Interview: Head of fertility watchdog says writing fathers out of the rules will extend the chance of treatment to all women

In the two years since she was appointed chair of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), Suzi Leather has stood firm against the mavericks in the fertility business who believe doctors should be free to offer whatever treatment they think fit to anyone who walks into their consulting rooms.

She has declared a ban on sex selection and limited the number of embryos transferred to the womb to a maximum of two in women under 40, to reduce the incidence of multiple births. She has demonstrated her compassion for the infertile and now wants to see tougher measures to protect children born through IVF.

But Ms Leather's proposal to write fathers out of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act is bound to be seen in some quarters as a capitulation to public pressure. She argues that it is a principled move about extending the opportunity of treatment to all women, regardless of their partnership status. More than a decade has passed since the 1990 Act became law, and times have changed. Then, legislators wanted to ensure that no category of woman was excluded from treatment, but also felt they should manage the sense of moral unease about helping single and lesbian women to become mothers.

Many clinics took the view that treatment should be limited to heterosexual couples living in long-term relationships. But as the years have passed, the number of single-parent families has grown and an increasing number of clinics have offered treatment to single and lesbian women. Today the clause limiting treatment to women who can find a man is not only outmoded, but unfair, Ms Leather said.

"My personal view is that there should be more equal access to fertility treatment. I don't think single and lesbian women should be excluded solely on those grounds [that there is no father]. There are certain circumstances in which children can grow up happy and well parented in the absence of a man. It is the quality of the relationship that matters not that a man or a woman are involved," she said.

Ms Leather, 47, knows the pull of motherhood and its pressures - she has three teenage children. She is emphatic that she is not saying men are superfluous - only that it is wrong to discriminate against women who do not have one. "I think having two parents is better than one, largely on energy grounds. It is also nice to have someone to share the enjoyment," she said.

But she dismisses arguments that fatherless children are more prone to educational failure and delinquency, saying stress can be caused in many ways - poverty, unhappy relationships, living on a crime-ridden estate - and may be translated to children. "Delinquency cannot just be put down to children being brought up by women on their own," she said.

She was born in Uganda, the daughter of a psychosexual counsellor, and studied politics at the University of Exeter, training later in probation and social work. She describes herself as a Christian Socialist and has been a committed member of the Labour Party. She served on numerous committees and public bodies before coming to national attention as deputy chairman of the Food Standards Agency before being appointed to the HFEA in March 2002.

Ms Leather succeeded in injecting new purpose, as well as a dose of glamour, into what had become an inward-looking, nervous body, frightened of confronting clinics and reluctant to engage with the public. She has taken on a big task - rewriting Britain's 13-year-old fertility law.

The review began last year and has already identified ways in which the law has failed to keep pace with advances in science and the development of new treatments, such as sperm sorting for sex selection.

Today it will move to an examination of the welfare of the child provisions where changes are also badly needed, she said. There is, for example, no requirement for clinics to check whether applicants for treatment are on the paedophile register or have convictions against children. There is also, she said, a need to protect patients from experimental treatment that harm a child's positive self-image - such as using eggs from an aborted foetus to conceive it.

No maximum age is set for patients by the authority, which is left to clinics to decide, but this will be examined in the review. Ms Leather said: "Clinics set their own limits and many are very reluctant to treat women above 45. They will look at each case on its merits but, personally, I do seriously question whether it is right to treat women in their fifties and sixties. I don't think fertility treatment is there to everlastingly push against the barrier of the menopause."

Although the authority banned sex selection after a consultation exercise showed the public overwhelmingly against it, the decision was pragmatic rather than principled. Current methods are risky and unreliable, but if the technique was refined, it could become acceptable. "I can't rule out that our view might change as the science advances," she said.

Since taking up her post at the HFEA, she says she has become more aware of the suffering caused by infertility. But at the same time she is anxious to challenge the orthodoxy that every woman must be a mother: "You can be a perfectly happy human being living a full life without being a parent." She pauses before adding: "Although being a parent is the central fulfilment of my life. It is part of what we seem to be programmed for."

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