Monday, October 27, 2008

Fertility Law passed in the UK

Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill passed
23 October 2008

The House of Commons last night voted to pass the controversial Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill by 355 votes to 129. The Bill represents the first major facelift of fertility law in eighteen years, and has provoked a saga of headline-grabbing controversies during its passage through Parliament – from lesbian IVF rights, to donor symbols on birth certificates, to animal-human hybrid embryo research.

Leading fertility lawyer Natalie Gamble of solicitors Lester Aldridge LLP welcomes the Bill and says it will introduce important new rights for fertility patients. Natalie (nominated by gay rights organisation Stonewall as Hero of the Year 2008) has been a vocal supporter of the new rights for gay and lesbian parents.

“The surrogacy rules will be widened” Natalie explains. “Currently only married couples can apply for a parental order (the legal mechanism for reassigning parenthood from the surrogate to the intended parents after the birth), but the law will be extended to allow applications from unmarried and gay couples as well. The Bill will also allow lesbian couples conceiving by donor insemination to be named on the birth certificate and to be full and equal parents from the moment of conception. Same sex couples will get essentially the same treatment as heterosexual couples who conceive using sperm donors or surrogates, ensuring that children born to same sex couples have the protection of having two legal parents rather than one.

“The Bill will also finally remove the obligation of clinics to consider the ‘need for a father’ before offering fertility treatment (instead considering the child’s ‘need for supportive parenting’) and this makes it absolutely clear that single and lesbian women should not be excluded from treatment.”

Natalie is keen to emphasise the other, less controversial and less publicised, changes which will be important in practice for fertility patients.

“Continuing the trend of increasing rights to information about donor conception, there are also several changes being made to the donor conception rules” she explains. “Donor-conceived children will, once they reach the age of 18, have a new right to be put in touch with any donor-conceived half siblings. They will also be able to obtain more information about donors at 16 rather than 18. Donors, too, are getting new rights, and will in the future be able to find out whether their donation resulted in any children being born.

“The rules on embryo storage are also changing, allowing storage for ten rather than five years. Prompted by the story of Natalie Evans (the woman who battled the law and was denied the right to use her embryos without her former partner’s consent), there will also be a new 12 month ‘cooling off’ period to give a partner who withdraws consent to embryo storage the opportunity to change his/ her mind before embryos are irrecoverably destroyed.

There are still some issues which have not been fully addressed, though, says Natalie.

“The extended storage regulations – which allow storage of embryos for longer than ten years in certain circumstances – will only be reviewed now the Bill has gone through, and there are some important issues to be discussed here, including whether couples contemplating surrogacy should be able to preserve their right to have their own genetic child indefinitely in the same way as other couples currently can.

“The issue of surrogacy generally also needs to be addressed more thoroughly. The existing law was designed to help patients conceiving with donors and in most surrogacy cases is complex and difficult. The government mentioned while the Bill was in committee that this was an issue they wanted to look at separately, and I hope they will do so as soon as possible.”

Overall, though, Natalie welcomes the passage of the Bill. “The new law will introduce important new rights for fertility patients, particularly same sex couples, and it represents a sensible updating of the existing law.”

The new law, after final ratification by the House of Lords and royal assent, is expected to come into effect in October 2009.