Government response to joint committee on the human tissue and embryos bill : The good, the bad and the even worse

The Government has today published its response to the Joint Committee’s Scrutiny of the Human Tissue and Embryology (HTE) Bill, and as expected there is nothing to be happy about.

Not all bad, of course, but the positives are both few and unconvincing. The Government’s response expresses generic enthusiasm for greater engagement with the public in matters involving complex scientific and ethical issues, but conversely rules out any possibility of creating a national independent bioethics committee.

The proposal to amalgamate the Human Fertilisation & Embryology Authority (HFEA) with the Human Tissue Authority (HTA) has been dropped, as was anticipated. Nobody thought much of that clumsy idea anyway.

There is already almost universal agreement that sex selection for non-medical purposes should not be allowed, and this is upheld by the Government. This is welcome but hardly indicates a tendency to greater moral rectitude in the context of a law where embryos of either sex can be selected as tissue matches for the benefit of sick siblings.

Which leaves us with the bad and the worst. On the issue of the child’s need for a father the Government has come up with a typically knavish compromise, eliminating the word ‘father‘ so as not to offend the lesbian and single mother lobby, but retaining the reference to the ‘welfare of the child’ as a sop to those who think children should get a look in of sorts. Pity the poor IVF child who later considers it would have been in his or her interests and welfare to be allowed a father.

Bad too the confused references to ‘flexibility’; it is often hard to know whether they are for or against it. The Government, for example, rejects the Committee’s Recommendation 6, which called ‘for support for a lighter touch’ when dealing with inter-species embryos. In a decidedly paternalistic manner the Government argues that ‘giving more regulatory flexibility in this way would be confusing and open up the HFEA to increased litigation and judicial review.’ Indeed. But turn the page and the very same Government is then proposing that the same HFEA ‘ be given more flexibility’ to license this research.

The Government’s position on inter-species embryos could not be worse. First it is proposed that all forms of animal-human combinations, including those created with sperm and egg, be included in the Act. All subsequent decision-making would then be devolved to the regulator, to permit or refuse licences as seen fit. In this respect the HFEA would get much much more than it argued for. They were only concerned with the use of enucleated animal eggs and human somatic cell cloning; the Government is giving them the whole hybrid range on a plate – true, cytoplasmic, transgenic, chimeric. Whatever future developments in this scientific field, there would be no further need to defer to Parliament as a clause will be included to ensure – wait for it – ‘future flexibility’. All will be entrusted to the willing hands of the HFEA who to date have never turned down any research licence.

Genetic manipulation? Full steam ahead on that too. ‘The Government intends to remove the restriction on altering the genetic structure of a cell while it forms part of an embryo’.

In the context of recommendations regarding embryo selection for tissue matching we found one of the worst horrors in the Government’s response; the proposal that this kind of selection should be undertaken not just for the purposes of harvesting umbilical cord blood cells, but ‘with the possibility of treatment using other types of tissue and cells’. Are we talking kidneys, or portions of liver, or heart cells? The response document uses the term ‘any histocompatible tissue’. How far away is full organ farming?

There is more to analyse in the Government’s Response to the Joint Committee, but nothing to allay the justified fear that this is green light legislation, guaranteed to ensure the United Kingdom’s role as the most permissive country in the world when it comes to the human embryo, assisted reproduction, and embryonic stem cell research.

As the new Health Minister, Dawn Primarolo, claims triumphantly in her press release accompanying the Government’s response, ‘The UK is a world leader and a good place to do research … We have been deliberately open-minded on these complex issues as we wanted to get the legislation right.

What a sad depiction of the UK, but how right she is. This country has become the most liberal in the world, with utilitarian science as its paradoxical autocrat. The Government’s proposals could not possibly be more open-minded, nor more dismissive of the deeper moral debates. Or the democratic process itself. We have no guarantee that some of the worst of these recommendations will be allowed a free vote, or even reach Parliament for that matter. The unelected HFEA is considering two applications to allow the creation of interspecies embryos, even as we weep. And their decision will be made long before the new Bill gets its first hearing.

To see the UK Government document:

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