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Defending life from the moment of conception

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HFE approves expansion of genetic screening

11 May 2006

The British government body which regulates artificial reproduction has decided that IVF embryos can be screened for more diseases than at present. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority currently allows screening for inherited conditions such as cystic fibrosis, but yesterday it agreed with its ethics and law committee's recommendation that clinics might also test for cancer of the breast, ovaries and colon. Clinics test cells from three-day old embryos for faulty genes. The authority says it will not allow testing for asthma, eczema or schizophrenia. [BBC, 10 May] The basis for permitting embryos with some conditions to be screened for, but not others, is the lifetime risk that the genetic factor confers. Previously this was set at 90%. Extending screening to breast and ovarian cancer genes reduces it to 80%. [Times, 10 May] The authority has postponed a decision on whether human eggs might be donated for research by women not undergoing IVF and by women undergoing free IVF treatment in exchange for donating their surplus eggs. [HFEA, 10 May] These latter proposals are criticised in a letter to Tuesday's Guardian from scientists and ethicists in several countries who defends "women's rights to control their bodies and their fertility" but also state that the risks of artificial stimulation of the ovaries outweigh possible benefits. [Guardian, 9 May]

A study has found that a Cambridge, England, hospital would be slow to detect an untypical rise in death rates. Researchers at Papworth hospital synthesised an unusual increase in the number of deaths in records associated with an anaesthetist and a heart surgeon. Results suggest that it would have taken eight months for the problem first to be detected. The late Dr Harold Shipman of Manchester is thought to have killed more than 200 patients over 24 years before he was caught. [BBC, 10 May] SPUC's Anthony Ozimic said: "These findings support what has been found in Holland. Regulating suicide by request and voluntary euthanasia will not prevent killing without or against consent."

A survey of nearly 200 members of the British Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons has found that more than 70% of them oppose the Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill which is to be debated in the Westminster parliament tomorrow. Professor Jonathan Shepherd of Cardiff university, Wales, found that many surgeons wanted better funding for care for the terminally ill. One respondent warned that the proposed law would allow people like Dr Shipman (mentioned above) to kill patients undetected. [NewsWales, 10 May]

Colombia's constitutional court yesterday decided by five votes to three to legalise abortion in cases of rape, incest and danger to the mother's life. The Catholic church opposed the change. [Guardian, 11 May]

The general secretary of the Royal College of Midwives says that maternity services in the UK are in crisis because of staff redundancies caused by debt in the state-run health service. Dame Karlene Davis told her organisation's annual conference in south-west England yesterday that the government was playing down the extent of the problem. She said: "Birth centres [are] closing or under threat, home births cancelled and services centralised. This is denying women choice over the type of maternity care they receive." [Guardian, 10 May]

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