How old is too old?

// 5 June 2008

When a woman announces she’s pregnant she instantly becomes public property. Soon as the sperm touches down, cracks open the egg and starts doing something about which I can offer little technical language, then a woman is expected to don an unflattering smock and wait until she hatches. What she eats, drinks or even wears is subject to the scrutiny of the world around her that has carefully delineated (but unwritten) rules of acceptability about the ways in which a pregnant woman should behave. But, criticism is not confined to the gestation period. Oh no. Conception is also considered worthy of public debate, and so every aspect of the female reproductive system is routinely discussed and analysed, as if we are nothing more than a herd of horny animals waiting to get in pup. It’s written about a lot. Rarely a week goes by when some new statistics are not offered claiming that women are too old, too young, too fat, too thin, too happy, too sad, to stupid, to clever, to rich, to poor…etc…to have children. It would be boring if it didn’t centralise an outdated attitude that promotes the medicalisation and virtual dissection of the female body through language. But while I promote a woman’s right to choose concerning all aspects of her life, are there instances where the wider community has a right to make its voice heard? Or is a woman never to be questioned, even if her age can have a bearing on the quality of life of the child-to-be?

With the introduction of more refined methods of fertility treatment, and overall increased health, women are deciding to pass on their genetic material at a later period in life, with it not uncommon for a lot of us to delay having our first child until we are in our thirties (if we want children that is – the fact that it is always assumed that a woman should want children is another bugbear, but that’s stuff of which other blog posts are made). Between thirty and forty our bodies are still perfectly capable of carrying a child to fruition. Older but not infertile. Not what they once were, but not bad either. We are more financially secure, we feel fulfilled, have achieved what we wanted, and are ready to enter a new life-stage. Maybe we didn’t want children and have changed our minds. So what? It happens, and the fact that on a very basic level we have complete jurisdiction over our bodies means that we can make that choice. Surely it’s something we should not have to discuss with others? But what if a woman wants a child beyond her forties? Beyond an age where she is no longer menstruating, cannot conceive naturally and has to employ the help of artificial means to carry a foetus? In such instances should the pregnancy be hurled into the public forum and torn apart by the scepticism of public opinion? Does this depend on individual circumstances? OK, many women in their twenties, thirties and forties, have to employ the use of fertility treatment in order to get pregnant, but they tend to be of an age where, if they weren’t experiencing difficulties, they would still be able to conceive naturally. But if, beyond say 50, a woman wants a child, although unable to have one without a turkey baster and a team of thermometer-hugging medics, is that a legitimate decision?

Unlike men, nature puts a time-limit on a woman’s fertility meaning that once she experiences the menopause her ovaries more-or-less dry-up like a pair of crusty old prunes. It’s not fair, but unfortunately that’s the way it is. So while men can keep jerking and squirting out offspring, there is greater pressure placed on women to make the decision as to whether or not they want children while they are still biologically capable of doing so. Should we accept then, when we reach a certain age, that it’s time to give up the baby race? That maybe our bodies no longer allow us to reproduce because we cannot physically provide the nourishment needed for a growing foetus? Just because men carrying on producing well-beyond an age where they will be able to look after their offspring, or even live to see them grow-up, should we condone women using science in order to emulate this lack of consideration for the life-quality of petri-dish created babies? To have babies born to be orphans?

This week the Daily Mail published images of Adriana Lliescu, who celebrated her 70th birthday last weekend along with her three-year-old daughter. Lliescu caused outrage on January 16th 2005 when, following IVF treatment, she presented her baby daughter, Eliza, making her, at that time, the oldest woman in the world to give birth (beaten only in December 2006 by Spanish woman Carmela Bousada who gave birth to twins at 66-years-and-358-days-old). Lliescu is visibly advanced in years, and could easily be mistaken for Eliza’s great-grandmother. A lecturer at Bucharest University Lliescu is undoubtedly an educated woman, but is this elderly birth something that should be applauded or nothing more than an unparalleled act of selfishness? Is this an example of science liberating womankind or being abused with no thought for the long-term implications?

It is unquestionable that Eliza was wanted, but the reasons why are more grey. Unlike the world’s oldest new-father, 90-year-old Nanu Ram Jogi (an Indian farmer in the state of Rajasthan who boasts siring 21 children, the youngest being less than one-year-old) Lliescu underwent a careful scientific process in order to conceive her first child. While Jogi claimed last year that he wishes to father as many children as he can until he is 100-years-old, Lliescu has expressed no such desire. While Jogi can still physically have intercourse and produce viable sperm, Lliescu cannot conceive without scientific help and would have the responsibility of carrying the baby to term, something that can be straining for a teenager so would undoubtedly take it’s toll on a body that is, unquestionable, in decay. Jogi’s wife, while 50-years-old, is still considerably younger than he is, and while he may possible not live to see his child grow up, it’s likely that, without accident or illness, she will be there to care for the baby. Lliescu has no partner, and while the scientist responsible for Eliza’s conception has taken the role of godfather to Eliza, there are no friends or family members taking a prominent role in this little girl’s life; there is nobody to take responsibility for this little girl should health prevent her mother from being able to do so. Lliescu hasn’t though about this that seriously, with her answer to concerns about her daughter’s welfare in the event of her death not very reassuring:

If my daughter is 16 by then, she will have the right to work…If she is younger, my hope is in two things, the state child protection services, and my doctor Prof Bogdan Marinescu, who is her godfather.

