Tuesday, February 24, 2009
Too old to be a mom?
Donna Broderick-Reich and her husband, J.R. Reich, are excited about the baby she will deliver in a few weeks. She is 56 years old and conceived by having an egg from her daughter that was fertilized with her husband's sperm implanted. She has six other children who are mostly adults. Donna and her husband play in a rock band and are shown at local bar called Sharky's near Ocala.
Donna Broderick-Reich lay on an exam table tilted at a 50-degree angle, and looked up at her feet for 45 minutes.
As uncomfortable as it was, and as much as she needed to use the restroom, she toughed it out. And she had a good reason.
At age 56, and after having gone through menopause, Reich lay prone in a Los Angeles fertility clinic hoping to give her husband, J.R. Reich, their first child.
She remained motionless as two tiny fertilized eggs donated from her 31-year-old daughter and fertilized by J.R.'s sperm in a Petri dish found their way to a snug corner of her uterus.
One of the two did, and the couple, who live in Oxford near The Villages, are now expecting a baby boy.
Donna gets a wide range of reactions to her pregnancy, now in its 32nd week.
Her 32-year-old husband is anxious and can't believe he's going to be a father. Most of her six grown children are happy for her, although they worry about her health. Donna no longer speaks to her mother. Some strangers raise their eyebrows and shake their heads.
And in the larger scheme of things, bioethicists wonder if older women should have children, since in many cases they won't be around long enough to care for them.
Scientists say there have not been enough studies to show that older wombs are fit to carry babies, even if the donor eggs are from young women; and in the meantime, there are are no hard and fast regulations on the assisted reproductive technologies industry, which includes IVF.
The fertilization specialists who perform the procedures say they put their clients through a battery of tests and make sure they're in good health and have a solid support network. Some don't perform the procedure on older women who are single, even if they're in good health.
But to Donna the issue is deeper than the science and ethics of it all.
"For all those people who look at me strange, come up and ask me why I'm having this baby, cause I'm not out there to populate this world," she says.
When Donna met J.R., she had already divorced three husbands and had raised six children. She was 40. He was 18. The two got married two years later and got pregnant when Donna was 45. But the baby's heartbeat stopped when Donna was four and a half months pregnant. At that point the two put the idea of having children to rest.
So they focused on their new family and their music careers. They eventually formed a band called SSnakeyez and still perform on Friday and Saturday nights in local bars.
It wasn't until early last year that Donna began thinking of having a child again. Donna's daughter, Madina, and her three small children had moved in with her temporarily, and Donna found herself baby-sitting and talking about babies.
There was a part of her that worried about J.R. She knew he would outlive her, "and I was afraid that he was going to be alone," she said. "I'm his best friend and I'm still here with him and I wanted to raise his child. I wanted to leave a part of me behind"
So she did some Internet research and learned that she could get pregnant through in vitro fertilization and by using a donor egg. She found a willing doctor at Pacific Fertility Center of Los Angeles. Then there was the matter of money for the procedure, which she could raise by refinancing her home in Oxford in Sumter County.
It was at that point she approached J.R. with the idea.
There is no mandatory cutoff age for IVF, but most centers stop at 50, which is an average age for menopause. In almost 90 percent of the cases, the eggs are donated from younger women because the older the eggs, the higher the risk of complications and miscarriage.
Although the uterus of an older woman can be revived by hormones and will produce hormones on its own a few weeks after pregnancy, the body of an older woman might not be fit to go through the process. Older women who get pregnant are at a higher risk for cardiovascular problems, gestational diabetes and hypertension.
"Every program sets their own limits," said Dr. R. Stan Williams, chairman of tje Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Florida. "The central questions are: What is the health of the woman? Is she capable of going through the pregnancy safely? And as the child is growing up, how likely is it for the mother to be around?"
Dr. Vicken Sahakian, medical director and owner of Pacific Fertility Center of Los Angeles, is well-known for performing IVF in women as old as 67.
"It's not rocket science. I don't have a magic potion. I am a women's advocate. I do think a 54-year-old woman has as much right to have a child as a 54-year-old man," he said in a recent interview. "The argument that a woman is not meant to have kids at 54 can go for cancer. If the technology is there, why not use it?"
Some bioethicists raise other issues.
"There are just differences between older and younger people when it comes to reproduction in terms of risks, safety and ability to raise children," said Arthur Caplan, director of the University of Pennsylvania Center for Bioethics. "When older dads have babies, historically, the woman is young enough to carry the baby."
He added that with donor-egg IVF, "All you're achieving is pregnancy. It's not your own child. Then why go through these risks, when all you're going to achieve is a pregnancy? So if you're going to use a donor egg, why not hire a surrogate mother?"
Donna's daughter said she didn't want to carry the pregnancy.
"I was afraid I would be too close to the baby," she said.
And Donna said she wanted the baby inside of her.
To the family, indeed, this baby - which will be a boy - is Donna's and J.R.'s and they will raise it together as mom and dad.
Donna laughs about all the jokes around the house.
"I'll be getting a senior citizen discount when he gets a happy meal," she quipped. "And I'll be on my Hoveround when he's on his bike."
Then she gets serious.
"I believe that [the doctor] instrumented the baby, but it had to be God to say that, 'I'm going to allow you to go through the pregnancy despite all adversities.' "