Kirstie Allsopp speaks out on fertility

I have a new-found respect for TV presenter Kirstie Allsopp for speaking out about fertility and the biological clock. If you haven’t heard about it, you can read her comments in an interview in the Telegraph here, but to summarise she said she thought we needed to be more honest about the biological clock. She suggested that as we all lived much longer, it was perhaps time to think differently about the order in which we did things and that having children and settling down earlier, and going to university later might be a better way.

Inevitably, she’s come in for a lot of criticism – often from people who haven’t read what she actually said and from those who see her thoughts as some kind of reactionary anti-feminist stance. In fact, what she’s suggesting is far from reactionary or anti-feminist.  It’s actually quite radical, and I think she may be right.

She went on to explain herself very clearly in this debate on Newsnight, where she spelled out that she wasn’t just talking about young women thinking differently, but about young men thinking differently too. We may live longer, but the average age of the menopause hasn’t changed and if people want to have families, it’s both men and women who need to think carefully about when they do this.

We don’t want to scare young women, to make them limit their choices or to prevent them achieving their full potential – but doing things in a different order doesn’t have to be limiting. As a society we tend to have rather negative and judgmental views of women who have children very early, but the handful of women I know who had children in their late teens and early twenties have all gone on to have very successful and fulfilling careers – and are getting on with the rest of their lives post-children at a time when many of their contemporaries are finding themselves on the fertility treadmill.  Maybe it’s time we did rethink the way we do things?

You may not think Kirstie is right, and of course it isn’t always going to be right to have children earlier for all kinds of reasons – but hats off to her for being brave enough to speak out and raise the issue.

How old is too old for IVF?

In the light of recent coverage of older mothers, this story from the States is interesting – apparently a record has been set for the oldest woman ever to have successful IVF treatment using her own eggs who was 46.

What’s particularly interesting about it is that the woman herself had no idea that she was so unusual, having heard so many stories of women having children in their forties and even fifties. What she hadn’t realised was that older women who’d had successful fertility treatment hadn’t been using their own eggs – and she hadn’t appreciated how very rare it is for anyone to get pregnant with IVF once they are into their mid-forties.

I was at a talk recently where a fertility specialist explained to a group of women that no one over the age of 43 had ever had successful IVF without using donor eggs at their very successful clinic – and there was some amazement in the audience.

The woman in this case had been told that she had a very slim chance of treatment working at her age, and didn’t have an easy time once she was pregnant, spending more than two months of her pregnancy in hospital. She gave birth eight and a half weeks early to a tiny three pound baby.

Fifty-something mothers

There has been a lot of media excitement about newly-released statistics showing an increase in the number of women in their fifties giving birth – and the lack of understanding about the subject is summed up by this article in the Telegraph. 

According to the Telegraph, one of the reasons for the increase in the number of fifty-something mothers is “changing medical advice”.  I am fascinated by this, and would love to be enlightened as to the nature of this changing advice. Most fertility clinics stop treating women once they reach 50, obstetric advice is clearly not encouraging women to get pregnant when they are older and the Chief Medical Officer warned recently that women should not risk leaving it too late to get pregnant.  So, if anyone has any idea what “changing medical advice” the Telegraph is referring to, please let me know – let us all know…

The article also claims that IVF means that more women are willing to risk delaying having children – but fails to mention that IVF can offer nothing to women of 50+. IVF success rates are very low for women in their mid forties, and I have never met a fertility specialist who would offer standard IVF to a woman in her fifties as it would be a waste of time. Treating women with donor eggs is something else entirely, but even then, most fifty-somethings would need to travel overseas in order to find a clinic willing to treat them.

According to the Telegraph, “actress Tina Malone of Shameless gave birth to daughter Flame at the age of 50, after travelling to Cyprus for IVF treatment”.  Well, no actually she didn’t.  She had egg donation. It’s a very different thing and failing to clarify this is inaccurate and misleading.

The article also quotes a survey which it says found that “almost three-quarters of people do not think women should receive IVF to help them conceive beyond their natural childbearing years”.  As IVF really can’t help women conceive beyond their natural childbearing years, I am not sure why anyone even asked the question. IVF is a treatment for infertility, not for age.

If reporters for national broadsheets seem not to understand the facts, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that so many women are confused…

How late can you leave it…

What do you think? Are women leaving it too late to get pregnant?  The Chief Medical Officer, Professor Dame Sally Davies, hit the headlines last week after expressing her concerns about the steady shift towards women leaving it later to try to get pregnant, and about the fact that many more women are choosing not to have children at all.

I went to Sky News to talk about this with author Daisy Waugh and presenters Jayne Secker and Sarah-Jane Mee.  There are all kinds of reasons why women are leaving it later to have children, and it’s unrealistic to think that by banging on about the risks we are going to suddenly see many more women opting to have their children in their twenties. This may be the ideal time biologically, but it’s not always remotely ideal in any other way. Many women in their twenties haven’t yet met the person they want to have children with, they may be still finishing their studies or looking for their first job, they may be living with their parents because they can’t afford a place of their own – and getting pregnant is certainly not on the agenda.

I was interested in some of the comments the story drew from those who were keen to point out that more and more women are having babies in their forties. It’s absolutely true that more women are having children at this age, but it is also true that it’s not so easy to get pregnant and stay pregnant in your forties.  I meet so many women who are feel they are in a battle against time trying to conceive in their late thirties and early forties, and who have assumed that fertility treatment will be able to offer a solution when IVF is not able to turn back the biological clock. I come across so many who are trying treatment for the first time in their forties, and who don’t realise quite how poor the chances of getting pregnant with IVF become. Success rates for IVF are around 5% for women who have reached 42 and fall to around 1% for women of 45.  The risk of early pregnancy loss is high for women of this age too, rising above 50%.

We don’t want to petrify women into believing that it’s virtually impossible to get pregnant naturally in your late thirties and forties because it’s simply not true – but at the same time, anyone leaving it until then does need to be aware that there may be problems.  I always think we talk about it a lot – but people still don’t appreciate how unsuccessful a treatment IVF becomes once you are heading into your mid-forties.

What do you think? Should we talk about it more? Are women still unaware of the realities? Or are we terrifying a generation of thirty-somethings, many of whom will still get pregnant without any trouble?


Does your age affect the type of mother you are?

I’ve just been reading a terribly sad feature written by a woman who got pregnant at 43 and seems to believe that her age is to blame for her failure to connect with her daughter and the fact that she has no desire to spend any time with her.  It isn’t easy reading, particularly for anyone who would absolutely adore to have a child, but the link is here if you want to take a look.

I think it is a great shame that the author has used her own feelings to draw conclusions about offering IVF to women of 40-42, as I find it very hard to believe that age has anything to do with the way she feels – I think she would have had just the same response to being a parent had she been 20 or 30 when she conceived rather than in her early 40s.  In fact, it is often suggested that older women may be good parents precisely because they have more time to devote to their children, and the sweeping generalisation that all older women may feel too set in their ways to accept the changes that motherhood can bring seems to me to be completely wrong.

To then go on to to conclude from this that offering IVF to women in their early forties may not be such a good thing because they are too selfish is just nonsense.  When I interviewed women who’d had children after fertility problems for my book Precious Babies,  it was very clear that whatever age they were, they all relished spending time with the children they’d longed for.

Of course your age makes a difference to the sort of parent you are because your interests and lifestyle tend to be different as you get older – but this can be positive rather than negative, so don’t ever believe that waiting to have a baby is going to make you any less capable as a parent in the future.