IVF treatment

IVF – moral, legal and scientific uncertainties in a fast changing world

This week has seen three reports concerning issues which are of significant interest to those involved in the world of IVF, be they prospective parents, clinicians, research scientists or even lawyers.

Perhaps the lowest profile was the one with most direct practical effect on potential parents and by no means a new story. Whilst the national guidelines continue to recommend that local commissioning groups fund 3 cycles of IVF for patients, in the South West only one area is meeting those guidelines, with the remainder of the region generally limiting potential parents to one cycle of treatment. Given that the statistical chance of a successful live birth is significantly better when 3 cycles are undertaken, it is questionable whether the 1 cycle policy is a false economy.

Moral, rather than practical issues arise from the news that there has been a call to extend the time for retaining embryos for scientific experimentation from 14 to 28 days. Embryos created but not used for IVF can be retained in laboratories to help researchers studying a wide range of issues, including embryonic development. The 14 day time limit was introduced following deliberations by the Warnock Committee in the mid 1980s and has in many ways been unquestioned, save as a theoretical issue, for much of the intervening period. The fact that it was largely impossible to preserve embryos outside of the womb beyond that period made arguments as to its appropriateness purely academic. However, as with all things in this sphere, science has outpaced the law and embryos can be preserved for a longer period, replicating the environment of the womb in the laboratory. The current primary area of research such an extension of time would aid is that concerning miscarriage, although there are no doubt multiple wider applications not yet even considered.

Objections range from religious doctrine to the hypothesis that embryos begin to develop neurological characteristics from 17 days gestation. It is an issue about which we can expect to hear much more in the coming months.

Finally, it has been reported that the second baby created using 3 person IVF was born in the Ukraine in January. The birth is significant, not only in and of itself but due to the fact that unlike the previous birth, it was as a result of IVF treatment for infertility, whereas the first baby was born in an attempt to avoid inherited diease. In the UK, although legal, the process is limited to cases where the procedure is intended to avoid the effects of mitochondrial disease.

We have previously commented on these issues in an article to be found here.

Chris Thorne, Partner at Clarke Willmott has specialist knowledge of IVF related issues, having acted for the Claimants in the case of Yearworth and Others v North Bristol Health Trust and represented the Pursuers with the assistance of Scottish agents following the Western General Hospital freezer failure.