Why shouldn't I be a mummy-granny?

All they wanted was a baby, but the Cobbs fell foul of a political furore. Mary Braid met them
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The Independent Online
Alison Cobb, 61, yesterday "came out" as the oldest woman in Britain to have fertility treatment. It was a brave move and a nerve-racking experience for the grandmother of four and her husband, Stephen, a zoologist 14 years her junior.

At her husband's environmental consultancy in Oxford, Mrs Cobb, an animal technician, joked: "Please don't make me look like a mad granny with a Zimmer frame." She still shudders at the memory of the public outrage, almost two years ago, when it was revealed that a 59-year-old British woman had given birth to twins after treatment in Dr Severino Antinori's controversial clinic in Rome, a mere stone's throw from the Vatican.

She should remember. According to the couple, who have been together for 20 years, it was the furore over the case - obscene, unnatural and selfish were among the most common condemnations - which brought their own hush-hush treatment in the Nurture Clinic at Nottingham University to an abrupt and for them, devastating end. Mrs Cobb was just weeks from her 60th birthday. She was six years older than any other woman to have been treated in a British clinic.

Mrs Cobb looks a good 10 years younger than her age but makes no conscious effort to hide the years. You can see her type all over Oxford; middle- class ladies in Barbours and headscarves, riding bicycles and taking a full part in the town's intellectual life. They are not spring chickens but vigorous and healthy.

She chose to reveal her identity in yesterday's issue of the British Medical Journal, to challenge public prejudice about older mothers and "the complete lack of consideration for potential fathers". Since they first sought fertility treatment 15 years ago, the Cobbs complain that the focus has always been on Mrs Cobb's age and rights to treatment. "I have been a non-person," said Mr Cobb, who was only 31 and childless when they first sought medical help. If he had been the elder, no one would have raised an eyebrow at their plans for parenthood, they maintain.

Until three days ago, only Mrs Cobb's three "supportive and encouraging" grown-up daughters - two of whom are doctors and all of whom have young children - were aware that she and her husband had had IVF treatment. "At the time we had been advised by the clinic not to tell anyone about the treatment," said Mrs Cobb. "They were afraid of the publicity. Fertility patients are among the most compliant in the world. You do whatever it takes to have a baby."

Fifteen years ago, when they first married and thought about a family, they accepted medical advice that nothing could be done for them. They got on with life. Their work took them regularly to Africa. They were in love; they had a fulfilling life and that had to be enough.

It was, in fact, the first media reports about Dr Antinori's clinic which first awakened the couple's hope that they might yet be able to have a child together. They tried for months to find a clinic that would accept them. Every specialist turned them down. The doctors were often sympathetic but sure they could not get the Cobbs past their ethics committee. Guidelines, issued by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, which regulates fertility treatment, leave it up to individual doctors to decide whether a patient is too old for treatment. Their main concern is the welfare of any child born. Only the Nurture Clinic put them before its ethics panel. Miraculously, they passed.

"We each wrote our own arguments for the committee," said Mr Cobb. "We were not allowed to meet the members. They were the jury, but we were not allowed to look them in the eye."

The physical and emotional trials began. There were painful injections, courses of hormones, and a search for a willing egg donor. Eventually, in vitro fertilisation, using Mr Cobb's sperm, took place. The first cycle failed, but the couple had been promised two more attempts.

Then came the scandal. When the row erupted, Mrs Cobb remembers the shock of hearing the then health secretary Virginia Bottomley's assertion on Radio 4 that a woman of 59 would never receive treatment in a British clinic. "A week later a letter from our clinic arrived saying that our treatment was being stopped. We were distraught. It was the worst thing that had happened in our marriage."

So why did Mrs Cobb decide to try for a baby 30 years after she last gave birth, and to contemplate going to her child's 21st when she was in her eighties? Her reason, she says, is simple. She wanted to make the man she loves happy and fulfill his desire to be a father. She knew how much he regretted missing fatherhood by marrying an older woman.

Yesterday her quiet, rational explanation of events crumbled only once: when Mr Cobb tried to put into words his longing for a baby. "When our first grandchild came it was painful," he said. "My step-daughter was getting into the swing of having children and it seemed my chance had gone. There was a sense that I had blown it." Mrs Cobb started to cry.

"I suppose I am defying my age," she admitted. "But the technology is there. It can be done. It has been done."

"Fertility experts say that eggs are in short supply and that therefore people like us are not a high priority. I think younger women who have an early menopause, for example, should take priority, but we should not be rejected purely on the grounds of age and without any consideration of fathers. Men have rights as well.

According to the Cobbs, the phenomenon of mamme-nonne or mummy-grannies - as the Italians call elderly mothers - will not go away. When fertility techniques are perfected there will be many more couples like them demanding treatment. They hope that by coming forward they will help foster a "calmer, rational" approach to the question of the fertility rights of older mothers and of fathers of all ages.

The Cobbs pursued treatment in Rome after their disappointment in Britain. Their third and last treatment at this time last year failed. They spent pounds 12,000 on treatment alone. They are disappointed but not regretful. "I can cope with failure," said Mrs Cobb yesterday. "What I can't cope with is injustice."

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