There was much discussion this week of the death of Maria del Carmen Brousada, who three years ago gave birth to twins at the age of 66. News of her death–and the fact that her two children were left without a mother–was carried in nearly every major newspaper and news service. Ms. Brousada’s death was noteworthy because it stirred up–again–the whole hornet’s nest of whether women her age should be banned from receiving fertility treatments.
One of the more neutral articles ran on–of all places–Fox News, but it quoted a decidedly un-neutral party:
Allan Pacey, secretary of the British Fertility Society, said the organization recommends that assisted conception generally not be provided to women beyond the natural age of menopause.
“The rationale for all that is that nature didn’t design women to have assisted conception beyond the age of the natural menopause…once you get into the mid-50s, I think nature is trying to tell us something,” Pacey told The AP.
He added: “I think many people would worry about providing fertility treatment to women in their 60s. I think as a general rule, to embark on pregnancy when you may not see your child go to university is potentially a very difficult situation.”
Sorry, Dr. Pacey, I’m going to call bullshit on both these “reasons.”
Firstly, nature did not design the human reproductive system to do a lot of things it now routinely does. It didn’t design men to have erections on demand at 70. It didn’t design women–like me–to delay child-bearing for decades by taking hormones that stop ovulation. It didn’t design us to give birth by removing the baby through the abdominal wall. What nature designed us to do stopped troubling the medical community a long time ago.
Secondly, the whole “Oh, what about teh babeez?” cry doesn’t take into account that parents die all the time and leave their children behind. Mommies dying is always a dreadful thing. But so is daddies dying and I don’t see any bio-ethicists trying to stop men in their 60s from fathering children under the same rationale. If the sole concern here is: “She’ll die soon, so she has no business having a baby”, then we should deny men the same right, especially because men have a shorter life expectancy, and thus are even MORE likely to die when their children are young.
Should we deny fertility assistance to people who “may not live to see their children go to university?” I’d argue that it’s a very serious slippery slope. If we did decide to help only people with who can expect a long life post-childbirth, what’s the cut-off? That they must be of an age that they will live until their child is 16? 18? 21? That they have no pre-existing health conditions that might potentially shorten their lifespan? Because lots of people can be expected to die younger than the Western life expectancy of mid-70s.
Consider: a dear friend of mine in her mid-30s just had her first child with some help from fertility treatments. She has relapsing-remitting MS and while she’s healthy now, it’s possible that her MS will kill her before her child reaches adulthood. This is also true of a colleague who is having a child via a surrogate because chemotherapy for breast cancer–now in remission for six years–destroyed her fertility. It’s possible, although unlikely, that the cancer will return and kill her, but if it does, it will happen sooner rather than later, when her child is young.
Should we deny those women the right to fertility assistance? They might have a shorter than average life expectancy. Then again, so would a woman who smokes or who is obese or diabetic or who carries the BRCA genetic mutation. Should we deny them fertility treatments too?
See what I mean about that slippery slope?
I wouldn’t want to have a child in my 60s. But that’s my choice. Society needs to back the fuck off women who do. Medical technology makes things possible that strike us as distasteful or against our personal code of ethics (see: abortion, organ transplant, blood transfusion, euthanasia). But that does not give society the right to police other people’s medical decisions–including fertility treatments. Unless we’re going to send the uteri police after every woman–and man–who uses fertility treatments or is at increased risk of dying when their child is young, we don’t have the right to veto anyone’s reproductive choices, no matter what their age.