Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo



Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill [HL]
7 February 2008

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:

Mrs Iris Robinson (Chairperson)
Dr Kieran Deeny
Mr Alex Easton
Mr Tommy Gallagher
Mrs Carmel Hanna
Mr John McCallister
Ms Carál Ní Chuilín
Ms Sue Ramsey


Dr Liz Reaney ) Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety
Ms Margaret Rose McNaughton )

The Chairperson (Mrs I Robinson):

The next item of business is the departmental briefing on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill [HL]. I remind members that the Minister wrote to the Committee on 15 November 2007 to inform us that, due to changes in the Bill, it will no longer need the legislative consent of the Assembly. The Committee agreed to invite departmental officials to brief us on the provisions of the Bill. A copy of the Minister’s letter is included in the members’ packs.

I welcome Dr Liz Reaney, who is senior medical officer at the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, and Margaret Rose McNaughton from the Department’s secondary care directorate. I invite you to make your presentation, after which there will be an opportunity for members to ask questions.

Dr Liz Reaney (Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety):

Thank you. The Committee has asked for an update on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill [HL]. This is an extremely complex area — scientifically, medically, ethically, morally and legally. That complexity is reflected in the Bill, which is over 100 pages long. Obviously, we cannot go into the finer details; therefore, I will provide a factual update covering the background to the Bill and will give an overview. I will then pick out some areas of debate.

A report was produced in 1984 by the Committee of Inquiry into Human Fertilisation and Embryology, which was chaired by the now Baroness Mary Warnock. That group considered the social, ethical and legal implications of developments in human reproduction. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act (1990) arose from that, which regulated the creation, keeping and use of embryos outside the human body, and the storage and use of gametes — that is eggs and sperm — to create embryos. The Act prohibited certain activities without a licence. The key point is that it is UK-wide legislation and a reserved matter.

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) was established in 1991. It is a statutory licensing authority and issues licences covering three broad areas. The first is fertility treatment, the second is storage of embryos and gametes and the third is research into that particular subject area.

Fourteen or 15 years later, it was felt, given the developments that had occurred in the meantime, that a review of the 1990 Act was necessary. The Government conducted a review and a public consultation in 2005, in which Northern Ireland was included. At that time, they considered amalgamating the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority and the Human Tissue Authority to create a new body, to be called the regulatory authority for tissue and embryos (RATE). However, that was rejected after scrutiny by a joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament. That brings us up to the present time with the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill [HL] being introduced to the House of Lords in November 2007.

The Bill retains the existing model of regulation; therefore, the HFEA will remain. The Bill consists of three parts. Part 1 refers to amendments that relate to scientific developments that have occurred in the 17 years since the original Act and societal changes that have occurred in that time. The Bill also provides greater clarity for the HFEA in its issuing of licences, in holding a register of information on donors, and on the conditions for disclosure of that information.

Part 2 refers to legal parenthood in cases of assisted reproduction and sets out conditions for that. It also refers to the need for counselling and consent, both to become the legal parent of a child and to relinquish — particularly for sperm donors — being considered as the legal parent.

Part 3 relates to amendments to other legislation. As a result of the Bill, there are consequential amendments to Northern Ireland legislation. Most of those are minor, but the most important is that which relates to birth registration. The Bill has completed its Third Reading in the House of Lords and goes to the House of Commons shortly. If it is passed by Parliament it will come into effect on 1 April 2009.

I will now draw out some of the key points arising from areas of debate that have been in the news recently. The first refers to human admixed embryos — embryos that are created from a mixture of human and animal material. It is only possible or permissible to create those under licence. They can only be created for approved research projects that have gone through all the necessary ethical approval procedure from local research ethics committees. They must also be approved by the HFEA. They can only be kept for a strictly limited period, and they must never be placed into a woman or an animal.

Embryos can be tested to establish whether they are carrying serious inherited diseases that can be passed on, and to determine whether the embryo is male or female. It is important to note that sex selection is only possible or permissible for medical reasons. In circumstances in which certain conditions affect male children, but in which females do not exhibit the disease because of the nature of the inheritance, it would be possible to choose a female embryo over a male one. However, it is not possible or permissible in any other circumstances to choose the sex of the embryo just because the parents happen to want a girl or a boy.

