IN THE NEWS: LORD WINSTON: The brooding faces of a fertility god

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The Independent Online
FOR A LORD of creation he looks uncommonly gloomy. The thick moustache and hang-dog expression convey infinite sadness. Odd, really, in one who has brought joy to hundreds of couples who have found themselves, in his hands, transformed into parents, writes Jeremy Laurance.

Now the fertility pioneer Professor Robert Winston, ennobled by Tony Blair but deified by practically everyone else, has turned his attention to the other end of life. As presenter of a new BBC television series The Human Body, to be shown in May, he this week defended the decision to allow the cameras to film the last moments of a man dying from inoperable cancer.

In a typically robust piece in Wednesday's Times he dismissed critics who fear that the scene may distress the recently bereaved and expressed his "outrage" at "journalists who have tried to sensationalise the decision" to show it on prime-time television.

As a candidate for God's earthly representative, Lord Winston has few equals. He is the moral arbiter of our times - ever ready with an opinion on the latest ethical conundrum and never shy about expressing it.

Brilliant, mercurial but also intolerant and arrogant, he has a complex relationship with the media, alternately using and abusing it.

Many times he has made the news himself, as now, by pushing out the ethical boundaries. He has always gone his own way, against received opinion. When it emerged that he was giving fertility treatment to a woman with HIV he was quite prepared to override counter views and was disdainful of the critical public reaction. There has been unease at the Hammersmith Hospital, where he runs the fertility clinic, about his constant pushing against the limits and his frequent appearances on television. He in turn is frequently irritated by the "bloody bureaucrats who run medicine".

Married with three children, and an orthodox Jew, he speaks often of how much his family means to him and has wondered aloud how he would have coped had he been infertile himself.

He is a libertarian with an authoritarian bent. He has defended treating lesbians - "There is no evidence they would do damage to a child" - and argued on behalf of his HIV-infected patient that she would make an excellent mother.

Television producers love his brooding looks, his deep, reassuring voice and his theatricality - for years he wanted to be an actor, not a doctor. He says he hates talking about himself and loves talking about science. That is why he gives the interviews and makes the films. Sometimes, however, the mask slips and he displays an arrogance bordering on contempt. He thought the reaction to Dolly, the cloned sheep, with warnings of bizarre animals and Identikit Saddam Husseins, was "ludicrous", and the fuss over designer babies raised by the development of genetic screening ill-informed.

The problem is that he doesn't suffer fools - and next to the professor most people are fools. That makes him a prickly teacher.

The arrogance dates from an early age. At the London hospital where he trained, he was a member of the Failed Pharmacology Club after flunking early exams. He wore the club tie, which bore a Latin inscription "Eight Pints", to a subsequent viva (oral exam) - and was promptly failed. He said later: "Pharmacology is a useless subject. If I want to know a dosage I ask a nurse."

Is he happy? It is hard to tell. He once confessed: "I'm very competitive. Every day is a constant battle to do things better." Maybe that's why he looks so gloomy.

WINSTON ON

IN-VITRO

FERTILISATION

"I was one of those people who thought IVF was a waste of time ... I was wrong."

That was in 1978, when Steptoe and Edwards had delivered the world's first test tube baby. By 1980 Winston was convinced that IVF was something Hammersmith hospital should be doing. Now it has one of the largest IVF clinics in Britain.

WINSTON ON THE WOMAN WHO

WANTED TO GIVE BIRTH TO HER OWN GRANDCHILD

Edith Jones, 49, agreed to bear children for her daughter, Suzanne Langston, 20, who was born without a womb. Winston said: "It sounds like rather a brave thing for a mother to do."

WINSTON ON

SURROGACY

Initially he was in favour, but later he changed his mind. He said: "I have met a number of mothers who claim not to have been distressed by the experience [of giving up the baby at birth] but who, in fact, have been badly hurt."

WINSTON ON

DIANE BLOOD

He read her affidavit on her fight to have her dead husband's baby at 2am and wept. Less than two hours later he was faxing his own opinion in support of her fight to her lawyer. "I thought, God in heaven - how can they do this? This must be wrong."

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