Letter: In a democracy, the people should decide questions of medical ethics

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The Independent Online
Annabel Ferriman's profile of Ruth Deech, chair of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, gives us a fascinating portrait of a typical establishment flak-catcher ("Desperate to have a baby...?", 6 October). No one doubts that we must police the expanding choices in fertility and reproduction treatments, but do we really want a remote, spiky authority, simply overseeing the activities of medical professions?

The public has no say at all. As with all quangos, there is no public right of access to the HFEA's meetings and documents. Even the annual meeting is for insiders only. The 200 or so people who attend are HFEA members, staff and inspectors, medical staff from clinics, academics, and members of organised groups, including "patient-support" organisations.

But ordinary men and women are at the sharp end of all the HFEA's decisions. As the debate on fertility treatment in Channel 4's The People's Parliament programme has shown, members of the public are perfectly capable of considering complex medical and ethical questions. In Denmark, issues of the type settled in the HFEA's ivory tower are handed over to "consensus conferences", or juries of ordinary people who consult experts and others over a period of time and then deliver verdicts that are wider and more balanced than a segregated, specialist authority can ever achieve.

The only real say that the public has is through the courts - as Mrs DB recently showed with her appeal against the authority's refusal to allow her to use her dead husband's frozen sperm to get pregnant. No citizen's jury would have come up with so rigid and cruel a decision. Why not let the people into the HFEA?

Stuart Weir, Director

Wendy Hall, Research Officer

The Democratic Audit

University of Essex

Colchester

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