The marvels of modern technology continually break down barriers previously thought to be absolutes. Many challenges have now moved from the realm of "can we?" to "should we?" Through advances in fertility research and in vitro fertilization, many would-be parents, whose only previous option was adoption, are now able to have children of their own (albeit through donor eggs or sperm in some cases). Scientifically, the breakthroughs are exciting and herald an end to the disappointment faced by couples unable to conceive.
This past Tuesday, a 60-year-old woman in Calgary gave birth to twins, delivered seven weeks premature through an emergency caesarean section. She and her husband had struggled through multiple miscarriages and earlier IVF treatments. She was turned down for IVF here in Canada due to her age and sought treatment in her native country of India. At 60-years-old, the woman is believed to be the oldest Canadian to give birth. The birth of the twins and survival of both mother and babies are evidence of our scientific prowess. Our growing ability to overcome our biological limitations is nothing short of astonishing. However, the social and ethical implications of this woman's case are as complex as the science that brought the twins into the world.
News of the birth made headlines across the country and under those headlines debates have begun to rage. Anonymous bloggers and callers to radio shows have called the woman and her husband medical tourists and accused them of being irresponsibly selfish in their desire to have children so late in life. Initially I too felt their decision was ill conceived (pardon the pun). On the surface it does seem unfair that people can travel abroad for procedures or treatments, only to return to Canada and have the taxpayers pick up the cost of post-procedural treatment.
On CBC radio, a Calgary doctor raised an interesting point to this argument: Canadians currently pay for the health care of smokers, who knowingly engage in an unhealthly habit. What then is the difference between paying for the care of this woman and her twins or a smoker with lung cancer? And though you can counter that smokers pay a form of subsidized health care through high tobacco taxes, what about people who injure themselves in high-risk activities, such as skiing, skydiving or driving a motorcycle? Should they too be responsible for their own medical costs? The answer simply has to be no. It would be very difficult to start denying health-care coverage to Canadians based on choices such as these. A two-tiered health-care system would develop overnight to care for the risk-taking rich, leaving the less wealthy confined to lives of few choices and thrills, due to fear of injury. How many of you would have never snowboarded, enjoyed a drink or even eaten red meat if doing so held the potential of voiding your health-care coverage?
The woman and her husband chose to have children at an age when it may be likely that neither parent may live to see their twins graduate high school. Does this make them irresponsible people? Was their desire to have children completely selfish with little regard as to how their age would affect the lives of their children? While I find it hard to imagine being in my 70s raising young teenagers, I do not know how such a prospect affects the couple in question. And this is precisely the point, we do not know this couple. We do not know the community they live in, the support structure they have in friends and family, nor the strength of will borne by a lifelong desire to raise children. What we do know is there are two parents, something many children do not have these days. Being able to travel to India and pay for multiple IVF treatments is no small thing either, suggesting the couple has the financial means to care for the children properly. Nothing outside of personal prejudice gives us reason to believe that the couple will be bad parents or that their age will cause the twins to suffer. Surely the family will face challenges different than those encountered by younger parents, as well as many the same. I, for one, wish the family all the best in facing those challenges.