Sperm swimming towards an egg

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act (1990)

19/7/02. By Deirdre Janson-Smith

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act (1990) makes provisions to license and monitor the performance of fertility treatment clinics, and any research using human embryos.

The Act covers three main activities: any fertility treatment that involves the use of donated eggs or sperm (for example, donor insemination) or embryos created outside the body (IVF – in vitro fertilisation); the storage of eggs, sperm and embryos; and research on early human embryos. The Act has been amended in 2000 and 2001, to allow the use of a dead person's sperm in IVF and to allow the creation of embryos for therapeutic cloning research.

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) was created under the Act to oversee the licensing and compliance of treatment clinics and research centres in the UK, and to keep under review all new developments in the field.

The Act provides a legal framework for everyone involved in fertility treatments. It defines the rights of donors, patients and the children who may result from the treatment. The rights of the child are paramount, and treatment cannot be offered without proper guidance to the patient or donor. Eggs, sperm and embryos can be stored only for a limited time – ten years for eggs and sperm, five years for an embryo.

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) was created under the Act to oversee the licensing and compliance of treatment clinics and research centres in the UK, and to keep under review all new developments in the field.

The Act permits research on human embryos only for strictly defined purposes, and if the HFEA considers the research to be 'necessary and desirable'. The 1990 Act defines these purposes as:

  • promoting advances in the treatment of infertility
  • increasing knowledge about the causes of miscarriage
  • increasing knowledge about the causes of congenital disease
  • developing more effective techniques of contraception
  • developing methods for detecting the presence of gene or chromosome abnormalities in embryos before implantation
  • or for such other purposes as may be specified in regulations.

The Act only allows research to be carried out on an embryo up to 14 days (when the primitive streak appears). The genetic make-up of any cell cannot be altered while it forms part of an embryo.

Amendments to the Act

In 2000, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology (Amendment) Bill proposed amending Section 28 to allow sperm to be taken from a dead man to fertilise an egg, if the man and woman concerned were married, living together as man and wife, or had been receiving treatment together at a licensed clinic.

In 2001, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology (Research Purposes) Regulations were enacted. These extended the purposes for which an embryo could be created, not for reproduction, but to:

  • increasing knowledge about the development of embryos
  • increasing knowledge about serious disease
  • enabling any such knowledge to be applied in developing treatments for serious disease.

These provisions allowed research on 'therapeutic cloning' – the creation of an embryo by fusing a denucleated egg with a nucleus taken from another egg. The aim of this research is to take cells from early embryos and use them to grow body tissues that could be used to treat disease. It also covered the use of cell nuclear replacement for research into mitochondrial disease.

Embryos can be created for research purposes only, and kept only up to 14 days. It is a criminal offence to implant them in a woman, under the Human Reproductive Cloning Act 2001.

Image credit: Bill McConkey

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