous news).

Challenging these licences, the campaigners asserted that the HFEA had operated outside the current law in deciding to grant licences for research involving the creation of animal human hybrid embryos; the UK Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, which has now passed the House of Commons (see previous news) and will come into force in 2009, was still being drawn up at the time. CORE and CLC argued that under the Human Fertilisation and Embryology (HFE) Act 1990 the definition of a human embryo prohibited the creation of animal human hybrids (because they are not human) and that “even if they were not prohibited, the licenses were neither necessary nor desirable in light of recent developments with adult stem cell research where the real progress in finding cures to serious illnesses is being made” (see press release). However, the HFEA maintained it was right to regulate the research because the Human Fertilisation and Embryology (HFE) Act 1990 (which the new Bill amends) stipulated that the regulator was able to interpret guidance as science progressed so as not to slow down research. 

Rejecting the application, High Court judge Mrs Justice Dobbs ruled that it was "totally without merit" (see BBC news). The HFEA said that it was pleased by the court’s decision, adding: "We always believed that we acted lawfully and responsibly when considering these research licence applications" (see HFEA statement). Speaking for the CLC, Andrea Minichiello Williams commented: “It is ironic that the HFEA was set up to be an independent body concerned with fundamental ethical questions and for the protection of public interest. Yet when public interest bodies wish to challenge controversial ethical decisions there is no internal means of doing so, whereas scientists refused a licence can ask the HFEA for reconsideration” (see press release).

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