Old moms on trial

How old is too old to have babies?

Published February 1, 2007 5:29PM (EST)

The scent of scapegoat is in the air. About a month ago, news that a new record had been set by a 67-year-old Spanish woman who gave birth to twin boys on Dec. 29 set off the old debate about how late is too late to have babies. Now that the woman has given an interview admitting that she lied to the Los Angeles fertility clinic, claiming her age was actually 55, the story has rushed back with a vengeance.

What first caught my attention was the gray-toned "BBC Newshour" interview of bioethicist Arthur Caplan about the morality of older women having children. When asked why such cases are different from when men became fathers later in life, he cited all the expected concerns about the health and safety of the pregnant mother and her babies, but also the typical scenario that when older men become fathers one can depend on a younger mother to outlive the father. Giving a similar interview to the Los Angeles Times, Caplan mentioned some of those celebrated old dads -- Strom Thurmond, Tony Randall, Larry King and Clint Eastwood -- and added that "even when they have those kids and die, they've always had to have partners young enough to bear children. There's always been a parent there."

Caplan has been beating this old mare for a while: Two years ago he wrote commentary for MSNBC about the problematic ethics of Aleta St. James, who gave birth to twins at age 56. "Let's think for a minute about what it means to have twins at 57," he writes. "What it means is that when your twins are about to enter high school, say at the age of 14, you are 71."

I understand Caplan's concerns, and to be honest, the 67-year-old woman who lived with her own mother until she died in 2005 doesn't seem like the sharpest tool in the shed. She has now announced that she's looking for a younger father to help raise her two newborn sons. My best wishes to her, but if dating as a single mother with a newborn is as hard as some of my friends report it is, I can't imagine what it's like as a 67-year-old single mother with two babies.

What's interesting about the phenomenon of older single women starting families after meeting Mr. IVF is that because they need the approval of doctors and clinics, they underscore the two different standards we have for becoming parents in our society. When the birth happens naturally, whether the parent is Tony Randall or the 15-year-old delinquent next door, we treat is as an untouchable right. You are never too young or too old to be a parent. But when someone becomes a parent through adoption or high-tech fertility treatment, stricter standards kick in -- ones that take into account not only the prospective parent's abilities but the children's interests and the potential costs to society.

But can we talk about the double standard here? Where's the moral hand-wringing when old men elect to have babies? Where are the disgust and the raised eyebrows?

I certainly felt all those things when I saw Tony Randall on a talk show in the late '90s, lapping up adulation about being an expectant dad at the age of 78. I wanted to point the dear old man to a sterile room where they'd snip away until he no longer had the opportunity to make such a stupid decision. (He died about six years later, leaving two young children and his wife behind.) Letting old dads off the hook because there are young wives around to parent the children only reinforces the idea that fathers don't really need to bear the responsibility for childcare. Becoming parents when there is scant chance you'll live to see them turn 15 is just plain weird.

By Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

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