Handbag babies for the geriatric

// 20 July 2008

[Editor: please see here for more information on this post]

When the late, great Hunter S Thompson said that “reality is more twisted than fiction” he could not have been more accurate. Imagine a world in which dandruff flakes could be used to cultivate a living human embryo before implanting it into the dusty old uterus of a woman approaching her centennial year. Imagine then that this technology was readily available on the NHS, with the streets filled with waning prune-faced pensioners pushing prams filled with babies made of geriatric skin. Sounds like the synopsis of a lurid work of science fiction doesn’t it? Well, sadly it’s not, and such a reality is only 30 years away, according to a recent article championing the “progressiveness” of science in its determination to extend female fertility.

Advances in germ cell technology mean that it will soon be possible to use skin cells to make sperm and egg cells, which can then be combined to create a human embryo. While allowing women the opportunity to have a baby at any time during their lives, it is also anticipated that treatments using skin cells (known as induced pluripotent stem cells) could replace IVF, allowing parents to have a “designer baby” by specifying the physical characteristics they want their offspring to inherit. Although I understand that this could have some benefits – removing the possibility of a child inheriting a genetic condition or abnormality – should the use of this treatment be condoned in the pursuit of an aesthetic ideal? Or does this reiterate the idea that a baby has become a commodity, something reflective of a couple’s success and genetic supremacy, and as such, like a pair of Manola Blanhiks, would-be parents want the best that their money can buy? It’s unfortunate that the desire for self-perfection has now extended so far that scientists has now seen a niche in the baby-making market to offer the brightest eyes and the rosiest cheeks, and it won’t be long before private clinics are competing for customers, offering two-for-one deals on matching Arian boys and girls, one womb, twice the love…etc…. (Am I the only one to have found the recent spate of twin-births (one girl, one boy) in Hollywood slightly suspicious?) Of course, in an ideal world this technology could be used for the greater good, but unfortunately it will be open to abuse by those in pursuit of the perfect “handbag baby” to complement their perfect lifestyles at the perfect time for them.

Plus, (not to sugar-coat the truth), there is something morally repugnant about the idea of impregnating a 100-year-old woman, and why is it that science has seen fit to force something on which nature has put a time limit? It’s not that science is a bad thing. It has offered cures for illnesses, or at least means to control and/or alleviate symptoms of diseases that would have previously left sufferers incapacitated or dead, and while in this respect it has been used to help a body that is essentially ‘out-of-order,’ why does it see fit to then offer a ‘solution’ to a problem that does not exist? A woman of 100 is not infertile because nature has been unkind to her, but because physically she could not nurture a child, nor offer the same sort of support that a younger mother could – her body is doing what it should be by stopping her from getting pregnant. It’s also very unlikely that she would live long enough to provide the care an infant and young child needs. Yes, anyone, whatever age, could step outside one day and get knocked over by a bus, but surely for a woman this age the blocks of mortality are stocked much higher against her threatening to crush her at any moment when they fall? Chance is one thing, but that we are humans and biologically destined to what our body fall in to a state of disrepair and expire is a fact.

I wrote a post on this subject a few months ago. This is not ageism but surely, while women do want to have more control over their fertility, anyone, man or woman, should seriously reconsider their plans to procreate once they have reached a certain age. I appreciate that this age can fluctuate significantly from one woman to the next, owing to a combination of career plans, lifestyle choices, relationship status and health. Some women are also genetically predisposed to remaining fertile for longer. It’s not unusual for some women to experience the menopause in their late thirties (or even sooner) and others not until they are in their fifties (or later). Plus, a woman in her late thirties/early forties may be considerably healthier than a woman in her early twenties, and therefore her body equipped to cope with pregnancy better. I understand that for every idea or rule there is an exception, and also that the individual is empowered to make their own life choices, but I can’t understand why anyone would either want a baby at that age, or encourage a woman to do so. Just because science could offer the means we should not take advantage of it.