Tissue-typing is another area of concern. If a child could provide a perfect tissue match, it is possible for that child to donate tissue for the treatment of a sibling with a serious medical condition. The Bill permits such action only in relation to tissue, such as bone marrow, but not organs. It would not be permissible to bring a child into the world with the intention of transplanting a kidney, for example.

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 stated that clinicians needed to consider the child’s need for a father. However, bearing in mind societal changes, that proviso has been the subject of considerable debate, and, currently, has been replaced by a child’s need for supportive parenting. The implication of that, obviously, is that a child could be registered as having two parents of the same sex.

Finally, I want to refer to abortion legislation. There is a concern that the Bill may be used to extend the Abortion Act 1967 to Northern Ireland. The Secretary of State, Shaun Woodward, has already written to the Government, stating the opposition that exists in Northern Ireland across the political spectrum. We are not aware that any response has been received as yet. Abortion legislation is part of criminal law, which is planned to be devolved to the Assembly at a later date.

That concludes my presentation; we are happy to answer questions.

The Chairperson:

Is Margaret going to say anything?

Ms Margaret Rose McNaughton (Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety):

I am happy to answer questions.

Mrs Hanna:

I wonder how some of those issues can be legislated on for the future. The legislation seems fine for the present, even on the creation of embryos of human and animal material. However, I worry that in years to come, with developments in technology and science, it will be more difficult to control that. Even the scientist who cloned Dolly the sheep, who is out in front on that kind of research, has said that he has concerns about that part of the Bill. On the issue of tissue-typing, does the Bill say that a sibling can be created for tissue but not for organs?

Dr Reaney:

The Bill says that that is permissible. Obviously, I assume that such an action would not be taken lightly.

Mrs Hanna:

I appreciate that.

Dr Reaney:

However, a sibling cannot be created for organs.

Mrs Hanna:

Yes, but the Bill will make it legal to create a child, not for the child’s own sake, but to help another child. It simply makes a difference between doing so for tissue, but not for organs.

I have read a little bit more about the rights of the individuals involved. It is certainly a complex matter. It seems to me that the child’s rights are being taken away and that the preference is for almost equality-type legislation. The rights of the child would have been sacrosanct in the past, but the rights are now being transferred to parents. The parents could be anybody — almost a committee. Do you understand what I mean? A group of people can be called the parents. I am not sure whether that moves into the problem that arises when children cannot know who their parents are. That part of the legislation could create major problems in the future, in situations such as that which we heard about recently when a young couple discovered that they were a brother and a sister who had been separated at birth. That is a huge issue.

I am sorry that I must go. I wanted to make those points quickly. However, those are matters that we could talk about for a long time.

Dr Reaney:

The Bill is not the Department’s; we are simply here to provide factual information on it. With its introduction, the Bill attempts to improve the regulation of those activities and to cover as many different areas as possible. Life was probably much simpler in 1990 when the original Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act came into being. Therefore, the purpose of many of the Bill’s clauses is to try to deal with issues that have arisen since then and to try to future-proof such situations because no one knows what further developments might come along.

Mrs Hanna:

I would have thought that future-proofing would have been time enough in the future when those situations arise. If we legislate on them now, before they arise, we are allowing for them. Those situations do not happen at present, but the legislation anticipates that they will in the future. That is putting the cart before the horse to some extent. Put it this way; it is liberal legislation.

Mr Gallagher:

The point was raised about mixed embryos. I believe that you referred to a mix of human and animal — a live embryo. Did you say that there would be a time limit on its life?

Dr Reaney:

Yes, there would be limit to how long such an embryo would be allowed to exist. It must not be allowed to continue beyond either the development of the primitive streak, which is when the cells of different types of tissue begin to form, or 14 days; whichever is sooner.

Mr Gallagher:

Has any justification been put forward for that?

Dr Reaney:

I understand that it is for research purposes. It is obviously a highly specialised and intricate area on which I cannot comment. I am not familiar with it.

The Chairperson:

Of all of those points, I find the mixing of human and animal most obnoxious. Given the nature of Governments — which, in many cases, do not tell the truth — who is to say that Government will not extend the 14-day period to see what will develop? As a Member of Parliament, I will deal with this issue at Westminster. Unfortunately, given the size of the Labour Party’s majority, we may win the argument, morally and in every other respect, but lose the battle. The Labour Party has more MPs than all other parties put together. Not all opposition parties are in the same boat as my party and others with a conscience about interference with nature. However, I will return to that subject later.

