Do you think there should be a cut-off age after which people shouldn’t have children? Or is it fine at any age at which it is remotely feasible? And is it right that we ponder this subject so much when it comes to women having children later in life, and yet barely raise an eyebrow when Mick Jagger has a baby at the ripe old age of 73?
The subject has been back in the news again after Dame Julia Peyton-Jones, former director of the Serpentine Galleries, became a mother at 64. It isn’t clear how she had her daughter, although we can be sure she didn’t use her eggs and that she may well have paid for a surrogate to carry the baby too. I know we all feel and act younger than our grandparents may have done at the same age, but she will be 80 by the time her daughter is 16 – and I can’t help wondering what it would be like for a 16 year old to have an 80 year old mother? Or what it would be like to be responsible for a teenager when you were 80?
Of course, the other problem with news stories like this is that they muddy the waters when it comes to NHS funding for fertility treatment, as many people seem to assume that it is the NHS which is footing the bill for older women to try to have babies. In fact, in most areas there is limited funding for women up to the age of 39, and often nothing at all beyond that. At most women of 40-42 will get one cycle, but if you are older, there is no likelihood of funded treatment.
You couldn’t fail to have heard about egg freezing, which seems to have captured media attention as the latest development in fertility treatment to be regularly hitting the headlines, but do you know all that you should?
Is egg freezing something that every young woman should be considering? Or is it just the latest money-making enterprise from the fertility sector? Should it be reserved for those who need to preserve their fertility for medical reasons rather than be freely available to young, healthy women?
One question many women ask when they’re thinking about starting a family is “How late can I leave it?”. Many of us are simply not ready to try to conceive when we’re at our most fertile in our twenties, but leaving it until our thirties or forties can lead to worries that maybe we’re going to encounter problems along the way.
Now, researchers have come up with a computer model which suggests when you should start trying to have children based on the size of family you’d like (yes, I know – just one would make most fertility patients very happy…). Anyway, according to this model if you want to have three children, you should start trying by 23 to have a 90% chance of success, or by the age of 32 if you’d like just one child. They factor in IVF separately in their tables, which gives a slightly higher chance of success and it is presented in a table which makes it very easy to understand.
These figures are general and can’t be used to show your individual chances of success, but at the same time they do raise the realities of the difference that age makes when considering pregnancy and parenthood. There’s often criticism about this kind of research from people who say that it puts pressure on women – and no one wants to worry people unnecessarily – but at the same time, we can’t ignore factual information because we don’t like it. I’ve seen so many women in their mid forties who assume that they must still be fertile because they are fit and healthy, look much younger and are still having periods – but none of those things guarantee that you are still fertile. The oldest person to get pregnant using IVF with her own eggs was 46, but this was such a remarkable and extraordinary case that it was reported in a scientific journal – see here
Although this new research can’t be used as a certain predictor for any individual, it does give a clearer picture of the difficulties women can face. It is true that many will go on to have children if they start trying for a family in their late 30s, but others won’t and it is important that everyone is aware of the realities of age and fertility. You can read more about the research in New Scientist here
The Telegraph returns to the subject of later motherhood this week, following on from the suggestion by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service that an increase in abortions amongst women of 35 and above was due to “scaremongering” about the biological clock which was leading women to assume that they couldn’t possibly be fertile in their late thirties and forties. The article cited the cases of women who’d happily and easily had children in their forties, and suggested that reduced fertility might have more to do with how healthy you are than your age. It even concluded with the point that there might be a “sexist agenda” in telling women that they needed to have children earlier.
You don’t have to have spent much time working in the world of infertility to know that this is one side of a very complex picture. Yes, of course there are plenty of women who can get pregnant very easily in their late thirties and early forties- but there are also many others who can’t and who feel angry that they were not made aware of the limited options that fertility treatment could provide. I talk to so many women who wish they’d started trying for children earlier and who are passionate about the need to educate women about the biological clock.
I’m aware, of course, that this is just one other side of the complex picture, but we do need to get the balance right – we don’t want to scare women unnecessarily, but unfortunately there are many women going to fertility clinics for the first time in their forties only to discover that despite feeling young and being healthy, their ovaries are no longer in top shape for conception.
I don’t want women to start trying to have children earlier because I have a sexist agenda – I want them to be aware that if they leave it until later, fertility treatment can’t wave a magic wand. Being fit and healthy is not going to stop the biological clock, the fact that you are still having periods in your forties doesn’t mean that you are still fertile and female fertility declines far more rapidly than male fertility. It’s unfair, it’s annoying, it’s frustrating – but talking about this isn’t being sexist, it’s just being honest.