Comments From You

Anne Onne // Posted 20 July 2008 at 6:55 pm

I think we’re playing into alarmism, here. Scientific advances promised to come soon never come anywhere near as soon as people fear, for a start, and it’s annoying to keep reading that doom is around the corner only to find that it still hasn’t arrived 50 years later.

Also, how many centenarians are there? Not many. This is never going to be a case of millions of 100 year-olds all rushing off to have babies. For a start very few women of that age are healthy enough that it would be a realistic option. Let’s not take doctors out of the equation. It’s pretty clear that even if this treatment is offered, doctors will have to check the health of the would-be parent, and should have the right to refuse to do the voluntary procedure if they deem it too risky to the health of the patient. If there really are 100 year-olds out there fit enough to carry a child to term, good luck to them, they’ll need it. I can’t understand why somebody that age would want to have babies, but at the same time I’m leery of specifically ruling everything out with blanket statement.

The designer baby issue only has to arise if we as a society let it, and yet there’s this constant panic about some downwards spiral. Human embryology laws are not exactly easy, and if we as a society decide we want to allow people to eliminate the risks of genetic diseases in their children , and only that, it is more than easy for that to happen considering that the majority opinion seems to believe in strict laws. I really don’t see how this scenario, with rather strict laws, and the current suspicion of science in the media and the majority of people is a real danger.

Redheadinred // Posted 20 July 2008 at 8:07 pm

Is anyone else a little surprised at the language of ‘dusty old uterus’ and ‘prune-faced pensioner’? Quite apart from the issue at hand, there’s no point insulting older women by calling them things like prune faced geriatrics with dusty wombs. It only plays on the ‘yuck’ factor, which distracts from the real issue, which is that post-retirement couples having new babies probably means the parents will be dead or incapacitated by the time the child is ten years old. I don’t have a problem with it happening once or twice, but I would start to feel disturbed if it started to become the norm.

As for designer babies for aesthetic reasons, this is just a natural progression of the current craze to have one’s child (usually daughter) waxed and plucked and dyed and microdermabrased before their seventh birthday. If I was disturbed reading about that, the idea of doing it with the child’s ACTUAL DNA AND GENES is even worse. How could any parent think that whatever their child happens to look like, they’re naturally beautiful enough? It’s heartbreaking. Not to mention the disappointment a parent could have in their child if they didn’t live up to the expectations they paid all that money for. Just imagine: *we paid for that beauty of yours, and you’re ruining it all with drinking and smoking. You have such potential due to that IQ we paid for, but you’re just wasting it down the pub.* And it goes on – the designer child might be favoured over the ‘natural’ child, or vice versa. And even if they weren’t really favoured, it’d cause distress among siblings, jealousy and suspicions that the parents didn’t love them as much because they were or weren’t designer. Jeez. I could go on about this forever. It just breaks my heart to think that we’re already living in a world where women having hair below the neck is considered gross, but it might get much, much worse than that.

ConservaTorygirl // Posted 20 July 2008 at 8:36 pm

Well I want one of these designer babies!

My first two have been a bit rubbish, one’s not very good at sports and the other seems to be learning to talk and use a potty slower than her peers.

It’s just not good enough and I really hope that the next offers some inprovement.

Anyway, the salient point I really wanted to make is that I’ve got major reservations in the idea that people can make too many choices about the babies they have. It all smacks of new eugenics a bit.

Secondly, no – you’re not the only person to notice the odd spate of twin births in Hollywood. Someone in a blog post at http://www.rhrealitycheck.org/ also noted it a while back.

I feel kind of funny about that one because there should be no shame about IVF but at the same time if (e.g.) Julia Roberts, Jennifer Lopez and Angelina Jolie used IVF they shouldn’t be under any pressure to say so. But if they did then it might make it a little less awkward for ‘ordinary’ folks who need it.

Oh well.

Cara // Posted 20 July 2008 at 9:15 pm

Yeah – dusty old, prune-faced etc. – ageist much?!

