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Q&A: The human tissue and embryo bill

Catherine McDiarmid-Watt | Monday, May 21, 2007 | 0 comments

David Batty explains the developments in embryo research proposed by the new bill

Thursday May 17, 2007 - Guardian Unlimited

What is the bill about?
The draft bill will overhaul the law on fertility treatment, such as in vitro fertilisation (IVF), and embryo research, including human-animal embryos. It follows a government white paper, published last December, which proposed banning the creation of chimeras - an organism consisting of at least two genetically different kinds of tissue - and other kinds of interspecies embryos.

Will it allow the creation of human-animal embryos?
Yes. The draft bill reverses the position of the white paper and will allow scientists to create three different types of human-animal embryos. The first, known as a chimeric embryo, is made by injecting cells from an animal into a human embryo. The second, known as a human transgenic embryo, involves injecting animal DNA into a human embryo. The third, known as a cytoplasmic hybrid, is created by transferring the nuclei of human cells, such as skin cells, into animal eggs from which almost all the genetic material has been removed.
However, the bill does not allow the creation of so called "true hybrids", created by fusing the egg and sperm of humans and animals. The human-animal embryos it does sanction could only be grown in a lab for no more than two weeks. It would also be illegal to implant them in a human. More information on hybrid embryos can be found here.

What else does it say about embryo storage?
The bill extends the statutory storage period for embryos from five to 10 years. If one of the couple involved decided to withdraw their consent to embryo storage, there would be a "cooling off" period of up to a year before the embryos were destroyed. This is intended to help couples to reach an amicable settlement and to have the time to reflect on their decision.

What does it say about embryo selection?
The bill would allow the screening of embryos for genetic or chromosomal abnormalities, which may lead to serious medical conditions or disabilities, or miscarriage. It would also allow doctors to check whether an embryo could provide a suitable tissue match for a sibling suffering from a life-threatening illness. However, it bans the deliberate selection of an embryo with a disease or disorder, such as if two deaf parents wished to have a deaf child.

How does it affect fertility treatment?
The bill also proposes scrapping the requirement for fertility clinics to consider the need for a father when deciding on treatment. This means clinics will no longer be able to deny treatment to lesbians and single mothers out of hand. In practice this will mean regarding a birth mother's female partner as a legal parent. In certain circumstances, a gay male couple will be able to apply for a parental order in surrogacy cases. Same-sex couples can already be recognised as parents where they adopt, and this change extends the same principle.

What does it say about egg and sperm donation?
Donors will be informed if their child is seeking identifying information about them. Donor-conceived children will also be allowed to find out if they have sisters or brothers also conceived through donation, when they reach 18.

What else does the bill propose?
It will also overhaul the regulation of embryo research and fertility treatment. The existing Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, which regulates fertility treatment and embryo research, will be merged with the Human Tissue Authority, which regulates the removal, storage, use and disposal of human bodies, organs and tissue from the living and the dead.

What happens next?
The bill will be subject to scrutiny by an expert parliamentary committee.


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About Catherine: I am mom to three grown sons, two grandchildren and two rescue dogs. After years of raising my boys as a single mom, I remarried a wonderful man who had never had a child of his own. Unexpectedly, I found myself pregnant at 49!
Sadly we lost that precious baby at 8 weeks, and decided to try again. Five more losses, turned down for donor egg, foster care and adoption due to my age and losses - we have accepted that there will be no more babies in our house.

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