Doctors Seek Clarity On Embryo Import Law
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04 October 2010
By Swati Deshpande
The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) guidelines approved in 2007 prohibit only the export of human embryos. Dr Pushpa Bhargava, a Padma Bhushan recipient and founder–director of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad who is part of the expert team formulating guidelines for ART clinics in India, says the guidelines are yet to become a statute.
Customs officials are relying on its import tariff manual, especially chapter Mumbai: A human embryo in a container filled with liquid nitrogen was declared to be unacceptable baggage by the Mumbai Customs and was packed off on the next flight to the US on Wednesday. A day later, the incident sparked off a medico–legal debate and put the spotlight on Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART) Bill, which is yet to become a law in India.
In–Vitro Fertilization (IVF) experts have for the last few years been implanting embryos, couriered to India from abroad, into wombs of surrogate mothers for childless couples. Are there grey areas in the law on importing human embryos? The verdict is split. Many doctors say there is "no specific prohibition" in law on importing human embryos. Some Customs officials say there is a restriction on importing them without permission. Legal experts and advocates like Amit Karkhanis say the law needs to be made clear.
Dr Hrishikesh Pai, who heads the IVF centre at Lilavati Hospital and who was to have received the intercepted embryo from a US patient, says he and other specialists would soon make an application to the Central Customs Board in New Delhi to seek clarity on the law. "When we are acting in good faith to ensure that scientific advances help humankind, the government must see that there is no ambiguity in law," he adds.
According to Dr Mandakini Parihar and Dr Manish Banker, both IVF special–5, which deals with ‘products of animal origin, not specified elsewhere, others’ to say that human embryos are restricted entry without prior permission. An officer in Mumbai says the lack of specific prohibition on import of embryos does not mean it is permissible. "It has to be interpreted as dutiable. It needs permission from the office of the Director General Foreign Trade (DGFT). The idea is to prevent misuse."
Doctors and lawyers, however, say laws need to keep speed with advances in medicine and bio–technology.