Mr Easton:

I will be brief. I dread to think of where this will eventually go. I am frightened at the thought of it and the idea repulses me. I want that on the record. The blending of human and animal is not right. I hope that you are able to convey that wherever the matter is headed.

My other concern is that the detection of illnesses in embryos at a very early stage could lead to more abortions. As a baby grows, not every illness develops into a serious one. I worry that it could be used to get rid of imperfect babies and lead to abortion on demand.

Could you elaborate on those aspects?

Dr Reaney:

At the early stage, embryo testing will be able to pick up conditions then apparent; for example genetic conditions, transferred by chromosomes, or mitochondrial conditions, transferred by parts of the cell.

The Bill sets out conditions under which such testing will take place. Testing is not done routinely, but in particular circumstances, for example, where there is a family history of a particular condition. Not every request for testing will be accommodated.

The Chairperson:

Have members any other questions?

Dr Deeny:

As a doctor, this worries me. Science and medicine progress so rapidly. Even in my career of more than 20 years, changes have come so fast. We need to keep control of scientists and medicine. Carmel has left now, but to reiterate what she said, we have seen problems arising from multiple embryos. Recently, twins unwittingly married each other. In the future, people will not be allowed to know who their parents were. All of that worries me. Creating a human being simply to treat another seems morally reprehensible. Human beings are not created for that purpose. It does not seem right.

I have a question on the legalities, which are not my strongpoint. You talk about transferred and reserved matters. The Assembly will be expected to allow Westminster to legislate on the transferred matters. The reserved matters have been removed from the Bill, which means that the Northern Ireland Assembly will have no say in the matter. Is that right?

Ms McNaughton:

Basically, yes. Everything in the Bill is a reserved matter. The transferred matters that would have required the consent of the Assembly related to the Human Tissue Authority, and those have been removed. The Bill will go through the House of Commons, and it will be up to our local MPs to join in that debate. The Bill relates to UK-wide legislation and is being taking forward by the UK.

The Chairperson:

In relation to what Kieran said, we are now a devolved Administration and we should be able to set our own agenda reflecting the moral issues around the Province, which is very much a Christian-based community. As a Christian, I find the matter totally unacceptable and obnoxious, and I say that with no disrespect to the messengers bringing the information. A child might have same-sex parents named on his or her birth certificate. How far can society go? I am not going to rehearse my arguments for the House of Commons, but I find the matter so detrimental to the structures of family life and to the moral fabric of society that I cannot believe that we have reached this stage. As I said earlier, who is to say that if we allow a foot in the door to create tissue — or whatever — for 14 days, that that will not be extended, as we have seen in other areas in the past.

I know that I am supposed to sit and be quite neutral, but I find the matter so objectionable that I cannot be silent. Members may wish to reprimand me for expressing my opinions so strongly —

Ms Ní Chuilín:


The Chairperson:

Never. We say that.

I appreciate the fact that you have come to the Committee with background information. However, it is wrong to make the situation resemble a Woolworth’s pick-and-mix. It seems to me that something is picked and then mixed with animals. That may be putting it a bit strongly, but that is how I feel on the matter, and I make no apology for that.

Please accept that that is no reflection you. Thank you for your time. The Bill will be debated in another place, but unfortunately one gets the feeling that one has no hope of being able to change direction.

Mr Gallagher:

Is the Committee’s view being taken into account?

The Chairperson:

It could be a noted issue.

Mr Gallagher:

I am happy to agree entirely with the Chairperson’s summary.

The Chairperson:

Thank you, Tommy. There would be no harm in writing to the Chairperson dealing with the Bill putting the Committee’s views across strongly, that there is cross-party concern, and that it is endorsed by all members.

Ms S Ramsey:

I would appreciate seeing the letter before it was sent.

The Chairperson:

Absolutely. I would not dream of sending a letter without the Committee’s seeing it first.

Thank you, Dr Reaney and Ms McNaughton. I apologise for keeping you waiting, but the other presentations went on much longer than expected.