Government to review widows' fertility rights

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The Independent Online
Staff Correspondent

The Government last night announced a new review of the rules which have prevented Diane Blood from becoming pregnant using sperm from her dead husband.

The junior health minister, Baroness Cumberlege, told the House of Lords that ministers would be taking steps to ensure an examination of the issues but she ruled out wide-ranging changes to the 1990 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act.

Stephen Blood died last year from bacterial meningitis. His wife was refused permission by the High Court in October to use his sperm, taken while he was in a coma, because he had not given written consent beforehand. Mrs Blood, 30, will take her case to the Appeal Court in mid-January.

Lady Cumberlege made it clear to peers last night that the Government would not support a backbench Bill, piloted by the fertility professor and Labour peer Lord Winston, to repeal the legal requirement for written consent in such cases.

But she said: "It is my view and that of the Government that any possible changes should not be undertaken lightly or without the same full and careful consideration which was given to the framing of the original Act. For this reason, the Government proposes that there should be an examination of these issues."

Lord Winston, introducing his Bill on fertility, told peers: "I don't for a minute want to suggest that we should change the law for a single case.

"So I hope we won't hear the rather facile phrase that `hard cases make bad law'."

He argued that the possibility of "posthumous insemination" had never been discussed in detail when the 1990 legislation was passed. His Bill would apply to "relatively few" people - only 36 had used similar provisions in the United States.

Lord Winston said he had been "moved to tears" when he read Mrs Blood's written statement to the court. "There was a fundamental injustice being done in this case."

The proposed change could give young widows "a memorial for the man that they have lost", he said. If the law was too rigid, doctors would be less likely to consult the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA).

Lord Winston insisted his Bill "doesn't threaten the moral fabric of our society". He said: "These techniques enhance human happiness, not decrease it.

"Britain has a reputation for enlightened, just and appropriately liberal law, promoting the welfare of its people. I hope that in this case Parliament might try to implement justice if possible."

A former president of the National Council for One-Parent Families, Lord McGregor of Durris, said: "Lord Winston has persuaded me wholly that there can be fundamental injustices under the present Act."

But the Bishop of Oxford, the Rt Rev Richard Harries, warned the Bill could have "unintended and undesirable consequences". He said: "If the law allowed it, there would be huge moral pressure to extract sperm as a man lay unconscious on a life support machine or even when he was dead." The dead or dying should not be "violated" without their specific prior consent, the bishop insisted.

Lord Winston's Bill stands no chance of becoming law owing to lack of parliamentary time.