Science can do it, but is it right for a 65-year-old mum of 13 to have quads?

Annegret Raunigk, a German woman, is at the age of 65 to give birth to quadruplets. The news has elicited oratorios of comment: a chorus of disapproval, followed by a descant of cries of “Double standards! What about old fathers!”. In fact, this woman’s decision to continue to reproduce long after most of us have said goodbye to nappies and night feeds is much more complex, and tells us as much about attitudes to age and women as it does about the pregnant woman herself.

Some of the disapproval – and which of us didn’t feel it when we heard the news? – is to do with a visceral revulsion at the pairing of age and fecundity. Breeding is thought to be a young person’s business, even though more of us are doing it later. Birth and sex are closely linked (hence the young child who realises, with horror, that their parents must have done it at least once) and linking sex with an older woman’s body – so vilified in popular culture – is just de trop: wrinkles and babies are deemed mutually incompatible.

Let’s not talk about nature here (the “it’s unnatural” argument). You want nature? Then you need to be prepared to have women suffering all the sometimes fatal consequences of pre-eclampsia, ectopic pregnancy and the rest. It’s interesting that nature is so rarely invoked where men are concerned. When the former editor of the Observer newspaper Donald Trelford had his sixth child last May, his pride at being what he thought was the oldest living “new” father at 76 was unqualified, and scarcely a single voice objected to his remark that the age gap between his oldest and youngest daughters was 49 years. The only mild objection was the one about whether he’ll be there to see them grow up.

What spooks many commentators, especially men, is the fact that Raunigk’s quads, the result of artificial insemination, have no genetic connection to her. This taps into deep fears about “Frankenstein babies”, parthenogenesis and asexual reproduction, and the anxiety that human procreation will be altered in some fundamental way – and one that marginalises men.

Yet Raunigk’s mantra that, since science had enabled her to get pregnant, everyone should decide for themselves, is wildly disingenuous. For a start it wasn’t science that inseminated her, it was a doctor in Ukraine (in Germany, artificial insemination at her age is illegal). The fact that a medic somewhere colluded with her desire is no ethical justification – there’ll always be buccaneers and hucksters willing to take someone’s shilling and smarten it up with moral gloss.

And what if it becomes scientifically possible to carry a baby to term at 70? Or 75? Or even 80? What then? Some argue that the arrival of quads is a sign of medical negligence, since carrying so many babies to term poses dangers for both mother and foetuses.

But what most disturbs me about the case is the hubris involved. Medical, yes, but Raunigk’s too. Her seven-year-old wanted a sibling, so to gratify her Raunigk ordered one up, as if from some Babies R Us catalogue – and then four arrived. What if her daughter wants to send three back?

The “Why shouldn’t I if I can?” line is a sort of fertility version of the climbing Everest adage – you do it because it’s there, and you can. Raunigk already has 13 children. Where is the recognition that human beings have limits, both in terms of life span and in what the planet can support? Human limitation – perhaps the ultimate taboo.

Many of the cases of old women having IVF babies have either lost a child tragically or have yearned for decades to have one. It behoves us to understand the depth of loss they can feel, but it also reminds us that our culture doesn’t make it easy for us to properly mourn the things and people we lose and then make new lives for ourselves. It’s also a reminder of how totally women’s identities in western cultures are still hinged on becoming mothers, so that it can take on the status of an obsession. On the other hand, producing four babies from what seems like caprice is just asking for condemnation.

We can’t know Rauingk’s deeper motives for wanting to become a mother of 17 children, but it’s a decision that is surely saturated with her own denial of age. And the more that women like her are blasted by ageist attacks, the more likely they are to try to disprove the critics with their apparently age-defying reproduction.

What a mess we’ve got ourselves into – over mothering, age and gender. – By Anne Karpf

Image – Embryologist examines a dish with human embryos under a microscope at the La Jolla IVF (in vitro fertilisation) Clinic February 2007 in La Jolla, California. (AFP)