Sunday 30 October 2016

A review of the birth registration process in England and Wales

The Law Commission, the organisation which advises the government on legal reform in England and Wales, is considering reviewing the law on birth certificates in its next round of proposed changes. Birth certificates are an important source for the family historian and if this consultation goes ahead I hope that family historians will have the chance to be involved in the process.

With advances in assisted reproductive technology there are now many complicated scenarios such as egg and donor conception and mitochondrial DNA donation which were not even dreamed about when civil registration began in 1837. The information recorded on birth certificates has changed little since that time so a review of the system is most welcome.

A reform of the birth registration process is particularly important for donor-conceived individuals. The law was changed in 2005 so that donor-conceived children have the right to access the information about their biological parents once they reach the age of 18. This information can be obtained from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. However, there is no requirement for the parents to disclose so an individual might never know the circumstances of their birth. There are also some parents who do not use official channels to find a donor, and for these children the details of the biological parents might never be recorded. As I argued in a recent paper, the advent of relative-matching DNA tests and the rapid growth of the genetic genealogy databases now mean that donor anonymity can no longer be guaranteed. It would, therefore, make more sense if there was a legal requirement to record the full information about an individual's biological and social parents at the time of conception for those who are using assisted reproductive technologies.

The proposed review is going to look at wider issues about the the role of birth registration in contemporary society. What is the purpose of a birth certificate? Why do we have birth certificates and for whose benefit are they kept? What do you think?

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