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Feature Embryology

New life for the HFEA?

BMJ 2011; 342 doi: (Published 25 January 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;342:d439
  1. Clare Dyer, legal correspondent
  1. 1 BMJ, London WC1H 9JR, UK
  1. ClareDyer{at}

The government has announced the disbanding of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, but as Clare Dyer reports, it is not going to go quietly

“It’s a very Alice in Wonderland situation,” muses Lisa Jardine. “I feel like the Cheshire cat. I’m smiling a Cheshire cat smile.” The Cheshire cat’s grin, of course, was all that was left after the rest of him disappeared. “Precisely,” she laughs.

The organisation she chairs, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), could go up in smoke in the UK government’s bonfire of the quangos, the rationalisation exercise that will see some so called arm’s length bodies abolished and the functions of others taken into government departments or spread among other, larger organisations. The Department of Health is proposing to hand over the authority’s role in regulating fertility clinics to the Care Quality Commission, the general healthcare regulator, and to relocate its other main function, licensing embryo research, within a proposed new agency that will streamline the process of approval for medical research. Yet Jardine, professor of renaissance studies at Queen Mary, University of London, has just been reappointed as the HFEA’s chair for a new three year term.

The authority, established in 1991 by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, celebrated its 20th anniversary this month. The birth of the first test tube baby, Louise Brown, in 1978, and the speed at which the technologies of in vitro fertilisation and embryology were developing prompted the government to establish a committee under the philosopher Mary Warnock, now Baroness Warnock, to look at regulation. The 1984 Warnock report concluded that the special status of the human embryo should be enshrined in law but that in vitro fertilisation and research on embryos should be permissible, with appropriate safeguards, and the HFEA was born. The act stipulates …

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