Future legal status of human embryos questioned

11 January 2011

The chair of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), Professor Lisa Jardine, has spoken out against any future attempts to repeal the current legal protection for human embryos.

The Human Fertility and Embryology Act enshrines this status and requires special regulation of all medical uses and research involving human embryos, with licences granted only for important applications where alternatives (such as animal embryos) are not feasible. This oversight is currently provided by the HFEA – although an announcement last year revealed that the HFEA was to close, with transfer of its regulatory functions to other bodies (see previous news).
The Academy of Medical Sciences (AMS) today released a new report recommending changes to speed up the approval process for health research applications amid concerns that excessive regulation is impeding scientific progress (see previous news). The new overarching Health Research Agency (HRA) proposed by the review would assume the function now performed by the HFEA in governing research involving human embryos.
Before this review was published, HFEA Chair Professor Lisa Jardine told the Guardian newspaper: "My worry is that to achieve a consistent approach to research licensing, the safeguarding of the 'special status of the embryo' will be lost…I very much doubt that the general public, let alone those groups who are fundamentally opposed to such research on moral grounds, would wish to see this happen without full debate".
Opponents fear that the special status of such embryos, whilst currently protected in law, could be compromised in the long-term if the proposed new regulator had a conflict of interest by way of a mandate to increase research application approvals.

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