Too old to be a parent? Post-menopausal pregnancy triggers moral outrage

Too old to be a parent? Post-menopausal pregnancy triggers moral outrage

Boston : MA : USA | Dec 18, 2009 at 11:32 AM PST
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Some are seeking to add to their family after the loss of an older child. Others decide to act as a surrogate for a family member who can’t carry a child to term. Still others, years past natural child-bearing age, wish to experience pregnancy and parenthood first hand -- at any price.

Assisted reproductive technology -- including gestational surrogacy, donor egg and sperm, and in-vitro fertilization (IVF) -- have made it possible for women to postpone parenthood until their 50s or even later. Those who choose to go this route say that having a baby so much later in life is a fulfilling and life-affirming experience, adding that the numerous health risks involved are well worth it. But critics counter that it’s a selfish, immoral, and unnatural act -- and one that isn’t in the best interests of the child.

In the early 1990s, the French government introduced a bill to prohibit post-menopausal pregnancies; Dr. Philippe Douste-Blazy, France’s health minister at the time, argued that "artificial late pregnancies were immoral as well as dangerous to the health of mother and child” and urged women “not to be ‘egoistic’ by trying to become pregnant after menopause." Other countries have considered legislation limiting the age at which women may receive fertility treatment as well, though individual clinics tend adhere to their own rules, refusing treatment for women older than 50 or 55.

The political condemnation and ethical questions do not seem to have affected those who are determined to experience pregnancy and parenthood first hand, however, and the debate has centered on the age of the mothers, not the fathers.

In July 2008, 70-year-old Omkari Panwar, a mother of two and grandmother of five, gave birth to twins in Uttar Pradesh, India. According to BBC News, Panwar and her husband, Charam Singh, who is in his mid-70s, have two adult daughters but were “so desperate for a male heir that they spent their life savings and took out a bank loan for IVF.”

“We already have two girls but we wanted a boy so that he could have taken care of our property. This boy and girl are God's greatest gift to us," Omkari told the BBC.

Later that year another Indian woman, Rajo Devi, gave birth to a daughter after 50 years of infertility, thanks to IVF. Doctors in Haryana determined that the elderly woman was fit enough to survive a high-risk pregnancy, saying that the only real risk was that the child could be orphaned at an early age.

Which is exactly what happened when Maria del Carmen Bousada, a Spanish woman who gave birth two twin boys in 2006 at the age of 67, died of cancer earlier this year. In 2006, the single mother underwent IVF treatment at a Los Angeles clinic, where she told doctors that she was only 55; she justified the deception, saying that because her mother had died at 101, she stood a good chance of living long enough to raise her children.

“I have always wanted to be a mother all my life, but I have never had the opportunity or met the right man,” she said in an interview after the birth.

Her family, however, was not supportive. “My mother would turn in her grave if she knew what my sister has done,” her older brother, Manuel Bousada de Lara, told the Spanish media. “Mother would ask: ‘How are you going to bring up two boys at your age?” The 3-year-old orphans are now thought to be with a guardian.

Allan Pacey, secretary of the British Fertility Society, told the Associated Press that the organization recommends that assisted conception generally not be offered to women after the natural age of menopause, which is about 50.
"The rationale ... is that nature didn't design women to have assisted conception beyond the age of the natural menopause, he said. "Once you get into the mid-50s, I think nature is trying to tell us something."

But some women feel that, in spite of the physical demands of pregnancy, age is not really an issue. “It's not physical age that is important,” Elizabeth Adeney told the Daily Mail after giving birth to her son in May 2009, at the age of 66. “It's how I feel inside. Some days I feel 39. Others, I feel 56.”

"Women do not have the right to have a child; the child has a right to a suitable home,” said Virginia Bottomley, Britain's secretary of state for health, after a 59-year-old British woman gave birth in 1993.

Critics have been vocal about the impact that having much-older parents can have on a child’s life. “All you congratulators just don't get it, do you,” a reader commented on The Mail Online story about Adeney. “It’s not about HER right to motherhood, HER love for the child, HER wonderful mothering skills -- it's about the child. ... I think of her child in years to come, battling with decisions like, 'Can I go out tonight/away to university/travel/work abroad because if I do, Mom will be all alone -- who will take care of Mom?” THAT is the reality the poor kid faces.”

Josephine Quintavalle, from Comment on Reproductive Ethics told The Guardian: "It is extremely difficult for a child to have a mother who is as old as a grandmother would be. It is just that consumer society that wants absolutely everything, and never stops to think that a child is not a product. She is being selfish and sometimes greater love is saying no.”

Supporters, however, contend that these elderly parents have done nothing wrong. “Yes, it is a terrible shame that two children have lost their mother,” Sarah Vine pointed out in an editorial in The Times. “But that does not mean they should never have been born.”

“People who break children’s backs, or grind cigarette butts into their thighs, or perpetrate obscene acts against them,” she wrote. “And yet no one says such people must be barred from reproducing -- even when, manifestly, there would be a strong moral case against them.”

Lylah Alphonse is based in Boston, Massachusetts, United States of America, and is a Stringer on Allvoices.
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