Genes are not destiny. No one can genetically engineer sparkling eyes or rosy cheeks, those things are a result of the environment surely? And yes, this article struck me as a bit, well, alarmist. The media always report OMG SCIENTIFIC ADVANCE most of which never happen. We were supposed to be living in colonies on the Moon by now!

And – not saying it’s a great idea for 100 year old women to have babies, but what’s wrong with women delaying kids for a while to focus on their careers and using medical technology to help them do so? Why the hysteria over 35 plus mothers when men can be dads at 70 plus (even though sperm declines in quality too and having a geriatric parent is not a good idea, whichever sex that parent is).

I’m 27 now, still establishing my career, never had a serious relationship – I don’t envisage having kids before 35. Due to medical conditions I may need some medical help with that. This technology could help women with all kinds of medical conditions to have kids. Why shouldn’t they?

I expected better from the f-word than Mail style alarmism.

Ruth Moss // Posted 20 July 2008 at 9:46 pm

What is a comment like “dusty old uterus” doing on a feminist web site please?

Anji // Posted 20 July 2008 at 10:36 pm

I’m really uncomfortable with this article.

For one thing, there’s the blatant ageism, which just makes me sick to the core. Way to go excluding older women and dismissing them as somehow ‘finished with’.

For another, you’re steering dangerously close to anti-choice arguments there – why do you get to decide who is too old to have children and who isn’t?

The arguments about it being ‘against nature’ sicken me as well. “there is something morally repugnant about the idea of impregnating a 100-year-old woman, and why is it that science has seen fit to force something on which nature has put a time limit?”

Well then nature has also put a limit on infertile women. It has put a limit on people suffering with conditions like AIDS. Nature puts limitations on a lot of things – yet as feminists we celebrate the ways in which science can counter its limitations. Where would we be without contraception, abortion, chemotherapy?

This whole post disappointed me and reinforced many of the ideas I have heard about the F-Word being prejudiced against older women and not actually as feminist as it makes out. I usually argue against such opinions because in general, I like the blog and the site. But this post is making me think that perhaps the F-Word’s detractors have a point.

E-Visible Woman // Posted 20 July 2008 at 10:37 pm

Abby, I agree with you – but this “prune-faced pensioners pushing prams”, “geriatric skin” and “dusty old uterus” stuff is absolutely out of order.

That is language that hates women.

And it’s language that is going to cause older (ie with wrinkles and post-menopause) women new to feminism to turn away from it in disgust, when they find this kind of offensive language on the biggest feminist website in the UK.

We wouldn’t accept ageism towards young women, and we can’t accept it towards older women.

We can do better than this.

Abby O'Reilly // Posted 20 July 2008 at 11:07 pm

I thought I should come into the thread owing to the accusations of ageism that have been made. Firstly, for those who have said they are using my post as proof of ageism displayed by The F Word – this post was my opinion and my opinion only. Secondly, I am not going to change the original post because as it has generated a discourse (although not on the original topic) I think it would be improper to remove the language.

I am going to start by saying I am not ageist. Yes, the language I used was deliberately hyperbolic, but that’s because I felt the report I was commenting on was in itself almost unbelievable. I am not commenting on ALL older mothers, women in their thirties, forties, but a very specific niche of women who would be permitted this treatment when they are pensioners. We all get old. There is nothing wrong with that. But I stand by the claim that women of this age should not be provided with the means to have children. Yes, as one commentator said, it is good that science is allowing women who want careers the means to have children later in life (I have never said otherwise), but I think that this should be within reason – a considerable number of years before a would-be-mother reaches 100!I think it is unfair to say that this blog post would discourage people from developing an interest in feminsim – I am but one person commenting on one topic on one website. That comment seemed a little bit inflammatory to me.

Anji – If you read the original blog post I already addressed the main point you have made. I am not casting judgement on science as a whole, I understand the fantastic benefits it has for humankind as a whole and the differences it has made to women. I didn’t speak of every instance of this, but I presumed that it would be obvious that the statements I did make also referred to women of child-bearing age who, for one reason or other, are infertile. I also did not put an age-limit on reproduction for women, and said this can fluctuate from person to person. I don’t think I was “steering dangerously close” to anti-choice arguments since it is clear throughout the post that it’s being written from a subjective viewpoint.

