Coronavirus and law and policy: a family and fertility perspective

3 May 2020

The coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic has put national security, healthcare and family centre stage. UK law and policy has adopted a wartime footing that many of us have never witnessed before. It has also brought with it an intense focus on family life.

UK law and policy, and the current lockdown, has revolved around the intrinsic link between our family household and our health and well-being in our fight against this deadly virus. We have been told to ‘stay at home to save lives’ and ‘flatten the curve to stop our NHS being overwhelmed’, to interact closely only with our own household and support vulnerable family members.

Pregnant women have been designated a vulnerable group, alongside our elderly loved-ones and those with serious underlying health issues. We have seen the temporary suspension of fertility treatment services in the UK, causing significant disruption and misery for many patients (although fertility clinics will start to reopen as from 11 May 2020). Our children have also been subject to home schooling directives following school closures.

All of this has made us revisit our daily lives and routines, our personal and family relationships, our hopes and dreams, as well as our work-life balance. We have had to embrace digital technology to continue to work or keep in touch with family and friends from home. It has shaped our fiscal policy too and triggered an economic slowdown.

The Covid-19 pandemic has also led to increased awareness about the importance of genomics in understanding the origins and genetic make-up of Covid-19 and helping to develop a successful vaccine for the future. We have seen genetic sequencing studies of Covid-19 and its various strains. We understand better than ever before that we ignore the dark side of genomics at our peril. Many of us now avidly follow scientific and clinical studies as we await a cure in the hope that we can ‘get back to normal’. As we continue to study this novel and dangerous virus, we are also increasingly mapping its spread and digitally tracing and tracking its impact on populations across the world.

The risk of future global pandemics and how we respond to these will also increasingly need to be informed and shaped by genomic, scientific and healthcare advances, as well as centralised strategies and transparent and effective international co-operation.

Law and policy reform

As such, the Covid-19 pandemic is driving transformation and change. Whether we like it or not,  the world is now in a very different place. Few of us now take our health, our lives, our families or our independence for granted.

For too long, we have seen a fragmented approach to the fertility space and a laissez faire attitude towards individual fertility. We need a different way forward.  As we navigate through this global pandemic, it presents an opportunity to bring about meaningful change and improvements to national healthcare delivery and fertility treatment services.  To maximise this will require a step change in our thinking and a new centralised strategy that works in partnership with advances in artificial intelligence, digital technology, genomic science and medicine and our changing social, political and economic landscape.

A new Ministry for Genomics and Fertility, with a dedicated Minister providing a unified voice and future direction for the fertility sector, would help develop new integrated national genomic and fertility policy and political strategy. This would bring greater cohesion and promote and prioritise the fertility space. It would also help create an all-inclusive policy and strategy that encompasses fertility issues from pre-conception through to pregnancy and birth, as well as individual fertility and genetic legacy in the UK.  In doing so, it would require us to revisit and address our declining conception levels, the increasing age of first-time mothers in the UK, our aging population, the year-on-year increase in demand for fertility treatment, the inequality of the IVF postcode lottery on the NHS and increasing concerns about commercial pressures on the UK fertility sector and affordability of fertility treatment.

A new centralised approach would also help create joined up thinking between the fertility, technology, science, healthcare, education, economic and other sectors. It would help us address ‘silo mentality’ and short-term decisions and responses to the many challenges we face.  It  would also help create new legal frameworks and infrastructure to help us keep pace with the rapid changes around us.

The importance and value of individual fertility and genetic legacy will become increasingly clear in the short and medium term. Male fertility has dropped by 50% in the western world over the last 50 years and we are no longer replacing our population level. We are also increasingly challenging our natural biological clocks. Latest statistics from the HFEA show there were 75,425 cycles of fertility treatment at UK licensed clinics in 2017, up from 68,000 treatment cycles in 2016. The average age of first-time mothers in the UK is now 30 and rising, compared with just 21 in 1971. The average age of fertility patients is now 35.5 years old in the UK. Change is needed to reverse these trends and halt the intensification of the UK’s growing fertility problem.

Advances in genome sequencing and medicine will also continue to bring genetics and fertility issues into focus. These advances herald an era of personalised and preventative healthcare as many more millions of us will undergo whole genome-sequencing as prices fall. We will also increasingly need to grapple with issues, implications and outcomes of genetic testing pre-conception, during pregnancy and post birth. This will in turn bring genetic identity, data ownership and security and genetic and fertility legacy into the spotlight.

A quantum shift in our thinking and approach to the UK’s growing fertility problem is overdue. A centralised and enlightened approach would create new impetus and direction and help bring about much needed law and policy reform.

To help bring about law reform, the UK should establish an expert advisory committee to address rapidly evolving inter-connected digital, artificial intelligence, genomic, epigenetic and reproductive technological advances. This would help inform understanding, generate public debate and shape future fertility and wider law reform, policy and practice.

In summary, the Covid-19 global pandemic is driving rapid change to the world around us.  Despite the current hardships, loss and uncertainty it provides opportunities to improve and promote law, policy and practice and we should seize this firmly.

Need an expert fertility lawyer or family lawyer? If you would like to discuss your situation or you require specialist fertility and family law advice and assistance please contact Louisa by email  or by telephone +44 (0)20 7965 8399.

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