Science friction in the courts

Our family laws are too outdated to effectively deal with the implications of three-parent IVF

Margaret Kelly

Three-parent IVF is welcome news for couples who may have struggled to conceive. Nonetheless, at present, the law that governs contact and residence proceedings is over 20 years old and stems from a very different scientific and social background to what we have today.  Judges have therefore had to be creative when dealing with cases involving circumstances that were unimaginable at the time the law was introduced.

Cases involving modern conception are often extremely sensitive and raise a variety of emotive issues for all involved. Trying to strike the appropriate balance between the various competing interests of the individuals, including the child, can be exceptionally difficult and is an interesting developing area of the law.

Despite the courts recognising different parenting roles – for example legal, biological and psychological – a person can be a combination of any three or all of these roles.  The inevitable tension then arises when deciding which of these should take priority.

The court must recognise the benefits to a child receiving the necessary elements of parenting, such as the need to know and understand their biological roots whilst having the stability of continuation of parenting – disagreements and tension then inevitably arise when multiple people are concerned.

Although we are told the procedure will only be considered as a minor alteration to ‘traditional’ IVF treatment, the children conceived through this method may suffer identity loss and become confused by their situation within an entirely new form of family group.

The procedure in question would involve taking the healthy DNA from a mother’s egg and transferring it into the egg of another
woman who would be the donor. This can be done either before or
after fertilisation by the male’s sperm.

The process will involve the genes from three different people, and it is this that is proving to be the most controversial.

As and when three-parent IVF is introduced in the UK and becomes commonplace, the relevant family laws will have to be pored over and updated to confirm who will be classified as the biological and the legal parents of the child. Consideration will then have to be given to the weight these roles are given in the child’s day-to-day upbringing.

Conceptions arising from modern scientific techniques are res-ponsible for a significant number of contested cases each year. How-ever, to date all decisions are first instant with no court of appeal
decision. Lawyers, child and adolescent psychiatrists are working hard to understand what is the child’s best interests in this brave new world.

Embryology and human fertilisation will always divide opinions. The role of the law makers and the courts is to keep up with science  and society and protect those who wish to take benefit from such advances and, most importantly, those who are born into these new family units.