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“No father required”?: the welfare assessment in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008

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Of all the changes to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 that were introduced in 2008 by legislation of the same name, foremost to excite media attention and popular controversy was the amendment of the so-called welfare clause. This clause forms part of the licensing conditions which must be met by any clinic before offering those treatment services covered by the legislation. The 2008 Act deleted the statutory requirement that clinicians consider the need for a father of any potential child before offering a woman treatment, substituting for it a requirement that clinicians must henceforth consider the child’s need for “supportive parenting”. In this paper, we first briefly recall the history of the introduction of s 13(5) in the 1990 Act, before going on to track discussion of its amendment through the lengthy reform process that preceded the introduction of the 2008 Act. We then discuss the meaning of the phrase “supportive parenting” with reference to guidance regarding its interpretation offered by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. While the changes to s 13(5) have been represented as suggesting a major change in the law, we suggest that the reworded section does not represent a significant break from the previous law as it had been interpreted in practice. This raises the question of why it was that an amendment that is likely to make very little difference to clinical practice tended to excite such attention (and with such polarising force). To this end, we locate debates regarding s 13(5) within a broader context of popular anxieties regarding the use of reproductive technologies and, specifically, what they mean for the position of men within the family.

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