Family friend at the frontline

February 11, 2000

Ruth Deech cares passionately about babies, which is why she tolerates the hate mail that comes with her role as chair of the government's fertility committee. In the second in a series on the people behind the politicians, Harriet Swain talks to the academic who opposed Diane Blood's baby

If there is one phrase that irritates Ruth Deech, chair of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, it is "miracle baby". "Every baby is a miracle," she says.

A lawyer who weighs her words, Deech recognises the power of a pithy phrase. This particular one is symbolic of the fraught relationship that exists between the authority she chairs and the press and, through the press, with public opinion, and, through public opinion, with political decision-making.

"I think it is regrettable that when there is a serious (scientific) issue the media often focuses on some beautiful woman with blonde hair who is caught in the middle of it," she says. "I have stood in front of cameras and talked about human dignity and autonomy, and it cuts no ice at all compared with a woman saying look at my miracle baby."

In a case such as that of the blonde-haired Diane Blood, the widow who clashed with the HFEA and eventually went to Europe to be inseminated with her dead husband's sperm, public opinion is all too willing to embrace scientific advances. But often it goes the other way.

Last month, Labour peer Robert Winston, director of reproductive medicine at London's Hammersmith Hospital, attacked the government for "dragging its heels" over therapeutic cloning. Some people believe that cloned human embryos could be used to grow cell and skin tissue for transplanting into sick patients.

The HFEA has advised the government that while reproductive cloning - cloning human beings - is neither safe nor conducive to human dignity, therapeutic cloning should be considered. In this, the authority has the backing of the Human Genetics Advisory Commission and is likely to be supported by the new Human Genetics Commission.

Winston described carrying out therapeutic cloning as a "moral imperative". He warned that British science would lose out to the United States as British academics follow the lead set last year by Roger Gosden, former professor of reproductive biology at Leeds, who moved to the US to do research it is difficult to do in Britain. But ministers fear that a change would be opposed by the public. They have referred the issue for more research.

"It is for the government to decide, and no doubt it treats it as a political question," Deech says. "Academics and scientists give advice that may be absolutely 100 per cent on one side. The government has to take other considerations on board as well."

One strong lobby, she suggests, is the pro-life lobby. Intriguingly, she says: "It may well be that they have a behind-the-scenes influence (in Downing Street) that may run counter to advances in embryo research."

She describes the need for governments to listen to public opinion as understandable, "though it may be regrettable. I have learnt that if you go too far ahead of public opinion, in the end, research will suffer."

Academics, Deech says, are viewed by politicians as just "one more source of facts". For her, this is a waste. More channels are needed between academics and government. Vehement in her criticism of the way higher education has been neglected, she argues that the relative decline in academic salaries over recent years reflects the gradual fall in academics' status.

Yet there are certain things politicians recognise they cannot or do not want to do without academic help. The HFEA was set up by law ten years ago because Parliament did not want to make on its own the kind of controversial moral decisions that medical advances were then beginning to demand. HFEA's remit is to regulate licensed fertility clinics and ensure new reproductive technologies are ethically sound. Members of the authority include religious and lobby group representatives, former patients, doctors and academics. But the issues they consider are some of the most difficult in contemporary science.

"I am the one who gets anonymous letter complaining about killing embryos," Deech says. "We are the ones who take the doorstepping by journalists and being raked over in the press. We don't have to do it. We do it because one gets fascinated by the process of seeing what's happening at the frontier of artificial reproduction. And I love babies."

She also likes families. In 1969 she was at the Law Commission when it was drafting the Divorce Act. In the mid-1990s, she called on the Major government to ditch its plans to make divorce easier. "We need to bolster families, not cushion their destruction," she said. Her outspokenness then may, she claims, have helped influence Lord Irvine's decision last year to abandon reforms that would allow a quick, no-fault divorce with mediation.

Deech's family life was based in Clapham, where she was the only child of Jewish refugee parents. Aged 11, she won a scholarship to Christ's Hospital School in Hertford. She later gained a place to read law at St Anne's College, Oxford. After achieving her first, she wanted to be a barrister but suffered a crisis of confidence, believing it was possible only with the right money and contacts. She took a temporary job filling in for her tutor, found she loved teaching and, when a few months later she followed her husband to Canada, where he was studying for a doctorate, took up teaching again.

She does regret not becoming a barrister and would even have liked to have a go at politics. "I underestimated myself. Sitting in court now I think: 'I could have done that.' And yes I think I could have gone into politics. I always have an opinion on something." But she says she has never been able to sign up for a single party. She prefers to make up her own mind.

An only daughter with an only daughter of her own and as head of a former women's college, she has been outspoken on the importance of helping women to stand up for themselves. She set up Oxford's first nursery and its equal opportunities committee, although she criticises the university's code on sexual harassment for going too far in penalising men.

For her, one of the key responsibilities of the HFEA is to ensure that infertile women are not exploited. What she wants to avoid is women, who have often already suffered a tragedy such as losing a child, spending thousands of pounds on fruitless fertility treatment. This is especially important when most of the medical work in fertility is done privately, has a low success rate and most of the doctors involved are so prickly about being regulated. "The sort of doctors who are successful in this field, are, by definition, bold, fearless and not easy to regulate," says Deech.

She objects to accusations that a male bureaucracy is preventing women having babies, saying that most of the HFEA are women and that what they are trying to do is prevent the exploitation of fellow women. Her generation was brought up to believe that fertility could be turned on and off, thanks to legalised abortion and the pill, she says. Now she realises how full of pitfalls the process is and is determined to help others through it. But she remains conscious of the need to reassure women that they can be worthwhile human beings without a child. "A woman must not be seen just as a container from which a baby can be produced if you put enough drugs in her."

HFEA members, she says, work to strict ethical principles and are "a cautious lot", who hedge most of their decisions with safeguards and monitoring.

This has sparked criticism from some who accuse the HFEA of sticking too closely to the letter of their brief rather than the spirit. This accusation was particularly strong in the debate over Diane Blood, who finally gave birth to her "miracle baby" in 1998 after HFEA refused her use of fertility services in Britain.

Deech is adamant that consent is a vital principle in British law. Diane Blood's husband, Stephen, had his sperm removed without his permission and in degrading circumstances, she says. "Having thought about it, we were sure what we did was right," she says.

What is more, their decision was vindicated by a report commissioned by the government from Sheila McLean, director of medical law and ethics at Glasgow University. What happened to that report, Deech does not know. It was never published.

Academics, it seems, are only useful up to a point.

Political input

Chairperson of the HumanFertilisation and Embryology Authority; ex-officio memberof the Human GeneticsCommission; principal, St Anne's College, Oxford;frequent letters and articles in the national press on divorce reform, family law and fertility; Rhodes Trustee.

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