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TV Review: Too Old to Be a Mum?

1 February 2010
By Jenny Dunlop
Senior Infertility Counsellor, St Mary's Hospital, Manchester
Appeared in BioNews 543

BBC 1, 26th January 2010

I have a feeling that, whether you work in the fertility field or not, everyone has a strong point of view about the upper age that a woman should have fertility treatment and become a mother. Maybe this thought was on the minds of the producers behind this BBC documentary, that they could somehow challenge all our firmly held beliefs? Or maybe they just thought that it would make contentious sexy television? The programme showed the journey of three different women, Sue in the UK who is nearly 60, Lauren in the US who had had twins at 60 and Rajo in India who had given birth at 71.

The main story followed Sue trying to obtain help to have a second child (her first was born at 57 from egg donation in the Ukraine) by visiting a private London clinic. Although her reason for having children late was very valid - she had looked after her parents until they died before meeting her partner who was 11 years younger than her - one could not get away from the fact that she had had serious underlying medical issues, including a benign brain tumour, that were glossed over in her desire to have children. From this short programme one could see the enjoyment of her active parenting, but how the child might feel later on was also glossed over.

Lauren in America had a different set of medical issues, including rheumatoid arthritis. Although she had given birth to her three children, her condition meant she didn't seem physically able to fulfil her role as a parent and so she relied on her nanny and much younger husband to do most of the 'hands on' jobs.

The story from India tested even more of one's beliefs about motherhood, even though there was a feeling that this child would undoubtedly be well cared for by the local community.

If the BBC was trying to challenge our beliefs about older motherhood, to make us think more liberally, then I don't think that this programme has helped and it may even have made people more entrenched in their views.

There were so many issues glossed over and questions unanswered, such as: 'Does every woman have a right to have a child?' or 'what will these children think when they grow up about having elderly parents, or having to care for or grieve over these parents?' Surely children have needs not just when they are babies. Are the professionals who treat these women only dealing with the needs of the women and not the welfare of the children who are conceived? Who is really the 'mother' of these children in the sense of seeing a child grow up through various stages and leave home? And on the other hand why do women get criticised for wanting to have a child when they are older and men don't? Surely one loving parent is good enough as life does not hold certainties about longevity? Are young parents really that much better at looking after children?

So I was really left where I began when I started watching this programme. Not really more enlightened, possibly even more worried about people accessing treatment abroad and having again to question my own values and ethical beliefs about motherhood. There are no easy answers to any of these questions, especially as in reality the demand from older women wanting treatment is steadily growing and sadly this programme hardly touched the surface.

Too Old to Be a Mum?
BBC One |  26 January 2010
20 July 2015 - by Associate Professor Hana Konečná 
What happens if you ask children what age they would like their parents to be, and should this influence the debate on age limits for assisted reproduction?...
18 January 2010 - by Dr Vivienne Raper 
A 59-year-old British woman who conceived her two-year-old daughter by in IVF (vitro fertilisation) has faced criticism after saying she wants more children. Sue Tollefsen, from Essex, had told makers of a BBC documentary about older mothers to be shown later this month that she was '110 per cent' sure she wanted more treatment....
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