I tried really hard during this show to put aside my thoughts about the actual age of the women featured in this Channel 4 documentary – all of whom wanted desperately to be mothers, or already were – but it wasn’t that easy.
I had a constant running battle going on in my head about the whole thing; one part of my psyche was screaming “Nature didn’t intend a 70 year old to be a mother – that’s why we have menopause!” while another part was arguing, “Yes, but if nature had its way and medical intervention wasn’t on the cards, anyone with appendicitis would die.”
No, I’m not schizophrenic or anything and don’t normally have opposing voices arguing in my head, but whilst my debacle over nature versus science raged on, the arguments over the suitability of a pensioner to raise a baby were overwhelmingly on the side of the “it’s not right” brigade…
We all know the arguments against someone of 60 or even worse, 70, having a baby. There’s the fact that they themselves might not be physically strong enough to bear a child, and of course, how can someone of such an age race around after a baby? It’s exhausting when you’re in your twenties! And one of the arguably most contentious issues is that a mother of advancing years is unlikely to live long enough to see their child achieve adulthood.
That argument was put to Jennie, a rather quirky lady of 72 who was, “bursting to be a mother.” Her response was, “Well look at Jade Goody. She was 27 when she died” and of course she’s right. Young women do die all the time, leaving behind young children, but the fact is, women who die in their twenties are a relatively rare commodity whereas women who die in their seventies are not rare at all. Case in point – 69 year old Maria del Carmen Bousada de Lara who was featured in this film and who tragically died recently of ovarian cancer after having twins by IVF.
And I must say, wrong though it may be, I felt the urge to gag when we saw Rajo, an Indian lady of 70, breast feeding her baby. It just raged against all natural instinct. That said though, Rajo is revered in her country for being a mum at that age and she has a whole community at her disposal who are ready and willing to help her with the child. That attitude is diametrically opposed to most Western attitudes to elderly mothers and, living as we do in our relatively small nuclear families, not so many women here would find themselves lucky enough to have dozens of supportive helpers around.
We also met the 17 year old twin daughters of Mary, a 70-year-old American, one of whom remarked that it was “so cool” to be in the unique position among their peers to have a parent who was in WWII. However, apparently not quite so cool was their very recent discovery that genetically, they aren’t Mary’s children. Finding out that your parents aren’t necessarily biologically related to you isn’t something peculiar to children born to aging women of course, but it was just yet another anomaly that the girls had to face because of their exceptional situation.
Overall, the documentary was presented in an unbiased format but the fact remains that, despite the medical ability to enable elderly women to have a baby, the ethical debate continues with the arguments for why it shouldn’t happen being weightier than the reasons for it to be readily available.
But there again, to hark back to what I said at the beginning of this article, we humans play God all the time. Doctors routinely save the lives of people who, if nature were allowed free reign, would be dead. People with cancers are of course treated in order to try to save their lives or prolong them, but, if our argument about why women shouldn’t conceive long after they’ve had the menopause is to have any gravitas, we must surely ask, who then gets to decide when nature’s right and nature’s wrong? And more specifically, who decides how old is too old for medical intervention?
Is it wrong to offer fertility treatment to a young woman who nature has ‘decided’ shouldn’t have children? If a young woman is infertile because of say, polycystic ovary syndrome, would we suggest that for some random reason, nature doesn’t want that woman to have a child so we should go along with that decision? And if not, how can we say it’s wrong to disallow an elderly woman the same options? In both scenarios, ‘nature’ has ruled out a natural pregnancy, both women could possibly die within ten years of the child being born, so is it ethically right to deny one of them on the grounds of age?
Obviously, it’s very much a matter of opinion but the vast majority of fertility clinics have an upper age limit of somewhere approaching 50 to at most, 60 years old. It seems the further afield one goes, globally speaking, the better your chances are of being accepted for fertility treatment. And as with Rajo in India, the chances are, that’s because the clinician’s decision might be based on cultural differences and often monetary factors rather than the relative risks or merits to the patient and the resulting child or children.
This was certainly a very thought provoking show but I have to admit, for me, I couldn’t truthfully condone someone having a baby past 50 years of age for the reason that I believe it immediately and by default disadvantages the resulting baby and the grown up person that baby will become.
We’d be interested to hear your thoughts on this issue so please do use the comment box below to let us know.