Grandmother mothers – IVF for postmenopausal women

A week ago the interim chair of the HFEA and former Bishop of Oxford, Richard Harries, came out in support of IVF treatment for post-menopausal women. Today the papers are full of reports of a California study claiming that women who give birth in their fifties are just as healthy physically and psychologically as those who start families earlier in life.

CORE excludes from the following comment anybody who conceives a child naturally at whatever age, but is adamant that fertility treatment after the menopause is undesirable. The natural menopause is simply one of the natural milestones in a woman’s reproductive life, and this message from nature should be respected. Yes, men can conceive later than women. That is perhaps because the physical demands on them are considerable lighter.

Some facts …

In order for a post-menopausal woman to conceive it will be necessary to restore her uterine function, but it will be impossible to restore her ovarian function. Women have a limited number of eggs (500-600), which age and decline in quality as she ages and eventually run out. In order to achieve a pregnancy she will need the eggs of a younger woman. Nowhere in any of the accounts of these older women undergoing IVF do we get a full picture of how the eggs for donation were obtained.

All pregnancies in older women are associated with increased physical risks, either for the mother or the child, no matter what the California study suggests. These include maternal mortality (shared with very young mothers as well). And infant mortality is high too, both during pregnancy and in the perinatal period. These risks are related to naturally occurring pregnancies in older women, not those in post-menopausal pregnancies, where our experience to date is almost zero (but unlikely to show a decrease).

Menopausal women obviously cannot produce eggs of their own, and rely on donated eggs from younger women. Egg extraction is an invasive procedure and it poses serious health risks for women. These include Ovarian Hyper Stimulation Syndrome, which can prove fatal, as well as factors affecting the future reproductive health of the donor. To date no research has been undertaken on the donors; in fact they are barely mentioned, let alone acknowledged. CORE has personal experience of a 29-year-old donor who remained permanently infertile after initiating a donor programme at a clinic in the UK which is supportive of older women.

It is difficult to find enthusiasm among young people for this new grandmother-mother construct, and we suggest you conduct your own anecdotal inquiry to see if this is not the case. Mothers over 60 will share their 80th birthdays with their offsprings’ 21sts. We offer an extract from a letter written by the son of a woman who gave birth naturally at 50 and who subsequently at 80 relied on him as a nurse and carer:

“How terribly sad it is for a son to see, day by day, the progressive mental and physical deterioration of his mother…Because of increasing infirmity, it is only natural that she depends on me, on my companionship enormously. Mine is not merely love but also loyalty to an infirm parent, a sense of duty and attachment. She needs continual care, especially at night…” (Ferris P, ‘Caitlin, The Life of Caitlin Thomas,’ Hutchinson, p.244)

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