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UK faces fertility law shake-up

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The UK's fertility laws face a major shake-up in the face of experts' demands that the regulations need to keep pace with scientific advances.

Among the issues up for review are embryo screening, the creation of "designer" babies aimed at treating sick siblings and how exactly to deal with embryos left in limbo when couples undergo IVF treatment but then split up and fail to agree what should be done with them.

Also up for scrutiny are internet sperm-vending sites - not currently covered by the 1990 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act - as we reported yesterday. Such sites are doing brisk business due to limited access to fertility treatment for single and lesbian would-be parents and a serious shortage of sperm donors after their right to anonymity was removed earlier this year.

Furthermore, the role of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) will be examined, as will whether or not parents might have the right to choose the gender of their children.

Although most agree that the current legislation is "broadly working", ministers concede it's time for a review. Health minister Caroline Flint said: "We never expected the Act would remain forever unchanged in the face of major developments in science and medicine."

Fertility expert Simon Fishel told the BBC that a system of regulation was needed, but that doctors should be able to make decisions based on patients' needs without having to consult the HFEA or to the courts, explaining: "The Act itself needs to have a much broader brush. "The clinician could know the watchdog would look at fundamental areas, but that would give you clinical freedom."

Some, meanwhile, belive that while the nuts-and-bolts of fertility should be left to the watchdogs, ethical issues should be considered by a separate organisation. Josephine Quintavalle, of the Comment on Reproductive Ethics, said: "The HFEA could go on monitoring the work of clinics, but these big ethical decisions, which are related to the whole of society, not just individual couples, need to be discussed in a much more thoughtful forum."

Ministers will present their proposals and then open them to professional and public scrutiny before any change to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act. ®

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