Sorry, Suzi, but it's not for you to put a value on a woman's eggs

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The Independent Online

Lord Winston, celebrity baby-maker, has been having a go at the HFEA, or Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. Not for the first time, the best-known practitioner of assisted reproduction in England points out that the organisation isn't particularly good at what it's meant to be doing, namely, regulating fertility clinics, and officious in what it's not very good at, namely, laying down the law on matters of principle.

Lord Winston, celebrity baby-maker, has been having a go at the HFEA, or Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. Not for the first time, the best-known practitioner of assisted reproduction in England points out that the organisation isn't particularly good at what it's meant to be doing, namely, regulating fertility clinics, and officious in what it's not very good at, namely, laying down the law on matters of principle.

He's got a point, you know, about the clinics, though Suzi Leather, the head of the HFEA, and those engaged in the fertility business are naturally reluctant to concede it. The regulatory mechanism for IVF clinics, whereby the 70-odd reproductive clinics in Britain inspect each other, is a remarkably easygoing way of scrutinising an industry which makes its profits from making babies. The fact that some of those clinics also engage in research on surplus human embryos, created as a by-product of their fertility treatments, looks like a conflict of interest which the self-regulators have never quite addressed.

On the wider question of whether the HFEA is competent to address the big questions on subjects such as designer babies - namely, whether embryos should be created specifically to furnish bone marrow or whatever for their siblings - it's by no means clear that this is its job at all. Its own statement of its remit says that it will "where appropriate ... advise the Secretary of State for Health on developments in these [reproductive technology] fields". When it was set up in 1991, this quango's chief role was to regulate the licensing and monitoring of clinics and the supervision of their technical practice, not to break ethical ground.

So, is Suzi Leather going beyond her remit when she declares that, say, a child's need for a father should be removed from the rules governing IVF or that women should be paid £1,000 for donating eggs? I'd say she is. This week Lord Butler criticised the extraordinary way in which so many important decisions are delegated from Parliament to unelected, unrepresentative quangos. He doesn't mention the HFEA but it illustrates the point wonderfully.

Other countries don't have an HFEA, whose appointments procedure is mysterious but manages somehow to exclude any critics of its presumptions. A dozen EU states have bio-ethics committees instead, composed of a range of experts, including philosophers as well as scientists, whose function is not to lay down the law but to advise those who do, namely, Parliament. Why can't we?

Stir it up

A great deal was written last week about religious hatred in the context of David Blunkett's plans to include a measure banning its incitement in the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill - a move which gives the lie to those who say that the man should be spending less time on his personal life and more on his job.

Yet it has occasionally occurred to me that there exists in public life a shadowy body of people whose sole object it is to stir up religious antipathy towards religious minorities in general and Muslims in particular. They surface at this time of year to demand that the word Christmas should be removed from cards, as members of the Scottish parliament have been advised to do, for Nativity plays to be replaced with inclusive pantomimes and for libraries to be banned from carrying advertisements for carol services, while at other times of the year they brood about excising saints' names from schools, as Islington Council was considering for the St Mary Magdalene academy, and for the cross to be dropped from the emblem of Bury St Edmund's. It remains only for them to discover that the Union Jack contains not one cross but three.

Their stated aim is to preserve Muslims from offence at Christian symbolism. But their real ambition, I fancy, is far darker: to create indignant resentment on the part of the majority, vaguely Christian community, at being bossed around in this way at the behest - supposedly - of a comparatively small part of the population. Of course, few of these sinister people are actually Muslim. As The Sun pointed out this week in the context of its Save Our Christmas campaign, the Virgin Birth of Christ features in the Koran.

The end result, of course is to get everyone else worked up that the traditions of Christendom in Britain are being threatened by Islam, when, in fact, the mass of British Muslims are perfectly innocent of any such intention. If David Blunkett wants to ban things, he could start with this inflammatory conspiracy against Christmas.

* * *

You can see what Lord Dubs, the Labour peer is on about, using a private members' Bill to try to ensure that the first born of the monarch will inherit the throne, regardless of sex. No doubt he is anxious that Britain should be up there with Sweden in promoting gender equality from the top down. All very well for the Swedes, whose Crown Princess Victoria, though a little emotionally fragile, looks as normal as the rest of the family. But let's suppose Prince Charles had not been the Queen's first born. The awful spectre raised by Lord Dubs' bill can be summed up in very few words: Queen Anne II.

* * *

Rick Stein, celebrity fish chef, has been brooding about the conflict between the Government's advice to eat two helpings of fish a week and the current environmental problem that species such as cod are being fished out of existence. The trouble is, the Department of Health and the otiose Food Standards Agency routinely opine about what we should be eating without giving any rational thought to where it is to come from or how it is produced. When the Department of Health issued its stupid diktat about two helpings a week, or when Sir John Krebs of the FSA laid down the law about eating salmon, did it not even cross their minds that if the entire population followed its advice, as fortunately it rarely seems to do, there might be larger consequences? I blame my own sex here too. Women are suckers for diet-ary advice from women's magazines and the glossies have been driving their readers for years to forsake red meats in favour of fish. And instead of directing us to common, cheap, local fish, like mackerel, which has quite as much of the fashionable long-chain fatty acids as the fancy stuff, they irresponsibly exhort us to cook salmon (farmed) and sea bass. As Rick Stein points out, the solution is to be pickier about what kind of fish we eat - grey mullet, sand eels, gurnard and John Dory are clear-conscience proteins. Of course there is always the problem that if everyone eats grey mullet, they too will go the way of cod, but we'll meet that problem when we come to it. Meanwhile, let us eat herring.

* * *

Christmas is coming and organised souls are setting about wrapping the presents. For those about to do so, can I issue a plea on behalf of the cash strapped? No names, please, on books, or indeed anything to designate the recipient. We may need to give them to someone else, and nothing is more embarrassing than being caught out passing off a present which bears an affectionate inscription from someone else.

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