Government involvement in biotech takes many forms, and government agencies take a variety of shapes and play a range of roles. Direct regulation — setting standards, prohibiting this and that — is not the only option. So when evaluating the usefulness of a governmental or quasi-governmental body involved in regulating (in the broad sense) some bit of biotechnology, it’s important to look at what kinds of activities, in particular, it was involved in.
Here’s Zoe Williams, writing for The Guardian, about the demise of the UK’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Agency: After the burning, a raft of IVF horror stories to come
So this function is vital: there will always be biotechnological advance, and there will always be ethical concern. Nobody else synthesises these. [Ethics professor Donna] Dickenson comments: “We don’t have a statutory national ethics commission. Almost every other European country does … the consultative function [of the HFEA] is very important: it’s notorious that biotechnology moves very fast, and outstrips legislation. It’s very hard for the public to keep up because the science is changing all the time.”
It’s difficult to predict what the result would be of the discursive vacuum left by a disbanded agency. Someone will occupy that space: it’s possible that a clear-eyed, neutral party might step in to present evidence in an unsensational way. But it’s more likely to be the Daily Mail, with a raft of IVF horror stories. A small but noticeable amount of the HFEA’s time has gone in correcting misleading stories from the press. It’s interesting to consider whether IVF could ever have become so acceptable a procedure without these interventions….
The HFEA’s disbanding may leave a hole in the regulation of UK infertility, but that will probably be filled in immediately by other agencies. There are really too many agencies doing more-or-less the same jobs anyway.