Oh, brave new world! People who want to start a family will soon be allowed to freeze their eggs, sperm and embryos for up to 55 years.
I have yet to read any counterpoint to the universal rejoicing at this news — but my own first reaction was disbelief.
Who came up with the seemingly arbitrary number — 55? And why? And is this necessarily a good thing for the unborn children who are our future?
Yet again we are asked to worship the modern sacred cow called Freedom of Choice.
In his prophetic novel Brave New World (1932) Aldous Huxley reminded us: ‘One believes things because one has been conditioned to believe them.’
So these days we think we can do what we want — when we want.
We are nudged towards accepting the inalienable right of people to become parents — adding a commodified child to privileged lives, once all the other accessories have been amassed.
People who want to start a family will soon be allowed to freeze their eggs, sperm and embryos for up to 55 years. Pictured: A tube of eggs in cryogenic (frozen) storage for in vitro fertilisation (IVF).
Brainwashed into acceptance, we chorus: ‘Hooray for science.’ Yet questions — both ethical and practical — must always be asked. Just because you can do something, does it follow that you should?
Here I must state an interest. Two of my four grandchildren were born through IVF — the miraculous process which has helped countless women and men have longed-for children.
My daughter’s lifelong, congenital medical problems made ‘natural’ conception impossible, and in her early 30s she and her husband were desperate to start a family. Their daughter was born in 2012 and their son (from the same harvest of eggs) four years later.
How could I have known, in 2004 when I interviewed Sir Robert Winston for Radio 4, that I would one day be so deeply grateful to him and his fellow scientists for their pioneering work on fertility?
I know just how much this can mean to a family.
Yet in the past Lord Winston himself has expressed disquiet that all is not well in the world of ‘test-tube babies’ — the procedure which accounts for thousands of births in Britain every year.
There have been terrible blunders (embryos implanted into the wrong woman, for example) which must make us all aware of the pitfalls.
Lord Winston has also warned that thousands of IVF babies were, in effect, human guinea pigs because clinics were using techniques that had not been properly tested.
A few years ago he accused the fertility industry of being ‘corrupt’ — because the vast profits that can be made by the private sector have led doctors to exploit women desperate for a baby.
Government watchdog the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) has come in for much criticism in recent years and must take responsibility.
They say it’s impossible to eliminate human error — but surely the longer the poor little eggs languish in liquid nitrogen, the more likely it is that mistakes may be made?
Older women will still be able to become mothers decades after freezing eggs or embryos by using a surrogate [stock image]
Who is to know what conditions — and staffing levels, and competence — will be like in 55 years’ time? Who will be fully equipped to assess the mental health of the 75-year-old woman who decides it is her right finally to have a child?
It worries me that in coming up with the 55-year figure we are potentially sleepwalking towards a disturbing future —as, in fact, also envisaged by Aldous Huxley in an early novel, Crome Yellow (1921).
One of that book’s characters describes an ‘impersonal generation’ of the future that will ‘take the place of Nature’s hideous system.
‘In vast state incubators, row upon row of gravid bottles will supply the world with the population it requires. The family system will disappear; society, sapped at its base, will have to find new foundations . . .’
Is that macabre, nightmare scenario on its way? The existing ten-year limit on the length of time those planning to use in-vitro fertilisation can store the genetic materials needed is being scrapped.
This proposed overhaul is intended, they say, to free women from ‘the stress of a ticking biological clock’.
More from Bel Mooney for the Daily Mail…
Lord (James) Bethell, the health minister responsible for innovation, said: ‘Prospective parents should not have to wrestle with time limits on their fertility choices, and this important change to storage timescales will give people more control over their future and eliminate the pressure that comes with knowing a decision has to be made within ten years.’
What deluded arrogance to assume that mere mortals can ever have ‘control over their future’. Such hubristic nonsense attempts to deny the realities of time, ageing and death — and it cannot be done. The clock ticks for a reason.
Animals do not give birth to their young once past their prime. There is a very good reason for a woman’s optimum period of fertility being in her 20s.
Those with the all-important task of raising the next generation require health and energy — which inevitably diminish as part of the ageing process.
Ask any grandparent how he or she feels after a weekend of looking after the little ones and I can guarantee you the word ‘exhausted’ will be used.
Yet fertility organisations have welcomed the increase of the ten-year limit for egg storage to the bizarre 55 years because, they say, parents will no longer face an artificial deadline of when to conceive.
But we know that when a woman is over 35 her fertility starts to decline sharply, and also that it can be medically risky for an older woman to carry a baby. So why is what’s natural described as ‘artificial’?
Now older women will still be able to become mothers decades after freezing eggs or embryos by using a surrogate.
I wonder how we reached such a level of upside-down thinking that the normal time-scale of fertility is judged to be artificial — yet the rent-a womb usage of a surrogate is perfectly normal and acceptable.
Government watchdog the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) has come in for much criticism in recent years and must take responsibility [stock image]
I fear this new 55-year limit will further encourage young men and women to regard having children as a lifestyle choice — a mere add-on to be considered when they have done everything else.
I’ve met women who revelled in their high-flying careers and expensive holidays — only to realise in their late 40s that something was missing; then put all their faith in IVF and been bitterly disappointed.
People may have many reasons to delay parenthood — but not all of them are good.
Desperate couples on the IVF carousel think ‘Next time we will be lucky’ — and perhaps say silent prayers as the cycle starts once more. Who can blame them?
Yet we have reached an unhealthy state of mind when too many people believe they have a divine right to a child — without weighing the consequences. Does that baby ‘deserve’ to have old parents who will probably die when they’re still a teenager?
When you have women in their 50s and 60s living by the misplaced conviction that motherhood can be theirs at any time, something is very wrong.
These are fiendishly difficult issues — and any government (and its watchdog) owes it to the public to legislate fairly, to be vigilant, to take responsibility and to warn. But beyond that, perhaps women themselves need to rethink their attitudes to motherhood.
I would suggest that any young woman in her 20s, in a serious, loving relationship, would be wiser not to postpone trying for a baby.
That she should think of fertility as a privilege, not a right. And that — whisper it — childlessness may be a fate which (like so many of the other sorrows which afflict our lives) has to be accepted.