Suzi Leather: Test-tubes and tantrums

When Lord Winston alleged women were being used as guinea pigs by doctors testing new IVF procedures it was bad enough. Then he blamed lack of funding on the chairman of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. Cue rattles being thrown out of prams. Or not, as it happens...
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There are big beasts in the jungle of the fertility business. Mohammed Taranissi, Ian Craft and Robert Winston are all powerful, outspoken pioneers who inspire awe as the creators of life. Taking them on requires considerable confidence and authority, and last week Suzi Leather proved she has it in spades.

Lord Winston, one of Britain's most famous doctors, warned that patients were being used as guinea pigs by doctors experimenting with new IVF procedures, and then blasted the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) for holding up research. Leather, chairman of the authority, was in a difficult position. Her job, as the regulator of IVF and embryo research, requires a good working relationship with the scientists. She also needs to retain the confidence of the public. So should there be tough talking or smoothing of the medics' ruffled feathers? Leather managed both, voicing reassurance that IVF is essentially safe, but emphasised that it is her job to make sure all research is properly monitored.

Being chair of the HFEA is certainly a tough brief. Rarely a week goes by when test tube babies aren't in the news. And no wonder, involving as it does, the most emotive of subjects - the beginning of human life, and all the anguish of people yearning to be parents. There's also scientists pushing the boundaries, and huge amounts of money involved. IVF in this country is big business; each year nearly 27,000 women a year undergo IVF at a cost of more than £100m.

Then there are the rows over the quality of care, the success rates of various clinics, how many embryos should be implanted, whether egg donation is acceptable, and doubts over the merits of stem cell research. And when things go wrong, the mistakes can be devastating, shaking confidence in the whole process and its regulation - as the HFEA discovered when an egg mix-up resulted in the birth of black twins to a white couple.

As HFEA chairman, Leather has had to deal with all of these. But she has gone further. As befits a woman who helped found one of the university courses in bioethics in this country, she has regularly initiated debates about fertility. A mother of three teenagers, 47-year-old Leather understands the pull of motherhood, and her compassion for the infertile is undoubted. However, in one of her first interviews after taking over the chairmanship, she challenged the growing orthodoxy that every woman must be a mother. "There is more to life than having children," she observed, urging women not to be panicked when all it might take to get pregnant is a few more months of patient waiting.

Her ethical concerns have also led her to call for new legislation. Our 13-year-old fertility law, she says, has serious loopholes, because it has failed to keep pace with scientific advances. She also wants tougher powers to fine clinics that breach regulations, because the HFEA can only admonish or warn, or remove a clinic's licence.

But her next move is even more controversial, for Leather wants to make the welfare of the embryo, the nascent child, the authority's concern. That means clinics will have to consider whether those seeking treatment could be responsible, caring parents. To some, this would be invidious, akin to the actions of a nanny state. But Leather is a moralist who believes she has a responsibility for the well-being of the children being created. Ann Furedi, a former colleague now heading the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, says: "Suzi is a woman of very strong moral convictions. She is a very driven individual, very emotionally committed to what she is doing, which is what makes her an interesting and very different sort of regulator."

For more than 20 years Suzi Leather has been scaling the ladder of public life in Britain. Born in Uganda, the daughter of a psychosexual counsellor, she and her family came back to Britain where she studied politics at Exeter University, and later trained in probation and social work. She describes herself as a Christian Socialist, and has been a committed member of the Labour Party.

Leather is one of that generation of people who came to public life believing in the power of the consumer, and representing them has been her forté. She was a member of the Royal Society's Inquiry into Infectious Diseases of Livestock, and the Ministry of Agriculture's consumer panel; she chaired an NHS Trust and healthy living centre, work that earned her an MBE.

It was as founder deputy chairman of the Foods Standards Agency that she first came to national attention, at a time when anxieties about BSE and GM food were at their height. She went into it convinced that food scares were largely about the handling of technical scientific advice, and wanted that advice subject to far greater media and public scrutiny. Transparency, she realised, was central to both recovering and keeping public confidence.

It was an approach she took to the HFEA when she was appointed chair in March 2002. She quickly found that the HFEA was dealing with even more sensitive matters than food. Her first task, however, was to tackle the HFEA itself, which had become a nervous, cautious body, unwil-ling to give press conferences. She believed it needed restructuring and reform, as well as greater openness. Her willingness to debate the issues meant that she quickly came into contact with journalists, and charmed them. She also knows the power of image: at her first "meet the press" session, she lived up to her name, dressing in leather trousers and jacket, and earned the soubriquet Sexy Suzi. "She's always been really friendly," said one enchanted reporter, "always willing to talk and explain. She's very bright, and very proactive."

The job is not all about glad-handing and exuding charm, however well she does it. Early on she showed a steely edge, when she sacked the HFEA's chief executive, Maureen Dalziel, a decision which may yet lead to a legal battle. But Leather believed Dalziel had run her course, and she wanted a different style of management. What did annoy her, though, was the sexist interpretation that this was a case of "lipsticks at dawn".

Battling the doctors is far tougher. While some consultants want to experiment or offer successive treatments to older and older women, Leather believes she must protect patients. Proper regulation, she says, has to be properly funded, and the HFEA's fees have risen sharply from £40 to £100 per IVF treatment cycle - something doctors have complained about as a tax on treatment.

For 25 years, since the birth of Louise Brown, the first test-tube baby, IVF has persuaded people that dreams can come true. Yet only 20 per cent of interventions lead to a birth. There is a backlash against such treatments, and concern about the impact, physical and psychological, on women and on a couple's relationship. New techniques are developing which bring a "designer baby" - clever, attractive and the sex of its parents' choosing - ever closer.

It is Suzi Leather on whose shoulders many of these problems fall. Those who know her say she is singularly equipped to do the job. Leather may be an ethical idealist, but she is a pragmatic one.