The UK Government's fertility watchdog, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), is to debate whether couples should be allowed to store their embryos for future treatment and the creation of new body parts. At present, embryos can be stored for up to five years, during which time they are only allowed to be used for procreational purposes. From this October the law will change to allow embryos will to be kept for up to 55 years. The Daily Mail reports that possible new legislation, to be debated in July, would allow couples' 'banked' embryos to be used to create 'personalised' treatments for both the parents and children.
The debate is ethically controversial as it concerns using embryos for a purpose other than to create new life. Although stem cell research has yet to provide any concrete 'cures' for disease, experts such as Dr Richard Kennedy of the British Fertility Society (BFS) have suggested that within the next ten years, significant progress will be made in treating degenerative conditions such as Parkinson's disease. Scientists have already transplanted a windpipe grown from a patient's adult stem cells; human embryonic stem cells (ES cells) have the ability to develop into any tissue type in the body, thus their remedial potential is huge.
The debate will come amid concerns. For example, Paul Tully, general secretary of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC) has expressed his concern that 'these proposals widen the scope for abuse of embryos. Commercial companies will inevitably seek to exploit people's fears about degenerative diseases'. He added: 'This is about the commercialisation of human embryos, which is dehumanising'. Further, Josephine Quintavalle, of the campaign group Comment on Reproductive Ethics (Core) has said that 'it is sadly almost inevitable that bespoke embryonic stem cells created from frozen surplus will become the latest must-have healthcare accessory'.
The HFEA has already ruled in favour of creating 'saviour siblings', whereby specific embryos are selected for implantation if they are a tissue match for an existing child with a serious condition. This procedure was enshrined in law with the passage of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008. The process is also ethically controversial because of the ensuing destruction of 'non-matched' embryos, so some experts are saying the ethical 'leap' has already been made to pave the way for using embryos as future body repair kits.