Many will welcome the government's decision to abolish the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. It will be welcomed by clinics that thought it unnecessarily restricted their activities and by pro-life groups, which were excluded from HFEA membership and which felt that it regulated activities that should never have been undertaken.
For six years, from 1997 to 2003, I served on the authority and chaired its ethics and law committee. It was a steep learning curve and there was a daily struggle to keep moral reflection up to date with scientific development and the desire of medical and commercial enterprises to use what science was making possible. In a number of areas that are morally crucial, we were able to hold the line. For example, we were able to maintain the prohibition on the production of embryos only for research. We permitted selection of embryos through pre-implantation genetic diagnosis only when an existing child had a heritable, life-threatening condition and any subsequent child was at risk.
I am sorry that the HFEA became increasingly libertarian in its decisions. It ruled in favour of producing embryos purely for research through what was euphemistically called "therapeutic cloning". Such embryos, within a prescribed time-limit, could be used to extract stem cells for research on how these cells could be used to treat a variety of diseases. It has always been a surprise to me why such high priority should be given to embryonic stem cells when most effective treatments have been derived from adult cells which have been re-programmed to behave in a "pluripotent" way. The HFEA not only allowed preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) to produce "saviour siblings", even when there was no danger of life-threatening heritable disease, but, controversially, it permitted the creation of so-called "cybrid" embryos, which involve the use of an animal egg from which the nucleus has been removed and replaced with the nucleus of a human cell.
Before we celebrate its demise, we need to ask why the HFEA was created in the first place. It was created so that the special status of the embryo could be recognised. It was acknowledged that the embryo had all the genetic material needed for a human being and could not, therefore, be treated like any other tissue (for which there is another authority). This deliberately left open the question as to whether there was already a human being present. Even if we take a developmental view of how personhood emerges, the precautionary principle requires us to treat the embryo with respect at all stages precisely because we do not know when we are dealing with a human being.
Respect for the embryo, although in a reduced sense, has been eroded steadily either because of decisions made by the HFEA or by changes in legislation. The question arises, nevertheless, as to how the special status of the embryo will continue to be recognised in law and regulated in practice. There remain many important issues that have to do not only with the status and treatment of the embryo, but with the welfare of any children born as a result of fertility treatment. Whatever we may think of such treatment, the reality is that IVF is here now and it needs to be strictly regulated.