Out-of-body experiences

A couple of days before the government announced that the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) will be axed, the journal Human Reproduction published a report on why, nearly 40 years ago, the UK Medical Research Council refused to fund Patrick Steptoe's and Robert Edwards's attempt to produce a test-tube baby.

One surprising factor was that they weren't part of the in-crowd: Steptoe "came from a minor northern hospital" and Edwards wasn't even a professor. Properly shocking, however, is the news that the refusal came in part because government research was focused on limiting fertility, rather than increasing it. If ever we questioned the need for an "arm's-length" body to distance government policy from reproductive science, surely that little bombshell is enough to make us think again.

No doubt fertility clinics are rejoicing at the HFEA news. Scientists, if they know what's good for them, won't be. The HFEA was designed not to deal with the minutiae of regulating clinics, but to facilitate a public appraisal of the dilemmas that science creates.

The regulation of fertility and embryology research will now be hidden within the remit of the Care Quality Commission (CQC). There will be repercussions. These are life-and-death issues, and people care far more about them than whether the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust is reducing the incidence of bedsores (the subject of a recent CQC press release). Without a distinct, visible body to oversee reproductive ethics, scientists in the field stand to lose public trust.

The HFEA has tackled some daunting issues in its time. Remember Diane Blood, who wanted to be impregnated using her dead husband's frozen sperm? The child, now nearly 12, was conceived and born despite the HFEA's disapproval. Perhaps the HFEA didn't get that right, but
it has made some good calls, too.

In 2004, the UK became the first European nation to permit research on cloned human cells. In 2007, scientists breathed a sigh of relief when the HFEA permitted women to donate eggs for research projects under certain circumstances. Another sensible decision, transparently made.

What was right in every case was that a high-profile public debate took place; scientists were not given carte blanche. Will this continue when reproductive ethics is a minor part of the CQC's remit?

The questions are only going to get more difficult. The birth of Louise Brown, the first test-tube baby, was nowhere near as complicated an issue as others that came after. Those on the horizon now - such as the engineering of artificial sperm and growing babies in artificial wombs - look even worse.

So, farewell then, HFEA. Louise Brown has just turned 32. You, the world's first overseer of reproductive technology, a model for other nations, didn't even make it to 20. Shame.

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. His most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 09 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The first 100 days