How old is too old?

When a woman announces she’s pregnant she instantly becomes public property. Soon as the sperm touches down, cracks open the egg and starts doing something about which I can offer little technical language, then a woman is expected to don an unflattering smock and wait until she hatches. What she eats, drinks or even wears is subject to the scrutiny of the world around her that has carefully delineated (but unwritten) rules of acceptability about the ways in which a pregnant woman should behave. But, criticism is not confined to the gestation period. Oh no. Conception is also considered worthy of public debate, and so every aspect of the female reproductive system is routinely discussed and analysed, as if we are nothing more than a herd of horny animals waiting to get in pup. It’s written about a lot. Rarely a week goes by when some new statistics are not offered claiming that women are too old, too young, too fat, too thin, too happy, too sad, to stupid, to clever, to rich, to poor…etc…to have children. It would be boring if it didn’t centralise an outdated attitude that promotes the medicalisation and virtual dissection of the female body through language. But while I promote a woman’s right to choose concerning all aspects of her life, are there instances where the wider community has a right to make its voice heard? Or is a woman never to be questioned, even if her age can have a bearing on the quality of life of the child-to-be?

With the introduction of more refined methods of fertility treatment, and overall increased health, women are deciding to pass on their genetic material at a later period in life, with it not uncommon for a lot of us to delay having our first child until we are in our thirties (if we want children that is – the fact that it is always assumed that a woman should want children is another bugbear, but that’s stuff of which other blog posts are made). Between thirty and forty our bodies are still perfectly capable of carrying a child to fruition. Older but not infertile. Not what they once were, but not bad either. We are more financially secure, we feel fulfilled, have achieved what we wanted, and are ready to enter a new life-stage. Maybe we didn’t want children and have changed our minds. So what? It happens, and the fact that on a very basic level we have complete jurisdiction over our bodies means that we can make that choice. Surely it’s something we should not have to discuss with others? But what if a woman wants a child beyond her forties? Beyond an age where she is no longer menstruating, cannot conceive naturally and has to employ the help of artificial means to carry a foetus? In such instances should the pregnancy be hurled into the public forum and torn apart by the scepticism of public opinion? Does this depend on individual circumstances? OK, many women in their twenties, thirties and forties, have to employ the use of fertility treatment in order to get pregnant, but they tend to be of an age where, if they weren’t experiencing difficulties, they would still be able to conceive naturally. But if, beyond say 50, a woman wants a child, although unable to have one without a turkey baster and a team of thermometer-hugging medics, is that a legitimate decision?

Unlike men, nature puts a time-limit on a woman’s fertility meaning that once she experiences the menopause her ovaries more-or-less dry-up like a pair of crusty old prunes. It’s not fair, but unfortunately that’s the way it is. So while men can keep jerking and squirting out offspring, there is greater pressure placed on women to make the decision as to whether or not they want children while they are still biologically capable of doing so. Should we accept then, when we reach a certain age, that it’s time to give up the baby race? That maybe our bodies no longer allow us to reproduce because we cannot physically provide the nourishment needed for a growing foetus? Just because men carrying on producing well-beyond an age where they will be able to look after their offspring, or even live to see them grow-up, should we condone women using science in order to emulate this lack of consideration for the life-quality of petri-dish created babies? To have babies born to be orphans?

This week the Daily Mail published images of Adriana Lliescu, who celebrated her 70th birthday last weekend along with her three-year-old daughter. Lliescu caused outrage on January 16th 2005 when, following IVF treatment, she presented her baby daughter, Eliza, making her, at that time, the oldest woman in the world to give birth (beaten only in December 2006 by Spanish woman Carmela Bousada who gave birth to twins at 66-years-and-358-days-old). Lliescu is visibly advanced in years, and could easily be mistaken for Eliza’s great-grandmother. A lecturer at Bucharest University Lliescu is undoubtedly an educated woman, but is this elderly birth something that should be applauded or nothing more than an unparalleled act of selfishness? Is this an example of science liberating womankind or being abused with no thought for the long-term implications?

It is unquestionable that Eliza was wanted, but the reasons why are more grey. Unlike the world’s oldest new-father, 90-year-old Nanu Ram Jogi (an Indian farmer in the state of Rajasthan who boasts siring 21 children, the youngest being less than one-year-old) Lliescu underwent a careful scientific process in order to conceive her first child. While Jogi claimed last year that he wishes to father as many children as he can until he is 100-years-old, Lliescu has expressed no such desire. While Jogi can still physically have intercourse and produce viable sperm, Lliescu cannot conceive without scientific help and would have the responsibility of carrying the baby to term, something that can be straining for a teenager so would undoubtedly take it’s toll on a body that is, unquestionable, in decay. Jogi’s wife, while 50-years-old, is still considerably younger than he is, and while he may possible not live to see his child grow up, it’s likely that, without accident or illness, she will be there to care for the baby. Lliescu has no partner, and while the scientist responsible for Eliza’s conception has taken the role of godfather to Eliza, there are no friends or family members taking a prominent role in this little girl’s life; there is nobody to take responsibility for this little girl should health prevent her mother from being able to do so. Lliescu hasn’t though about this that seriously, with her answer to concerns about her daughter’s welfare in the event of her death not very reassuring:

If my daughter is 16 by then, she will have the right to work…If she is younger, my hope is in two things, the state child protection services, and my doctor Prof Bogdan Marinescu, who is her godfather.

