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No Blood Please, We’re British


George Monbiot

The

British approach to gynaecology was encapsulated in the furious whisper I once

heard in the pub, from a man arguing bitterly with his girlfriend: "I don’t

want to talk about menstruation. Period." We might be obsessed by sex, but

our distaste for its biology would be comical, were it not so deadly.

A

reluctance to engage scientifically with women’s bodies ensured that, until the

beginning of last century, childbirth was one of the foremost causes of female

mortality. While the rest of the human body was mapped centuries ago, the

anatomy of the clitoris was accurately recorded only in the 1990s. Advances in

women’s medicine number among the great success stories of the past 100 years,

but I can’t help feeling that an underlying revulsion still informs the debate

about the ethics of reproduction.

The

Daily Mail marked the news that 56 year-old Lynne Bezant is to give birth to

twins by interviewing Liz Buttle, the 63 year-old who, also as a result of in

vitro fertilisation (IVF), gave birth to a boy in 1997. Joe Buttle is plainly a

healthy, happy child, but his mother, the article suggested, is wholly

unsuitable. "Mrs Buttle is a scruffy, careworn figure. Her body is in

reasonable shape, but the lines on her face leave you in no doubt she is in her

sixties".

The

message could scarcely be plainer. Though Liz Buttle is fitter and more active

than most women half her age, though she is clearly a strong, reliable, caring

person, she didn’t deserve to become pregnant, for she is no longer attractive

to men. While elderly fathers are admired for their prowess, elderly mothers are

an offence against nature.

Nature,

of course, is the theme to which critics of the implantation of older women keep

returning. Late pregnancies, according to the Mail’s Mary Kenny, are

"starkly contrary to what nature intended". The director of the

Adoption Forum was quoted in the Guardian as suggesting that these developments

were "straying over nature’s line".

Yet

when we do leave sex to nature, the Daily Mail and children’s rights

organisations such as the Adoption Forum are among the first to complain. If

"nature" means the conditions prevailing while human beings were still

subject to natural selection, then Liz Buttle would certainly not have given

birth at 60. She would have died years before. But there would have been ample

opportunities for 12-year olds to become pregnant. Women would have given birth

to a clutch of babies, of whom only one or two might survive. Nuclear families

would have been outcompeted by sprawling clans in which both men and women had

multiple partners. There would have been no Caesarian sections, no epidurals, no

doctors, no hospitals. At least one in every hundred women would have died while

giving birth. But this is plainly "what nature intended".

In

Monday’s Guardian, Sally Weale suggested that Mrs Bezant’s late pregnancy

offends the rights of her unborn children, for when they are 20, she will be 75.

But what about the rights of children whose parents are too immature to respond

to their needs? Is there any mother or father who would not have brought up

their children differently, with the benefit of hindsight? Surely children whose

parents have gone to enormous trouble to conceive are more likely to be loved

than the accidents of a carefree fecundity?

There’s

no doubt that IVF raises some major ethical questions. It is readily available

only to the rich. It raises expectations which are unlikely to be fulfilled: the

current success rate is only 17%. It generates a surplus of embryos, whose

disposal, as we have seen this week, is a matter of great controversy. It

increases the likelihood of multiple births. It allows doctors to screen the

embryos available for implantation, eliminating those predisposed towards

disability and, possibly, selecting those with desirable genes. Some people

believe that fertility treatment might increase the risk of ovarian cancer.

But

these problems surely apply to all IVF, and not just the implantation of older

women. There is a real danger that the publicity surrounding late pregnancies

will encourage women to forget that fertility declines steeply after the age of

35, and to wait too long before they try to have children. But this doesn’t mean

that we can’t congratulate older mothers on their good fortune.

To

suggest that late births are unethical, we have first to say whom they have

wronged. Otherwise our complaints boil down to this: No blood please, we’re

British.

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