Leading Article: Late, but not illegal, mothers

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THE TWINS born on Christmas Day to a woman of 59 are living proof of the ease with which committees of doctors can be circumvented by the combined forces of direct-dial telephones, air travel and free trade.

If the Government really wants to prevent women deemed by British doctors to be too old to bear children from going to more sympathetic doctors abroad, it cannot do so alone. Under the Treaty of Rome, which guarantees freedom of movement for people, capital, goods and services in the European Union, Britain would need to win the approval of other European states, including Italy.

But Virginia Bottomley should hesitate before trying to persuade her European counterpart that the EU should impose a ban on helping older women to become pregnant. Such a policy would be unworkable, since clinics would spring up in America or Asia to provide the service.

In any case, telling women who choose to have children artificially in their late fifties that they may not do so with taxpayers' money is a far cry from making it an offence for doctors to help them. Such late pregnancies may well be unnatural; but if that alone were a reason for outlawing them, then scientists would be forbidden to help infertile couples to have children even in their twenties - and both contraception and abortion would be illegal.

Those women who choose, against their doctors' advice, to seek artificial insemination late in their fifties tend to fall into two categories. For the majority, scientific intervention is a last resort; they have either tried repeatedly to have children, or have been turned down repeatedly by adoption agencies, often with the added indignity of being told by the last one that they are too old to make suitable mothers. Are they any less suitable than girls still at school, or than grandmothers who bring up their daughters' children?

A second group of late mothers are more politically contentious, for they have chosen quite consciously to have their careers first and children later. Yet these women are not necessarily to be criticised. The age at which women bear children has not been constant throughout history. In the Middle Ages, childhood often gave way to motherhood without a gap. When life expectancy has risen from 40 to nearly 80, and when child-rearing has become a less physically arduous task for those who can afford outside help or labour-saving devices, or both, having children later may well make sense.

With luck, changes in society will help to defuse the problem. As men share more of the burden of raising children, fewer women will feel the need to put work first and family second. Technology will allow infertile women to experience the miracle of birth; equality will allow them to have children and jobs simultaneously.

And physicians like the Italian specialist Dr Severino Antinori will probably find that their patients are younger than they used to be.