But what would motivate a woman to decide to bare a child at this late stage in life? When Lliescu was 20-years-old she had an abortion shortly following her marriage to another student in Bucharest. They divorced shortly afterwards, although Lliescu was clearly still distraught following the termination of her pregnancy (she had been advised by her doctor to abort owing to fears her TB would prevent normal foetal development). Lliescu took up a teachng post and thrived on her work at the university. She began publishing books, and had a very successful and time-consuming career in academia, something she continues while Eliza is at creche:

I always wanted a child, but I was so busy, I never had a partner. It’s only in recent years that IVF became available in Romania.

She continued:

Having a child is a wonderful thing. To think that you haven’t lived for nothing. If you have a child you don’t have death. That’s what Plato said: ‘Happy is the person that has someone to bury him’.

So, was Lliescu’s desire to have Eliza bore purely of an unselfish need to love someone, or more from a need to pass on her genetic material and find some form of validation for her existence in the form of another human being? What’s sad about this is that Lliescu believes this a satisfactory explanation, although in actual fact she completely undermines and devalues her professional achievements by claiming her life has only been invested with meaning and purpose now she has a child. While this was, after all, Lliescu’s decision – she footed the bill for medical expenses, underwent the intimate medical procedures and went through the pregnancy – did anyone, at any point, consider what life would be like for the resultant child? A media furore must have been anticipated, and was this anything more to Prof Marinescu than an opportuity to get his name splashed across the international press as a fertility pioneer? Women should not have to choose between a career or a family. That’s a fact. And while men can keep having children well beyong a sensible, feasible age, traditionally nature ensures we do not make the same mistakes. If Lliescu had desired a baby so much surely she could have made the time during a stage in her life when it would have been possible to spend many more years with her offspring? At a time when the generational gap would not have been so substantial and Eliza wouldn’t have to suffer the torments of her classmates (which unfortunately is inevitable – kids are cruel, and having an older mum will be seen as good ammunition as any). But while we shouldn’t dwell on what should or could have been, perhaps it’s worth discussing further the fact that a woman who has forged a career for herself in an industry that certainly, when she was a young women, didn’t really value the opinions of women, still felt that, in order to fulfil the obligations of her sex, she had to produce a child. If it was purely about raising a baby she could have adopted.

While I don’t question Lliescu’s affection towards her child, her motovations were entirely selfish. She lives alone with Eliza in their high-rise flat in Bucharest, a residence she had, prior to her daughter’s birth, occupied alone. She had reached a stage in her life when she looked back with regrets on her choices, and whereas the vast majority accept the paths they have taken, (and in bygone years simple had to), medical science provided her with the capacity to try and relive an alternative lifestyle. She didn’t want to die alone, which is understandable, but it’s perfectly plausible that little Eliza, still a very little child, could be left alone at a very young age, with no familial support. There is no mention of her father, probably nothing more than a sperm donor and his identity probably never known by Lliescu (I couldn’t find any extensive information on this aspect of the conception). Many women have children through anonymous sperm contributions. Similarly, many children are born into relationships that breakdown after they are conceived/born, and from that point have no contact with their biological fathers. The resultant children often grow-up to be well-adjusted, happy individuals, although surely any mother would want to give her child the best possible start in life wherever possible, and would this not mean at least starting the whole process of pregnancy while with the father? While relationships break down, often it’s not predicted, but Eliza was born never to know her dad. She has no-one apart from her mother. Lliescu’s comments bolster the belief that her need to conceive emanated entirely from a desire not to die alone; a need to pass on her genetic legacy to another; for a need to achieve some form of morality through her child; to have “someone to bury her” when she dies.

Lliescu claims that anyone can die at any age – that Eliza’s other godfather died at the age of 49 leaving four children behind. It’s not stated but presumably they had a mother to care for them; they had each other. If he died at 49 that was probably through illness or an accident that could not be anticipated, not because one night he went to bed and woke-up. Lliescu’s argument is perfectly valid, but also rather ignorant – surprising considering that as a university professor she can probably see the wholes in her claims, but is choosing not to accept them. While it’s true that no-one, whatever age, can resist the Grim Reaper when he comes-a-knocking, at 70-years-old surely one is more susceptible to health implications than someone in their twenties, thirties, forties….While accidents and severe illness do not discriminate against people on the basis of age, at 70 a person is more susceptible to degenerative health problems. That’s a fact. Not everyone, but the vast majority. Elderly people get tired. Will Lliescu be able to play outside with Eliza as she gets older? While the most important thing for any child is to be born into a loving home (which Eliza does appear to have) I cannot help but wonder if by forcing her into being Lliescu, motivated by her own desires, may have set up her little girl for years of heart-ache and suffering. Was Lliescu a medical marvel or an example of irresponsible medical intervention? While medical science means we can pop out sprogs well into our sixties, should we? Hopefully, for little Eliza’s sake, things will progress and unfold as Lliescu has planned.

Comments From You

Ruth Moss // Posted 5 June 2008 at 9:48 pm

“Lliescu has no partner, and while the scientist responsible for Eliza’s conception has taken the role of godfather to Eliza, there are no friends or family members taking a prominent role in this little girl’s life; there is nobody to take responsibility for this little girl should health prevent her mother from being able to do so”

But what about single mothers who do not have strong support networks? If anything happened to them their children too might have to be brought up by someone outside of their family, like this little girl would. Does that mean they shouldn’t have children? Heck no of course not! And this woman has taken the precaution of naming a godparent for her child in case her health deteriorates. I think that’s a sensible measure.