I apologise if I did cause anyone offence as that was certainly not my intention and I am sorry. But since I did not write this in the vein in which it has been interpreted I will not be commenting on this aspect of the responses any further, as I feel it detracts from the main premise of the piece. But I can appreciate why some parts of the piece could be interpreted as offensive and I do take some of your comments on board – I will try to be more careful with my use of language in the future.

joanne // Posted 20 July 2008 at 11:09 pm

“Yes, the language I used was deliberately hyperbolic”

Spoken like a true journalist. Just not a very good one. This is one of the worst pieces I’ve ever seen on the f-word.

Anji // Posted 21 July 2008 at 12:01 am

I think it was very similar to anti-choice arguments, so close in fact that I am surprised that I am the only person who has noticed it.

Firstly, you created the most unlikely candidate – the one hundred year old woman needing a child. This theoretical woman is much like the woman who has an abortion every two months because she can’t be bothered to use condoms – that is, she doesn’t exist. You used an unrealistic example that in the real world is so unlikely to exist as to render your point ridiculous, and used it to illustrate your views on the ‘moral repugnancy’ of such a situation occurring.

Not only that, but just like the anti-choice lobby, you seem to be stating that one person’s discomfort with another woman’s situation should be more important than the actual woman’s feelings about her situation. In the anti-choice lobby’s case, they are saying “We find this morally wrong, therefore it’s wrong that it is allowed to happen.” You are saying “I find this morally wrong, therefore it’s wrong that it’s allowed to happen.” You are not an older woman who wants a child, so you should not presume to speak for them, or to be allowed to dictate what is and is not morally ‘right’ for them to do.

Kochanie // Posted 21 July 2008 at 12:49 am

Plus, (not to sugar-coat the truth), there is something morally repugnant about the idea of impregnating a 100-year-old woman, and why is it that science has seen fit to force something on which nature has put a time limit?


I disagree that the impregnation of a 100-year old woman is an act that is morally repugnant in and of itself. I would use the term morally irresponsible if the biotechnology that made it possible for the centenerian to bear a child did not extend the mother’s healthy life span so she could care for her child.

Science seeks to understand the laws of nature and applies that knowledge to test those limits. Life expectancy* at birth in the United States in 1900 was 47 years. By 2005 it had increased to 77 years. One could argue that nature had put a time limit on human life, which science — through nutrition, immunization and sanitation — extended for another thirty years. While the quality of life is not always maintained for those who live longer, the fact that we do live longer is not morally repugnant. What is morally repugnant is the fact that so many U.S. citizens do not have access to the health care that could extend their length and quality of their lives.

So it is not the manipulation of nature that is worrisome in the example you provided. It is restricted access to this manipulation that should be our concern.

* The quoted life expectancy for the United States was based on the reports of the National Center for Health Statistics: http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/lifexpec.htm

Lauren O // Posted 21 July 2008 at 2:51 am

I do not at all understand how an old woman having kids would be “morally repugnant.” I think there is something about that argument I am just not getting.

Also, if science advances to the point where 100-year-old women are having babies, it will probably have advanced to the point where a 100-year-old woman is more like a 50-year-old woman and will live to raise her child.

ConservaTorygirl // Posted 21 July 2008 at 6:22 am

E-Visible Woman, I think it’s more likely to make older feminists who have identified themselves as feminists before many of us were even born (e.g. my mama’s generation) turn in their graves. Except they’re not dead yet, they’re just dusty old prunes.

Jennifer-Ruth // Posted 21 July 2008 at 9:14 am

If science can, it will. And there will always be debates about what we should and should not be doing. However, this article was particularly alarmist and presented some pretty far-fetched ideas. Just because science could make something possible doesn’t mean that it’s suddenly going to become available on the NHS.

