Due to breakthroughs in reproductive medicine, more and more Irish women are having babies in their 50s, writes Sharon Ní Chonchúir
SUSAN never imagined she’d be a first-time mum aged 50. “I thought I’d be preparing for retirement, not changing nappies and dealing with night feeds,” laughs the now 53-year-old from Co Meath.
She is one of an increasing number of women having babies in their sixth decade. In 2007, only four women in Ireland had babies in their 50s but by 2015 — the year Susan’s daughter Niamh was born – that figure had risen to 16. A further 17 babies were born to women in their 50s in Ireland last year.
These figures are small but they are growing, thanks to breakthroughs in reproductive medicine.
In Ireland, women are increasingly spending their 20s focussing on education and their 30s building careers and searching for suitable partners. Inevitably, some face fertility issues when the time is finally right for babies.
Using donor eggs is one of the revolutionary new treatments that can solve this problem. It now looks as if there may be even more advanced treatments on the horizon following the recent success of British scientists in growing human eggs in a laboratory for the first time.
Donor eggs are what allowed Susan to finally become a mother.
“I always thought I’d have babies in my 20s,” she says. “But several relationships didn’t work out which meant I was 35 and running my own business by the time I met Paul.”
They were married within two years and immediately tried for children. However, 18 months and one miscarriage later, they found themselves undergoing fertility tests.
“We discovered a problem with Paul’s sperm that made it difficult for us to conceive and more likely to miscarry,” says Susan.
The clinic suggested using donor sperm. “But Paul couldn’t handle the idea,” says Susan.
In her 40s by then, she gave up hope of having children.
“I thought I was past it but then I met Martin,” she says. “I was 46 and he already had two children of his own but when I told him how much I had wanted a child, he thought there might still be a chance. Whenever there was a story in the news about older celebrities having babies, he’d tell me to go for it.”
Those celebrities include Janet Jackson who had her first baby aged 50 last year and 54-year-old Brigitte Nielsen gave birth to her fifth child, a girl, in May.
Such stories don’t necessarily give the full picture, says Dr John Waterstone of the Waterstone Fertility Clinic.
It’s unlikely that celebrities aged over 50 have used their own eggs, he says. “A donor egg was probably used but that will never be made public.”
Egg donation dramatically increases an older woman’s chances of conceiving.
“Aged 35, one round of IVF is likely to result in a baby,” says Dr Waterstone. “Aged 40, the chances are 25%. At 42, it’s 5% and after 45, it’s vanishingly small. With donor eggs, you can conceive at any age. That’s why you sometimes hear of women having babies aged 65 or 70.”
Dr John Kennedy, medical director of fertility specialists SIMS Clinic, says that about 1,000 babies are born as a result of donor egg treatment in Ireland annually. “In our clinic alone, we carry out about 300 new egg donation cycles and up to 40 women aged 47 seek our help with conceiving every year,” he says.
Currently, there is no legal limit to the age at which women can avail of fertility treatment in Ireland. At the Waterstone Clinic, they treat women up to the age of 51.
The SIMS Clinic has a similar age limit.
“Our self-imposed limit is 50 for a first treatment,” says Dr Kennedy. “We chose the age of 50 because it’s the average age of menopause but nothing is written in stone.”
Susan was nervous when she and Martin made an appointment at a fertility clinic. “I was 49 and thought they’d laugh when they heard my age,” she says. “But they’d actually helped women like me before and it wasn’t long before we were discussing using Martin’s sperm and a donor egg to conceive a baby.”
The couple received counselling to ensure they were comfortable with the idea of becoming parents in this way.
“It really helped,” says Susan. “We talked about the pros and cons and our counsellor even made us consider what we would say to our child in the future about how they were conceived.”
Marian Ó Tuama is a psychotherapist at the Waterstone Clinic, where the policy is that people using donor eggs, sperm or embryos must have counselling as part of their treatment. The other clinics featured in this piece have the same policy.
“We explore the implications of their decision,” she says. “I ask them how and what they will tell their child and other people. We discuss what it will be like if the child doesn’t resemble them. We also talk about the challenges of the treatment and how they will cope in the event of it not working and what sort of parents they would like to be if it does.”
