A Time to be Born

by James M. Wall

James M. Wall is Senior Contributing Editor of The Christian Century.

The following essay appeared in Hidden Treasures: Searching for God in Modern Culture, by James M. Wall (The Christian Century Press, Chicago: 1997), pp. 128-130. Used by permission.


As an alternative to enacting legal controls over reproductive technology, a national commission of scientists, doctors and citizens is needed, a commission that could develop voluntary ethical guidelines.

 A 59-year-old woman told a California infertility clinic that she was only 50, and four years later gave birth to a baby girl. The clinic, which sets 55 as the maximum age for patients seeking a donated egg, was fooled by the woman’s relatively young appearance and her falsified documents. At the time of the birth, she was 63. This was her first child. She had given up her job at a bank in order to become a mother. Her husband, 57, provided the sperm for the conception. The clinic charged $50,000 for its services.

Reactions to the oldest woman to give birth are varied. Dr. Willard Gaylin of the Hastings Center, which specializes in medical ethics, told the New York Times he finds pregnancies in women who are past menopause distasteful. "I certainly understand a desire for progeny," he said, " but I do feel we have a responsibility to the symmetry of life and to some of the rules of nature." Dr. David M. Buss, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, took an informal poll among friends and discovered that women reacted to this late-in-life parenting with a hearty "Go for it," while the men he queried "furrowed their brows and said it was repugnant."

Anthropologist Barbara Koenig of Stanford University told the Times that "technology is challengiiig some fundamental assumptions" about the sexuality of older women. Gilbert C. Meilaender, a theologian at Valparaiso University, hesitated to say that it is wrong to bear a child at that age, but feels that "it just doesn’t seem fitting." To Meilaender, the pregnancy "captures our sense that there is a kind of unwillingness or inability to come to terms with what the trajectory of a life really is."

A few days after the story about the 63-year-old mother appeared, 77-year-old actor Tony Randall posed proudly with his new daughter, thereby raising the obvious question: If men can do it, and be proud of it, why can’t women? Newsweek quoted writer Katha Pollitt: "Until we are ready to severely castigate the so-called start-over dads, I think we can’t be too judgmental and moralistic about women who avail themselves of technology that exists." One quick answer to this, of course, is that older men don’t need to make use of medical technology to father a child. And the man’s partner is presumably premenopausal, which means that one parent is likely to be healthy and energetic enough to raise the child.

A theme running through much of this discussion is the sanctity of individual desires. What matters from an individualistic perspective is personal fulfillment, the joy of bringing new life into the world, and the production of progeny. This is the mind-set that says: If science can give it to me, I will take it. Buss of the University of Texas puts it this way: "I believe people should live their lives whatever way they want to." So pervasive is this individualistic thrust in our culture that the burden of proof rests on those who would set limits on the fulfillment of human desires.

Christians don’t have particular biblical texts that deal with the birthing process, though we do have the reminder from Ecclesiastes that "for everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die." When the natural seasons and processes of life are interrupted in the Bible—when Sarah gives birth to Isaac in her old age, when an angel tells Mary she will have a child—the intent is to identify a miracle from God, not to argue ethics.

Can older parents offer a reasonable promise of providing care for two decades? Is it fair to the child to have parents who are statistically likely to be dead by the time the child reaches puberty? Of course, a child born to a responsible mother in her 60s will get a better start in life than the child of an 18-year-old crack cocaine addict. Many youngsters can testify that when they were abandoned by teenage mothers, their grandmothers gave them a stable home life. Still, what is the impact of postmenopausal births on the larger community? Doesn’t the happiness of the individual parent need to be weighed against the good of the community?

We might also consider Immanuel Kant’s moral imperative: that we should act only on principles that we can will to be universal principles. (Or, as your mother once said, in her updating of Kantian philosophy: "Don’t throw that candy wrapper on the sidewalk; what if everybody did that?") In this case, we should consider what society would be like if everybody said: If science can provide it, I will take it.

The argument against using reproductive technology beyond reasonable limits turns finally on the definition of reasonable. And who determines and enforces what is reasonable? Governmental agencies already establish some age limits to govern personal behavior. There are, for example, age requirements about voting, buying alcohol and cigarettes, getting a driver’s license, and getting married. But our society has been reluctant to set limits for the practice of medicine, preferring to have the profession set its own standards.

As an alternative to enacting legal controls over reproductive technology, a national commission of scientists, doctors and citizens is needed, a commission that could develop voluntary ethical guidelines. Guidelines could be written that would respect the individual rights of citizens eager to benefit from current and future medical and technological advances, but would also put individual rights in the context of the well-being of the larger community. We have considerable national resources with which to develop these guidelines, including our tradition of justice and fair play, our respect for individual rights and the common good, and—not least—the wisdom of the eloquent writer who left us those eloquent words about the natural rhythms of life: "For everything there is a season."