New rules for doctors raise gay fertility treatment questions

Tony Grew March 20, 2008
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New guidelines from the General Medical Council mean doctors could have to reveal to patients if they object to fertility treatment.

Personal Beliefs and Medical Practice also covers abortion, the wearing of veils by female doctors and circumcision of male children.

The GMC has said that doctors cannot deny any procedure to a patient on the grounds of their sexual orientation.

At present some fertility clinics have a blanket ban on same-sex couples and ultimately the decision is down to the clinicians.

Under the new guidelines, doctors who morally or for religious reasons do not want to treat a patient must refer them to another medic.

Jane O’Brien, the GMC’s Head of Standards and Ethics, told

Personal Beliefs and Medical Practice emphasises the distinction between refusing to provide or refer a patient for a particular procedure – which may be acceptable – and refusing to treat a particular patient or group of patients, which would not.

“While we support doctors’ human right to hold personal beliefs and to practise in accordance with them, we expect doctors to be prepared to set aside their personal beliefs where this is necessary in order to provide care in line with GMC guidance.

Personal Beliefs and Medical Practice makes it clear that patient care must not be compromised because of the personal beliefs which all doctors have and which may affect their day-to-day practice.”

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, currently before Parliament, proposes new recognition of same-sex couples as legal parents of children conceived through the use of donated sperm, eggs or embryos.

A woman who gives birth and her civil partner will both be recognised as the parents of a child conceived through assisted reproduction.

Two men will be able to apply for a parental order to become parents of a child conceived through a surrogacy arrangement.

The legislation has faced opposition from Conservative peers and MPs and church leaders.

The leader of Britain’s Catholic Church, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, criticised the bill, saying that it is “profoundly wrong.”

In a letter to The Times, he claimed that it subordinates the rights of the child to the desire of the women.

“The bill proposes to remove the need for IVF providers to take into account the child’s need for a father when considering an IVF application, and to confer legal parenthood on people who have no biological relationship to a child born as a result of IVF,” he wrote.

“This radically undermines the place of the father in a child’s life, and makes the natural rights of the child subordinate to the desires of the couple. It is profoundly wrong.”

At present the law requires that NHS fertility clinics take account of the “need for a father” when assessing women for treatment.

In practice this can lead to clinics deciding not to accept lesbians and those women instead using “DIY” methods in order to conceive.

“Lesbians tend to be refused service or made to pay for it under the current arrangements,” explained Ruth Hunt, head of policy at gay equality organisation Stonewall.

“Some clinics have a blanket ban on same-sex couples and ultimately it is down to the clinicians. That leads many lesbians to have to use informal methods, which can lead to legal difficulties.

“Lesbians should have a choice.”

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill contains new rules that will allow gay and lesbian couples to become the legal parents of a child conceived through donated sperm.

The provisions also mean that lesbians will have equal access to fertility services, which could mean IVF but is much more likely to mean assisted conception.

“In that context the lesbian would receive the full support and advice on her decision to become a parent and that is why we are very keen on equal access,” said Ms Hunt.

At the moment if a lesbian couple have a baby, one partner has to formally adopt the child in order to be a parent, even if the child is conceived through a fertility clinic.

The new rules would mean that civil partners will automatically become the legal parents of the child, even if the child is conceived ‘informally’ ie: not through a clinic.

The two people named on the birth certificate would also be legally responsible for the child. On dissolution of a civil partnership the current law allows the courts to consider maintenance payments for the child.

DIY sperm donation will still be legal but under the proposed laws the non-birth mother not in a civil partnership could not be on the birth certificate.

The advantages of using a fertility clinic mean that the donor is registered, and cannot be legally held responsible for the child’s welfare or upkeep.

His name does not appear on the birth certificate.

Details of the donor, such as his last known address, name and medical information are kept and can be shown to the child when he or she reaches 18, or before if the legal parents consent.

For men who may be asked by a lesbian friend to donate sperm, there is the legal reassurance that they can donate informally if they want, become a registered donor, and know that they will not be legally responsible for the child’s maintenance.

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