Joan Bakewell: Get used to these older mothers

There are plenty of situations far worse than being born to two loving parents who dote on you
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Of one thing we can be sure, Dr Patricia Rashbrook, consultant child psychiatrist with the East Sussex Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services, is about to have a rough time. She is seven months pregnant at the age of 63, and there promises to be national uproar at her daring to do such a thing. Professor Farrar, her husband, will come in for less censure, it being one of the characteristics of late parenting that there's tolerance and good humour for the fathers - think Pavarotti, Des O'Connor, John Simpson - and outrage and scandal for the mothers.

The out-of-date explanation is that late fatherhood exists in nature, while the menopause was meant to close the doors for mothers. Well, not any more, and as women live longer than men, and we're all living longer than our parents, we must come to expect more older women seeking medical help in having children. No judgement intended: it's just a fact. So it's worth setting aside the shock-horror response for a moment and considering the pros and cons.

There certainly seem to be plenty of cons. First among many, Dr Rashbrook chose to take her rumoured £50,000 to that rascally Italian doctor Severino Antinori, who only eight years ago was parading his claim to have created a human clone, even going on a short-lived hunger strike outside Prime Minister Berlusconi's office to get the Italian government off his back. He failed, and so did the clones ... if they were ever more than a publicity glint in the old rogue's eye.

The man is a self-serving, self-righteous show-off: he is also a clever doctor and one to whom women over 50 turn when they are desperate for a child. There are plenty of them: enough to make him very rich. Dr Rashbrook is joining the thriving international trade in fertility, itself a result of globalised information and scientific developments which see parents hunting across the world to fulfil their dreams.

Are they wrong to have such dreams? Mr and Mrs Farrar would seem to offer the best case yet for such parenting. They are recently married - Dr Rashbrook's first husband, Brian Nicholas, died almost a decade ago when Dr Rashbrook was already well into her 50s. The two children from this first marriage, now in their early 20s, express support for their mother. The Farrars appear to have responsible jobs, financial security and an upbeat attitude to their lives. If that seems to disadvantage the single, unemployed over 50-year- old desperate for a child, so it does. That's how the world is. All Dr Antinori's customers bring cash as well as hopes.

In the 1990s, I met two of them: Rosanna Della Corte was 60 years old, taking plenty of hormones so her wrinkles had cleared and her skin was blooming. She looked terrific, 10 years younger than her real age. Guiseppina Maganuco had already given birth and was planning a pilgrimage to thank the Virgin for such a miraculous event. John the Baptist, it's worth remembering, was born to a post-menopausal Ste Elizabeth so the church, although it opposes all IVF treatment, has its own traditions.

Both these women lived in close-knit extended families, in one case all sharing a huge ramshackle house, so there would be plenty of support for a child were its ageing parent to die while it was still young. The Italian culture, perhaps, accommodates late children better than our own more isolated families.

But, medical risks remain high. Mothers over 40 have twice the risk of still births and ectopic pregnancies. Miscarriages are more likely and there must surely be risks of a damaged embryo. There must also be worries about a woman's stamina as she ages and her child grows ever more active and challenging.

Clearly Dr Rashbrook must be well aware of all this, and in her own specialised field able to assess how this new family of hers will cope. But once she is beyond Dr Antinori's care, will the National Health Service, which draws its own age limit for IVF at 50 years old, now have to shoulder responsibility for her and her child's health?

The major criticism of late child-bearing focuses on what it will mean for the children. The mantra of medical judgements ever since the Child Act of 1990 has always been "the best interest of the child". That's an argument being voiced now, as people speak pityingly of a child at the school gate having its mother mistaken for its granny, of a teenager whose parents aren't up on the latest pop music, of parents out of touch with how young people feel and behave.

I think there's a good deal that's bogus about such arguments. We all have children for selfish reasons. And plenty of unsuitable people get pregnant - drunks, drug addicts, the casually neglectful, the indifferent, the depressive - and we don't pressurise them to have abortions. Many situations are far worse than being born to two loving parents who dote on you, love each other, have time and comfort to bestow on you, are in the good health now common in old age, and have a life expectancy reaching into their 80s.

Even so, this is not the time to change this country's laws. That time will come, but there remain medical, ethical and social issues that Mr and Mrs Farrar have confronted for themselves, but which can't yet be resolved in the law of the land. With birth rates falling, and demographics weighed towards the old, the time will surely come when the NHS dispenses IVF to much older women. But that time isn't yet. We've a lot of talking to do first.