Having written on this subject before I realise that it can be contentious. However, without being deliberately polemical I think the subject of age and childbirth is still worthy of debate. So I’m offering this opening paragraph as my rationale for writing this piece. Firstly, this has not been written with ageist intent, or to suggest that the reproductive choices of all women should be policed. However, while I understand that women should not be seen as mere vessels for the gestation of babies; that we should have access to the privileges and choices that science has made available to us, in some instances I believe that the relative quality of life of the resultant children should be taken into account and prioritised. While we, as individuals, can make our own choices, when such stories are put into the public forum with the consent of the parties involved I feel that they can legitimately be debated. I do, of course, believe in the pursuit of women’s rights, but I also believe that feminism can only be most effective when it incorporates an element of self-reflection and analysis. This is, as always, my opinion as an independent blogger only, and not that of The F Word as a body.
According to this article on November 28 2008 Rajo Devi, age 70, gave birth to her first child, Naveen Lohan, following IVF treatment in Haryana, India. Devi married Bala Ram, 72, in 1954, and while they longed for a child they were unable to conceive. Ram was encouraged to take a second wife by Devi’s family in the form of her younger sister, in the hope that a child would result, but this union was likewise fruitless. Having sought medical tests, Devi and Bala were assured that they were not infertile, and the reasons why they couldn’t conceive were unknown.
This year Devi and Ram received fertility treatment at a medical centre in India using a donor egg and Bala’s sperm. The identity of the egg donor remains anonymous. Fears surrounding Devi’s health during pregnancy (reportedly because of her age) meant that medical professionals were keen to limit the possibility of her conceiving twins because she wouldn’t have carried them to term. Devi, who underwent the menopause over twenty years ago, became pregnant in April this year following the second round of treatment. She gave birth to a 3lb baby girl (two months prematurely) following a single embryo transfer procedure.
The average life expectancy at birth in India (according to the United Nations) is 64.7 years. This means that it is highly unlikely Ram and Devi will live to see their daughter grow up, or even mature past infancy. I can understand that they were desperate for a child. I can also understand that culturally they felt it necessary to produce offspring in order to validate and elevate their status in their community. However, further to this and Devi’s proclamation that they had “longed for a child all these years and now are very happy to have one in the twilight years of our life,” their newborn daughter is not enough. They are hoping that further fertility treatment will lead to the conception and birth of a son. Besides confirming the idea championed in some areas of the World that a daughter is a disappointment, it is likely that Devi will also be well into her 70s by the time a son is born through further fertility treatment.
In the UK couples are having children at an older age. According to the Office of National Statistics (ONS) in 2007 1,091 women over 45 gave birth, compared to just 540 in the same demographic in 1995. I have no figures outlining the percentage of natural conceptions set against IVF conceptions, and considering that we are living longer in the UK and taking care of ourselves, this is a reasonable age to want to have a child. Parents are concerned about financial security, and the vast majority of people do not feel they are in a position to support a child until they are older. However, what about when this age creeps up to 60/65 (which it will do)?
No matter how healthy we are, there are limits to what we can do physically as we get older, and conscientious living can only extend our lives so far. That science has enabled women to have more control over reproduction is only a good thing. I also appreciate that the health of women can vary quite significantly, and that the physical well-being of two women of the same age can be remarkably different. However, considering that this is not the first instance of a woman past the age of 65 conceiving and giving birth through fertility treatment, would it be sensible to introduce an upper age limit preventing any woman (regardless of wealth or circumstances) above a certain age from being allowed access to fertility treatment? Specifically, should those women who have experienced the menopause (with the exception of those who have gone through the menopause prematurely or have, for medical reasons such as the need for a hysterectomy, had their reproductive abilities suspended before they would have naturally expired), be denied fertility treatment, especially when it requires a donor egg and sperm to be a success?
I am genuinely interested in varying opinions on this topic because, try as I might, I cannot personal see any reason why a post-menopausal woman would be encouraged to have a baby past the age of 55 (at the absolute latest). Today I asked my 70-year-old grandmother if she would consider having a baby now. She looked at me as if I was crazy and said absolutely not. The reason she gave was that she didn’t think it would be fair on the child and that she gets tired more easily than she did when she was younger. I think she is fairly typical of a lot of 70-year-olds. The case of Devi and Ram, to me, centralises arguments regarding the rationale behind procreation. Was this a pursuit motivated by the desire for a child who they could look after and know as an adult as well as a baby, or rather by their determination to ensure the posessions that they have accumulated throughout their lives remains the property of a blood relative? I understand that as human beings we (mostly) have an innate desire to pass on our genetic material, but doesn’t there come a time when we should abandon parental aspirations and accept that it just wasn’t meant to be?