How late is too late to become a mother? Actress Brigitte Nielsen has had her fifth child at 54, reopening debate on the growing number of women using IVF to have babies later in life.
Fertility experts say the average age of mothers is steadily rising across the world, with women increasingly turning to fertility treatments to extend their childbearing years.
Some have renewed calls for women to prioritize having children in their younger and more fertile years, but others said health providers needed to take into account the pressures that led women to put off starting a family.
“We should trust women to make this decision for themselves,” Katherine O’Brien, head of policy research at the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), a charity.
“What we need is a health care service that supports their decisions rather than trying to cajole women into children at a time that’s not right for them,” she told Reuters.
Nielsen said she conceived using eggs she had frozen in her 40s, an increasingly popular choice among women seeking to extend their fertile years.
Given that the quantity and quality of eggs declines with age, most women trying to conceive in their mid-40s or above would be advised to consider using donor eggs taken from a younger woman.
A recent analysis of fertility treatments in 1,279 institutions across Europe found almost a third of births through egg donation in 2014 were to women aged 40 or older.
One Indian woman thought to be in her 70s gave birth last year using a donor egg, according to Britain’s Guardian newspaper, a case that promoted debate over the ethics of older women using treatment to conceive.
“There is a global trend for women choosing to have their children later in life,” said Richard Kennedy, the president of the International Federation of Fertility Societies.
“Certainly, in the UK and western Europe it’s personal choices: It’s lifestyle, it’s women pursuing their professions and [they] are making lifestyle choices to delay having families to until their late 30s or early 40s,” he said.
Kennedy said pregnancies of women in their 50s or older “is not something that should necessarily be encouraged,” citing the heightened risks of cardiac and other health problems during pregnancy.
“I think that women should be conscious of their fertility,” he added. “A woman should be encouraged to consider that when she is making decisions around her career and personal life.”
O’Brien, however, said much of the debate around fertility “just ignores the reality of women’s lives.”
She pointed to research by BPAS that found women were aware that fertility declined with age, but were often waiting to have children for practical reasons — such as concern over their financial stability or the impact on their careers.
“The fact that women are able to have children at that stage of their life should be celebrated,” she said. “All this finger-wagging is directed solely at women and that ignores that this is largely a decision taken by two people.”