Personally, I think all avenues of research are important and the world will continue to change. The world today would be quite an odd place for someone transported from 100 years’ ago to now. Same for us 100 years’ into the future, I would imagine. Maybe I have too much faith in humanity, but I don’t think we are all going to swirl down a moral drainpipe as new technology becomes available.

Also, I have to agree with the above posters – the language was pretty ageist…I can’t say I’m comfortable with it. You may have meant it to be hyperbolic, but it just came across as nasty-minded.

Mobot // Posted 21 July 2008 at 12:02 pm

Sorry to berate but please could you be a little more careful and respectful in your language? The ‘backlash’ against feminism (been reading Faludi recently, it’s stuck in my head!) already dictates that feminists are insensitive, aggressive and are more concerned with their sense of moral indignation than the rights of others. Let’s not reinforce that stereotype by being harsh and careless instead of considering the rights of ALL women of all ages and remembering that things are always more complicated than they seem.

Shea // Posted 21 July 2008 at 1:39 pm

I also don’t care much for the language, but the argument is pretty sound.

The placing “limits on nature” is a flawed argument as commentators have already pointed out, we already dabble in evolution in keeping people with diabetes, kidney failure etc alive long enough to reproduce. The problem with IVF is that it has become a pancea to a social problem. Women and men are encouraged to have children later due to lifestyle/career reasons, those who become mothers early on in their teenage years are castigated for it. So we have created a society where many older people are electing to become parents, the problem is they don’t often have the energy or stamina to keep up with their children, there are more complications in having a child later, and maternal mortality rates increase. It isn’t a good idea.

Certainly this idea that we control the natural world and our fertility is one leading us to heartbreak, The body places limits on these things for men and women for a reason, I don’t think its cruel, I think its necessary. I think we should be arguing for more support for women to become mothers in their younger years (like better empoyment legislation) and therefore prevent this arms race against their reproductive system. There is alot of disengenuity in presenting IVF as the solution, IVF is fraught with failure, even using donor gametes and repeated cycles in young women. Its highly unlikely that a woman of 100 would get pregnant using this method.

As for choosing our children’s genes, don’t we do that anyway when we pick out our partner? I don’t see the problem, there is enough diversity in the human race and in our decisions to avoid the creation of an aryan super race. Who better to pick out the genes of the children than the parents? Genes aren’t destiny as someone pointed out above, even if you have a gene for musical talent (if such existed) there’s no guarantee of a child Mozart.

Sian // Posted 21 July 2008 at 2:01 pm

Just adding my voice to those who found the ageist language in this post repugnant. It really didn’t come across as ‘deliberately hyperbolic’, even if that was the intention. Worse than the language used in that article about those students who have turned to prostitution to pay their loans back.

I also don’t find the idea of an pregnant older woman ‘morally repugnant’. There are definitely issues that would have to be thought through there, which is partly why they’re not adopting kids at that age etc. But repugnant? What a horrible word to use.

And this whole subject can get pretty alarmist-if the technology gets here there will be regulations.

Debs // Posted 21 July 2008 at 2:02 pm

Abby, you are ageist, extremely so, as someone who was not ageist would not speak about women older than them in such a derogatory and dismissive way. This is not feminism, it is bigotry.

Chloe // Posted 21 July 2008 at 2:07 pm

While thinking about what to comment, I noticed the comment guidelines say, “This blog is a safe and friendly space for feminists and feminist allies.” What is ‘safe’ and ‘friendly’ about using language like “dusty old uterus”, “geriatric skin”, and “prune-faced pensioners”.

This language is more than “deliberately hyperbolic” – it’s horrifically offensive. I’d expect that from The Daily Male, but not The F-Word.

Lucy // Posted 21 July 2008 at 6:11 pm

In case others generally read this site, and comments, in a reader, as I do, there’s an apology here: /blog/2008/07/an_apology

Thanks for this. I agree with what many other posters have said, and am glad to see it being handled.

