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Legal Restrictions on the Use of Reproductive Technologies: An Examination of IVF Laws in the UK

When Louise Brown was delivered at Oldham and District General Hospital in 1978, she became the first person to be born as a result of the use of in vitro fertilisation (IVF) techniques. Her birth drew attention from all over the world and gave immense hope to those who were encountering difficulties to conceive naturally. The development of in vitro fertilisation technology not only opened the doors for couples who are struggling with infertility but for same-sex couples and individuals who were not looking for long-term partners as well. As a result, IVF quickly became popular in the United Kingdom and by 1990 there were 64 licensed centres across the country, providing IVF treatments to over 10,000 patients.

Following the birth of Louise Brown, the public expressed concerns over the seemingly uncontrolled advance of artificial reproductive technology. The development of IVF techniques enabled surrogacy whilst opening a floodgate of ethical questions such as:

  • the embryo’s legal status and protections

  • issues of embryonic gender selection

  • donor selection criteria

  • potential abuse of the technology by the human trafficking industry

In 1982, the government set up the Warnock Committee, under the chairmanship of Baroness Mary Warnock, to inquire into human fertilisation and embryology. While Baroness Warnock herself was a philosopher, the Committee was comprised of leading scientists and health professionals. The key work of the Committee was a report, published in 1984 with the aim of defining the status of the embryo. The Committee concluded that embryos have a “special status” which entitles them to protection in law.

In 1990, the UK Parliament introduced the first Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act. The Act led to the formation of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority which became in charge of embryo research as well as the monitoring and licensing of fertility clinics. The Act was mainly concerned with ensuring the regulation of three aspects of assisted reproduction:

  1. “the creation, care, and use of human embryos outside the body of a mother;

  2. the collection, care and use of donated human sperm and eggs and

  3. the storage of these human gametes and embryos".

The Act defined a number of important terms in assisted reproduction such as "embryos" (which they referred to as those that have reached the two-cell zygote stage) and "mother" - the woman who has carried the embryo. Under this Act, a woman who has donated an egg but has not carried the embryo in her body to full term is not recognised as the mother of the child, with the exception in the case of adoption. In the years following the establishment of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act (1990) a few amendments were made by the British Parliament.

Under the 1990 Act, scientists were permitted to conduct human embryological research for three purposes which were to:

  1. investigate the causes of miscarriage and congenital diseases

  2. advance infertility treatments and contraceptive techniques

  3. detect any abnormalities within an embryo before it is implanted

The UK Parliament made amendments to these regulations in 2001 to expand the use of human embryological research. The amendment allowed human embryonic research to cover areas such as serious diseases and embryo development. In 2000, the HFE Act of 1990 was amended to allow the use of a deceased man’s sperm in ex vivo fertilisation. Ex vivo, in contrast to in vitro (as used in IVF), means that the procedure must take place outside of an organism’s body.

The most recent amendment to the Act resulted in the establishment of the HFE Act of 2008. This Act, along with the amended HFE Act of 1990, currently serves as the primary legal instrument regulating the care and use of human embryos in the United Kingdom. A number of key points were raised in the HEF Act of 2008. To begin with, the Act banned the sex selection of embryos for non-medical reasons. This means that under the current law, the only permissible case in which a parent can choose the gender of their child is if they are to avoid a serious disease that affects only male or female members of the family. This Act also recognised same-sex couples as legal parents to children who were born through surrogacy. In addition, the use of language in the 2008 Act suggests that it recognises effective parenting to be non-gender related. For instance, it replaced “the need for a father” with “the need for supportive parenting” in one of its provisions on the duty of parents. The Act also further ensured that all human embryos outside the body are subject to strict regulation.

The legal implications of current reproductive technologies continue to be a subject of fierce debate. Most recently, studies have been focusing on the potential impacts of IVF on children born through this technology such as mental health and psychological disorders. Nonetheless, both human embryo research centres and fertility clinics today must comply with the amended HFE Act of 1990 and the HFE Act of 2008. Furthermore, the regulations of these technologies continue to be supervised under the Human Fertilisation & Embryology Authority.


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