The BBC recently ran an interview with Susan Tollefsen, a British woman who gave birth to her first daughter at age 57 in 2008. The baby was conceived with the help of in vitro fertilization, using a donor egg and her partner’s sperm (although the couple is now separated). Ms. Tollefsen was refused fertility treatment in the UK because of her age, and became pregnant with the help of a clinic in Russia. Two years later, a clinic in London agreed to assist her with a second pregnancy, but she ultimately decided not to follow through, citing potential health concerns.
Although her daughter is now 3 years old, Ms. Tollefsen is back in the news, saying that she believes she was too old to have a child, and that women over 50 should not have access to fertility treatment. The challenges of raising a child at her age led to the end of her relationship with her partner (11 years her junior), and have left her financially depleted, exhausted, and isolated, as she is much older than other new mothers. Ms. Tollefsen also seems to be coming to terms with the reality that she will likely not live to see her daughter grow up, marry, and have children of her own.
A woman giving birth over the age of 50 is rare, but not unheard of. Furthermore, according to Jewish tradition, Sarah, a revered matriarch, gave birth to Isaac when she was 90 years old, and lived to 127. But that was in the Bible, and Sarah’s pregnancy was literally the result of divine intervention, one which presumably didn’t involve a petri dish and a catheter.
In the interest of full disclosure, both of our daughters were conceived through IVF, with my eggs and my husband’s sperm. My husband and I were 31 when our first child was born, and 33 and 32, respectively, when I delivered our second. We will forever be grateful for this medical intervention that allowed us to have children. Nonetheless, I find myself truly struggling with the issue of much older mothers having babies, as I can genuinely see both sides.
On the one hand, I take Ms. Tollefsen’s experience to heart. Parenting is incredibly hard, even with the benefits of youth and an intact partnership. Perhaps there is a reason why the female reproductive system literally shuts down at a certain age. If you are willing to go to such great lengths to bypass the effects of menopause (IVF is not only time consuming and costly, but it also involves intrusive medical interventions, including multiple painful injections, internal ultrasounds, and blood draws, not to mention the retrieval of the eggs and transfer of the embryos), it seems as though you should be as prepared and able as possible to not only birth the child, but also raise it for as long as possible. Younger parents often rely on their good health and stamina, as well as their own parents and peer group for support; older mothers may not benefit from these physical and social resources. Are these mothers making a choice that will inevitably leave their children motherless at a relatively young age?
And yet. My husband and I are young and healthy (pu pu pu), but that doesn’t guarantee that either of us will live to stand with our children under the chuppah. Furthermore, I shudder at the thought of some sort of litmus test as to who is deserving of the blessing of parenthood; my husband and I both have a range of physical and mental illnesses in our family trees that might have rendered us ineligible. I think anyone who has ever been a mother, and many who have not, can attest to the influence of the desire to have children, and the many, many blessings that children bring. How can you really know who will be a good mother and who won’t, which child will have a good childhood and which won’t? Who among us should have the power to make such decisions?
I don’t have the answers, but I think it’s important to ask the questions. Ultimately, there is no way to predict how life’s choices will work out—if God had refused to bless Sarah with a child because of her old age, the Jewish people might have never come into existence. But we aren’t living in Biblical times, and modern technology has introduced both blessings and complications. Should we limit access to fertility treatment? What should the limits be? Who should decide? What do you all think?