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'Older Mothers': a report on the '21st century motherhood’ conference held at UCL, 18 September 2009

19 October 2009
Appeared in BioNews 530
Maria Bousada, 69, once the world's oldest mother, died in July this year leaving behind two young children born following IVF only two years earlier. Her death reignited the debate surrounding 'older mothers' - or more specifically, post-menopausal women who require fertility treatment to conceive. In response to media attention surrounding Ms Bousada's death, Professor Sammy Lee, an expert in medical ethics, embryology and biomedical sciences based at University College London (UCL) arranged a conference co-sponsored by the Progress Educational Trust entitled '21st Century Motherhood', with the aim to engage the public and stakeholders in rigorous debate. The event took place at UCL on 18 September. What emerged from the day-long discussion directed by informed presentations from an array of experts from scientific, ethical, social, feminist and other academic backgrounds was the 'problem' is both, of course, important to fertility patients and society at large but, as yet, surprisingly under-explored. Media sensationalism aside, what exactly were the objections to Ms Bousada having children beyond the age of 60 and on what grounds were such objections founded?

The issues

Reproductive autonomy versus the best interests of the child

From an ethical perspective, the issue of 'older mothers' creates tension between the principles of the reproductive autonomy of the mother and the best interests of the child, but also the interests of wider society. It is a classic exposition of the clash between neo-liberal attitudes towards private behaviour, facilitated by the rise of the fertility industry to meet the demands of 'consumers', and paternalistic efforts to protect women from their own possibly ill-founded decisions and also to protect the unborn child.

Naomi Pfeffer raised the point first of all when speaking of the woman's right to choose what to do with her body. Surely this is absolutely central to the whole issue - if a woman believes she is fit and healthy to raise children then why should be prevented from doing so? The problem is that Maria Bousada thought just this, believing that longevity ran in the family, yet was diagnosed with fatal cancer just months before her children were born. It is a trite point but statistically speaking 'older' mothers are more likely to die sooner after giving birth than younger mothers. Commenting on the issue at the time, Josephine Quintavalle of Comment on Reproductive Ethics, summed up the ethical problem: 'Why would a woman want to become a mother at an age when she knows her children are much more likely to be orphaned when they're young?' she asked.

Yet the rights of the women cannot be ignored. The 'right' to bear children is evidenced in Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: 'Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family.' Whether rights discourse covers fertility treatment is unclear but for these purposes assuming that it does, the question arises as to at what point is the state permitted to interfere with a woman's right to bear children? The only true principle, I believe, that justifies such a measure, is the best interests of the children which, in other areas of the law such as consent, operates above the decision-making rights of the parents.

Health and wellbeing of mother and child

Practically, the question of safety both for the mother and the unborn children featured prominently in the discussions. First and foremost, children born to 'older mothers' are arguably placed at risk of physical harm during the pregnancy and birth, but also to psychological harm if their mother dies of 'old age' whilst they are still in their infancy. Anna Smajdor of the University of East Anglia pointed out that pregnancy is inherently risky anyway but mothers choose to assume this risk rather than not having children at all. But this inherent risk of pregnancy increases as the mother becomes older and this cannot be ignored when providing IVF to, say, a woman over 60. It is a question of thresholds and where we must draw the line is when the risks to either to mother or child become excessive to make such a pregnancy unadvisable.

Second, there is the problem of 'fertility tourism', whereby residents who are either denied or cannot access fertility treatment in their own countries travel abroad to countries with more permissive regulations. This issue is always relevant when limits to IVF are considered. Such patients are exposed to exploitation and health risks as fertility services in some countries is not regulated as strictly as they are elsewhere. Further, if, for example, a clinic in the UK denies a 65 year old woman IVF on the basis of risks to her and the child's health, despite the fact that a clinic in, say, India, may be willing to perform the service, the risk to mother and baby remain exactly the same. Fertility tourism does not get around the problem but merely allows women to circumvent protectionist rules.

Social attitudes towards 'older mothers'

The conference also touched upon social attitudes towards older mothers. Here, the discussion moved towards changes in social attitudes over the last few decades. Peter Brinsden, Consultant Medical Director at Bourn Hall Clinic, told the audience that in the 1980s mothers were considered 'old' at the age of 40. Today, many women would contest this view and indeed women between the ages of 40-44 have a 65 per cent of conceiving naturally. The lifestyle choices of women have also developed over the years with an increasing number choosing to postpone motherhood to pursue a career. Yet the difference between women who conceives naturally at 40, or for that matter any age, to a women who requires fertility treatment is the crux of the issue here. Fertility technology allows women as old as 70 to successfully conceive - but should they?

