The Globe Magazine story last weekend, excerpted from the book Three Wishes by Carey Goldberg, Beth Jones, and Pamela Ferdinand, touched off a firestorm of negative discussion about assisted reproduction and single parenthood. But what I found myself thinking about was the fact that all three woman chose to have children relatively late in life.
There's a biological start and end to a woman's childbearing years, of course, though men have more leeway (example: Tony Randall, who became a first-time father at the age of 77). Even so, medical science has allowed us to push the envelope quite a bit.
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 a report at Allvoices, Panwar and her husband, Charam Singh, who was in his mid-70s at the time, had two adult daughters but spent their life savings and went into debt in order to try to conceive a male heir via in-vitro fertilization, or 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.
The trend toward having children very, very late in life is on the rise, which begs the question: Should there be a cut-off point for parenthood?
The reasons for trying to conceive once one's childbearing years are -- or should be -- over are varied, emotional, and deeply personal. Some people, like John and Elizabeth Edwards, want to add to their families after a loss of a child; their youngest son was born when Mrs. Edwards was 50, four years after the death of their teenage son, Wade. Others, like the 61-year-old woman who gave birth in Japan last year, decide to act as a surrogate for a family member who can't carry a child to term.
But some -- like Elizabeth Adeney, who had a son last year at the age of 66 after IVF, more than two decades after doctors told her to discontinue fertility treatments -- are driven by a desire to experience pregnancy first hand.
Critics counter that it's a selfish and unnatural act, one that is not in the best interests of the child -- so much so that, in 1994, the French government introduced a bill to prohibit post-menopausal pregnancies, calling them "immoral as well as dangerous" and urging women not to be "egoistic" by pursuing that route.
"What will happen when [the child] is 15 or 20 and his mother is 80 or 85?" Dr. Philippe Douste-Blazy, France's health minister at the time, asked in a radio interview. (No word on whether men who become fathers late in life were equally immoral, but the presumption is that older men were having babies with much-younger women who would, presumably, be around to care for the children).
When Maria del Carmen Bousada gave birth to twin boys in 2006 at the age of 67 via IVF, she said she was sure that she'd live long enough to raise them to adulthood and maybe even meet her grandchildren, since her own mother had lived until the age of 101. She told doctors at the Los Angeles clinic where she was treated that she was 55, the clinic's cutoff age for single women seeking fertility treatments.
"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, echoing the sentiments of single moms by choice around the world.
Bousada died last July of cancer, at the age of 69. The now-3-year-old orphans are 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."
Readers, what do you think: Is a person, male or female, ever to old to be a first-time parent? What if you take pregnancy out of the picture... should the parent's age be an issue if they're raising a foster or adopted child?
Lylah M. Alphonse is a Globe staff member and mom and stepmom to five kids. She writes about juggling career and parenthood at The 36-Hour Day and blogs at Write. Edit. Repeat. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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