The collapse of the HFEA’s bizarre vendetta
The regulators should cheer the achievements of Britain’s most successful fertility doctor, rather than try to ruin him.
It’s been quite an eventful couple of years for controversial IVF clinician Mohamed Taranissi. The controversy started in January 2007, when the BBC’s current affairs programme Panorama launched its new series with an attack on Taranissi. On the day the programme was broadcast, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), Britain’s fertility industry regulator, went to court to obtain a warrant to gain entry to Taranissi’s two clinics. Despite being forced to defend his reputation on a variety of fronts since then, Taranissi has continued to help infertile couples achieve their dream of having children. It is not Taranissi, but the HFEA which should be under the microscope.
The HFEA recently announced that one of Taranissi’s fertility clinics, the Assisted Reproduction & Gynaecology Centre (ARGC), has yet again topped the annual national league tables for IVF success. The second-ranking clinic, the Reproductive Genetics Institute (RGI) is also run by Taranissi. Together, these two clinics stand head and shoulders above the rest of the competition.
While the average rate for IVF success is just 31 per cent for those under 35, the ARGC almost doubles that, while the RGI brings bundles of joy to half of its patients. The third-ranking fertility clinic on the list is almost one third less successful in this category than the ARGC. In the less fertile 40- to 42-year-old age group, the ARGC still achieves a 23 per cent success rate compared to a national average of only 11 per cent. While the rate of IVF success has improved across the board, Taranissi and his clinics are clearly doing something very right.
Over the past couple of years, however, Taranissi has had to fight a battle for his reputation in the public domain, as well as for medical science in his lab and clinic. The trouble began with the Panorama documentary, ‘IVF Undercover’. The programme was poorly researched, heavily biased by misinformation fed through by the HFEA, and rather dependent on the views of rival doctors in the fertility business. The resulting onscreen assassination of Taranissi’s reputation was also spiced up by a staged police raid on the ARGC by the HFEA on the very day the documentary aired.
For reasons outlined previously on spiked, Taranissi has had an uneasy relationship with the HFEA for several years (see Behind the IVF ‘trial by television’, by Tony Gilland). His determination to experiment and push the boundaries of fertility treatment clashes with the HFEA’s determination to dot every ‘i’ and cross every ‘t’ in the production of mountains of bureaucratic red tape. In creating a media scandal, however, the regulator went too far; Taranissi took the matter to the courts to attempt to salvage his professional reputation and to tell the truth about his medical practice.
Hundreds of grateful parents who had benefited from the treatments Taranissi offered came forward to defend him. As a former patient, with a beautiful family to show for it, I joined others in protesting against the actions of the HFEA. Families made up of Taranissi’s ‘miracle’ babies attended a protest-party outside the ARGC – not only to protest the unfair trial-by-television, but to celebrate Taranissi’s achievement as the best fertility doctor in the country. We formed a patients’ defence group and launched a website to ensure the truth about this dedicated and caring doctor became public knowledge (see Friends of ARGC).
Over the course of the next few months, the underhand conduct of the HFEA was exposed in the courts. In June 2007, the High Court ruled that the HFEA’s spectacular raids of the ARGC and RGI were illegal. The court formally quashed the warrants used to execute the raids and ordered the HFEA to pay Taranissi’s legal costs – a bill of over a million pounds to be met from public funds. In November 2007, the HFEA and Taranissi agreed a joint statement to the courts in which the regulator effectively apologised for criticisms made in the Panorama programme.
Incredibly, the fertility watchdog continued to pursue its vendetta against Taranissi, claiming that he was not fit to act as ‘Person Responsible’ at the ARGC and allowing only a temporary licence for the clinic. On appeal, a judicial review found the HFEA’s licensing committee to have been acting with ‘apparent bias’ in making these decisions. They have now been set aside pending further review.
Seemingly determined not to allow Taranissi to get back to work, the HFEA then referred two complaints received from patients to the General Medical Council (GMC), despite having already investigated them and having found no basis for action. In what can only be described as an outright farce at the GMC this month, the HFEA delayed proceedings because its paperwork was not in order; it had lost important documentation relating to the case and was shown not to have followed its own procedures in handling the complaints. This was particularly ironic given the fact that one of the charges against Taranissi was his failure to keep proper medical records. Last Thursday, the case collapsed when the GMC threw it out due to contradictions in prosecution testimony and the lack of any supportive evidence.
The final hurdle in Taranissi’s campaign to defend his reputation is his pending libel case against the BBC. And here, too, there are signs that the truth will prevail. Having relied upon the ‘Reynolds’ defence of qualified privilege for responsible journalism in the public interest, the BBC was recently forced to abandon this key part of its defence and was therefore ordered to pay approximately £500,000 in costs to Taranissi. Panorama programme-makers also recently revised their number of sources downward from 100 to 17, in what Taranissi’s lawyer called an ‘Alice in Wonderland’ manoeuvre. Moreover, following the airing of ‘IVF Undercover’. Robert Winston, a greatly respected and highly visible medical expert who was called upon to comment on-air, wrote a strong letter of denunciation to the BBC claiming that his views were misrepresented. Winston’s beef was not with Taranissi at all, but rather with the HFEA itself. The case will go to trial in January.
Over the past year, Taranissi’s own strong faith that truth will triumph has been vindicated. Following the collapse of the GMC case last week, Taranissi commented: ‘None of this has been of my choosing but I have been put in a situation where I have had to defend myself against inaccurate allegations. This is not just about me – it’s about all those people who have seen something special in what we are doing here. Now hopefully I can just get back to doing just that and helping the many people who need our help.’
It is certainly a travesty that such a brilliant doctor has to take time away from the work he does best – helping couples have babies – to defend himself against the grimy and spiteful attacks of gutter journalists and unaccountable bureaucrats. If he can top the league tables even with all this commotion going on around him, imagine what he will do when he can devote his full attention to his work once more. For the sake of infertile couples, let’s hope 2009 brings less ‘tittle-tattle’ and more ‘pitter-patter’ at the ARGC.
Cheryl Hudson is a historian and a mother of two. She is speaking at the Battle of Ideas festival at the Royal College of Art, London on 1&2 November.
Cheryl Hudson praised the IVF ‘miracle maker’ and raised three cheers for the ruling that the HFEA acted unlawfully in its witch-hunt against Dr Taranissi. Tony Gilland looked at what was behind the IVF ‘trial by television’. Or read more at spiked issue Genetics.
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