Desperate to have a baby? This is the woman who matters

When Mrs DB wanted her dead husband's child, Ruth Deech intervened. Annabel Ferriman met her
Click to follow
When Ruth Deech was given her first teaching job - at Windsor University, Ontario - she was also given a yellow hard hat to wear, because the law school was still being built. She could have done with that hat last week.

As chairman of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, Mrs Deech has been at the centre of a maelstrom. In a high-profile case that ended on Friday, a 30-year-old widow, known only as Mrs DB, asked the High Court for permission to use her dead husband's frozen sperm to get pregnant. The authority had blocked her wishes on the grounds that her husband had not given written consent. Judgment was reserved and is not expected for several weeks.

Every sort of insult has been flung at the authority and Mrs Deech. The press has accused them of "wooden inflexibility", "dogged legal obstruction" and "interference for its own sake". Lord Winston, Professor of Fertility Studies at the Hammersmith Hospital, in an affidavit read out to the court, called the decision "cruel and unnatural".

It is by no means the first time that Mrs Deech has been vilified. She was castigated last year by doctors for publishing performance league tables of all the IVF centres, and was censured by religious groups in the summer, when the authority insisted on the destruction of 3,000 frozen embryos whose parents could not be traced. Journalists even pursued her to her holiday destination in France.

It is perhaps inevitable that a body trying to lay down ethical guidelines in a new area of science, and also of human dilemmas, is going to be in the firing line, and Mrs Deech realises that her job is only going to get hotter. "As our knowledge of fertility and genetics expands, couples will face more choices about reproduction. The more choices we have, the more agonising the decisions," she says.

She is, however, well equipped to cope with the flak. One of Britain's leading academic lawyers, with a particular interest in family and divorce law, she is principal of St Anne's College, Oxford, and one of the university's most prominent figures - sometimes spoken of as its grande dame. She was a director of Oxfordshire Health Authority from 1993 to 1994.

She was born Ruth Fraenkel in 1943, the daughter of Jewish refugees who had fled the Nazis. She went to Christ's Hospital, Hertford, before going to Oxford to read law at St Anne's. There she met her husband, John, a physicist and a lawyer, and got a first-class degree in 1965. After obtaining an MA in the US, she worked in London for the Law Commission and taught law in Canada. In 1970 she returned to St Anne's as a Fellow and Tutor in Law; she has been there ever since, becoming principal in 1991.

She and her husband have one daughter, who is a student.

Mrs Deech now in effect has the job of watching over the whole test-tube- baby boom, with the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 as her guide. "As new developments occur, such as the diagnosis of genetic diseases in embryos before they are implanted in the womb, we have to develop new policies," she says. "These take a great deal of time and lengthy discussion to work out, to ensure that they have been thought through properly. We will want to find a way forward that is in tune with the public but can help people who know that they are carrying inherited diseases."

Yet some people reject interference, she says. "Some people will not want to make use of these developments. I am always struck by how many women reject such tests as amniocentesis. A lot of people believe that God or Nature should take its course. It depends a lot on different attitudes to human life. We always try to keep in touch with opinion as expressed in the media."

Mrs Deech, now 53, has been active at Oxford in forwarding the cause of women, and initiated the university's equal-opportunities committee. Yet while she is revered and loved in Oxford, she raises hackles in the fertility fraternity.

Professor Ian Craft, director of the London Gynaecology and Fertility Centre, said: "While I am sure that she is a warm and passionate person as a family woman and the principal of a college, I get the impression that she is a rather distant and inflexible figure as chairman of the [Human Fertilisation and Embryology] authority. Admittedly she has to administer an Act that she has been served up by Parliament, which has many drawbacks, but the authority as a whole does not have enough compassion for the aspirations of individual infertile couples."

Lord Winston spoke in a similar vein: "She is a good person, but has two problems. She has to deal with the difficulties of a complex Act and she is perceived to have a degree of inflexibility." At the HFEA's annual meeting last month, where Mrs Deech laid out the authority's plans for the future, Lord Winston brought the house down when he said the audience felt they had just sat through a school prize-giving and had been told by the headmistress to do better in future. But such comments are dismissed by colleagues at the university as typical of the prejudice of the male medical establishment.

"The relationship between the regulator and regulated should be spiky. Otherwise it is collusive," said one academic. And, after all, a woman who was undaunted by the prospect of ordering Nobel prize-winners to wear gloves in the laboratory is unlikely to be intimidated by a hostile medical profession.

Comments