The British fertility watchdog may have to relax its rules on “designer babies” because of mounting pressure from doctors and parents, a leading specialist said today.
Fertility expert Dr Mohammed Taranissi said there was no justification for inconsistencies over who can screen embryos for specific purposes and who cannot.
The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) is under pressure to change its policy to allow parents to screen IVF embryos for desirable characteristics and not just for serious genetic diseases.
The controversial debate centres on parents who want to use IVF and genetic screening to create babies whose tissue could then save the life of a sick sibling.
The HFEA is to consider the results of its review on the issue at a meeting on Wednesday, but a spokeswoman refused to say whether it is about to change its policy.
Past cases have allowed parents to screen if it is also of benefit to the embryo, but not where the only purpose is to create genetic conditions to help another with no benefit to the child that is to be born.
But Dr Taranissi, of the London-based Assisted Reproduction and Gynaecology Centre, said that logic is flawed.
“If the principle is acceptable then it should be acceptable in all cases,” he said.
“You have a child at home that is very seriously ill and you see the pain and agony and know there is a simple treatment out there that will relieve this condition. If it is okay for this child or that child how can you deny it to other people?”
Dr Taranissi has applied for permission to screen the IVF embryos of Joe and Julie Fletcher, from Northern Ireland, to help their son Joshua.
The two-year-old suffers from the blood disorder Diamond-Blackfan anaemia and needs a transplant of stem cells from a matching donor.
It is exactly the same scenario experienced by Jayson and Michelle Whitaker in 2002 who wanted to create a match for their son Charlie who had the disorder.
The couple were refused permission to screen an IVF embryo in this country because there was no benefit to the future child.
The Whitakers, who were also under Dr Taranissi, went to the US where the rules are more relaxed and gave birth to Jamie the following year.
But the case contrasted with that of Raj and Shahana Hashmi who were allowed to screen to help make a match for four-year-old son Zain who had the rare blood disorder thalassemia.
The HFEA allowed it because the disorder is genetic and therefore screening could prevent the future child having the condition as well.
But Dr Taranissi said there is no difference because in cases like the Hashmis’ nothing is specifically done to the embryos to prevent them having a disorder.
They are merely screened to check they are normal, he said
“Where is the benefit to an embryo if all you are doing is checking that it is normal?” he said.
He said he asked the HFEA if they wanted to discuss the issue before submitting the Fletcher case.
“They said just to submit an application as they consider each on a case by case basis. At the moment I do not see any justification in doing that unless they are to change the rules.
“I think it is going to be very hard to turn down the application. There is enough evidence that this is no different from the Hashmi case.”
Any change in the screening rules is likely to prove controversial and be opposed by anti-abortion groups who claim embryo selection effectively kills a child in those that are discarded.
Yesterday the Human Genetics Commission announced a nationwide consultation to seek the public’s views on the issue.