Many consider the UK approach to human biotechnologies to be a model of comprehensive and responsible policy. Since its creation in 1990, a government agency called the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) has set and enforced regulations for assisted reproductive technology and research involving human embryos. Observers often contrast this situation to the "Wild West" in the United States, where regulation and public oversight of these technologies are minimal. Here, Dr. David King gives his views on government proposals that would reorganize the HFEA and set important new rules. King is a former molecular biologist and director of Human Genetics Alert, an independent watchdog group based in London. (Baker, 2008, 87)
Significant changes in the reproductive technology, Corporate Responsibility and Family Life Law UK
In December, the UK government published a set of proposals that would reform the Human Fertilization and Embryology Act. The legislation dates from 1990; in recent years scientific developments and changes in social attitudes have made it increasingly outdated. The government's proposals follow a public consultation on the law in 2005, and precede publication later this year of draft legislation, which will be scrutinized by parliamentary committees before coming to a vote. The proposals include merging the HFEA and the Human Tissue Authority, which regulates non-reproductive human tissues, into a new Regulatory Authority on Tissues and Embryos. In addition, they include important new rulings on a number of genetic and reproductive technologies. (Baker, 2008, 87)
Most of the headlines about the proposed changes have focused on the government's intention to make it easier for single women and lesbian couples to access IVF. The 1990 law requires doctors to consider the welfare of any child born through IVF, "including the need for a [social] father." The government has decided to remove this phrase, since it believes that social attitudes have changed, and because this constraint is not imposed in natural reproduction.
Another unambiguously good decision is for a ban on social sex selection. Until now, the HFEA's refusal to allow sex selection was a matter of agency policy, and contained a serious loophole: it did not apply to sperm-sorting technologies. The proposed ban will include sex selection for so-called family balancing, despite a recommendation by the Parliamentary Science and Technology Committee that this be exempted.
The proposal cites the strength of public opposition to social sex selection, as well as concern about the possible effects of allowing sex selection in the UK on countries where there is a clear preference for male children. (Bansal, 2000, 717)
The government's decision about inheritable genetic modification is both encouraging and worrying. The proposed new law bans the genetic modification of sperm, eggs, or embryos for reproductive purposes. In other words, it prohibits the creation of genetically modified children-a very important step forward.
But the government also proposes to allow scientists to genetically engineer human embryos for research purposes. This is a disturbing and seemingly cynical move. What is the point of developing and perfecting techniques that would be ethically and socially disastrous ...