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Go to: spiked-central spiked-lifeColumnJennie Bristow

Column
18 January 2005Printer-friendly versionEmail a friend

What's wrong with the World's Oldest Mum?
It might be selfish and unnatural - but a woman in her 60s should have the choice to have a child.


'First baby for the world's oldest mother (and she's single).' In this Daily Mail headline, the parentheses say it all. If it wasn't bad enough that a 66-year-old Romanian woman has given birth to a daughter as a result of fertility treatment, Adriana Iliescu seems to be no Earth Mother figure prevented by tragic circumstances from having the family she deserved. She is single; a retired university professor who claims to have been too busy pursuing her career to get around to having babies earlier in life.

Ms Iliescu's newfound status as World's Oldest Mum has attracted consternation across the UK press, to whom the photographic constrast of little Eliza Maria and the wrinkled face of her ageing mother has proved irresistible. It's not natural, apparently, to have a baby at this age; and moreover it's a really, really selfish thing to do. Maybe so - but what business is it of ours how a Romanian retiree chooses to plan her family?

In today's disoriented moral universe, stories such as that of Ms Iliescu invariably provide an opportunity for yet more commentary on what kind of people should be able to have children, and for what reasons. The UK's 'oldest mum' stories - such as 60-year-old Liz Buttle who gave birth to a son in 1997, and the 59-year-old grandmother from Surrey who has recently had two small children - found their fertility choices under a similar spotlight.

It is taken for granted that these women's desire to take advantage of new technology to buck the biological clock says something disturbing about the way we view parenting and children today. In fact, the disturbing trend lies less in the private choices made by elderly mums than in the public discussion about them.

Of course it is not natural for a menopausal woman to have children using somebody else's eggs. But no fertility treatment is natural - that's the whole point of it. Our society thankfully accepts that, for young women who are biologically incapable of conceiving or carrying children, or for young men who have suffered from cancer, say, or some other cause of infertility, IVF provides a wonderful opportunity to bypass the unfairness meted out by nature.

We've come a long way from the ethical outpourings that greeted the birth of the UK's first 'test tube baby', Louise Brown, in the 1970s. Fertility treatment is now commonplace and for the most part uncontroversial, and too many people know too many couples who have benefited from IVF to fail to recognise the joy it can bring. By the same token, people are also very aware of the problems of IVF. Far from being some kind of miracle, as it is often portrayed, which enables any woman to have as many babies as she wants whenever she wants, IVF remains an unpleasant, unreliable procedure that can be ruinously expensive and cause a great deal of heartache.

But even to be given a shot at IVF today, you have to be deemed the right sort of person. If you are too old, too poor, too single, too gay or too greedy (in the sense that you demand maximising your chances of success by having 'too many' embryos implanted at once), you are considered fair game for all manner of moral opprobrium. It is as though the biological barriers an individual faces to having children makes it only natural that their emotions, motivations and social status should be scrutinised and, often, condemned.

In the UK, prospective parents seeking fertility treatment have to pass a complex series of suitability tests laid down by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), laying their lives open to official scrutiny in a way that would be unthinkable for parents who conceive naturally. The HFEA is apparently now looking at relaxing some of these rules, making it easier for single parents and gay couples to access treatment - but this is reportedly likely to be accompanied by stiffer regulations to check for criminal records and to restrict the number of babies a woman can have at any one time.

Add to this the news headlines that generally greet the birth of an IVF baby to somebody who falls short of the parenting ideal, and one wonders what makes these new parents so different that they can invite such interference and contempt.

However you do it, having children is essentially a selfish thing to do
The answer, of course, is nothing. There is nothing profoundly different between parents of IVF children and those who conceive naturally. The only difference is that couples who use IVF are an easier target for those wishing to moralise about the problem of parents in general, with their apparently dodgy desires and 'wrong' life choices.

Given modern society's appreciation of contraception and overall sympathy towards fertility treatment, the cry that 'it's not natural' for a grandmother-figure to start dropping sprogs is not particularly convincing. The problem that preoccupies most commentators, therefore, is that Ms Iliescu's decision to do so is selfish. 'When this Romanian girl is 21, her mother will be 87', proclaims the front page of the Guardian.

'[A] woman who is 67 when she conceives is more likely to be a burden than a guardian to her child: in her 80s, her health and energy level will fall short of meeting the demands of a teenager', writes Cristina Odone in The Times (London). Ms Iliescu, like all the other high-profile elderly mums we read about, is branded guilty of the heinous crime of putting her own desire for a child ahead of what is presumed to be in the child's best interests.

This argument has a number of logical flaws. Is it, then, in Eliza Maria's best interests not to be born? Has that minority of children born to biological parents but raised by their grandparents over the generations been somehow damaged by grandad's inability to play football at weekends and grandma's stroke? If it is selfish to have a child because you are older than the other parents, surely it is selfish to have a child when your house is smaller than it could be and your salary is less than you would like it to be? However you do it, having children is essentially a selfish thing to do - nobody, surely, decides to get pregnant for the benefit of that particular egg, and many people routinely take a great deal of effort to avoid getting pregnant accidentally.

And for all the talk about the problem with older mums, it's worth reminding ourselves that Britain today shows even less tolerance towards teenagers who become mothers - despite the fact that their 'health and energy levels' are at their peak, in marked contrast to the sleep-deprived thirtysomething mother 'juggling' work and life, that darling of media and policymaking circles. While many of us may not imagine wanting to choose motherhood while drawing our pension (or indeed while still receiving pocket money), none of the apparently principled arguments against it makes any sense.

It is one thing to have a debate about whether women having children in their 60s is really something to celebrate: and this would be an interesting debate to have. It is another thing entirely to use spurious arguments about extreme cases such as these to push for the need for yet more regulation of parents' fertility decisions, as though the treatment of one elderly Romanian woman is the top of a slippery slope towards irresponsible behaviour by anybody seeking fertility treatment.

Above all, we should recognise that the emphasis placed upon the welfare of a putative child in such discussions, whether the child is conceived naturally or as a consequence of IVF, is one of society's big lies. It is a cover for officials and commentators to air their prejudices about what kind of people should become parents, and how they should raise their children. Whether a woman is 60 or 16, she, and not some committee, is best placed to make the choice about the kind of family she wants to have.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Parents and kids

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