Anscombe Bioethics
Vatican Double Helix Staircase
Bioethics Centre
Click here to subscribe to the Anscombe articles RSS feed to keep track of the latest changes... RSS Icon

Review of the HFE Act (2005)

A submission by the Joint Bioethics Committee of the Catholic Bishops of England & Wales, Scotland, and Ireland to the Department of Health's consultation on the proposed review of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act (1990)

Submission to Department of Health

Review of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act


2. While it is not, of course, the purpose of law to prohibit every moral wrong, legal intervention is called for in areas involving serious unjust harm. Our preferred model is not, however, regulation (Question 2), insofar as this means the granting of licenses for practices such as destructive research on human embryos under certain conditions. Rather, we favour an outright prohibition of embryo research and all research involving a lethal, unjust assault on a living human individual. We also support a prohibition of particular forms of embryo research, such as cloning, even if other forms of embryo research, no less unjust, will regrettably remain lawful. In the same way, while we do not support the granting of licenses to internet services which provide gametes, we do support the prohibition of such services (Question 9) or, failing that, the prohibition of such services where gametes are anonymously provided. Our aim is to protect children from at least some forms of serious injustice which assisted conception can involve.

Use of embryos in research/treatment

3. There is general agreement among human embryologists that human life begins at fertilisation, at least for those not conceived in other ways, such as twinning or cloning. Most embryos are created when the sperm and ovum combine, though it is certainly possible for embryos to be created from other cells or parts of cells.

6. As mentioned earlier, we support, above all, a total ban on destructive embryo research. If it is decided that this fundamentally unjust practice will continue we believe that it should be restricted as far as possible by a ban on particular forms of embryo research. For example, we would support continuing the current ban on research involving replacing the nucleus of a cell of an embryo (Question 59), and would urge that a similar ban be applied to research involving the transfer of pronuclei from the cell of a pre-syngamy embryo into an ovum or embryo, or replacement of the nucleus of an ovum before it is fertilised (Question 58). Indeed, all research involving alterations to the genetic structure of an embryo should be prohibited (Question 60), not least because this paves the way for widespread germ-line genetic engineering, with all the hazards this would pose.

8. We wish to emphasise that, in any case, no treatments currently exist using early embryonic stem cells, in contrast to no less than 65 treatments already in existence using adult stem cells.2 There should be further investment in treatments of this kind, which are morally acceptable to all, as opposed to treatments which, were they ever developed, would pose serious dilemmas of conscience for many patients and clinicians.

Embryo selection/discarding

Welfare of the child

Donor conception

13. Children have an interest in a stable family environment, and in knowledge of, and rearing by, their own genetic parents. Research on offspring conceived through donor insemination has shown that many of these offspring are acutely conscious of the fact they have been deprived in advance of conception of half their genetic family.3 We would urge that this serious injustice be remedied as far as possible, by the provision of information on their genetic relatives to donor-conceived people from the age of 16 (Question 40). A central register of donor treatment should be kept, so that donor-conceived people may be given identifying information on relatives, including, but not limited to, those they intend to marry, or with whom they intend to form a civil partnership (Questions 39, 41). Donor-conceived people should be contacted on reaching 16 by the registrar concerning their rights in this area (Question 45). They should have access to identifying information on both donor-conceived (Question 43) and naturally conceived siblings (Question 44). In the latter case, such access should be reciprocal only after a certain period - for example, ten years, to give donor-conceived people time to come to terms with the truth about their conception before they are approached by social children of their donor father, who may reveal to him the whereabouts of his donor offspring. We would urge that those conceived before 1 April 2005, when anonymity was removed, be given similar rights to those conceived after this date.


14. Surrogate motherhood involves a further fragmentation and trivialisation of parenthood, in that a woman deliberately becomes a gestational mother with no intention of committing herself to caring for the child she gestates. This practice is exploitative of both the woman and the child, and damages the way conception and gestation are regarded in society as a whole. If surrogacy cannot be prohibited altogether (the option we would prefer), commercial surrogacy, at very least, should continue to be prohibited (Question 50). We do not believe that agencies should be registered with the Department of Health, as the Brazier Committee recommends (Question 51), as this would constitute official endorsement of such agencies. (An analogy might be with the case of prostitution: those opposed to prostitution are rightly unwilling to accept the official registering of brothels, as this effectively legitimises their existence.)


[1] While some of the points made in this submission reflect (though our arguments do not rely on) established teaching of the Catholic Church, other points simply reflect our own judgment of the best way of protecting the rights the Church recognises, and are not attributable to the Church as such.

[2] For details, see the website