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Socialist Review, March 1994

Kate Lord

Natural selection

From Socialist Review, No. 173, March 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

‘The real scandal is that IVF treatment will not be available for millions of women’

Last month a woman in Italy gave birth to twins. She was condemned by Tory MPs, the Tory press and even sections of the left. In France the birth provoked such outrage that a new law was passed ensuring such a thing could not happen there. The woman’s crime? She was aged 59!

The ability of a woman of that age to give birth was made possible by fertility treatment known as In-Vitro Fertilisation – IVF for short. Advancing technology means that 15 years after the first test tube baby it is becoming possible to take eggs from aborted foetuses and women who have died in order to implant them into infertile women.

Breakthroughs have also been made in the treatment of male infertility. A sperm can be injected into the egg to fertilise it directly. This opens possibilities for infertile women to have babies whatever their age. But the treatment has also opened up debates about the morals of such developments.

For some people post-menopausal women having children raises the spectre of human experiments of the kind the Nazis attempted in Germany. This ignores the reasons for the treatment and research – more choice for women over their fertility.

This applies even to the much quoted case of a black woman wanting a white child using IVF treatment. Some have argued that in the extreme this could lead to the black race being eliminated by those either trying to overcome prejudice or those who have given in to racism. But as Paul Gilroy said in a recent Guardian article, ‘What has shocked me is these hoary old Tories saying it’s against nature. Behind this lurks the obsession with racial purity.’ Quite. The same people are also against mixed marriages and cross-cultural fertilisation of any kind.

Most of the opposition to IVF comes from the right. The Catholic Church is opposed, as is the Church of England and most of the Tory Party. But some feminists are also opposed on the basis that childless women should be told it is normal not to have children. While it is true that there is enormous pressure on women to have children, the whole issue of IVF is about women having more control over their fertility.

Women’s fertility has become an issue partly because of the increasing numbers of women who don’t want to break their careers at a crucial stage and choose to have children later. However, several surveys in the 1980s claimed that there were problems with this. For example Susan Faludi in her book Backlash quotes a 1982 survey which claimed women’s chances of conceiving reduced dramatically after the age of 30, and there was a 40 percent chance of infertility for women aged between 31 and 35 years.

However, as Faludi points out, the study – used to justify calls for women to have their children earlier – was not all it seemed. The results came from 2,193 women in France – all of whom were married to infertile men and were trying to get pregnant using artificial insemination. They were declared infertile if they didn’t conceive within the year – although medically the period given is five years. Also the women were using a method involving frozen sperm which is known to be less effective than fresh sperm. Even the doctors who carried out the survey were unhappy that the results were applied to all women. But, once published, the damage had been done.

Three years later another survey revealed the true percentage for infertility after 30 to be 13.6 percent – only 3 percent higher than for women in their early 20s. Predictably this didn’t make the headlines.

Behind this moralistic message to make women feel responsible and guilty for their own fertility lies the true story. The ‘infertility epidemic’ is not among the older age group who go out to work; the infertility rate of young black women in the US tripled between 1965 and 1982. In all races the infertility rate of young women doubled. These unpublicised and much more worrying statistics can be directly attributed to late diagnosis of sexually transmitted diseases and to poor health care and education.

One in eight women in Britain is infertile. It is very difficult for working class women to get any fertility treatment within the NHS. Lesbians are not entitled to any help. The Tories want to scrap all NHS treatment and force women and their partners to pay privately. A recent front-page Daily Mirror report featured a woman who gave birth at 48 after IVF treatment and seven unsuccessful attempts – which cost her a grand total of £25,000.

In fact some women go through their menopause in their early 30s. IVF has been used to help such women without offending the moral minority. The whole concept of what is natural and what is not is one that is often used to attack the development of medical advances that enable women to control their own fertility. Most of the arguments against IVF treatment for older women emphasise the importance of the family – why else would anyone be bothered how old you are when your child reaches secondary school? Certainly no such objections are ever raised when older men father children.

IVF treatment at the moment is expensive, and largely very hit and miss – only 14 percent of women will conceive and have a baby. If women need to have an egg donated this presents further problems. Egg donation is difficult to organise. Women are reluctant to donate because the process involves artificially inducing the menopause, followed by daily hormonal injections over a two week period. The eggs are then taken under anaesthetic with a needle and probe. The three new techniques outlined in the discussion document issued by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority could be a breakthrough in increasing the amount of eggs available – making infertility treatment quicker, easier and available to many more women.

The real scandal is that such treatment will not be available for the millions of women who are desperate to have children and whose lives are made miserable by failure to conceive. We should campaign for more open research and for more funding. However, the key problem is that the treatment is not available under the NHS.

There is nothing wrong about a 59-year-old woman wanting to have a child and being given treatment in order to make it possible. What is wrong is a society where millions of women who want children can’t have them and millions of women who don’t want to give birth are bullied into having children by anti-abortionists.

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