“Elderly people get tired. Will Lliescu be able to play outside with Eliza as she gets older?”

Oh come on. Lots of people of all ages get tired or are immobile, for example, those with a physical disability. Should they not be allowed to have children?! I really hope you’re not suggesting that!

“If Lliescu had desired a baby so much surely she could have made the time during a stage in her life when it would have been possible to spend many more years with her offspring?” But this is the same cry that we hear about “older” mothers all the time (mothers who *are* biologically capable of conceiving children without intervention) isn’t it?

“and Eliza wouldn’t have to suffer the torments of her classmates (which unfortunately is inevitable – kids are cruel, and having an older mum will be seen as good ammunition as any)” isn’t this the same argument we hear against things like adoption by gay/lesbian couples all the time? “Won’t someone think of the children! They’ll be tormented and all because their parents wanted to DEFY NATURE!”

“So, was Lliescu’s desire to have Eliza bore purely of an unselfish need to love someone, or more from a need to pass on her genetic material and find some form of validation for her existence in the form of another human being?” Why does *anyone* have children? Does the reason for doing it validate their choice in some way? Is “I want something to love” an “unselfish” need anyway? Some would say not. I think every reason to have a child (my own included) is probably *slightly* selfish somewhere isn’t it? From wanting to carry on the family line, to wanting to “spread your genes”, to wanting a little bundle to love, to wanting to prove you can do it better than your own parents… does the fact her reason isn’t “good enough” mean she shouldn’t be allowed to have a child?

“although in actual fact she completely undermines and devalues her professional achievements by claiming her life has only been invested with meaning and purpose now she has a child” I think that’s very unfair and I come across this sort of attitude a lot; I was once even told – in the same vein – that the fact I took longer than my six months mat leave meant I was wasting my education and being a bad example to women everywhere! I know after I had my baby, for quite some time I genuinely did feel as though I hadn’t lived before I’d had a child and that this – bringing a child into the world, feeding him and raising him – was my greatest achievement in life. I felt embarrassed admitting it – but it really was how I felt, for a long while after I’d had him. (Still do value it as an achievement at least on a par with all the other major achievements in my life. As does my partner.) Should I – or should she – deny admitting how we feel? It’s a truism that your life changes when you have a child but many people – often of both sexes – do feel like this. Should they not say it?

So what. It’s not “natural” for a woman to be having children well into her sixties. There is a medical intervention. But you know what? Birth control isn’t “natural”. Abortion isn’t “natural”. But oh thank goodness we have the (hard fought and hard won) right to these things. Maybe one day a woman will also have the right to choose the “unnatural” step of having babies after she is “naturally” able?

Sorry I have re-read my reply and maybe I was being a bit sarcastic in tone and a bit harsh, but honestly I found the article a bit judgmental and maybe that coloured my reaction.

Nina // Posted 5 June 2008 at 10:09 pm

You certainly have analysed this woman as if she’s public property.

Shea // Posted 6 June 2008 at 3:24 am

I don’t think we should allow *anyone* old or young, male or female to conceive through IVF or any other assisted reproductive technology. We live in a world currently experiencing a massive food crisis, when 850 million people go hungry every day! And there are people who want to bring more children into the world? Well I won’t be one of them.

If you can’t conceive naturally then your choices should be adopt or nothing. We are spending millions on research to bring about children who often have inherited the infertility which prevented their parent(s) from conceiving. Its called evolution I’m afraid—– some people were never meant to have children, due to age or otherwise.

As for older fathers– they have a significantly higher risk of passing on faulty genes to their offspring causing conditions such as Alzheimer’s. As we age our telomeres shorten leading to more frequent genetic mutations in the chromosomes. This applies to male and female.

Shea // Posted 6 June 2008 at 5:34 am

Presumably also the child is not genetically related to her at all, as Lliescu will have used donor gametes? Therefore the whole point of this was to become a biological mother and experience pregnancy, not to have a genetically related offspring. I really agree with you Abby she could have adopted, but no adoption agency in the world would have placed a child with a 70 year old non- relative for exactly the reasons you state above. I think that in itself speaks volumes.

Ruth—“Oh come on. Lots of people of all ages get tired or are immobile, for example, those with a physical disability.” — Huge straw man! There is a marked difference in levels of energy and stamina between someone who is 20, or even 40 and disabled and someone who is able -bodied and 70! Given that the life expectancy in Romania is 71.91 I really think that questionning how long Lliescu is going to be around and physically able to cope with her child is a valid point.

Actually your point about “naturalness” is interesting, because birth control is in fact natural—-there are natural family planning practitioners all over the country and this and the withdrawal method are used by many, who do not want to use a barrier method or synthetic hormone contraceptive. Likewise, alot of miscarriages are a natural form of abortion. But there has never, ever been a woman in her seventies who has give birth naturally. The menopause exist for a reason ( I think to give women a break to be honest).

I know women get “selfish” thrown at them for the slightest thing, but in this case it is entirely correct, as it is in the case of Nanu Ram Jogi. The welfare of the child should be paramount. These two are happy to let their own desires get in the way of the needs of others.

chem_fem // Posted 6 June 2008 at 11:39 am

Shea – We live in a world currently experiencing a massive food crisis, when 850 million people go hungry every day! And there are people who want to bring more children into the world? Well I won’t be one of them.

