Winston: abolish 'disorganised' fertility body

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The embryology watchdog should be scrapped because of its "appalling mismanagement" of recent controversies, including the "designer baby" row, a leading fertility specialist said yesterday.

The embryology watchdog should be scrapped because of its "appalling mismanagement" of recent controversies, including the "designer baby" row, a leading fertility specialist said yesterday.

Lord Winston, a pioneer of in-vitro fertilisation (IVF), condemned the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) as incompetent and outdated and called for it to be replaced. The authority was established 14 years ago to regulate IVF, artificial insemination and the storage of sperm and eggs, as well as research into human embryos.

It has been caught up in disputes this year over creating "designer babies" - that could provide a tissue match for a sick brother or sister - and over the selection of the sex of children. It also faces a legal challenge after it granted permission for Newcastle University scientists to perform "therapeutic cloning" of human embryos in research into diabetes, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases.

Lord Winston argued the HFEA should be replaced with "something a great deal less bureaucratic, which does not inhibit research, which has a better consultation process with the public and which has a more adequate inspection process". He added: "It is time for Parliament to revise what's happening."

He singled out for criticism its decision to allow embryos to be tested for bowel cancer, which can be passed between generations. "The HFEA didn't even seem to remember it had given a licence for this treatment 10 years ago," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

"It seems to me that if a body is so poorly organised that it can't really remember or communicate what it's supposed to be doing, then really there is a real issue and that is not giving out proper public information."

He called for a new body that would be better both at inspecting clinics and consulting the public. "We boast of being liberal and we boast this is a model for other countries to follow, but the fact is no other country in Europe, having looked at the British system, has adopted it.

"You have to ask the question why? And I think it's because basically it's not seen to be a very good system," he said.

Rejecting arguments that scientists needed regulating so they did not go too far, he said: "I think legislation can deal with that."

Lord Winston also suggested that the law governing assisted reproduction should be revised. He said: "It is very strange that one form of treatment - IVF - is singled out for regulation. And not even the whole of infertility treatment is covered."

He received qualified support from Baroness Warnock, who chaired the inquiry which led to the passing of the 1990 Human Fertility and Embryology Act. She said that the HFEA should continue to regulate clinics' work, but should no longer be responsible for making ethical decisions. She said: "I'm not sure the same body is really right for carrying out both of those things."

But Suzi Leather, the HFEA chairwoman, said: "It's certainly true we are making difficult decisions in a complex and novel area of science and a fraught ethical area of science. But the fact is that we are making decisions in the way that Parliament has asked us to make them." She conceded that science had moved on since Parliament last considered the regulatory subject in 1990, but she argued that regulation had given members of the public confidence in the infertility treatment sector.

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