The news this week that Annegret Raunigk, a teacher from Germany and mother of 13, is pregnant with quadruplets at the age of 65, set off hot debate in the German parliament and a great deal of gawking from the international press. Raunigk is an enigma wrapped in a maternity smock because, despite her desire to pop out pups like a Pez dispenser, she looks remarkably young for her age and strangely (there is no other way to say it) happy. Why anyone would want to put their own health at risk to turn their home into a daycare centre is beyond me, but for some reason this is what Raunigk, with the help of donor eggs and a few rounds of Ukrainian in vitro fertilization, has chosen to do.
Setting aside for a moment the issue of whether pregnancy at 65 is medically safe (it probably isn't), I think we need to examine our collective cultural revulsion at the notion of late motherhood. Countless experts have stood up this week to declare Raunigk's choice to proceed with her pregnancy a crime against nature, biology and "natural" family planning.
These were, of course, the same arguments many critics made against the Pill when it was introduced in the 1960s. The truth is, we don't have a problem with people making unpalatably extreme life choices so long as they don't hurt others – are we up in arms over the fact that people tattoo their faces or become colorectal specialists? Not really. But it unnerves us as a society – and always has – when women start exercising more control over their reproductive functions; the circumstances in Raunigk's case just amp up the discomfort.
That brings us to the debate over egg freezing, which has also been in the news. This week, Angel Petropanagos, a medical researcher at Dalhousie University, warned that Canadian women should not see the increasingly popular practice of ova cryopreservation (commonly known as egg freezing) as a viable insurance policy to extend their short window of fertility. Petropanagos points to low pregnancy success rates – roughly 12 per cent in the U.S. and 8 per cent to 10 per cent in Britain and Europe. "It's not guaranteed," she warned, "so you can spend all this time, energy and money investing in egg freezing and think you're covered, and when it comes down to it 10 years down the line, the IVF won't result in a live birth."
At least one part of the process has improved. Egg freezing success rates have dramatically improved in recent years due to a technique called vitrification – a flash-freezing process that protects the "shell" of the egg by replacing egg fluid with a kind of antifreeze that doesn't freeze and crack the eggs.
Prior to vitrification, egg freezing didn't work very well, particularly for women with older (and hence, more fragile) eggs. "When it first started in 1986, the practice was spectacularly unsuccessful," Dr. Gillian Lockwood, a fertility specialist at Midland Fertility Services in Britain, told me in an interview last year. "But it's important to remember that those low overall success rates take into account the 20-odd years when the process was essentially experimental."
Lockwood, who has seen seven frozen-egg babies born to her own patients, is a leading proponent of social egg freezing as an option for women wishing to extend their window of fertility. Vitrification has been a game-changer, she says, adding that many of her colleagues across Europe are now using ova from frozen egg banks for patients and finding the results are exactly the same.
Yes, it's expensive – it can cost more than $15,000 for drugs, egg retrieval, storage and IVF, so clearly it's not for everyone. But given that the news on egg freezing has been exceptionally good of late, why is there persistent doom and gloom and debate over whether women ought to do it if they can afford it? For every encouraging message we get about the practice, there seems to be another official caution. Last October, for instance, the Canadian Fertility and Andrology Society declared social egg freezing an option for women. But around the same timem in the United States, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine and the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology advised against it, because of the cost and low success rates.
Last year, I spent time with a 46-year-old single mother who had recently given birth to a son born from an egg she froze in her late 30s. There was, of course, nothing synthetic about that fat, gurgling baby or the unmitigated pleasure his mother took in having him on her lap. There'd been no guarantee of a happy result when she froze her eggs, but in retrospect, boy, was she ever glad that she'd done it.
As reproductive technology improves and women are confronted with an ever-widening array of choices for how and when to approach motherhood, we should be supportive, not grimacing in disapproval. I might find Raunigk's choice to have four more babies as a senior citizen disconcerting, but if she's healthy and happy, why shouldn't she be allowed to proceed? Many men have made the same mad choice, so why not a woman?