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Lowering the Bar on Test-Tube Babies

In Britain, Concern Rises Over in Vitro Fertilization

LONDON, NOV. 7, 2005 (Zenit) - Restrictions governing in vitro fertilization have been eased in Britain. Announcing the changes on Thursday, the regulating Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (HFEA) claimed the changes would mean a "better system for protecting the welfare of children."

The changes involve the norms related to the approval process for couples seeking to have children using IVF. The 1990 Human Fertilization and Embryology Act specifies that clinics have to make an assessment of the welfare of any child or existing children before they can provide treatment to a woman.

The HFEA has revised and in general narrowed down the guidelines that clinics should follow. After an introductory period, the guidelines will enter into force by January. Suzi Leather, chair of the HFEA, described the changes as being "fairer" for patients, reducing burdensome or intrusive elements.

Among the relaxations to the guidelines is the elimination of the need for a "commitment to raise children." The obligation to consider the age of the patients is also no longer a condition. Neither is the stability of the relationship between the couple seeking treatment to be taken into consideration.

Another condition cut out is the need to receive the approval of the family doctor prior to receiving IVF treatment. The task of evaluating the suitability of the patient is now delegated to the clinicians at the same fertility clinic.

Family groups have criticized some of the changes, the Scotsman newspaper reported Thursday. Norman Wells, director of the Family Education Trust, maintained the traditional family structure was an important factor for the child's welfare.

Two mothers

Even before the relaxation of the conditions for IVF treatment there was concern over some of the approvals granted. On Sept. 8 the BBC reported that scientists were granted permission to create a human embryo that will have genetic material from two mothers.

A team from Newcastle University will transfer genetic material created when an egg and sperm fuse into another woman's egg. The goal is to prevent mothers from passing certain genetic diseases on to their babies.

The experiment will not lead to a pregnancy, for the moment, because the resulting fertilized ova will be killed off at an early stage. Josephine Quintavalle, of the group Comment on Reproductive Ethics, criticized the approval given to the project by the HFEA. "This is playing around with early human life," she said.

And even when norms exist, they are not always followed. This was the conclusion of a study on whether clinics in Canada are fulfilling their obligations under federal legislation. An article published in the October issue of the Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology Canada found that only one of the clinics is fully complying with the laws governing the use of frozen human embryos in stem cell research.

The article, "Eligibility of Cryopreserved Human Embryos for Stem Cell Research in Canada," was written by Françoise Baylis and Natalie Ram. An abstract of the article published on the journal's Web site noted that 10 out of the 14 clinics that replied to their questionnaire allow the donation of cryopreserved embryos for research.

Only three of these 10 clinics, however, satisfy in writing the disclosure requirements for embryo research at the time of initial consent for the cryopreservation and future disposition of embryos. And only one clinic specifically identifies the option of embryonic stem cell research.

Worries were also raised in the Australian state of Queensland, where a doctor helped a woman become pregnant with a second set of quadruplets. According to a June 5 report in a Queensland newspaper, the Sunday Mail, Dr. Warren DeAmbrosis of the Queensland Fertility Group carried out the treatment on Dale Chalk.

Some of his colleagues expressed anger, saying that there was "enormous risk" to the babies' survival and health. But DeAmbrosis defended his actions. "This is very rare. It's not good medicine but this is an imprecise science," he told the Sunday Mail. "I could see three eggs, so either there was another one that I didn't see or one of them has split."

Chalk's first set of quadruplets, born after fertility treatment at the same clinic, were 9 months old at the time of the article. The second set of babies are due in December.

Defect risks

Other concerns arise over the risk that the IVF process poses to some of the children born. The Australian newspaper on Jan. 28 reported that babies conceived through IVF are up to 40% more likely to suffer birth defects, including cleft palate, spina bifida and heart problems.

The data came from the Telethon Institute for Child Health Research in ...

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