The annual conference of the Progress Educational Trust (PET), ‘Make Do or Amend: Should We Update UK Fertility and Embryo Law?’ could not have been more timely. Held at the beginning of December, it shortly followed emerging reports from China that the first gene-edited babies will soon be born. While attendees did not miss the opportunity to discuss these developments, the conference provided food for thought for anyone interested in the legal aspects of fertility and reproduction.
The general sense in the room was that the law can hardly keep up with technological developments in this area. As many speakers brilliantly argued, this can lead to problems and frustrations when trying to apply old laws to current contexts. Professor Emily Jackson underlined the issues faced by UK patients as a result of the 10 year legal limit on embryo storage, while Dr Kylie Baldwin highlighted similar issues experienced by women undergoing egg freezing for social reasons. Additionally, the law can be especially restrictive for families who conceive through donation and surrogacy. Both Natalie Gamble and Natalie Smith did an excellent job of underlining changing family practices.
I was especially struck by the diversity that exists within European fertility law. Oftentimes, regulations cannot be separated from the ethical and religious context of their respective countries. This was especially evident in Professor Robert Spaczyński’s presentation on reproductive laws in Poland and Professor Christian de Geyter’s overview of assisted conception in Switzerland. Giving attendees a fascinating picture of the larger European landscape, Satu Rautakallio-Hokkanen, the Chair of Fertility Europe, walked us through many differences between legal restrictions in assisted conception and services offered in various countries across the continent.
For me, a crucial question emerged during the discussion: why is this area of medical practice as regulated as it is? Some have argued that we are talking about procedures that should not even be within the purview of the law. Others might think that we just need better laws, instead of getting rid of them altogether. It is clear, however, that for the time being, fertility and embryo law remains contentious. Consequently, we need to have these debates and conversations in order to find the best solutions. PET’s event made me reflect on bigger questions than the ones I had going in. I had no doubt that better regulations are needed. Now, I wonder, however, about legal systems’ inherent limitations and whether such institutions have the adequate means to cope with rapid changes. Should certain procedures remain unregulated? I have not yet decided on my definitive views, but I’m glad these conversations are happening.