I can’t even begin to go into all the ways in which I find this sentiment completely wrong!

If you want to do somthing about global population then start smoking, drinking and eating to excess. While you are at it take up an extreme sport or two. It is the fact that more people are able to live to much older ages that over population exists, not the way the rich ‘developed world’ reproduces. In the UK reproduction deosn’t maintain current population levels. We only maintain current numbers or experience population grownth through imigration (which I am not against).

We have fewer children and do everything we can to ensure that they live to grand old age which is SO against the principles of natural selection by your own definition that we can’t be logically against IVF at the same time. It also a dangerous precedent to set when we try to justify who should be born and who shouldn’t based on genetic traits.*

Also, I say natural selection by your definition because I feel it differs fromk my own definition a little. It amuses me how we as humans exclude ourselves from nature. It’s like the way the British talk about Europe as if we aren’t a part of it. Why do we see our actions as un-natural? If a monkey uses a tool to break open shell of animals to eat (don’t know if this actually happens, but stay with me) we don’t see that as un-natural. Yet why is the human use of tools, no matter how advanced, not as part of nature as that of an other animal?

Anyways this is all I have time for (even though I have a lot to say on the subject) and I apoligise once again for thread jacking on something not to do with the original post.

* The danger in trying to justify babies not being born based on their possible fertility, can be applied to those who have sexualities or disabilites that may not be conducive to reproduction of the human race. It is really best not to go there.

Rose_Hasty // Posted 6 June 2008 at 11:40 am

Just a couple of points:

I also think the “selfish” accusation is thrown at women all to often and that actually being “selfish” isn’t necessarily negative but is a useful and rational tool for decision making.

Also, perhaps if the innumerable amount of money which has been spent of reproductive technology research had been poured into the subject of displaced, parentless children then there may be viable means for women and men to offer loving homes to the children we have already introduced to our society. Unfortunately you still hear stories of (mostly those individuals who don’t fit our rigorous social norms) being placed under scrutiny of irrelevant parts of their lives to be able to offer a child a home. Such a shame.

Soirore // Posted 6 June 2008 at 12:13 pm

Shea – I really hope that you’re not suggesting that the withdrawal method is a reliable form of contraception. That’s kind of irresponsible.

Shea // Posted 6 June 2008 at 1:22 pm

Soirore–no, not suggesting the withdrawal method is a reliable form of contraceptive, but that it has existed as a form for thousands of years and in that sense might be thought of as “natural”. But as I pointed out, no woman has ever conceived naturally at the age of 70.

Chem_fem—- “a dangerous precedent to set when we try to justify who should be born and who shouldn’t based on genetic traits.*” This is not about *justifying* who should be born, but asking people to put the welfare of any future child as paramount. I think there is a very good argument to be made that if you are a carrier of a gene for Huntingdons disease, infertility or breast cancer, then you think long and hard about having a child. I don’t see that as controversial—it’s the advice given by most genetic counsellors and its a far better basis for withholding treatment than the fact that the individual seeking treatment doesn’t fit a narrowly defined social view of what an ideal parent should be.

I also think we should be placing limits on the amount of technology we use to keep people alive. Most older people are kept alive through a combination of expensive drug regimes– this is simply unsustainable and medically futile.

Increasing life expectancy is one way that overpopulation exists, but it is not the major one. Reproduction in the majority world is increasing at a simply unsustainable rate, we need to combat this through the wide spread use of contraceptives and raising living standards. At current predictions, the world population will be 9 billion by 2020 (against an optimum of around 3 billion). So yes, by all means call me Malthusian but I think if you are bringing more and more children into the world, you can’t actually like them very much (and that applies to natural reproduction also).

There is also an argument about health resources. We are spending millions literally on the NHS and research budgets to bring new people into the world, for no other reason than people want *their* genes to be propagated (this is a myth anyway—my genes will continue in the population even if I have no children). We can’t afford to diagnose and treat the ones already in existence, but hey, lets add to the problem.

I think its a good thing the UK population is falling, but globally it is not. Yes technology fills the vector between us and natural selection— but look at the consequences it is creating for the world around us.

Shea // Posted 6 June 2008 at 2:55 pm

Sorry I have taken this thread a bit off tangent. But I do think it needs to be considered in the wider world context.

But back to the post. I agree with you Abby- there is no right to have a child. This woman had years to conceive naturally and did not. Her compensation was a distinguished academic career that might not have otherwise been possible. People everywhere have to realise that for some of us the alignment of being in the right place, at the right time, with the right partner and being fertile will never happen. Its time to accept we cannot have everything we want when we want it, just because we live in a capitalist, consumer society that leads us to believe our every wish should be fufilled. Just because the technology exists it doesn’t demand to be used. I might want to create a clone of myself, because *I* want to. It doesn’t mean it is ethically, morally or socially acceptable to do so.

Having a child is a privilege first and foremost.

chem_fem // Posted 6 June 2008 at 3:13 pm

shea – I think there is a very good argument to be made that if you are a carrier of a gene for Huntingdons disease, infertility or breast cancer, then you think long and hard about having a child. I don’t see that as controversial

I do. Who is to say that you cannot make an impact on the world even with a debilitating disease or a likelihood of early death? Genetic variation is also a strength as well as a susceptibility to this condition or that.

