An elderly mother's fertile imagination

She has undergone a medical intervention that is just an elaborate, expensive and grotesque form of adoption
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The Independent Online

Adriana Iliescu appears to be every inch the elderly primigravida. The retired Romanian academic, now officially designated the world's oldest mother, has just given birth to her first child, Eliza Maria, at 66. This, at least, is what she and the rest of the world appear to believe. But actually, before we get too carried away with the idea that advances in medical science are moving at a faster pace than human ethics can match, this claim deserves to be examined a little.

Adriana Iliescu appears to be every inch the elderly primigravida. The retired Romanian academic, now officially designated the world's oldest mother, has just given birth to her first child, Eliza Maria, at 66. This, at least, is what she and the rest of the world appear to believe. But actually, before we get too carried away with the idea that advances in medical science are moving at a faster pace than human ethics can match, this claim deserves to be examined a little.

Ms Iliescu says she has "believed all my life that a woman has a right to give birth" and that she thinks "a woman who has not had a child has not led a complete life". Even if I agreed with either of these statements, the idea that this woman has achieved either by doing what she has done is entirely a matter of opinion.

Eliza Maria, who weighs three pounds and is six weeks premature, has no genetic link to Ms Iliescu, because she is the fruit of donated eggs and donated sperm. Nor, if we want to split hairs, did Ms Iliescu "give birth" to the baby, since she had a caesarean six weeks from term, after two other siblings had died in the womb.

The truth is that after nine years of fertility treatment, including a drug regimen designed to reverse the menopause, Ms Iliescu has achieved limited success in providing a surrogate womb for somebody else's fertilised egg. The rest relies on the fertility of other people, and the ability of technicians to transfer it into her body. That's all.

Ms Iliescu has undergone a medical intervention which allowed her to experience the physical reality of carrying children and growing them in her womb. This is nothing but an elaborate, expensive and grotesque form of adoption, carried out to persuade an obsessed old woman, quite erroneously, that she's somehow, miraculously, reproduced herself.

The way in which Ms Iliescu's compulsion has been pandered to by the medical profession, when it instead should have been treated by psychiatrists who may have helped her to come to terms with the fact that she could no longer have a child of her own, is unethical - especially when the result of this activity has been the rather piecemeal creation of a child by donations from various quarters.

Such stories are worrying because they misleadingly foster a belief among the general public that childbirth is something that women can achieve at increasingly advanced ages. But the way in which this case has been represented, not as a failure of medical ethics but as a stick to beat "elderly" mothers, is worrying too.

First and foremost, it's misleading to suggest that Ms Iliescu is anything other than an anomalous patient, whose demented desire to believe that she has had a child has been the determining factor in this ghastly drama.

This story is pretty similar for many of these "pensioner has child" legends. Usually, the truth is that the level of medical intervention, as well as the level of self-delusion, is far higher than any well-adjusted human being - doctor or patient - would be willing to accept or to bear. Ms Iliescu also underwent two miscarriages in her attempts to reproduce reproduction.

Few women in their sixties are ever likely to embark on motherhood, especially motherhood as painful, convoluted and compromised as Ms Iliescu's. Yet the way that those women who do embark on such a course are pilloried, suggests only social taboo is stopping women from putting off having children until they are 90. The truth is that an "elderly primigravida" is anyone over the age of 35. Even women of that age, embarking on motherhood for the first time, tend to labour under the misapprehension that they are incredibly decrepit and a creaking embarrassment at the nursery gates.

Instead, it is becoming more than obvious that women have little choice if they wish to succeed in their education and their careers, but to defer the having of children as long as they can. Last year saw the biggest increase in the birth rate in Britain for a quarter of a century, with mothers aged over 35 leading the way. There was a 10 per cent increase in the numbers of mothers over 40 and an 8 per cent increase in the number of mothers in their thirties. Birth rates rose, according to population trends, in all groups except the under-20s.

Looked at over a decade, the change is even more noticeable. The number of women having babies in their forties has doubled, while the number of women having babies in their thirties has gone up by two-thirds. In 2003, the year that gives us the most recent figures, the mean age for childbirth was 29.4. Experts believe that there is still plenty of scope for this figure to rise.

There is little argument about this figure being explicable mainly because of women's career considerations. But there is also a suggestion that the steep rise in multiple births for the over-35s is helping to swell the figures. This rise, of course, is attributable to the use women in this age group are forced to make of fertility treatment.

Very elderly mothers, like very elderly fathers, are unusual creatures, who do indeed "fly in the face of nature". But in the sturm und drang caused by these freakish stories, there is a great lack of sympathy being voiced on behalf of ordinary women, making difficult choices.

Much has been made of the idea of Ms Iliescu as a career woman, who sacrificed normal womanhood for her professional ambition and then regretted it. Yet the same critics also bang on about how Sandra Lennon - who has just had the second child of a second family in her early sixties - should have been content with one family and her role as a grandmother instead of wanting more babies.

The women themselves are splashed all over the papers, their motivations dissected, their private lives examined, their relatives tempted with chequebooks and the opportunity to "set the record straight", while the doctors who make their late motherhood possible do it again and again and again without being challenged very much, if at all.

The focus is completely wrong. Science is misrepresented as somehow all-powerful, unstoppable and unaccountable - rather than limited, fairly unsophisticated and prone to exaggeration. Women are misrepresented as selfish witches going against nature and bringing a blight on their own children.

Instead, it is clear, that vulnerable women are being parted from large sums of cash, persuaded that a miracle has been performed for them and then being hung out to dry by the media. No doubt people have a visceral repulsion when confronted with the idea of a very old woman giving birth. They have a repulsion when confronted with the idea of her having sex, dancing or wearing an Alice band as well.

The unfortunate women who fall foul of their own regret and longing and the propensity of some parts of the medical profession to take advantage of this, deserve sympathy, as do their vulnerable children who are sometimes the result of such collaborations.

Instead, the tendency is to seize the opportunity once again to berate older women and tell them how unnatural and useless they are. No wonder Harley Street is full of fertility clinics and plastic surgeons. No wonder women will pay anything, and put up with any insult, to feel that they're not too old.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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