Monday, April 16, 2007

A good read from the two George's.

Howard Johnston's relief is palpable. For five years he has been on tenterhooks, nervously waiting for the final ruling on whether his former fiancee should be allowed to make him an unwilling father in order to fulfil her dream of becoming a mother.

With thanks to George Rolph.

George McAulay

This week, his wait finally came to an end as 35-year-old Natallie Evans was told she could not use the six fertilised embryos she and Howard had had frozen in 2001 shortly before the cancer treatment that left her infertile.

The Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights, her last legal option, ruled unanimously that she could not use the embryos without Howard's consent – which he had withdrawn when they split up in 2002.

Was the court right to stop Natalie becoming a mother? Join the debate in readers' comments below

For Howard, 30, the ruling means that he can put the trauma of being publicly branded a baby killer behind him and move on with his life.

But he insists that the implications of the decision reach far beyond his personal rights – and go right to the heart of what it means to be a father in today's society.

In his first newspaper interview since the historic judgment, Howard, a successful IT consultant, says: "Had the European Court of Human Rights supported Natallie's claim that she has the right to motherhood whether I consented or not, it would have effectively cut men out of the process altogether.

"I believe very strongly that men should not be used as sperm donors to father children without their permission. The idea that men may one day become virtually irrelevant in the creation of life – as some suggest they could and even should – is abhorrent to me.

"A father has as important a part to play in a child's life as a mother so his rights should be the same. That the law was upheld gives me hope that the importance of a man's consent in conception will be safeguarded in the future.'

Since he withdrew his consent for the embryos to be used, Howard, from Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, has been vilified in some quarters for heartlessly denying his former fiancee her last chance to become a mother.

But he insists that his unwavering refusal to give in to her repeated pleas was borne of his strong sense of what the role of a father should involve and that the scenario Natallie was proposing would betray those principles.

"I have attracted negative comments because I have fought for what I believe in. Just yesterday, a woman called me at home and told me that what I had failed to understand was that those six embryos were human beings that had been offered the chance of life but I had destroyed it. It was very disturbing.

"I've had to live with going through this in public and it has been incredibly stressful. I've tried to put it to the back of my mind but every day I've thought about it and worried that eventually Natallie might have been allowed to go ahead and bring a child of mine into the world against all my wishes.

"But my stance has always been about the welfare of the child. To me the bedrock of any decision over whether to go through the process of using embryos to try to have a baby should be two people who are united. The law requires both partners' consent and to me that makes absolute sense.

"Natallie wanted to have my child and bring it up with her new partner without any involvement from me but I have never been able to contemplate that.

"I would have known he was mine and constantly thought about him. That child would have known he wasn't wanted by his father, and what impact would that have had on his life?

"And it would have been my name on the birth certificate so what would have stopped Natallie approaching me ten years down the line for financial help?"

Howard is an intelligent and fiercely rational man and it has been all too easy for him to be portrayed as cold. He says this is far from the truth.

"The friends I've had for many years know me as a very sociable, positive guy who loves going out and writing music.

But they also know that although I've tried not to change as a result of the court case, it has been very hard at times for me to carry on my life as normal.

"Whenever I meet new people, I'm always worried about what their reaction to me will be: will they think I'm a callous person?

Everyone has seen my ex-girlfriend on TV, pleading with me in extremely emotional terms and I know it must have affected people's views of me. I've had very difficult times but my friends and family have been very supportive.'

Natallie has found love with new partner Dave Richardson, a cable jointer, but Howard has not had a serious girlfriend since their relationship ended.

He says: "I haven't met anyone I have wanted to become serious with. I hope that if I met someone I really liked I wouldn't be held back by the past."

He hopes to be a father one day and envisages himself giving his children the kind of stable upbringing his parents Andy and Fiona gave him and his older sister.

"There's so much more to being a father than just the biological or financial aspect. I see myself being involved in every aspect of the child's upbringing – teaching him to read, shaping his life. I want to be a real father or not at all."

Ironically it was not so long ago that Howard envisaged creating such a happy, stable family with Natallie.

They met in 1999 when they were working in a call centre for Virgin Mobile in Melksham, Wiltshire.

They fell in love and moved in together, despite their different backgrounds – Howard, then 22, was the Sherborne educated, university graduate son of a retired Merchant Navy officer while Natallie, five years his senior, was twice divorced and had grown up on a council estate.

In June 2001, Howard proposed to Natallie under the Eiffel Tower – with a diamond solitaire ring.

Natallie has claimed that at this stage they were trying for a baby. When she failed to conceive the couple were referred to the Bath Centre for Assisted Reproduction.

Howard says: "I thought we were there to get to the bottom of whether something was the matter with Natallie, not to help us have a baby. I was in my twenties and had no intention of becoming a father then. It was a question of Natallie's health to me."

In October 2001, the couple were told that pre-cancerous tumours discovered on Natallie's ovaries would have to be removed.

It was then that they decided to freeze the embryos, though Howard says: "I wasn't really thinking about babies at that point – just that the woman I loved might not survive."

But after the operation, Howard says, Natallie fell into depression and became very difficult to live with.

"She kept telling me she didn't feel like a real woman any more. She became incredibly possessive and, in the end, I couldn't handle it any more and left."

A month after they split, the clinic told both parties that since Howard had withdrawn consent, the embryos would be destroyed.

Howard says Natallie sent him a text message saying: "You are going to pay for this. Your name is going to be all over the papers."

Since then the case has been heard by the High Court, the UK Court of Appeal and the European Court of Human Rights. Now Howard hopes both he and Natallie can move on.

"I hope Natallie does go on to become a mother because it is what she has always dreamed of. We talked about other options such as adoption or having a baby from donor eggs. She told me she could love any child as her own.

"I don't hate her – part of me feels sorry for her. Now I just want it all to be over so I can get on with my life

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