How Old Is Too Old To Have a Baby?   

What Women Really Think
July 6 2012 12:00 PM

How Old Is Too Old To Have a Baby?   

grandmother
Mother and child or grandmother and child?

Shutterstock/Yuri Arcurs

On the heels of rampant debate over the tension between work and parenthood, fertility researchers in Italy are adding a new dimension to this balancing act. Thanks to a promising fertility-preservation procedure now eight years in the making, women may soon be able to postpone menopause—indefinitely—by freezing their ovarian tissue and transplanting it later in life.

This experimental technique has, so far, mostly been used on young cancer patients undergoing high dose chemotherapy that could lead to infertility. Substantiating a track record of more than 20 successful births thanks to ovarian tissue freezing, Italian researcher Dr. Gianluca Gennarelli presented the most recent indication of the technique’s promise at this week’s European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology’s annual meeting: A 21-year-old cancer patient who underwent the procedure in 2003 before undergoing chemotherapy became pregnant 15 months after her ovarian tissue was transplanted in 2011. Infertile just two years before, she gave birth to a healthy baby in March 2012.

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Such encouraging outcomes have led Dr. Gennarelli to advocate that the experimental procedure be “recognized as a routine clinical practice to be offered in appropriate cases.” As Jezebel notes, women could ostensibly transplant portions of frozen tissue incrementally as they age, essentially rendering the infertility of menopause a choice rather than an inevitability (that is, of course, if you can afford the procedure). Plus, ovarian tissue transplant has marked advantages over the increasingly popular methods of egg and embryo freezing, Not only do these more typical techniques require hormone treatments and retrieval procedures that take precious time not afforded to cancer patients, but the hormones themselves can exacerbate certain types of cancer.

So… hooray? Should we rejoice, now that our feverishly ticking biological clocks might be able to slow down to island time? For those among us who dread the moment of reproductive reckoning, when pregnancy becomes a “now or never” predicament, having such flexibility seems nothing short of miraculous. But is it that simple?

While the Hugh Hefners of the world get away with fathering kids young enough to be their grandchildren, it might never be so easy for women. Having children much later in life than nature intended may be more exhausting than liberating, even for the spryest of not-so-spring chickens. Besides, is it fair to limit a kid’s chance to be parented by able-bodied caretakers before they themselves must care for their geriatric parents? Should a 20-year-old college student be saddled with the complexities and costs of mom's assisted living arrangements? Even 50-somethings struggle to cope with their parents’ deterioration. How can teenagers be expected to balance the trials and tribulations of adolescence as their parents grow less available to them, both physically and emotionally?

The option to evade menopause also begs the question of how we decide when availing ourselves of this technology is appropriate, and who does the deciding. Will this procedure be for anyone who wants it, or will women have to show a certain physical and mental ability to bear and raise children if they are over a certain age? Given how hard women continue to fight for control over our own bodies, opening the floodgates to external determinations of “maternal fitness” seems like a dangerous and disempowering prospect.

Women are already delaying motherhood, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. But if the ovarian tissue transplant becomes routine, the delay could extend beyond the now typical 35 to 55 and beyond. Such a shift would impact society dramatically, altering not only when people have children, but also when they marry, how they pursue career advancement, how they spend and save, and when and how they retire. The ricochet effects seem endless.

Despite these new findings, such a massive swing seems unlikely. Still, it is hard to deny that the mere possibility of extending the fertility window inspires a slight sigh of relief for young women like me, with our eyes on two prizes—the short-term freedom of childlessness, and the long-term fantasy of a family. Bypass the church. Get me to the freezer on time. 

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