Women who conceive a child through in vitro fertilization (IVF) or sperm donation can name "any" person as the second parent, as long as the person consents to the arrangement, and is not a close relation of the mother, according to new UK regulations.
The new rules, put forward by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), blow wide open the doors on what it means to be a parent, making it possible for women to name friends and acquaintances, as well as their lesbian partners as a child’s "father" or second parent.
The rules also remove a previous clause in the law that encouraged fertility clinics to consider a child’s "need for a father" when providing "treatment."
The HFEA’s FAQ’s on the new regulations make clear that the woman undergoing "treatment" "can consent to any man or woman being the father or second parent" as long as they are not "within prohibited degrees of relationship in relation to each other." It gives the example of a brother or an aunt as relations who would be within the prohibited degrees.
The HFEA also explains that women who conceive using their lesbian partner’s eggs will still be listed as the mother of the child. "If you give birth to a child, you will be that child’s mother, whether the eggs used are your own or your partner’s." In such a case the lesbian partner will be automatically considered the "second parent" if the pair are in a civil relationship, unless the partner objects, in which case the child will only have one parent listed.
The rules are set to come into effect on April 6.
A spokesman for the HFEA suggested that those in unconventional arrangements wait until the rules go into effect before conceiving a child through IVF or sperm donation.
"Obviously the present rules are the present rules," she said. "If a lesbian couple, for example, were thinking about having IVF treatment they might be better off waiting until April because the rules about who they can name as a second parent will make things easier."
The HFEA’s FAQ’s also address the sticky question of how two men, who are planning to have a child through surrogacy, can both be listed as parents on the birth certificate. However, since the new regulations only affect women, they do not allow for two men to artificially inseminate a woman with one of their sperm, and both be listed as parents of the child.
For that, homosexual male couples will have to wait until next year, when regulations are set to be put in place that will allow two men to be listed as parents in surrogacy arrangements.
"From April 2010, it will be possible for male couples to apply to the courts for a Parental Order which, if granted, will allow the birth to be registered showing both men as the parents in the Parental Order Register," explains the HFEA.
David Jones, professor of bioethics at St Mary’s University College in southwest London, told the Times that opening parenthood to anybody at all seems "arbitrary."
"These fathers or second parents sound more like godparents," he said. "I wonder how wise it is to encourage people to do this because the ‘father’ or second parent will have legal rights and responsibilities."
Conservative MP Ann Widdecombe also criticized the regulations, observing, "Every child has got a right to a father and this bill for the first time quite deliberately creates a situation where children are born without a father.
"A father plays a unique role in a child’s life. The effect is quite simple. You’re going to deprive a child from the outset."
Former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith agreed with Widdecombe, saying, "The present Government seems not to care a damn about families.
"Teenage pregnancy is on the increase, abortion is on the increase, family breakdown is at record levels and we have got a growing number of dysfunctional children that are the product of broken homes.
"The lesson seems to be loud and clear to me that fathers are required."