In 2008, Omkari Panwar and her husband had twins in India after undergoing IVF treatment – this sounds like a standard everyday occurrence apart from one key fact, Panwar is the oldest ever mother to date having given birth… at the age of 70.
Now, many will wonder why any individual would dream of starting a family at this age, particularly considering the couple already had two grown daughters and five grandchildren. Their reason was that they desperately wanted to produce a male heir. In India, where most individuals follow Hinduism, a son is desired to pass on the family name and to inherit the parent’s land and business to continue; a daughter is more considered as ‘property’ of the family. Charan was so desperate for his son that his mortgaged his land, sold his cattle, and spent all of their life savings plus additional loans to cover the £4000 cost of IVF.
Figures suggest that female foeticide is a huge problem in these cultures; 500,000 female foetuses are aborted in India each year with no medical concern, merely because they are females. So not only are there the previously discussed issues with sex selection from my Luna Stephens post, but this case promotes a movement which allows the termination of healthy foetuses for the ‘honour’ of the family.
However, let’s return to the main controversial issue here… How has a couple this old been allowed to undergo IVF treatment? There are clear ethical issues with giving birth at this age, with detrimental impacts on both the child and the mother. It’s a matter of record that the twins were born via emergency C-section. Nisha Malik, a gynaecologist who monitored Panwar, describes how the mother was “bleeding heavily, in a lot of pain and barely conscious. [They] had to order in blood before [they] could start an operation but thankfully mother and children survived”. I see it as quite irresponsible of the doctors who allowed this treatment to go ahead to do so. They knew that the risks from both pregnancy and labour are accentuated greatly in a mother of this age and should not have allowed it. Conversely though, although the doctors can advise the couple against the treatment all the want, they should also respect their autonomy and at the end of the day if they accept the risks and want to go ahead, then they should proceed.
It’s also worth considering the genetic effect on the children. Although in this case donor eggs were used so maternal age effects were not a problem, the father of the children was 77 so it is impossible to ignore the risks of paternal age effects. There are suggestions that the greater the age of the father, there is an increased risk of complications such as low birthweight and even an increased risk of certain disorders such as schizophrenia. It would have been safer if they had adopted a son and raised him as their own instead of risking the health of baby and mother.
Finally, what about the emotional/social impact on the children? It is highly likely that the children will grow up without their parents at some point, leaving the burden of raising them to their siblings/other relatives (something I’m sure they didn’t agree to when Panwar underwent IVF). Also, of the twins that were born, one was a girl and one was a boy; the couple only actually wanted the son, so how is the daughter to feel knowing that she is merely a by-product of the male heir’s conception? Now there’s some food for thought…
https://qz.com/85895/the-price-india-pays-to-produce-male-heirs/ (A really moving visual narrative around the problem of sex selection in India – highly recommend).
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1031722/Worlds-oldest-mother-gives-birth-twins-70.html (News article from when the news of the twins’ birth broke)
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paternal_age_effect (Background information on the paternal age effect)
Main image obtained from YouTube.