New research finds that age is no bar to being a good mother. That doesn't make it right to have babies in your 50s or 60s, says Sheena Hastings.
OPPOSITION to older mothers rests on nothing more than prejudice, rather than any evidence that they are poor parents, according to scientists
in the US. They say that society has a fixed idea of what motherhood should be, and of what age is appropriate for parenthood.
This study will no doubt be used to strengthen the case for scrapping an upper age-limit for fertility treatment.
In the UK there is no absolute limit for IVF, but the NHS does not fund it for women over 40, and even private clinics are
generally reluctant to treat anyone over 45.
Now researchers at the University of California have compared the experience of
150 IVF mothers in their 30s, 40s and 50s, who had conceived children with the help of the university's donated egg programme.
The subjects' physical and mental functions were tested,
and their levels of stress. Overall, the researchers found that the women in their 50s did not have reduced parental capacity or higher stress levels than the younger women.
Dr Anne Steiner and Dr Richard Paulson, who carried out the research, concluded that access to fertility treatment could not necessarily be restricted on the basis of physical/mental function or stress levels. However, they did say that the older women tested had younger partners – and this may have influenced their ability to cope with a small child.
The study comes only a week after the chair for the Government's fertility watchdog, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, said that fertility treatment should not be refused on the grounds of a mother's age.
NHS doctors in this country refuse to give fertility treatment to women over 40 for sound reasons – concern for the woman's health in pregnancy and the welfare of the child. The viability of a woman's eggs is drastically reduced after this age, and by the age of about 50 she is ceasing to produce eggs of her own.
But for those who are willing to travel to countries where the business of fertility is different, successful IVF treatment can be bought in any number of clinics. The world's oldest mother, a 66-year-old Romanian, had a daughter last year.
More recently, Dr Patricia Rashbrook, a 63-year-old child psychiatrist from Sussex who already had three grown-up children by her previous marriage, chose to "seal her love" with second husband John Farrant, 61, by having a baby conceived in Russia under the care of controversial Italian fertility expert Severino Antinori.
Dr Rashbrook, whose baby boy JJ was born this summer, said that she and her husband's decision to have a baby had "not been an endeavour undertaken lightly or without courage, that a great deal of thought had been given to... providing for the child's present and future wellbeing, medically, socially and materially."
But many of us looked on in wonder, as a woman so close to collecting her bus pass took on nappies, colic, sleepless nights and the fact that she will be 73 when her child is 10. It's difficult to see how the decision could be anything more than selfish.
Dr Antinori's comment at the time of the announce-ment of the pregnancy was that Dr Rashbrook was "slim, blonde, in perfect condition". Yes, it was like a racehorse breeder describing his best mare. He added: "If I can bring them happiness, where is the harm?"
In the great design of things, nature stops us from creating life after a certain age, so that we cease having babies and concentrate on rearing the ones we already have. In the case of couples in their 50s and beyond having children, these parents are using their cheque books to cheat nature and create children born with a clock
ticking downwards – to when they lose one or both parents at a young age.
Some would say that it's better to have an IVF baby who is doted upon by loving older parents who have life experience and some savings to fall back on than to have children young when your judgment and patience are less mature and you may be a much less able parent.
I'm not disagreeing that couples like Dr Rashbrook and Prof Farrang will attempt to cater to their child's every need – just as they probably do for any grandchildren they have of the same age. But there's no getting away from the fact that they have not gone to such lengths and expense to have a child at their age because it is in the child's interests.
Society generally gives older fathers a much easier ride than older mothers. Maybe it's because there is a tradition which goes back to the Bible of blokes with long grey beards siring children.
The likes of John Simpson, Des O'Connor and Rupert Murdoch were not vilified when they had children with their fertile much younger wives. In fact, the arrival of a child made them appear more virile and young, even if they didn't feel it while pacing up and down in the night.
What's strange is the desire for children in couples where the woman's body has given up the ghost.
About 24 women over 50 had a baby through IVF in the UK each year (the last available statistics were for 2002), the figure being so low because of the greater chance of failure in older women and because few clinics will treat them.
But the growth in fertility tourism means these statistics will steadily rise for anyone with the cash and determination to go abroad. In the meantime let's hope that the regulations stay as tight in the UK.
It's only natural, after all, for doctors to prefer to help a young woman with fertility problems and long years ahead of her rather than an older women on whom the precious (and scarce) eggs might be wasted, or engender a child who prematurely becomes the carer of elderly parents.