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The government's human embryology and fertilisation bill had its second reading in the House of Lords this week, amid concerns that it would enable lesbian couples to have fertility treatment more easily. Some groups have also objected to the fact that it allows the creation of “interspecies embryos” for research purposes.
The bill drops the requirement that fertility specialists, when considering whether a woman is suitable for fertility treatment, have to take account of the need of the child for a father. This has not prevented lesbians from accessing in vitro fertilisation in the past, but its removal will deal with government concerns that the clause could amount to discrimination in the provision of goods and services.
The bill also recognises same sex couples as legal parents, in keeping with changes in the law allowing civil partnerships.
Introducing the bill on Tuesday in the House of Lords, the health minister Ara Darzi explained that the government wanted to ensure that the law remained effective and fit for purpose in the 21st century. The bill would help maintain the UK's position as a world leader in groundbreaking research into the treatment of serious diseases, he said, including through embryonic stem cell research.
Lord Darzi said, “Technology has moved on, and so have attitudes. There are, for example, novel ways of creating embryos for research, a much increased capacity to screen embryos for serious genetic diseases, and at the same time legal recognition for different family forms.”
The bill would ensure that all embryos, whether inside or outside the body, were covered by regulation. The existing law covers only human fertilisation and does not adequately cover emerging processes for creating embryos, he said.
The House of Lords discussed proposals to clone embryos from women who have mitochondrial diseases with donated mitochondria from another woman and sperm from the first woman's partner, thus ensuring that the diseases were not passed on to the child.
Lord Jenkin of Roding said he was convinced that such work was necessary for the advancement of research—but that it needed to be properly regulated.
He said, “This is not only blue sky research to try to unfold the mysteries of life . . . but to provide ways of curing some of the most debilitating, damaging, and unpleasant diseases from which the human race suffers.
“That therefore justifies such research, subject to proper ethical and regulatory control.”
But the suggestion that children might be brought into the world without a father caused concern in the house.
“As I understand the process, male material is still necessary for the procreation of human life,” said the Tory peer Lord Mackay of Clashfern. “If it is necessary it seems extraordinarily undesirable, the very moment when the child comes into existence, to leave that out of account altogether.”
The Liberal Democrat peer Baroness Tonge welcomed the proposal for interspecies embryos, whereby the nucleus of a human somatic cell is implanted into an animal cell from which the nucleus has been removed. Using animal cells for this would be much better than precious human ones, she said.
The bill would ensure that any such embryo must not be kept or used after 14 days and that it must not be implanted in a woman's uterus, she said.
Meanwhile the Labour peer Baroness Jay of Paddington welcomed moves to tackle genetically inherited diseases: “If assisted reproduction techniques can help to diminish the appalling burden of inherited genetic diseases, such as Duchenne muscular dystrophy or Huntington's chorea, it will rightly seem a medical and social triumph.”
However, the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, believed that the bill was “rooted in a consumerist mentality in which the science that allows something to happen is transformed into the right to have it.”
He told peers, “The ‘cogito ergo sum' of Descartes—‘I think therefore I am'—becomes the consumerist mantra ‘I shop therefore I am' or ‘Tesco ergo sum.'”
The debate was adjourned late on Tuesday after one member, Lord Brennan, collapsed moments after making his speech. On Tuesday, as the BMJ went to press, his condition was stable. The debate was due to continue on Wednesday.