Motherhood: How old is too old?

BY MIKAELA TENNER Intracytoplasmic sperm injection is an in vitro fertilization procedure in which a single sperm is injected directly into an egg.

Last month, Daljinder Kaur of India became the oldest woman to ever give birth to a child at the age of 72. Kaur and her 79-year-old husband welcomed a new baby after undergoing IVF treatment in late 2015. After struggling with fertility issues throughout her life, Kaur says that “her life feels complete now,” and is overjoyed by the birth of her child. However, many individuals, both within her home country of India and around the world, have been questioning Kaur’s decision to undertake motherhood at such a late stage in her life. With the continual advancement of IVF technology, one may now wonder, how old is too old to have a child?

Over the past few decades, the world has indeed seen a sharp rise in the average age of first-time mothers. Over the last half decade in the United States, the average age of first-time mothers has risen by five years, from 21.4 in 1970 to 26.3 today, and appears to be continually rising with each passing year. In other first-world countries, including Greece, Australia, and Japan, the average age of first-time mothers has climbed to over 30 years old. Many of these differences can be attributed to the progression in gender equality. With greater inclusion of women in education and the workforce each year, more women are putting off giving birth until after they are able to further progress their career. Since women are now waiting longer to become mothers, IVF treatment has become more popular, as older age is frequently associated with fertility issues.

Although mothers today are older than ever before, there is a huge difference between a woman in her late 30s giving birth and a 72-year-old woman giving birth. With the average life expectancy in most developed countries now running from 70 to 80 years old, a woman can give birth up until her late 40s and still be assured that she will live until her child is an adult. On the other hand, with Kaur already being four years past the average life expectancy in India, it is unlikely that she or her husband will see their child to adulthood. Kaur herself seems to be aware of this fact saying that “People [wonder] what will happen to the child once we die. But I have full faith in God. God is omnipotent and omnipresent, he will take care of everything.” Currently, India has 25.7 million orphans, the largest of any country in the world. Given Kaur and her husband’s ages, it is likely that their child will eventually be joining this already massive population.

Indian medical experts are already condemning the Kaurs for undertaking IVF fertilization at their age. According to the Indian Council of Medicine Registry, in order for IVF fertilization to be considered ethical, the combined age of the couple must equal 100 or less. Therefore, with a combined age of 151, the Kaurs violate this rule. However, while Kaur’s decision may seem impractical, one must consider why they chose to undergo treatment. IVF fertilization was not even successfully tested until 1978. In the same year, Dr. Subhas Mukherjee of India used IVF fertilization to create India’s first test tube baby -- although this claim was initially denied by Indian medical and government officials. When IVF treatment became available for mainstream use in India in the 1980s, Kaur was already in her early 40s. While Indian medical experts may deem Kaur’s case “unethical,” hers will likely be an anomaly. As IVF fertilization becomes more widespread and financially accessible, women in India will be able to address fertility issues while they are younger. If the Indian government truly desires to prevent more cases like Kaur’s in the future,  it must make sure that Indian women facing fertility issues have access to the services they need in order to conceive at a socially and ethically acceptable age.