Birth Certificates and Assisted Reproduction: Setting the Record Straight?

Progress Educational Trust
Institute of Child Health, University College London, 30 Guilford Street, London WC1N 1EH
17 October 2016
This public event was organised by the Progress Educational Trust (PET) and was supported by the Edwards and Steptoe Research Trust Fund, Oregon Reproductive Medicine, Natalie Gamble Associates and Steven H Snyder and Associates.
What is the purpose of a birth certificate? What information should a birth certificate contain? For whose benefit do we register births?
There have been conflicting opinions on these matters since at least 1837, when responsibility for registering English births passed from the Church of England to the General Register Office. But the advent of assisted reproduction, and the emergence of new family forms, have raised challenging new questions about the purpose and content of birth certificates. Consequently, the Law Commission is considering whether to review the law in this area.
Birth certificates have already been affected by changes in UK fertility law. For example, it is now possible for two people of the same sex to appear as parents on a birth certificate. However, the UK law that directly governs birth certificates has remained largely unchanged since 1953, 25 years before the first IVF baby was even born. This law stipulates that no more than two parents can appear on a birth certificate, but does not stipulate that these parents must be biologically related to the child.
Recent years have seen growing social acceptance of non-traditional family forms including single parents, same-sex parents, transgender parents and co-parents. These developments have gone hand-in-hand with advances in science and medicine, creating scenarios that could scarcely have been envisaged by policymakers in 1953 (much less in 1837). For example:
A child can be created with sperm, eggs or embryos donated by a third party.
Intending parents can arrange for a surrogate to carry a child.
A transgender person can preserve their sperm or eggs, transition to a different gender (whereupon - if they apply successfully to have their their acquired gender legally recognised in the UK - they will be issued with a new birth certificate), and then conceive a child using their preserved gametes.
In the UK, it is legal to conceive a child using genetic material from three people - two parents plus an anonymous mitochondrial donor - in order to avoid the transmission of inherited mitochondrial disease.
When IVF is combined with the possibility of freezing sperm, eggs or embryos, conception and/or birth can take place without either of the biological parents even having to be alive.
Administrative errors during fertility treatment can result in women having to adopt their own children, or - conversely - being wrongly listed as a child's mother.
Scenarios like those above are further complicated when a child is conceived and/or born overseas - an increasingly common situation, with the rise of cross-border reproductive care.
In light of all these developments, is it now time to review the UK law on birth certificates? Or could changing the law in this area give rise to more problems than it solves?
If we decide to change birth certificates, do we want them to serve as a more accurate records of biological facts? For example, should birth certificates include details of any form of assisted reproduction that was used?
Alternatively, do we want to change birth certificates so they are better able to reflect non-biological facts? In the Canadian province of British Columbia, for example, it is now possible to list up to four parents on a birth certificate.

Dr Marilyn Crawshaw
Chair of the British Association of Social Workers' Project Group on Assisted Reproduction
Natalie Gamble
Solicitor and Founder of Natalie Gamble Associates and Brilliant Beginnings
Kate Litwinczuk
Donor-conceived person
Dr Julie McCandless
Assistant Professor of Medical and Family Law at the London School of Economics and Political Science
Craig Reisser
Development and International Programmes Director for Oregon Reproductive Medicine
Steven Snyder
Founding and Principal Partner at Steven H Snyder and Associates

Peter Braude
Emeritus Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at King's College London

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