There have been many recent developments in the fertility sector and associated law and practice. It remains a fast moving and evolving area on many fronts.
The UK fertility watchdog, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), is currently considering an application by a group of scientists in London who seek permission to edit human embryos. This scientific group want to increase understanding about human genes needed for human embryos to develop successfully. Their aim is to reduce the incidence of miscarriage and infertility and improve fertility treatments. If permission is granted by the HFEA, it will be the first scientific group to do this research outside of China. Genetic modification of human embryos in Britain would, if approved, be legally restricted. Embryos would not be allowed to be implanted into the womb. Genetic modification of embryos raises a plethora of issues, not least from a regulation perspective.
There has been recent media coverage of a UK sperm donor who claims to have fathered more than 800 children through private unlicensed sperm donation. HFEA guidelines advise that a sperm donor should only donate to a maximum of ten families in the UK, to reduce cases of consanguinity and following research about family views on numbers of donor-conceived half-siblings. Private unlicensed sperm donation is believed to be rising in the UK for a variety of reasons including the cost of fertility treatment.
Private unlicensed sperm donation can create complex legal issues and unwanted outcomes in practice, leaving aside the medical aspects. It can leave sperm donors with unintended legal and financial responsibility for the donor conceived child and create legal uncertainty for all parties. Private unlicensed sperm donation can also vary in nature and character. It can involve a 'known donor', which can create a different dynamic and wider set of issues compared with those associated with an arms-length private sperm donor. This makes it very important to understand and proactively manage the legal issues and implications in practice from the outset.
The HFEA has over the last year reviewed policy and practice concerning informed consent to fertility treatment at UK licensed fertility clinics. Fertility patients need to understand the legal issues, implications and outcomes of their treatment not only for themselves but also for their future born child and others involved in the process. The provision of informed consent to fertility treatment is much more than a paperwork exercise. In September 2015, the English High Court highlighted the real life problems that occur when informed consent to fertility treatment falls short, which left eight couples embroiled in legal parenthood proceedings and highlighted a further 75 similar cases.