I find it amusing that with our very limited knowledge of genetics, biology and the world as a system in dynamic equilibrium, that we would make such sweeping statements about what would be best for the world. It’s effectively voluntary eugenics.

Shea – Most older people are kept alive through a combination of expensive drug regimes– this is simply unsustainable and medically futile.

But is it humanely futile? I couldn’t refuse treatment to someone who wanted to live if it were available. Could you refuse meds to a parent who was suffering but still wanted to live? I don’t think we should be making these decisions for people.

Shea – Reproduction in the majority world is increasing at a simply unsustainable rate, we need to combat this through the wide spread use of contraceptives and raising living standards.

But should we really be forcing our values on people from other cultures? I’m all for helping people who ask for that help, say like women who want to escape their communities to avoid FGM, but to force them to change their culture would be at best just arrogant and at worst not much better than our missionary predecessors. I don’t think we have the right to force people to do that. We can put the choice to them (and in a world where we can’t even get aid to people because of politics and war this is optimistic) but we can’t do any more.

I certainly think there is nothing wrong with having babies. The world isn’t as bad as people make out and if it gets that bad, nature has a way of dealing with it. But I think that drastically limiting reproduction is no less natural then doing all we can to maintain our current lifestyle using all available options. If technology can find a way, the only question left is, why not?

Shea – There is also an argument about health resources. We are spending millions literally on the NHS and research budgets to bring new people into the world, for no other reason than people want *their* genes to be propagated

This is the most natural desire in the world. I’d no more want to restrict that, then take away a persons right to food or life.

Shea – (this is a myth anyway—my genes will continue in the population even if I have no children). We can’t afford to diagnose and treat the ones already in existence, but hey, lets add to the problem.

Of the first part, how?

2nd part: We can afford it. I’d put a persons right to reproduce above their right to holidays, and cars and ipods all things that are plentiful in this country alone. It is a matter of priorites though. People often resent spending money on health care and taxes, but will think nothing of blowing money on whatever it is that they enjoy. Some people would rather enjoy the few years they have in life, some would happily save for comfortable old age. It isn’t a perfect system we have now, but many (say all but the poorest) in this country have that choice.

I don’t see how not reproducing helps either. It’s all very well me putting in to a pension and taking out medical insurance, but if there is no next generation to pay that money to in return for treatment, what is the point? The next generation is the point for almost everything we do, so producing it is a priority.

If we can use technology to help us maintain our lifestyle and that of other cultures, why not? Maybe we will have a gattaca style future where all children are genetically perfect, or a ‘brave new world’ control freak style future. Asimov had an interesting version of the future run by supercomputers that were able to allow for human error, subtly keeping the world in balance.

There is a whole range of possible futures based on new technologies and new social structures, a eugenics approach is not the only way forward.

Feminist Avatar // Posted 6 June 2008 at 8:03 pm

I also thought that the ‘natural selection’ principle of evolution was now considered outdated in light of genetics. An individual with a disability not reproducing is not going to stop occurrence of that disability, or for that matter lead to the eventual ‘perfection’ of the race. Genetics are much more complex and also contain ‘genetic’ drift- where ‘undesirable’ things crop up randomly.

It is also quite interesting that technology is being blamed here for people reproducing (against nature- whatever nature is), yet the very societies that utilise technology most have declining, not rising, populations. If over-population is a problem, then it seems to be ‘nature’s’, not technology’s, fault.

Shea // Posted 7 June 2008 at 12:30 am

Chem_fem—-Huntingsdon chorea is a dominant genetic condition, if one of the parents is a carrier there will be a good chance this will result in a child with the condition. It is a horrible, horrible disease and fatal. If your willing to risk your child having that condition then I’m afraid I don’t think you should be having children at all.

It’s effectively voluntary eugenics.– it is voluntary eugenics. That isn’t a bad thing because eugenics is simply the mainpulation of hereditary traits for the betterment of humankind. It has negative connations because of the Nazis who were, excuse me *batshit* crazy.

Re: elderly people, you cannot keep people alive forever. Thats is simply a sad fact of life.

We don’t have to force our views on the majority world. China already has a one child policy. We need more countries to follow their example.

“The world isn’t as bad as people make out and if it gets that bad, nature has a way of dealing with it.” Yes through massive drought, famine and epidemics. This is because we have far exceeded the carrying capacity of this planet’s ecosystem. FWIW I think limiting the number of children born, in order to give them a better chance at life is infinitely preferable.

Shea – (this is a myth anyway—my genes will continue in the population even if I have no children). We can’t afford to diagnose and treat the ones already in existence, but hey, lets add to the problem.

Of the first part, how?– my genes existed in the population as did yours prior to our existence. This is the nature of a gene pool. Even if we never reproduce our genes are still in the population at large, just in different combinations.

“We can afford it”— only with massive levels of taxation and even then we will never keep pace with people’s expectations of their healthcare or of drug development.

It might be the most natural desire in the world– but if all of us had unrestricted numbers of children our plant will ( and is) collapsing.

Against all the above having a child alone, at 70, because you *want* to experience pregnancy and don’t want to die alone seems especially selfish.

chem_fem // Posted 7 June 2008 at 10:11 am

Shea, firstly I am not a carrier, secondly we are not talking about MY children. I do believe that a person who is a carrier has as much right to reproduce as I do. As you said, it is only a chance of inheriting and who says that Huntingdon’s will not be curable in the future with gene therapy.

