The UK's House of Lords is to rule on a landmark legal battle over the creation of so-called 'saviour siblings'. A challenge has apparently been launched to a decision from the Court of Appeal that allowed a couple to use IVF with PGD (preimplantation genetic diagnosis) and tissue-typing techniques to select an embryo whose cells could save their terminally ill son.
In 2001, Shahana and Raj Hashmi asked the UK's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) for permission to screen the tissue type of their IVF embryos to ensure they had a baby whose stem cells would be compatible with their son. Zain Hashmi has thalassaemia, an inherited blood condition, which might be able to be cured by a transplant of umbilical cord blood stem cells from a sibling with matching tissue. None of the Hashmis' other children are a tissue match for him.
After a period of reflection, the HFEA authorised the procedure in December 2001, but its decision was challenged in the High Court by a pro-life campaigner Josephine Quintavalle, of the pressure group Comment on Reproductive Ethics (CORE). She claimed that the HFEA had acted outside of its remit in authorising the technique, and said that it was for Parliament to make decisions of such magnitude. In what was described as a 'surprise ruling', the High Court ruled in December 2002 that the authority did not have the power to authorise the tissue typing procedure, meaning that the Hashmis had to abandon their attempts.
However, in April 2003, the UK's Court of Appeal allowed the HFEA's appeal against the decision, which meant that the couple could again proceed with the treatment. In the Court of Appeal, Lord Justice Schiemann said that Parliament was 'not opposed in principle to doing to an embryo any of the things which are likely to happen to it if the decision of the Authority is implemented'. And Lord Phillips stated that 'screening of embryos before implantation enables a choice to be made as to the characteristics of the child to be born with the assistance of the treatment'. He added 'whether and for what purposes such a choice should be permitted raises difficult ethical questions. My conclusion is that parliament has placed that choice in the hands of the HFEA'.
The Hashmis suffered a further blow in December last year. Having eventually succeeded in becoming pregnant on their third attempt at using the IVF and embryo tissue typing procedure, the pregnancy unfortunately miscarried. At the time, the Hashmis resolved to try for a baby again. Now it seems that they will face further delays.