Comment Opinion & Features

Exploitation and the desire for parenthood

Halle Berry had two children in her 40s - but she is an exception (Getty)

Since at least the 1960s, we have been bombarded with information about overpopulation, and the phrase “unwanted pregnancy” has become part of the everyday discourse about women’s rights.

How seldom has it been pointed out that, throughout the ages, there has been just as much yearning, among women, to achieve a pregnancy. Literature and history are full of examples of a desperate quest to have a child – as is the Bible. Sarah, Abraham’s wife and the matriarch of the Hebrew Bible, is greatly advanced in years when she gives birth to Isaac, by the grace of God.

So we should, I think, look with compassion upon the older women who will pay any price, make any sacrifice, to conceive a baby, even at a time of life – past their middle 40s – when it becomes increasingly difficult to do so.

Many of these women are being scandalously exploited, claims Sally Cheshire, chairwoman of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. They are being “sold” the idea, by commercial fertility clinics, that they have a good chance of conceiving a baby at the age of 44, when in truth the success rate may be as low as one per cent.

Some women pay up to £20,000 for a cycle of IVF. Since 2004, there has been a boom in older women seeking assisted conception – in 2017, there were 10,835 applications for IVF among women in their 40s. But only two procedures a year result in what they call a “take-home baby”, for women in their 40s.

Yet for some, even that one per cent chance of becoming a mother represents an outside hope.

Sally Cheshire is surely right to deplore the clinics which do not give honest, factual information, and the commercial interests which “over-sell” conception chances. Health education should teach girls that nature, in general, favours younger motherhood.

But we should also understand that this baby hunger has always existed: it’s just that the overweening focus on contraception has hidden from view the equally strong drive for conception.

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Seventy-five years ago last Sunday, on April 21, 1944, French women were “granted” the vote by the head of the Provisional Government, General de Gaulle. France was one of the last developed countries to enshrine women’s suffrage, although the French Revolution had been among the first to affirm that “citizen-ess” (citoyenne) ranked equally with “citizen”.

I believe that French politicians’ reluctance to extend the vote to women in the 20th century was linked to the pope’s support for it. Benedict XV, in 1919, endorsed women’s suffrage and urged universal votes for women. This prompted suspicions among the powerful French Left that women might be influenced
by the Catholic Church in their voting preferences.

Moreover, it was a tragic fact that France had many widows after the First World War. Some would be older, and more likely to be conservative. So the reforming Popular Front government in the 1930s refused to grant women votes. Thus, De Gaulle – who had little to fear from the female vote – introduced suffrage by edict.

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At the commencement of our parish Easter Sunday Mass, the priest bade us turn and give one another a warm hug. He thinks Christians should show more affection to one another, and he especially castigates couples who shake hands formally at the sign of peace. “Kiss!” he commands.

Oh dear. I really don’t feel comfortable being indiscriminately hugged – I see it as an invasion of my intimate space. I even have some sympathy with those American feminists who demand written consent before bodily gestures of familiarity occur.

And thus I spent the next 10 minutes examining my conscience as to whether I was being cold, stand-offish and un-Christian by not favouring the hugging practice, or whether I was entitled to decide for myself what degree of affection I permitted others.

Is it just pride – an arrogant refusal to submit? Should I not just cringe and bear it?

You can’t argue with a full church, and my parish priest’s exuberant exhortations seem to fill the pews. Maybe some Brits yearn to be liberated from their stiff upper lip traditions, but mass hugs – no pun intended – just aren’t my bag.

Follow Mary Kenny on Twitter: @MaryKenny4