Joint committee report on human tissues and embryos – faint praise but mostly huge disappointment

If CORE had bet on the outcome of the Joint Committee Report (JCR), published today after two intense months of evidence sessions and scrutiny, we would have got full marks.

We anticipated and support the total rejection of the proposed amalgamation of the Human Tissue Authority and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. It has been so impossible to find anybody who thinks it a good idea, that one wonders who dreamt up the proposal in the first place. Sadly, despite the clear thumbs down from the Joint Committee, it is unlikely that the Government will change its mind on this. We will be lumbered with an unwieldy mega-quango, the Regulatory Authority for Tissue and Embryos (RATE), which will cost a fortune and spend its time in endless sub-meetings of sub-committees. Any hope of increased transparency in the field of assisted reproduction will be lost forever.

Faint praise for those parts of the recommendations which defer to a free vote in both Houses of Parliament. Which is as it should be. This is applied, thankfully, to the highly contentious animal/human embryo research proposals. But our enthusiasm has to end there; once Parliament has had its say, true democracy goes out the door.

The JCR supports the very part of the Bill which CORE finds most alarming; the document’s capacity to avoid any sense whatsoever of robust absolutes. Flexibility and permissiveness already underpin the Bill, ensuring that any future scientific developments can always be accommodated, without any need for full Parliamentary debate. The committee wants to go further. It is not in favour of the Bill trying to define things as they are today, but rather recommends that legislation should simply provide a general definition that the regulator can subsequently interpret as it sees fit. Very scary.

CORE correctly suspected the Committee would be unsettled and divided by the proposal to remove a child’s need for a father from the Act. Their reluctance to take a firm decision on these parenting matters, however, is lamentable. They adopt the absurd position that one can keep the notion of the father in the Bill, while ensuring at the same time that it also means generically two parents. This is ‘cake and eat it’ policy which we find particularly cowardly.

The JRC suppport for a National Bioethics Committee would be more welcome if it were not to be based within Parliament. Perhaps some compromise could be developed with a Joint House Committee plus lay membership as well.

The item which has caught the greatest media interest is the proposal to extend the conditions for which embryos can be selected as tissue matches for sick siblings, the so-called designer baby decision. The illness need no longer be life threatening, just a more nebulous ‘serious’. CORE is adamant that no child should ever be deliberately created for the medical benefit of another child, no matter the circumstances.

In this instance we also argue that such procedures cannot be justified as necessary, given the considerable evidence of successful cord blood transplants from unrelated donors.

In the context of the JCR recommendations it is most regrettable that no evidence was heard from experts in umbilical cord blood stem cell therapy. They could have explained to the committee how there is absolutely no need to go down this highly controversial path. Stem cells from cord blood, deposited in national and international banks, are already curing children’s diseases in great and growing numbers. This is not only the ethical way forward, but also the fastest, most practical and economical way to achieve cures.

The Joint Committee Report makes a series of recommendations. Most of them CORE opposes.

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