E Jane Dickson: Show some sympathy towards infertile women

My experience of fertility treatment was short and successful
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The Independent Online

Women, eh? What can you do with 'em? Either they're having their babies at 16 or they're having them at 60. Why can't they reproduce at an age appropriate to the economic, emotional and demographic balance of society?

Women, eh? What can you do with 'em? Either they're having their babies at 16 or they're having them at 60. Why can't they reproduce at an age appropriate to the economic, emotional and demographic balance of society?

This, by and large, has been the head wagging, knee-jerking reaction to reports of a possible breakthrough in reproductive technology. Research from the University of Tennessee suggests that using stem cells to grow human eggs may prolong childbearing age and stave off the menopause for up to 12 years. This is good news for millions of infertile women, but not for the head-waggers, who conjure dystopian visions of senescent career women being pushed along in bathchairs by their techno-freak offspring.

Yet again the statistics are shuffled and laid out, with accompanying shudders, like a grim Tarot reading: the birth rate to mothers between 35 and 39 has risen by 60 per cent in a decade; for mothers between 40 and 44 the number of births has increased by 50 per cent. Where will it all end?

Well, actually, it ends just there. For women over 45, the chances of conceiving, either naturally or by intervention, are in any meaningful demographic sense negligible. Of course there will be exceptions - and many women of my generation would give all they have to become such an exception - but for every picture of a 60-year-old splashed across the tabloids, clutching a baby to her wrinkled bosom, there are countless women in their early- to mid-40s, who know only too well that they have, by an agonisingly short margin, missed the boat.

It is neither kind nor helpful to treat infertility as just another factor to be fed into the demographic sausage machine. Infertility, for many women - and men - is a horrific, mind-altering misery. I was 20 when I was told by a university gynaecologist I was unlikely to bear children. It being axiomatic that any final year student presenting with "women's troubles" was a malingerer angling for a medical exemption, he asked after my academic grades. My grades were fine. "Well then", he said, "you'll probably be one of these career women."

I did not then, and do not now, think that was an acceptable trade-off. I was devastated, and in the emotional heat of a pre-finals term, became scorchingly aware of the historical and cultural significance of childlessness. I was studying English literature and the syllabus, it seemed to me, was stiff with fertility issues. But the message was always: fertile - good, infertile - bad. I remember writing a frankly deranged essay arguing that King Lear was a miserable old bastard who deserved everything he got for being horrid to Goneril ("Into her womb convey sterility!" he rants. "Dry up in her the organs of increase").

Twenty years and two children later I can be more reasonable. My experience of fertility treatment was short and successful. I was 35 when I had the first, an elderly primagravida in medicine's flattering phrase, but who was counting? I am certain that were I facing childlessness at 44 I would be no less determined to avail myself of the most effective technology.

Twenty years on the cultural notion of a trade-off between children and career persists. I deeply mistrust the notion that infertility is somehow the careerwoman's come-uppance. Everyone now knows, due largely to reproductive technology research, how steeply the fertility graph shelves in the 35-45 age-range, but there was a time, not so very distant, when the miraculous development of IVF carried no such clear caveat.

It is right that these facts should be clearly outlined, but to bang on about the choice between children and career, when it is abundantly clear to many women that they have unwittingly left it too late for effective choice, is hurtful and serves only to muddy the waters.

It is a mistake to lump together the sociological trend for having babies later in life with developments in reproductive technology. IVF is indeed a miracle, but only when it works. It isn't a magic bullet against biology. As things stand, for women over 40 the number of births through assisted conception is only very slightly higher than it would be if they had tried to conceive naturally. Perhaps the Tennessee technology will change that, though it is a still a very long way from being clinically proven.

I won't be holding my breath. But I would urge less sneering and more sympathy for the millions who will. It is time we stopped treating reproductive technology as a genie that can be argued back in its bottle. I don't think it is any woman's "right" to have a child. I think it is an immense privilege. If we are talking about playing God - as we often seem to in this debate - who do we think we are to withold this privilege from others?