Clinical Review ABC of subfertility

Assisted conception and the law in the United Kingdom

BMJ 2003; 327 doi: (Published 23 October 2003) Cite this as: BMJ 2003;327:978
  1. Peter Braude,
  2. Sadia Muhammed


    Along with advances in technology comes the need for government guidelines and laws to ensure that those technologies are used safely and responsibly. This article covers the development of the rules in the United Kingdom that govern assisted conception, and the implications of these rules for day to day clinical practice.

    Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990

    The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act was passed in 1990 in response to the report of the Committee of Inquiry into Human Fertilisation and Embryology (the Warnock report), which examined three main public concerns. These were:

    • Creation of human embryos outside the body and their use in treatment

    • Use of human embryos in research

    • Use of donated gametes and embryos

    The act established the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), and its licensing and inspection procedures, as the main mechanism for regulating these activities.

    Functions of the HFEA

    Embedded Image

    Baroness Mary Warnock chaired the Committee of Inquiry into Human Fertilisation and Embryology 1982-4

    The HFEA is a statutory non-departmental public body and is accountable to the secretary of state for health. Established in 1991, it is the first statutory body of its type in the world. It has 18 members who are appointed by the secretary of state, including a lay chairperson and a deputy chairperson. At least one third, but not more than half, of its membership may be registered medical practitioners or those who have been involved with assisted conception or its research funding.

    View this table:

    Assisted conception treatments that require an HFEA licence*


    Three types of licences can be granted by the HFEA.

    A treatment licence allows the unit to pursue treatments that fall under the act.

    A storage licence allows cryopreservation and storage of gametes and embryos.

    A research licence is needed to perform any research that uses human embryos in vitro.

    View this table:

    Research using human embryos in vitro permitted under an HFEA …

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