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Ethics briefings
  1. Danielle Hamm,
  2. Caroline Harrison,
  3. Rebecca Mussell,
  4. Julian Sheather,
  5. Ann Sommerville,
  6. Juliet Tizzard
  1. BMA House
  1. Danielle Hamm, BMA House; dhamm{at}

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In May 2008 there was considerable media debate about some of the provisions of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill which was going through the House of Commons. The purpose of the Bill was to update the 1990 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act which regulates use of human embryos and gametes in treatment and research. The statutory body that implements the legislation, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, was being asked to license activities that had not been envisaged when the law was first passed.

Some issues attracted particular attention in the Commons, including:

  • the provisions allowing for the creation of human admixed (human-animal) embryos for research, given the continuing scarcity of human eggs;

  • whether all reference to the “need for a father” or a male role model, which had previously been an obligatory consideration for health professionals providing fertility treatment, should be excluded from the revised legislation in order not to discriminate against lesbian couples;

  • whether the use of embryo testing should be allowed so that “saviour siblings” could be created to donate cord blood or bone marrow to save the life of a seriously ill sibling.

These issues were extensively debated in the press as well as in Parliament. Some commentators believed that allowing cytoplasmic hybrids (predominantly human material with a small amount of animal casing) or true hybrids (a roughly equal balance of animal and human material) would be superfluous and infringed human dignity. Eliminating recognition of the father’s role in children’s upbringing was thought by some to have more general implications for the future of the family in society. Fears were also expressed that selecting embryos for implantation on the basis of their match to an existing sibling could result in children being born only to help others rather than creating children who would be valued …

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  • Competing interests: None declared.

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