There may be in-built sexism in the way society views older parents. Sammy Lee illustrated how the media portray older mothers as being selfish yet they appear to congratulate older fathers. When approaching the issue we must there be mindful that we are not simply expressing prejudice about the woman's role in bringing up a child - if possible, both parents are in it for equal measure.


The conference provided an opportunity to discuss various perspectives and left those attending with no clear answer. Indeed, none was expected. The conference met its purposes to the engage the public in debate and to delineate the approaches to the issue but there is more that needs to be done. From a regulatory perspective, this concoction of various issues invites the question whether IVF is indeed properly regulated at present and whether there should be greater regulation of the provision of IVF for older mothers, either in guideline or legislative form.

The central question that emerged was when is it legitimate to interfere with the reproductive rights of the woman and on what grounds such an intervention should be justified. Introducing the debate, Professor Lord Robert Winston stressed that the medical profession should not interfere with what is essentially a personal decision for the woman. Analogies to abortion may be drawn here, which remains in the hands of doctors, in theory at least.

Yet I do not feel that the decision to have a child is solely the mother's decision and the best interests of that child should always be paramount. Guidelines make it clear that the primary factor to be considered when providing fertility treatment to older mothers is the wellbeing of the child. This includes both physical and psychological risks and I believe where there is a 'real' risk of either materialising then fertility treatment should not be offered. This is essentially a medical question and when we introduce the notion of safety into the decision-making process then it unavoidably medicalises the issue.

Another approach is to withhold fertility treatment on the basis that is does not take away from the mother - nothing lost, nothing gained. If IVF is viewed as a positive intervention dependant on the will of the medical profession (a woman cannot perform IVF alone) then those offered such services as legitimately permitted to deny treatment - as they are today. This merely infringes reproductive autonomy in an indirect manner. Yet such an approach leads to a negative conclusion that fertility treatment is a 'luxury' rather than akin to other medical interventions.

What is clear, however, is that if further regulatory steps are to be introduced, however, it must be done is a sensitive and measured fashion so not to alienate older fertility patients and to not put pressure on patients to seek treatment abroad. The conference has set the scene for further avenues of debate but what is yet to emerge is a clear normative principle to guide it. I feel this can only be the welfare of the child, a principle that should never be curtailed, but then not everyone would readily agree.
14 July 2014 - by Dr Ruth Shidlo 
Today women are creating families later in life, yet the workplace may offer little support for those who wish to become mothers. Life can become a juggling act between finding a compatible mate and becoming a parent, while maintaining workplace commitments and furthering a career...
7 January 2013 - by Ruth Saunders 
Progress Educational Trust's 2012 annual conference 'Fertility Treatment: A Life-Changing Event?' concluded with a session entitled 'The Age-Old Question: The Impact of Age'...
28 August 2012 - by Department of Cell and Developmental Biology, University College London 
Sammy Lee, visiting professor in the Research Department of Cell and Developmental Biology, University College London (UCL), since 2010, and visiting professor in biomedical science at the ABC Medical School in São Paulo, Brazil, an expert on fertility and in vitro fertilisation, passed away suddenly on 21 July 2012...
5 September 2011 - by Holly Finn 
July marked the 33rd birthday of the world's first 'test-tube' baby. Since then, four million babies have been born thanks to IVF. Many more have not. The treatment does not guarantee pregnancy and the side effects remain severe. Yet there is a brutal dishonesty. IVF is considered almost routine. Because women - and men – don't talk frankly about their fertility struggles, we continue to get a skewed message...
21 June 2010 - by Harriet Vickers 
Mrs Bhateri Devi from India has become the oldest woman to give birth to triplets, at 66-years-old....
17 August 2009 - by Dr Sammy Lee 
Did the death of Maria Bousada change public attitudes to the modern phenomenon headlined as 'Oldest Mums'? The world's media certainly made hay and the news reverberated for a few days; and it seems likely that the Channel 4 documentary 'the Worlds Oldest Mums' was rescheduled to screen early to catch the media wave which the death generated. The aftermath, though, of this tsunami seems to have largely been relative indifference....
20 July 2009 - by Antony Starza-Allen 
The world’s oldest mother has died from cancer aged 69. María Carmen del Bousada de Lara, from Spain, gave birth to twins two years ago through IVF...
16 February 2009 - by Sarah Pritchard 
A 60 year-old woman has sparked controversy in Canada by travelling to India to receive fertility treatment after years of failed attempts to conceive naturally. Ranjit Hayer, originally from India, has become the oldest woman in Canada to give birth after receiving IVF at Dr Anoop Gupta's Delhi fertility clinic; her twin boys were delivered seven weeks prematurely by Caesarean section at the Foothills hospital in Calgary last week....
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