I’m not going to defend eugenics. If certain people feel that they don’t want to have children (myself included) good for them, but i could not support a system where people are bullied and coerced (look at the way the media already does this to people who are single, polyamourous and/or gay etc.) into not reproducing for the sake of a ‘pure race’. It wasn’t just the Nazis, check out American eugenics who used forced sterilisation or perhaps the Swedish.

As for your genes living on in others, genetically we are synergisitc. Our sum is greater than our parts. Who is to say that your specific combination is not the height of genetic perfection? Remember genes work with each other and the presence of some can start or stop the action of other genes.

Maybe, unbeknown to you, you carry a unique mutation to any one gene that could spell resistance to some virus or other. Your genes can undergo mutation on every sexual division, so why could you not be carrying a unique gene should you have children.

Now I respect your decision not to have children, I can’t say the idea of motherhood fills me with much motivation either. That doesn’t mean that all your genes live on in the gene pool, or that they will ever exist in the combinations you are capable of producing.

No you cannot keep people alive forever, BUT I asked could you really refuse meds to someone who wanted to live when we could grant them that wish. If you can say that you could, then I find that view callous and inhumane.

As for Chinese one child policy I suspect that you are ignorant of what you are supporting. Perhaps you should spare a thought for those who in the last earthquake lost their only child and now find themselves sterilised and incapable of producing another. Or the hoards of baby girls that fill the orphanages.

How other countries will follow suit without being forced to change their cultures is also something you don’t seemed to have considered. How is Chinas policy the answer to not forcing the cultures of other countries to change? That policy has been around for almost 30 years and who has followed suit in that time?

As for massive taxation, as i said before there is a lot of money kicking around that is used for frivolous purposes. I don’t think that we are even close to seeing the kind of healthcare that we can really afford. As for peoples expectations, we can only offer what is available at one time, but our future can hold wonderful new possibilities. Like drugs that are specific to working on your individual genome. Imagine instead of wasting money and critical time trying drugs that may not work for you, we can screen your genetic code and give you something that will work for you – not the majority of people on a drug trial.

This is the future and it is exciting. We WILL solve these problems and survive. But reducing the genetic variation will not help us survive all obstacles nature throws at us. The largest possible amount of genetic variation will ensure our best likelihood of survival.

Take the example of a viral epidemic. In this scenario, it is actually a larger population that will be beneficial rather than a smaller one.

cb // Posted 7 June 2008 at 11:16 am

I’m not quite sure myself on this. I suppose though that it is her own business and if she is able to provide for the child, good luck to her. My mother died when I was a baby and she was in her early thirties so it isn’t always something you can legislate about! I’m not sure I think a child is a right though. And I think my argument would perhaps work better with a natural conception though.

Anne Onne // Posted 7 June 2008 at 11:46 am

Feminist avatar, evolution is merely the result of the breeding of whatever organisms manage to passon their ‘genes’ before they die. Therefore evolution of the human species is still occurring, just not in the same direction it was before things like glasses, the NHS etc. ‘Survival of the fittest’ is a bit of a red herring, becaus it implies that there’s some universal ‘fitness’ which renders orgainisms likely to survive and breed, when it’s really about getting by in the particular environment and time we live in. To an extent, our health provisions do affect the gene pool by allowing more people with genetic illnesses (or predispositions) to breed, but those illnesses also occur as a result of random mutation. Indeed, by theory Down’s syndrome isn’t a genetic disease, because the parent does not need to be a carrier or sufferer.

I can see the points in this post, and I empathise with them, but I’m still not comfortable with someone else making decicions about a woman’s life and reproductive choices. This has caused so much trouble in the past, and ties in so neatly with the pro-life crowd that I don’t want to go there.

I do agree, it IS selfish to have a child when you are seventy. The body stops beign able to maintain a natural pregnancy for a reason, because the risks for mother and foetus multiply with extreme age. But it’s her body in the end during the pregnancy. We defend women’s rights to drink moderately during pregnancy, and not have their status as ‘pregnant’ eclipse their own rights when pregnant and giving birth. We defend the rights of disabled women to have children, and single women, and I can’t see why theoretically this is any different. Just like giving women comprehensive rights to their own body, and the free choice to have abortions women may make the ‘wrong’ choice. Maybe even choices we are not comfortable with. But though the ‘wrong’ choices make me uncomfortable, I don’t think we should sacrifice their right to make that choice, in case they make a choice WE disagree with.

What if they’ve made provision for the child to be looked after, in the case that they get too ill to look after the child, or die? Would that really put the child worse off than the many whose parents die, or who live in foster care or are adopted? This argument seems to reminiscent to me of the ‘single mothers’ argument, when there are many families that are very atypical, and the children cope fine.

I repeat, I wouldn’t have children at 70, seeign as how I’d leave their life pretty early, and I think it would be selfish. But that’s my opinion, and shouldn’t necessarily be law. We don’t stop drug addicts having children, or many other people society see as ‘unfit’, and we argue that really poor women who can’t afford essentials need help, not their kids taken away, because they should not be punished. I just can’t justify myself defending all these other instances and not this one, though I disagree with it.

As for people carrying genetic disorders: a good canditate for ‘designer babies’. Until then, let’s remember that WE have privilege here. Yes, we do. We don’t have to worry that we might pass on a potentially fatal disease to our children, and we might not even want children. But saying that everybody else should like it or lump it because WE would do it, when for us the situation is so hypothetical IS privilege.