Kristy // Posted 22 July 2008 at 11:54 pm

I hate the don’t mess with nature argument!!!

people are constantly using it to stop abortions and other medical treatment that is quite critical for some people. That along with women constantly being related to pure nature!

I personally dont consider it to be appropriate for feminists to ever be on the other side of the nature argument.

Does anyone else agree?

Laurel Dearing // Posted 23 July 2008 at 8:52 am

i think it would be appropriate against DR frankenstein. it depends on whether it can benefit people and what the repercussions are. i think industry having been chosen over nature is a bad thing on the environment and a lot of that is to do with science. i think it depends how far people think ahead to some extent what the long term effects are. i agree that you would certainly need more reasoning than just that “it is against nature end of”.

figleaf // Posted 24 July 2008 at 5:41 pm

Neglecting the *non-degenerative* aspects of aging leads to a number of problematic assumptions that, in my opinion, bolster patriarchal thinking. Especially biological-imperative/evolutionary-psychology sorts of patriarchal thought.

My larger concern is “…the idea of impregnating a 100-year-old woman…”

I’m… *pretty* sure that any 100-year-old involved in their “insemnation” will probably have a lot to do with the decision as well. I mean it’s not like younger people might go around impregnating their great-grandmothers on the principle that in thirty years centenarians will be a) healthy enough to bear children but b) otherwise too feeble to protest being forced to incubate someone else’s designer dandruff.

I mean really!


Carol // Posted 24 July 2008 at 7:58 pm

The comment that started this thread and some of the discussion also strikes me as being quite Eurocentric/ Western-centred. The idea that parents will be the main care-givers for a child is a fairly western European thing.

In Maori and Polynesian culture in my part of the world, there’s been a long tradition of children being cared for by the community rather than primarily being the property of their biological parents. It’s still fairly common for children to be living with aunts, uncles and/or grandparents as with their parents. See for instance the discussion of a study on this here:


“Our third principle was multiple parenting. Adults other than biological parents had much the same rights as whanau [family] members to do everything a parent would do for a child: feed it, provide warmth and affection, correct, control, reprimand or otherwise discipline the child including physical chastisement. Temporary or permanent whangai adoption was extremely common and customarily arranged and sustained; the law was rarely involved.

Not only was there multiple parenting within households but in daily life people in Murupara enjoyed living in a small community with all the benefits that were part of it. There were always other adults around to look after the children, alternative places to stay, havens in time of crisis.”

Bee // Posted 2 October 2008 at 11:09 am

I know I’ve come to this late, and an apology has been made, but I found this post upsetting on so many levels that I hardly know where to start.

“Streets filled with prune-faced pensioners pushing prams… etc. Sounds like a work of science fiction? Well, it’s not.” Er, yes, actually it does, and it is. How many older “pensioners” do you really think will either want or be physically fit enough to go through pregnancy and birth? Let alone your mythical centenarians… my grandmother is 101 this year. Does she want to have a baby? No. Nor do her 80- and 90-year old friends. These women don’t exist. It’s not a question of being “morally repugnant”, it’s just alarmist nonsense.

My dusty old 40-year-old uterus recently gave birth to a baby through IVF, after four years of unexplained infertility. Messing with nature? – yes, certainly, and I’m very glad of it. Not a designer baby, just mine, and it’s none of Abby O’Reilly’s business how she was conceived, any more than it is her business how the babies of Hollywood actresses are conceived.

I know you’ll say I’m missing the point, but I am just so, so sick of women’s reproductive choices being attacked from all sides and I am so disappointed to see an article like this on the F-word. Have you any idea how many hoops one has to jump through to get fertility treatment at all? You don’t just walk into a clinic, hand over some money and walk out with a baby (or two). Scientists are not going to be forcibly impregnating elderly women. The welfare of the potential child is, and should remain, a powerful consideration. But just because “nature” doesn’t allow something, doesn’t automatically mean it shouldn’t be done – otherwise, a lot of us wouldn’t be here at all.

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