Then there are the common worries shared by older parents. Will they be the oldest parents at the school gate? Will they find it difficult to keep up with the physical demands of a small child?
“I find it best to acknowledge the reality of all that,” says Ó Tuama. “But I also ask them to imagine scenarios where age is a benefit. They might have less energy to run after a child but more time and attention to give if they are more established in their careers or more financially secure.”
This is true for Susan. “I have three women working for me in my business and I’ve only gone into to work for a couple of hours a day two days a week since Niamh was born,” she says.
“Martin has eased back a bit too and doesn’t go in until later in the mornings. We have playtime after breakfast every day. I don’t know many parents who have time for that.”
Another worry for older mothers is the medical implications of carrying a child in their 50s. Dr Ahmed Omar, clinical director of Beacon Care Fertility, admits there are increased risks.
“Older mothers are more likely to miscarry and to suffer with high blood pressure, pre-eclampsia and diabetes during pregnancy,” he says. “Their babies are also at higher risk of pre-term birth.”
However, as long as they are closely monitored, these risks can be minimised. “If women are healthy and using donor eggs, then their pregnancies are mostly uncomplicated,” says Dr Waterstone. “I’ve treated hundreds of women in their late 40s and older with no problems.”
Susan had no particular issues. “I had lots of scans and check-ups and was seen more regularly than a younger woman but everything went well,” she says.
That’s not to say that there weren’t awkward moments. “I was by far the oldest woman at the antenatal classes and I’m often mistaken for Niamh’s granny at the playground,” she says.
“I just laugh as I don’t want Niamh feeling embarrassed about it as she grows up.”
She thinks a lot about Niamh’s future. “I worry I won’t be there when she needs me so I pay close attention to my health,” she says. “I exercise and eat well and go to the doctor regularly. I make sure Martin does too.”
She is also preparing to tell Niamh about how she was conceived. “We’ve already read books where children are adopted or have unusual family set-ups such as two mums or two dads.
“We’ve decided that as soon as she starts asking where babies come from, that’s when we’ll tell her. Waiting until she’s older could be a mistake.”
Susan occasionally finds herself thinking about her egg donor. “I don’t know much about her except that she’s from the Ukraine, has blonde hair and blue eyes and has three children of her own but there are times when I see a look across Niamh’s face, a look that’s nothing like Martin, who she resembles a lot, and I wonder if that’s her biological mother.”
Despite the fact that she and Niamh are not genetically related, Susan has never felt like she wasn’t her real mother.
“We had to try hard to conceive her and I had to take hormones and other medicines,” she says. “Then she grew inside me and I brought her into the world. I have looked after her every day since. I don’t think it could be possible for us to be closer.”
Medical experts believe there will be more mothers like Susan. “The number of older women having babies has been steadily rising for three decades,” says Dr Omar.
Science now allows us to push our reproductive years forward by decades but what will be the effect on society if women have babies into their 50s, 60s and even 70s?
The 2017 Assisted Human Reproduction Bill, which is still in draft stages, has tried to legislate for this.
The draft legislation does not satisfy Dr Waterstone. “The cut-off age for women seeking fertility treatment has been set at 47 and makes no distinction between women using their own eggs and donor eggs,” he says. “What we would like to see is a younger cut-off for IVF with a woman’s own eggs but a higher one for those using donors.”
Dr Kennedy agrees. “In the UK, the cut-off is 50, which is what it is in most Irish clinics at the moment,” he says. “If we bring it down to 47, we’ll be removing choice and opportunity from too many women. As doctors, we’ll be fighting tooth and nail to oppose this change in the law.” He thinks a broader conversation is required.
“Men can father children no matter what their age and science is now making this possible for women,” he says.
“It’s easy to have a knee-jerk reaction and say it shouldn’t be allowed. But people who already have children or don’t want them don’t know what it’s like to be sub-fertile or infertile. Who are they to decide for others?”
As for Susan, she’s still amazed she finally became a mother. “I never imagined I’d wait 50 years before I got to hold my baby in my arms,” she says. “Niamh came to us so late in life but I’m so grateful that we got to have her at all.”