How Old is TOO Old? by Lisa Belkin

July 17, 2009, 1:14 pm
“World’s Oldest Mom” Dies
By Lisa Belkin

Reports out of Madrid are that 69-year-old Maria del Carmen Brousada has died of cancer.

She made news three years ago, one week shy of her 67th birthday, when she became the oldest woman in the world to give birth. Her twins were conceived through invitro fertilization at a clinic in California, using donor sperm (Bousada was raising her children as a single mother) and, presumably, given her age, a donor egg. She had reportedly lied to the clinic, saying she was 55.

Her moment as the world’s oldest new Mom was brief — eclipsed soon after by a 69-year-old and then a 70-year-old. With each inching of the envelope the conversation turns to the question of how old is too old, and what limits should be placed on reproductive technology. “What about the children, who will lose their mother when they are still young?” someone always asks. And now it has happened. Although Bousada told a British paper last year that her own mother had lived until 101, so she assumed she had plenty of time to raise her sons, the boys, who will be three in December, are orphans, and are expected to live with Bousada’s nephew.

News of her death comes the same week that E.P.T and released a survey of attitudes toward assisted reproduction by mothers and expectant mothers. This past year, as Nadya Suleman added eight babies to the six she already had, and Kate and Jon Gosselin split up, unraveling the family they had built using fertility treatments, the subject has been in the spotlight. And this newest survey finds that 70 percent of the 1095 respondents want tougher regulations on IVF, stating “there needs to be an authority such as a doctor, psychiatrist, social worker, or counselor that makes practical decisions when it comes to fertility treatments.”

There is less agreement on what those regulations should be. Some (25 percent) hold clinic doctors responsible when technology is misused, saying more should be done to weed out “unfit” parents. But the same percentage say “it’s not the doctor’s job to evaluate their patient’s capacity for parenting.” Half believe women are fit to become mothers at any age, while half say that becoming a parent past the age of 45 is not fair to the child. And 50 percent would apply more stringent standards of economic and emotional stability to single mothers.

Like so much technology, this one is a blessing and a curse. It has allowed countless couples to have children, but it has also created an artificial norm where babies are all but guaranteed if only you are willing to spend enough money and enough physical and emotional energy. Informal regulation already exists: the American Society for Reproductive Medicine has guidelines limiting doctors to two embryos per transfer, but a doctor ignored them and transferred six to Suleman; there was an age limit in place at the clinic where Bousard was treated, but she lied her way around it. Stricter rules might catch a few more outliers, true, but should it be the outliers we are worrying about? After all, how many 60-something women are really storming the gates of fertility clinics demanding to become pregnant? Aren’t our energies better spent tackling this pervasive idea that everyone can have children, is entitled by science to children, and if you don’t manage to have them it’s only because you haven’t tried hard enough?

EDITED because the Gosselins did not use IVF, they used fertility drugs followed by artificial insemination.