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And yet, there’s no more fertile ground for a clash of titans over ‘birth rights’ than the United Kingdom.
Often accused of being a “nanny state”, Britain certainly earns the title when its media single-handedly whips up a virtual public brawl, en masse, that could open the door to governmental controls over IVF (And who said Fleet Street was dead?).
The latest debacle has MPs, protest groups and an angry public pointing the finger—like the vengeful gods of Mt. Olympus—at the doctors of a private London IVF clinic as if they collectively personified Prometheus hiking down the mountain after thieving the spark of life.
In January 2010, a horde of British newspapers, including the Daily Mail (http://www NULL.dailymail NULL.co NULL.uk/news/article-1243839/Woman-60-oldest-person-given-IVF-treatment-British-clinic NULL.html), featured 59 year old retired school teacher, Susan Tollefsen, as the oldest woman in the UK ever to be offered IVF. In Britain, the state refuses IVF treatments to women over 40, and private clinics tend to draw the line at 50.
Historically, this has resulted in ‘fertility tourism’ where fifty-plus aged British women go to other countries with more liberal policies, such as Russia, for fertility treatments.
According to an interview in The Mail (http://www NULL.dailymail NULL.co NULL.uk/news/article-1243839/Woman-60-oldest-person-given-IVF-treatment-British-clinic NULL.html), the unanimous decision of the panel of doctors at the London Women’s Clinic, in Harley St., to offer Mrs. Tollefsen IVF “would lead to a flood of older women seeking treatment”.
A commentary in the Mail On Sunday (http://www NULL.dailymail NULL.co NULL.uk/debate/article-1243829/MAIL-ON-SUNDAY-COMMENT-A-defiance-nature-abuse-medical-skill NULL.html) also characterized the decision as “a defiance of nature” and “an abuse of medical skill”. In the Telegraph (http://www NULL.telegraph NULL.co NULL.uk/health/7012127/Woman-of-59-offered-IVF NULL.html), others have described it as a “deeply worrying development”.
The Sun (http://www NULL.thesun NULL.co NULL.uk/sol/homepage/news/2812068/Oldest-Brit-IVF-mum-Susan-Tollefsen-Im-full-of-life-at-60 NULL.html#ixzz0dCLK7PXD)—a leading British tabloid—weighed in by insinuating that Mrs. Tollefsen might just be on her last legs (literally) due to “her age and health problems like a benign brain tumour, deafness in one ear and a replaced knee.”
Also according to The Sun, Conservative MP Ann Widdecombe—a woman who has never delivered herself to the marriage end of an altar, let alone stumbled into a delivery room—stated that Susan Tollefsen’s case was ‘very bad news’ that set a ‘dangerous precedent’.
It leaves you scratching your head and wondering just where all the old fathers are hiding, doesn’t it?
As recently as 2009, it’s been reported that medical research is proving out that older men (from the age of 40 and upward) are packing sperm with a potential genetic time-bomb.
A New York Times Magazine article (http://www NULL.nytimes NULL.com/2009/04/05/magazine/05wwln-lede-t NULL.html?_r=1) in April last year—aptly titled “Your Old Man”—produces a virtual compendium of research-supported risk factors to offspring, including lower IQ, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and autism.
According to the reporter, it’s led a prominent American psychiatrist to conclude that “the optimal age for being a mother is the same as the optimal age for being a father.”
So where was the hue and cry for legislation enforcing a “Use By” date on men’s sperm?
Months ago I posed those very questions in “Legislating Larry“—unearthing the double-age-standard for men and women in the baby-making stakes. Why are men as old as Eric Clapton, Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty, or Larry King (who had his last child at 67) free to conceive without censure?
And, if the heaviest criticism Tollefsen can draw is that she’s “selfish” and being 60 means it’s likely she won’t be around to parent her children as they grow up, what can be said of older fathers whose average life expectancy is even lower than hers?
And if we’re going to propose interfering in age related choices over parenting, it gets even messier.
According to Jan Andersen, Founder of the UK website Mothers Over 40 (http://www NULL.mothersover40 NULL.com/), “It’s rather sad that Susan Tollefsen’s ability to be a good parent is being determined purely by her age. If people wish to pass judgement, they should perhaps level their criticism at the 20-year-old parent with several kids living on welfare, who smokes, abuses her children and shovels them full of junk food.”
Andersen, who had a closer ‘parenting’ bond with her own grandmother (than her mother) says she’d “rather have ten good years with a parent who truly loved me than a lifetime with a parent with whom I didn’t have a close relationship.”
Perhaps the last word should be given to the silent majority—the proposed ‘victims’ in the case—of the children of older parents.
Author of the website and upcoming book, Growing Up Old (http://www NULL.growingupold NULL.com/), Darren Manley was born in 1984, when his mother was 45 and his father, 57. (See blog article.)
According to Manley, the experience has been a unique, but mixed, bag of surprises.
One of the benefits of “growing up with older parents is the time I was able to spend with them as a child, even during rough periods of rebellion—being retired, my folks could spend time with me that others just couldn’t. “
On the downside, Manley emphasizes that—a blistered subject that the critics are quick to lance—there is a “greater than normal emphasis on health matters” and that caring for his older parents can at times be difficult.
“In the end” he says, “the wisdom and knowledge I gained from them made it eminently worthwhile, so it’s heartening to see that medical advances and science in general have the potential to lessen the role age plays in the parent-child relationship.”
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