Man who was born a woman loses fight to become a father

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Campaigners for equal rights for transsexuals suffered a double blow yesterday after European judges rejected a lecturer's claim to be recognised as the father of his partner's children.

The European Court of Human Rights backed the United Kingdom's right not to regard Stephen Whittle as a father - even though he had been in a stable relationship with the mother of the four children for eight years - because he had been born a woman.

After the ruling, a disappointed Dr Whittle, from Manchester, held out the hope that a Labour government would amend the law, telling BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "They (Labour) have offered a pledge to take the matter on board ... I'm sure we will see some change in the law."

However, within hours of the decision a Labour spokeswoman told The Independent: "We have no plans to change the law in this area at all."

Campaigners saw this as a rebuff by the party - possibly dictated by electoral concerns - following "private" assurances in the past it would be sympathetic to their claims, and the party's support for a Private Member's Bill on the subject last year.

However Dr Whittle, who underwent surgery 20 years ago, said the pressure of litigation would continue, even though his own case had reached the end of the legal line.

"More and more people are going to be pursuing cases to the court demanding ultimate recognition. I am sure it will come in time," he said.

Later this year the Court is to hear an application by two other British transsexuals to be able to amend their birth certificates to register their change of sex. Yesterday's ruling in Strasbourg surprised some observers because the court had, unusually, gone against the majority opinion of the Human Rights Commission, which advises the court. One campaigner said she was "in a state of shock" over the verdict and was now much less optimistic about the pending case.

The ruling also appears to conflict in spirit with a ruling last year by the separate European Court of Justice in Luxembourg, part of the European Union, which equated discrimination against transsexuals with sex discrimination. The Strasbourg court said there was a lack of agreement between Convention signatories and would allow the British Government a "wide margin" on interpreting the law.

It accepted the Government's view that while transsexuals can alter documents like passports and driving licences to reflect sex changes, birth certificates record the gender at birth and cannot be altered by subsequent events.

Dr Whittle pointed out this also stopped him adopting the children, who were conceived by donor insemination.

Adoption required him to be married to his partner Sarah, which was not legally possible, he said. It meant that the four children - who have all been born since the start of the relationship and call him Daddy - had no father in the eyes of the law.

Dr Whittle said the situation meant he could not obtain information about his children from their schools or authorise medical treatment. "And if my partner, Sarah, died, I would have no automatic right to bring up the children.

"I find it very difficult to cope with the fact that a court welfare officer would have more say over who the children lived with than I would."

He added: "I think as far as transsexuals in the UK are concerned there really is an inequitable situation in relation to other transsexuals in Europe."

His partner, Sarah Rutherford, said: "I'm very angry. It's like a public denial of our relationship."

The case had been brought in the names of Dr Whittle, Ms Rutherford and their eldest daughter - known as X, Y and Z in the hearings - claiming the British Government's refusal to recognise his status as a father broke Article 8 of the Convention. The article guarantees respect for a person's "private and family life". The pressure group Press for Change, co-founded by Dr Whittle, said the ruling was a setback but was by no means the end of their efforts.

A spokeswoman, Christine Burns, said: "We will fight on and win one way or another - even if we take our entire lives."

Jonathan Cooper, legal director of Liberty, the former National Council for Civil Liberties, said: "[Dr] Whittle is a loving father and to deny him this legal recognition is a bitter blow. Mr Cooper added that a number of cases were in the pipeline."It will only be a matter of time for the rights of transsexuals to be recognised," he said.