And Shea, are you really defending eugenics and saying every country should be more like China and implement a one child policy? Do you honestly have so little respect for bodily and reproductive autonomy that you think that the resulting oppression of women (who are the class who *get pregnant* after all) would justify the end? Do we really want to punish everybody who wants more children and enforce abortions?

Liz // Posted 7 June 2008 at 4:52 pm

I think this talk about eugenics is really disablist in some sense. For example, being deaf, does this mean I should not have children because there is a possibility of them being deaf? A lot of people think that being deaf is “the worst thing in the world” when it isn’t. Why do we make judgements about what the ‘worst thing in the world’ is – for example, being 70 and having a child or being deaf or blind or carrying some kind of gene when we haven’t experienced these different experiences ourselves? I think it’s dangerous to state that people should not have children if they have some kind of “disability” (I hate that word, to be honest and prefer differently abled because everyone is differently abled!). I know that 70 with a child and no support, family etc is quite precarious, but I am sure the child will be looked after if something happens to her mother. What gives us the right to say ‘she shouldn’t have…’ or ‘she should have…’?

chem_fem // Posted 7 June 2008 at 5:51 pm

For a fabulous resource on American eugenics see:

http://www.eugenicsarchive.org/eugenics/

It really covers what the people at the time were going through and thinking. There are some huge parallels between what was happening in the States at the time and some of the points Shea has made. Unlike what i have at my hands though, it has an archive or historical examples of what happened and is worth a read.

Anne Onne wrote – We don’t have to worry that we might pass on a potentially fatal disease to our children, and we might not even want children.

Sorry, I wasn’t sure what you meant here. Do you mean we don’t know what we are carrying so we don’t have to think about it? Or that nobody here is carrying anything potentially fatal.

I understood the bit about how one is putting themselves in a privileged position if they don’t want children, but would restrict that right to others and I agree. Just not sure about the bit above. :)

Shea // Posted 7 June 2008 at 11:08 pm

@ Anne Onne——-“And Shea, are you really defending eugenics and saying every country should be more like China and implement a one child policy?”

Yes, as I said before I don’t condone a Nazi or turn of the century eugenicist view. But from a purely genetic standpoint we are already practising eugenics (the genetic manipulation for the betterment of humankind) by offering PGD, CVS and amniocentisis. I wholeheartedly welcome this. I have no desire to see children born with muscular dystrophy or fragile X because “we shouldn’t mess with nature” (in that context). This is with respect, a million miles away from the American or Scandinavian notions of eugenics.

Yes I support China’s one child policy. Not the repression or state mechanism but even with this policy China’s population will be 1.5 billion by 2012. As for sparing a thought to those who lost their child in the earthquake– China has relaxed rules to allow them another child. The numerous girls in orphanages are the result of cultural prejudice that holds females inferior rather than a one child policy. We shouldn’t enforce abortions (or childbearing either) but the basis of the one child policy was to allocate social resources, schooling, health for ONE child, not more, so that parents wouldn’t have more than one. We live in the west with its uniquely anthropocentric conception of the world and our liberal view. Do you really want to indulge individual liberty and jeopardise the collective whole?

I would never ever support the oppression practiced against women by the Chinese, but I also don’t believe the western conception that this is my body, I can do whatever I like with it, regardless of the social/epidemiological cost. In your example of epidemics—- well no one should be forced to have a vaccine should they? So nevermind that we will have eliminated herd immunity.

Actually your point about populations is incorrect— a large population with no immunity will be far more susceptible to an epidemic that a smaller one with prior exposure. (look at the effect of smallpox on the indigenous of the New World for proof).

“Do you honestly have so little respect for bodily and reproductive autonomy that you think that the resulting oppression of women (who are the class who *get pregnant* after all) would justify the end? Do we really want to punish everybody who wants more children and enforce abortions?” — No absolutely not. But you have competing rights here. That of society, that of the woman and that of any future children. I would never support forcing women to do anything, I believe there are enough people out there who will do that anyway, but and there is a but, in the context we are talking about I do believe there is a case to be made in withholding a technology from people without violating their bodily autonomy. There is still the option to adopt—-something that is always forgotten. In the case of Lliescu I can’t see how it mattered– the child wouldn’t be genetically hers anyway.

@ Liz — you raise an interesting point about deafness. There are some deaf couples who would like to have a deaf child. Do we respect their right to do so and therefore impinge the rights of bodily autonomy of their child or not? With respect to disability, I’m not arguing that differently abled people shouldn’t have children. I am saying those with a dominant condition, which cannot be prevented from being passed on and which will prove fatal have to really ask themselves if they are willing to risk their child being born with it?

Another point that came to me last night— how sad, truly that the validation of a woman’s life is still her ability to have a child. This woman has given into social pressure that deems her life, full of its achievements, meaningless in the absence of a child. At 70 looking back and feeling nostalgic and afraid of dying alone, I have a huge sympathy for her, but a child was not the solution and her decision looks less and less radical by the day.

Shea // Posted 8 June 2008 at 12:18 am

@Chem_fem—-“Could you refuse meds to a parent who was suffering but still wanted to live?”– yes easily. I would do everything possible to minimise their suffering and discomfort (even though the result of this, like morphine might be to shorten their life). But would I advocate a fourth cycle of chemotherapy for a terminal cancer patient– no. There are limits, and I don’t decide them. On the clinical side, NICE does, on the other, nature does.