But what would motivate a woman to decide to bare a child at this late stage in life? When Lliescu was 20-years-old she had an abortion shortly following her marriage to another student in Bucharest. They divorced shortly afterwards, although Lliescu was clearly still distraught following the termination of her pregnancy (she had been advised by her doctor to abort owing to fears her TB would prevent normal foetal development). Lliescu took up a teachng post and thrived on her work at the university. She began publishing books, and had a very successful and time-consuming career in academia, something she continues while Eliza is at creche:

I always wanted a child, but I was so busy, I never had a partner. It’s only in recent years that IVF became available in Romania.

She continued:

Having a child is a wonderful thing. To think that you haven’t lived for nothing. If you have a child you don’t have death. That’s what Plato said: ‘Happy is the person that has someone to bury him’.

So, was Lliescu’s desire to have Eliza bore purely of an unselfish need to love someone, or more from a need to pass on her genetic material and find some form of validation for her existence in the form of another human being? What’s sad about this is that Lliescu believes this a satisfactory explanation, although in actual fact she completely undermines and devalues her professional achievements by claiming her life has only been invested with meaning and purpose now she has a child. While this was, after all, Lliescu’s decision – she footed the bill for medical expenses, underwent the intimate medical procedures and went through the pregnancy – did anyone, at any point, consider what life would be like for the resultant child? A media furore must have been anticipated, and was this anything more to Prof Marinescu than an opportuity to get his name splashed across the international press as a fertility pioneer? Women should not have to choose between a career or a family. That’s a fact. And while men can keep having children well beyong a sensible, feasible age, traditionally nature ensures we do not make the same mistakes. If Lliescu had desired a baby so much surely she could have made the time during a stage in her life when it would have been possible to spend many more years with her offspring? At a time when the generational gap would not have been so substantial and Eliza wouldn’t have to suffer the torments of her classmates (which unfortunately is inevitable – kids are cruel, and having an older mum will be seen as good ammunition as any). But while we shouldn’t dwell on what should or could have been, perhaps it’s worth discussing further the fact that a woman who has forged a career for herself in an industry that certainly, when she was a young women, didn’t really value the opinions of women, still felt that, in order to fulfil the obligations of her sex, she had to produce a child. If it was purely about raising a baby she could have adopted.

While I don’t question Lliescu’s affection towards her child, her motovations were entirely selfish. She lives alone with Eliza in their high-rise flat in Bucharest, a residence she had, prior to her daughter’s birth, occupied alone. She had reached a stage in her life when she looked back with regrets on her choices, and whereas the vast majority accept the paths they have taken, (and in bygone years simple had to), medical science provided her with the capacity to try and relive an alternative lifestyle. She didn’t want to die alone, which is understandable, but it’s perfectly plausible that little Eliza, still a very little child, could be left alone at a very young age, with no familial support. There is no mention of her father, probably nothing more than a sperm donor and his identity probably never known by Lliescu (I couldn’t find any extensive information on this aspect of the conception). Many women have children through anonymous sperm contributions. Similarly, many children are born into relationships that breakdown after they are conceived/born, and from that point have no contact with their biological fathers. The resultant children often grow-up to be well-adjusted, happy individuals, although surely any mother would want to give her child the best possible start in life wherever possible, and would this not mean at least starting the whole process of pregnancy while with the father? While relationships break down, often it’s not predicted, but Eliza was born never to know her dad. She has no-one apart from her mother. Lliescu’s comments bolster the belief that her need to conceive emanated entirely from a desire not to die alone; a need to pass on her genetic legacy to another; for a need to achieve some form of morality through her child; to have “someone to bury her” when she dies.

Lliescu claims that anyone can die at any age – that Eliza’s other godfather died at the age of 49 leaving four children behind. It’s not stated but presumably they had a mother to care for them; they had each other. If he died at 49 that was probably through illness or an accident that could not be anticipated, not because one night he went to bed and woke-up. Lliescu’s argument is perfectly valid, but also rather ignorant – surprising considering that as a university professor she can probably see the wholes in her claims, but is choosing not to accept them. While it’s true that no-one, whatever age, can resist the Grim Reaper when he comes-a-knocking, at 70-years-old surely one is more susceptible to health implications than someone in their twenties, thirties, forties….While accidents and severe illness do not discriminate against people on the basis of age, at 70 a person is more susceptible to degenerative health problems. That’s a fact. Not everyone, but the vast majority. Elderly people get tired. Will Lliescu be able to play outside with Eliza as she gets older? While the most important thing for any child is to be born into a loving home (which Eliza does appear to have) I cannot help but wonder if by forcing her into being Lliescu, motivated by her own desires, may have set up her little girl for years of heart-ache and suffering. Was Lliescu a medical marvel or an example of irresponsible medical intervention? While medical science means we can pop out sprogs well into our sixties, should we? Hopefully, for little Eliza’s sake, things will progress and unfold as Lliescu has planned.

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