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BMJ. 2007 August 4; 335(7613): 224–225.
PMCID: PMC1939747

Would-be parents need safeguards from unscrupulous fertility clinics, says report

Professional guidelines are urgently needed to prevent patients who are seeking fertility treatment from being exploited by unscrupulous clinics, according to a parliamentary committee.

The Joint Committee on the Draft Human Tissue and Embryos Bill rejected core proposals in the government's white paper on fertility research and regulation and laid out key ethical recommendations.

The committee's chairman, the Labour MP Phil Willis, began with reproach for private clinics that offer in vitro fertilisation (IVF).

“There is much anecdotal evidence, some of it from members of this committee, that there has been abuse of patients seeking help in private clinics,” he said.

“We recommend that all patients be given fully costed treatment plans, and, given recent events, including a recent high profile court case, we think the Royal College of Obstetrics and Gynaecology should produce professional guidelines to protect patients from unproved treatments.”

The committee said that some patients were being sold treatments that were “exorbitant in cost” and that provided “no practical chance of delivering a pregnancy to that particular patient.”

Mr Willis has also dealt a blow to the Department of Health by rejecting its central proposal that the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority and the Human Tissue Authority be merged to form the Regulatory Authority for Tissue and Embryos.

He said, “There are some very, very, serious issues for the government to take on board. The government will find it very difficult to bring in the current [draft] bill with amendments given the fact that it was not able to provide any real evidence to support its view that the two bodies be merged.”

The committee's report notes that although the Human Tissue Authority was “concerned entirely with the policing of consent” the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority has “to deal with the much more complex moral and ethical issues surrounding the use of human embryos.”

Robin Lovell-Badge, of the Medical Research Council, said, “I fully support their rejection of the merger. This would create a chimeric body far more troubling than any that I can imagine making in my lab.”

Mr Willis also called for donor conception to be automatically mentioned on a child's birth certificate. Fellow committee member Lord Mackay said, “It's an act of deception by the state for them to go through their life without knowing their origin.”

Mr Willis added, “If parents wish to deceive their children, that's their decision but we feel the state should not be complicit in this.” He added that it would probably be “legally unenforceable” to make parents tell the children if they had been conceived using donated sperm.

The report rejects the use of selection of an embryo's sex for non-medical reasons. It does not, however, list what reasonable medical reasons would be. “We should allow the regulator to decide what they should be,” said Mr Willis.

As predicted, the committee was also critical of the government's approach to the regulation of interspecies embryos created for research purposes (BMJ 2007;334:1074 doi: 10.1136/bmj.39222.535255.BE). Its report argues that ministers have created a false distinction between “true” hybrids and other forms of interspecies embryo, with the former banned but the latter permitted.

“We could not find any reasons at all to justify the view that true hybrids were any different from other types of hybrid,” said Mr Willis. “Therefore all types of hybrid should be allowed to get research licences.”

The neurologist Chris Shaw, a professor at King's College, London, said, “The committee's criticism of the white paper banning interspecies embryo research will be welcomed by scientists and patients alike.”

The BMA's head of science and ethics, Vivienne Nathanson, said, “The BMA does not believe that a single body can have the necessary expertise to make important decisions relating to IVF, embryology, pathology, anatomy, storage of tissue, transplantation, and public display of human material. We are delighted that the committee shares our views, and we hope that the government will abandon these flawed proposals.”

A detailed response to the report is expected from the government within two months.


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