“BUT I asked could you really refuse meds to someone who wanted to live when we could grant them that wish. If you can say that you could, then I find that view callous and inhumane”—– if we could treat a person successfully then of course I wouldn’t refuse. It depends on the circumstances. It turns on the probability of them surviving and the outcome of the treatment. But, I could refuse a more expensive and effective drug treatment to someone, because otherwise the health economics would be disastrous. A case in point is Heptarin versus tamoxifen. We could give the more effective Heptarin, to all patients with early stage breast cancer (a at cost of £40,000 per cycle) but that would mean closing five hospitals nationwide. Is it worth it?

I know if it was someone I loved I would think so. But that isn’t a great basis for a health care policy.

This is the nature of big pharma– drug R & D will always outpace health care spending. There will always be new markets, and new products and the NHS cannot fund them all.

chem_fem // Posted 8 June 2008 at 9:51 am

I think the whole argument boils down to this:

“Do you really want to indulge individual liberty and jeopardise the collective whole?”

Yes! I believe that a persons reproductive decisions should always remain with the individual. I also support the spending and (fair) taxation necessary for optimal healthcare.

Shea // Posted 8 June 2008 at 10:16 am

Sorry should be Herceptin. You can use Heptarin as part of the treatment in breast cancer, but it isnt specifically for that. This is what comes of not sleeping……..!

Anne Onne // Posted 8 June 2008 at 1:24 pm

Sorry Chem_fem, I meant that either we don’t know we are carrying such genes (in which case it’s not something we worry about), aren’t carrying them, in which place wouldn’t need to worry. And if you don’t want kids, it’s of little interest to you. I didn’t mean to imply that we’re not carrying these genes.

Shea, I see your point, I just believe that education and reonforcment of the notion that not having kids is an unselfish moral good is different to any kind of intervention that

I mean, the ‘not supporting more than one child’ policy would be something the anti-benefits brigade would dream up, and I don’t know in reality if it would discourage people from having more children, since peopel don’t all follow some set logic when it comes do these choices. That and once the children are born, can we justify starving them to make a point against their parents?

Again, I get what you’re saying, and why. But in real life, it would be too problematic, IMHO, and too easy to abuse. After all, if we implement rules where bodily autonomy is secondary to state interest, how do we ensure who decides how far to take it, and how to stop abuse? I trust the state little enough as it is, and giving it more power over women’s bodies, especially with the patriarchy as it is now, would NOT improve things.

We’ll have to agree to disagree, I guess.

For me, it’s similar to how I see censorship- there are things out there of such low calibre, and many things I would not personally publish if I had any say. But I dont’ beleive in imposing regulations banning everything. I hope that through education and reform people will eventually not want to do *insert here* any more. I agree it’s selfish to have lots of kids, or even to have any. I hope that we will be able to get through with this idea that you don’t need to have hundreds of chilren, or maybe any. Many countries have increasing numbers of people with few or no children. It is becoming more of an option.

Of course, that poses questions for the economy, and how we will run a economy not based on a huge birth rate to maintain an ageing population. There won’t be any easy answer.

Shea // Posted 9 June 2008 at 1:49 am

@ Chem_fem—-“Yes! I believe that a persons reproductive decisions should always remain with the individual.”

So you would presumably have no problem with a 90 year old woman accessing the technology, or a person with a history of child abuse and neglect?

State interest? No, democratic interest. Lets set reasonable, equitable parameters worldwide for population limits, without which our world will go to hell in a handbasket.

I’m equally ill at ease over the state having power over our bodies. Although in this instance, with IVF they do anyway through the HFEA. But there will always be the free rider problem as there is with climate change. Given the option, most people will do what they want irrespective of the danger to the rest. We can’t and shouldn’t regulate natural reproduction, except in a positive sense (i.e fewer children = better healthcare and social benefits). But with IVF we aren’t engaging bodily autonomy in this way. Its simply denying a technology to people, much like prohibiting individuals from getting hold of nuclear missiles. I can’t see that as a bad thing.

Mobot // Posted 9 June 2008 at 3:15 pm

I was born a so-called ‘medical miracle’ to parents who were both disabled, and my mother (who had cerebral palsy) conceived and continued with her pregnancy despite being strongly advised against it… she knew her life expectancy was short but chose to have me nevertheless. Perhaps no-one could have predicted my father’s death at age 27 but the point is that she made a decision not unlike that of the woman scrutinised in this post, and yet here I am – healthy, happy and with a good upbringing. My grandparents raised me and although that means that soon I’ll have no immediate family, my quality of life will no doubt remain high. I resent the implication that those who fit into the accepted cultural norms of nuclear family, no disability etc “should” be born. It’s easy to sit in an ivory tower and theorise about the global benefits of eugenics but real life is far, far more complicated than some of the generalisations flagged up in debates like this might often suggest.

Mobot // Posted 9 June 2008 at 11:36 pm

*Hmmm. On reflection, my comment seems to read like I’m having a dig about this whole debate and accusing everyone of generalising – that wasn’t intended. I mean to say that my specific background makes me even more prone to feeling more than a little unsettled by the concept of eugenics (Nazi-esque or otherwise) or that only certain people should be ‘allowed’ to procreate. Yes, we live in a fragmented society which often puts the individual above the community but I don’t believe it should follow that individuals’ human rights are stripped away ‘for the greater good’ as societies are made up of individuals, and the political implications also concern me (social Darwinism, ‘inherent’ hierarchy etc).

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