“You’ll have to find yourself a proper woman. I’ve nothing to give our marriage now that I can’t have a child,” Lesley Brown says she repeatedly told her husband, John, over the years. Then, on July 25 1978, she gave birth to Louise, the world’s first “test tube” baby created by in vitro fertilisation. The doctors Patrick Steptoe and Robert Edwards received international acclaim for helping a young, infertile woman to fulfil what she saw as her biological destiny – to become a mother and give her man a child.
Three decades later, IVF is in use again – but life has become more complex. Lynne Bezant, who is expecting twins, is a teacher aged 56. She is neither young nor maternally unfulfilled, since she already has three grown-up children. Lynne and her husband, Derek, aged 55, have spent £5,000 on IVF because, as she has explained: “When the children left home, we were lonely . . . ” She had the money so, in a free market, what is to stop her? Certainly not a consideration of the rights of her future child or grandchildren. Three years ago, Elizabeth Buttle, a widow, gave birth to a son at the age of 60.
And now we have the limelight-addicted Kilshaws, Alan and Judith, already with a family of three, touting around the twins Kimberley and Belinda, bought via the internet. In addition to stories of Judith Kilshaw’s taste for witchcraft, there was news that she had embarked on “procreative tourism”, visiting Thailand and China in a failed attempt to adopt, having tried IVF and attempted to rent a womb.
Women alone; women dealing with infertility; women who are post-menopausal – all can now joust with Mother Nature using reproductive technology. Or they can adopt (when, in the UK, they at least have to be accountable for their decision); or they can become international traders in baby booty.
Once upon a time, there were two “truths” about women. They were born to be mothers. And their fertility ceased at the menopause. What children meant to women was easily answered. They provided a purpose in life. They were justification for women’s “natural” characteristics. The Victorian social philosopher Herbert Spencer believed, not untypically, that men produce and therefore have brains, and that women reproduce and are required to be beautiful, nurturing, passive and self-sacrificing.
In 1976, 1 per cent of women wished to remain child-free. Today, 20 per cent of women are childless for a variety of reasons – not least the desire to prove they can make their mark by other than maternal activities. To be voluntarily “barren” ensures a smoother journey through the male world of work. At the same time, stress and the environment contribute to infertility. Across the EU, population levels are plummeting below replacement levels.
Still, the conditioning persists. A “real” woman is one who bears fruit. So, surreally, a large proportion of women are spending the first half of their adult lives avoiding procreation (when they are most fertile) in the name of liberation; and devoting the latter half to harsh, degrad- ing and, in the long term, potentially dangerous forms of human husbandry to give themselves the traditional authentication of womanhood.
It is ironic, too, that reproductive technology, while it “frees” some women from the biological clock, does so at the price of turning other women into objects – units of production. One surrogate mother who lost her right to keep her child was referred to by the judge as the “alternative reproduction vehicle”.
Wanting a child (very different from becoming a mother) is, for many, a desire in part triggered by a society that plugs an idealised, highly commercial version of motherhood. So women have babies because it is expected; because they want to hold on to a partner, end loneliness or fight boredom.
Yet, arguably more than ever before, the pattern and priorities of modern life have never been more opposed to decent parenting. Individualism and the selfish gene rule. We operate in isolated family units, motivated by materialism, and convinced that we can run our lives according to a timetable and exercise quality control.
Simultaneously, the NSPCC reports a rising incidence of adult inability to deal with children’s normal emotional and developmental needs. In the UK, we hit our children and lock up youngsters. Babies under one are four times more likely to be murdered than any other age group. We have little concept in Britain of the rights of the child, but we exhibit a complete grasp of the notion that offspring are possessions.
Infertility can be devastating. But now an accident of fate is superseded by a “right” to have a baby. Ahead lie the creation of an artificial womb and male pregnancy. “Why have a child?” – the question too little addressed by natural parents – matters less now than “When?” and “How?”.
So, what do children mean to 21st-century women? They may provide, as they have always done, love, reward, fulfilment, fun; in addition to compromise, exhaustion, frustration and guilt. But can it really be in a child’s best interests for an adult to exploit ever more new and profitable opportunities to treat him or her as a post-menopausal attempt at eternal youth; a cute consumer item; a must-have fashion accessory; a route to 15 minutes of fame; a source of cash; an antidote to a mid-life crisis, or a way of averting marital meltdown?