Shocked that a woman can have a baby in her 60s? It could be common by 2066

Fertility Society of Australia president, Professor Michael Chapman
Fertility Society of Australia president, Professor Michael Chapman  Photo: Domino Postiglione

A woman giving birth in her 60s might incite shock and awe today. But within 50 years, there's a good chance it will be reasonably common.

As Australians struggle to comprehend how and why a 62-year-old woman chose to have a baby with the help of a donor embryo, presumably found overseas, the medical process is easier than you might think.

And with constantly advancing fertility technology and life expectancy increasing by about one month every year, our views on the ethics of it are likely to shift, just as they did to allow gay people and single women access to IVF over the past 10 years.

President of the Fertility Society of Australia Michael Chapman said although it was rare for women in their 50s and 60s to try to get pregnant now, they have a surprisingly good chance if they try with an embryo made from the egg of a younger woman, ideally aged in her 20s. 

As long as a 62-year-old woman is fit and healthy, has a uterus prepared with hormones at the right time, and has an embryo made with an egg from a young woman, she has a similar chance of pregnancy as a 30-year-old, he said.

So why haven't we heard of more menopausal and post-menopausal women doing this? The main barrier is ethical guidance given to doctors by the National Health and Medical Research Council which says they must prioritise the best interests of the potential child.

With this in mind, Professor Chapman said most Australian clinics do not provide services to a woman over the average age of menopause (51), even if they have donated embryos that are likely to get them pregnant.

While there have been women in their 50s acting as surrogates for others in Australia, he said most specialists would not allow a woman from her mid 50s to have a baby she intends to care for herself. Why? Because she is too old to give that child good quality of life and will probably die while the offspring is still young.

There are also increased risks to her during pregnancy and limited data to assess the health of babies born to women of such an advanced age.

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But like many conundrums posed by reproductive technology over the past 30 years, the guidance given to doctors about age limits will probably change in coming decades, especially with young women embracing egg freezing to keep their options open later in life.

And besides, some people might argue that a retired 62-year-old is in a better position to parent a baby than other people conceiving naturally.

This has always been the story of reproductive technology in Australia and its mind blowing potential to challenge societal norms. The science emerges, demand grows, and more people accept its new and varied uses, even if it does challenge their previously-held values and beliefs.

Just this month, it was revealed the NHMRC was considering gender selection through IVF for people wanting to balance their family after two children of the same sex. Even a few years ago, this was an almost unfathomable change for Australia.   

Professor Chapman said it was inevitable that occasional stories about women in their 50s and 60s receiving embryos overseas would continue to crop up, prompting rolling debate about the issue.

At the same time, technology is likely to open new doors we never imagined knocking on. Scientists are already trying to see if they can use mitochondria from a young woman's egg to freshen up an older woman's egg in a lab to make it more viable for that older woman to conceive with her own DNA through IVF.  

With all this afoot, Professor Chapman said it would "probably" be more acceptable for women to give birth for the first time in their 50s or 60s in 50 years time. In any case, women freezing their eggs at age 20 today could easily be asking to use those eggs when they are 60 in 2056.

"It's definitely going to be more of a dilemma into the future," Professor Chapman said.