Britain relaxes 'designer baby' rules
SMH/July 22, 2004
The British fertility watchdog today announced it is to broaden its rules on embryo screening to allow the birth of "designer babies" to cure sick siblings.
It means that the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority has changed its policy to allow screening for purposes other than weeding out genetic disorders.
A decision came as 18 members of the authority met at its headquarters in London to consider the results of its policy review, which was announced in May.
The controversial debate centres on parents who want to use IVF and genetic screening to create babies whose tissue could then save the life of a sick brother or sister.
But the change is predicted to spark a furious backlash from pro-life groups, who have warned it will lead to a "rush down a very worrying slippery slope".
HFEA chair Suzi Leather said: "Faced with potential requests from parents who want to save a sick child, the emotional focus is understandably on the child who is ill.
"Our job is also to consider the welfare of the tissue matched child which will be born. Our review of the evidence available does not indicate that the embryo biopsy procedure disadvantages resulting babies compared to other IVF babies.
"It also shows that the risks associated with sibling to sibling stem cell donation are low and that this treatment can benefit the whole family."
She confirmed that the HFEA would require that any application submitted to carry out the procedure was fully supported by the clinical team who were going to treat the existing sick child and said they would have to show that they have considered every other treatment possible first.
This would include demonstrating that every step has been taken to find an existing match using world wide tissue banks and cord blood banks.
"The HFEA regards preimplantation tissue typing as a last resort," she said.
Past cases have allowed parents to use screening if it is also of benefit to the embryo, but not when the only purpose is to create genetic conditions to help another with no benefit to the child to be born.
In a statement the HFEA said it had decided to extend the rules allowing embryos to be tested in order for families to have a child who could be a tissue match for a seriously ill brother or sister.
"In 2001 the HFEA adopted a precautionary approach when considering this procedure and decided that it should only be permitted when it was combined with tests to enable parents to select embryos which are free from a serious genetic disorder," said a statement.
"This was because the technique is invasive and there was a concern about a potential risk of damaging the embryo, so tissue typing was only allowed on cells which had already been taken from the embryo for genetic diagnosis.
"There have been three further years during which successful embryo biopsies have been carried out, both in the UK and abroad and we are not aware of any evidence of increased risk."
The technique involves taking a cell sample from the embryo at around the eight cell stage and allows a clinician to tissue type to find a match for an existing child.
A spokesman for pro-life campaigners Life criticised the decision.
"The practice of pre-implementation genetic diagnosis, ie the diagnosis of new human beings to check for 'undesirable aspects' in order to qualify for the right to nine months in the mother's womb and discarding those who do not come up to 'spec', is nothing more than a form of quality control in early human beings and a commodification of human life," he said.
"It goes without saying that all legitimate efforts must be made to relieve the suffering of children such as Joshua Fletcher and we understand completely the determination on the part of his parents.
"But we cannot support a procedure that is so wasteful of human life and produces children primarily for the benefit of others."
In 2002, the fertility board denied Jayson and Michelle Whitaker permission to conceive a baby whose umbilical cord stem cells would match their first son's tissue type so they could treat his rare blood disorder with a bone marrow transplant. The couple travelled to the United States for the treatment and Michelle Whitaker gave birth to a baby last year.
In December 2001, the fertilisation authority announced that it would, in principle, permit couples to select test-tube embryos whose tissue type matched that of a sick sibling, but only if the couple already qualified for embryo testing to avoid passing on an inherited disease.
In 2002, the authority gave Shahana and Raj Hashmi permission to test to make sure tissue from their next child would be a suitable match for their ailing toddler son, Zain, who suffers from a rare blood disorder.