Is My Mommy Too Old?

January 8th, 2009 by Kathy McManus

A 70-year-old new mom ignites a debate over the ethics of giving birth later in life.

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

There’s been an abundance of odd headlines lately, fading even before their 15 minutes, like Police flush man from bathroom ceiling, and Woman smuggles monkey to U.S. under blouse.

But one such headline refuses to go away: Indian woman, 70, gives birth to first child after IVF treatment.

Part oddity, part odyssey, the story of septuagenarian first-time mother Rajo Devi has reverberated around the world, sparking a fierce debate about whether giving birth late in life is responsible.

For 50 years of marriage, Devi tried unsuccessfully to have a child. Her husband, now 72, even married Devi’s sister in an effort to produce a child—an acceptable practice in their region of India. But the sister did not become pregnant either. News reports said the couple endured great cultural shame because of their inability to have children.

So with the help of a fertility specialist, a donor egg, and her husband’s sperm, 70-year-old Devi became pregnant and delivered a baby daughter. “We longed for a child all these years,” she said, “and now we are very happy to have one.”

But not all the world shared the couple’s joy. From India to Ireland, Australia to America, people reacted to the same critical questions, summed up by a newspaper columnist: “Where does the yearning to be a parent become selfish disregard for the life of the child being created? A child whose parents will almost definitely not see her into adulthood? How old is too old to have a baby?”

Absurd. Appalling. Selfish. Many readers offered the same objections. “Wow, she will most likely be dead before the child’s 10th birthday,” one wrote. “What a terrible thing to do to a child, to insure that they will live most of their life without a parent.” While some quoted news reports that the baby had a large extended family to help, others countered: “Do you know a child who has lost their mother before their 12th birthday? Go try saying to them, ‘Oh well, at least you’ve got an extended family’ and see what reaction you’ll get. No one can ever replace your mother.”

Some readers were less disapproving: “Who knows, having the wisdom of being 70 and raising a child might be one of the best things for that kid.” Another questioned, “Who are we to judge? Just because a mother has a baby at 20 does not guarantee she will see the baby into adulthood. Sometimes having a parent who really wanted a baby is far more valuable.”

Still others took issue with the doctors’ role: “Surely the physicians who treated Rajo Devi were equally responsible for this moral quandary? Who are they to help ‘create’ a child condemned to a parentless life?”

Tell us what you think: Did Rajo Devi act responsibly or irresponsibly in giving birth at age 70? When personal dreams collide with personal responsibility, which should take precedence?