Suzi Leather: You Ask The Questions

The head of the Human Embryology and Fertilisation Authority on whether we are really becoming less fertile, and at what point does life begin?
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What are your feelings about somebody having a baby at the age of 62? ANGELA ELLIOTT, Welton le Marsh

Neither very wise - nor worthy of the column inches lavished on it.

Is it any more selfish for a woman in her fifties to want a baby than an elderly man? PETRINA BARBER, London SW2

No. Most of us know how hard it is to raise children. We are prepared at different times in our lives.

I heard a claim that, at 62, nature would not allow birth and therefore it shouldn't be allowed. Where does the line at which "nature" dictates whether there is treatment or not get drawn? CAROLINE BROWN, University of West of England, Bristol

As it stands, "nature" does not dictate who gets treatment. The whole point of treatment is to help those who cannot get pregnant naturally. What treatment does depend on is the patient's health, potential welfare of any child born, and whether the patient can access NHS treatment or afford to finance it themselves.

I'm 33 and yet to have children - should I be starting now? DEE WILSON, Belfast

We know a woman's fertility starts to decline seriously after 35 - but when to have your children is a decision for you and your partner alone.

Are we really becoming more infertile or is it scaremongering? V SHEARER, Barcelona

Some researchers have shown that fertility is declining, and that infertility will increase if we don't look more carefully at preventable causes such as chlamydia. I think there is much more awareness of infertility nowadays - not surprising in an area that covers sex, science, religion and people's instinct to have children. In fact, only about one per cent of all births in the UK are a result of IVF or donor insemination.

At what point do you think life begins and why?TIM HEDGES, Panicale, Italy

There is no one answer - people have many different views, often because of their religious beliefs. When it comes to the law, human embryos cannot be used for research after 14 days (the appearance of the primitive streak). As the regulator, we will only grant research licences on this basis.

Should doctors treat post-menopausal women to help them conceive? DANNI BYRON, Bath

Every case is different. There is no age limit fortreatment - the doctor will consider the woman's health and ability to undergo pregnancy and birth, and that a child born would not be unduly adversely affected.

Why is it that there is not a consensus on treatments? Why are there no comprehensive ratings of specialists? And why does IVF still cost so much? OLA NWAKODO WRIGHT

That's three questions! Firstly, you must take on the views of all on the issue, and work towards the best solution. Fertility specialists do work closely together and reach consensus on many key issues. Secondly, the HFEA have the full details of all 85 clinics that we licence on our website. Thirdly, provision of NHS treatment varies throughout the UK. We have recommended that Parliament, in its review of current legislation, consider introducing treatment plans for patients having private treatment to give them a better idea of the likely cost involved.

We started IVF treatment in the UK but became so dispirited by the cretinous bureaucracy that we are going abroad. Do you not think Britain's IVF industry will go the way of the car manufacturing industry, ie eastward? SALLY COPSEY

The guidelines we set clinics are in the interest of patients and children. We have no wish to stop people going abroad, but be aware that protection may not be in place.

Why should single women be allowed IVF on the NHS? REBECCA O'HAGAN, Harrow

The law does not discriminate against single women having treatment, as long as their health and the welfare of any child born is assessed. NHS provision varies throughout the UK, as does the criteria which people must meet.

Is Dr Antinori providing a valuable service, or is he preying on the deluded? J COSGRAVE, Oxford

Dr Antinori does not work in the UK, and so I can't comment. What I think is a valuable service for patients is to have independent information. Infertility is an area in which both strong patient organisations and an independent regulator are therefore particularly important. UK patients are lucky in this respect.

Sooner or later someone is going to clone a baby. What will the HFEA do about it after it happens? ADRIAN FREEMAN, Highbury, London

We already have very strong legislation banning human reproductive cloning in the UK. There is up to 10 years' imprisonment and a fine.

Can you see the day when the law allows the creation of a baby without a man? JANET MCLAUGHLIN, Southampton

Yes, but the application of any technique should be looked at ethically as well as scientifically. We need to look at whether it is necessary to use these techniques and also how their use might impact on any potential child.

Was it wrong to create Dolly the sheep? ELLEN MADELEY, York

The technique used to create Dolly may potentially help many people.

Should a woman who has sons and wants a daughter be allowed to use embryo screening to guarantee it? CLAIRE ASH, Lewes, Sussex

We have spoken to the public on this and most people do not believe sex selection should be allowed.

What do you think about altering a child's genes so they would avoid developing a disability? OLE RYBORG, Cambridge

"Altering genes" is against the law. However, it is possible to avoid passing on an inherited disease using embryo screening. This can only be used for serious genetic diseases.

Infertility doesn't kill people, so why should NHS resources be spent on treatment for every couple who needs it?ANDY TAYLOR, Maida Vale, London

We know that infertility has a huge emotional impact on people. The HFEA doesn't have any control over the provision of fertility treatment; however, I would like to see better access.

Do people have an inalienable right to have a child? HELENA RYAN, Stratford

No one ought to be prevented from exercising their right to have a child naturally, but assisted reproduction places duties and costs on third parties and to say that this is an inalienable right would entail absolute duties of provision and potentially unlimited costs. This is clearly impossible.

Lord Winston says HFEA is an outdated monolith. What do you think? STEPHEN POWER, Brussels

Not only is it there to protect patients and their interests, it is also there to protect donors and any potential children. Most doctors are happy to have the HFEA there.

Would you have liked a mother who was aged 62 at the time of your birth? SEAN O ROURKE, Birmingham

We love our parents for what they are (and vice versa) and this goes for their age as much as anything else.

I want to talk to my 11-year-old boy about the facts of life. How should I approach the task? GOSIA HAMMOND, Battersea

At 11 I'd be surprised if he hadn't already figured quite a lot out for himself, but it's important you discuss things with him and answer any questions. Don't forget that the feelings and relationship aspects matter as much as the "facts".

Do you have any religious beliefs? N SAID, Ealing

Yes, I am a Christian.

What do you think of your soubriquet of "Sexy Suzi" and didn't you encourage it by appearing at a press conference in leather? LIAM DALEY, Manchester

The story goes I wore leather trousers to a press conference. I have never owned a pair in my life but it gets trotted out all the same.

How do you respond to accusations you are a "Quango Queen"? V AHMED, Westminster

It's never happened but if it did I'd feel a bit confused because I don't know what it means.

Does a child always need a father? STELLA MULVIHILL, Gloucester

Children flourish when brought up by loving parents in a stable relationship. This is most likely to be when a man and woman have made a lasting commitment, but there are other family structures which work.

Are you disappointed that Labour has failed to be "whiter than white" in government? E BOWMAN, Richmond

Individuals' private lives are their own business; individuals' moral failures are not necessarily those of the Government. Though it is a huge strength of our democracy that people get pulled up when they have broken the rules, the constant hounding of individuals is, I think, destructive of the business of government and wrecks private lives.

Will we eventually be able to eliminate all defects in humans, (such as my nose) and is there a moral question there?NICK HALES, Bath

The purpose of embryo screening is to ensure that children do not grow up with serious genetic conditions. This is not as you suggest for slight " defects" and I don't think it should ever be.

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