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Why many women feel that age is no barrier to becoming a mum

As one high flying woman becomes a parent for the first time at 64, the frontiers of motherhood are being pushed further than ever. Lucy Tobin reports on the new science and changing attitudes

When the story broke this week that the former boss of the Serpentine Galleries, Dame Julia Peyton-Jones has, at the age of 64, become a first-time mother to a daughter, Pia, the news went viral faster than a giggling baby meme. 

She joins the ranks of pioneering biology-bypassing women including Laura Wade-Gery, the M&S high-flier once tipped to take the helm at the retailer, who last year became a mother the first time at 50 after she adopted a child.

Then there was Janet Jackson, who gave birth to her baby son, Eissa Al Mana, earlier this month aged 50, while actress Halle Berry told of being "kinda premenopausal" when she gave birth, aged 47. Age isn't the only one-time barrier to pregnancy that's being knocked down.

Earlier this month Emma, Viscountess Weymouth, announced the birth of her son Henry Thynn. After suffering a terrifying brain illness during her first pregnancy in 2014, doctors warned that having a second child could kill her, but she didn't let that stop her dream of a bigger family: she used a surrogate - and went public to help break down the stigma, saying: "This is not about my vanity or that I was too lazy. I'm not the kind of person who would have done this for anything less than a very important reason."

Nor is being single stopping women who want to have a family. "More than ever, women are choosing the love of a child over the love of a partner," says Dr Aimee Eyvazzadeh, the fertility physician dubbed the "egg whisperer" who works in San Francisco, one of the world's hotspots for assisted fertility.

"They're becoming educated about their fertility and realize that there's a short window that we have to achieve a pregnancy - so you can make choices that suit your life best and then focus on the partner later." 

It's the post-sex, post-biology baby boom: the mindset that if you want a baby you can get one. Women with means (usually stemming from their own high-flying careers which perhaps saw the "kids issue" delayed for longer than the average biology lesson would allow) are now deciding that they want a baby.

Many are pursuing that dream regardless of their age or relationship status ("I see as many single women as not," says one consultant) and in whatever way they can.  So how is it happening? Surrogacy is still rare so for women over 50 it's almost certainly by egg donation.

As gynaecologist Dr Gillian Lockwood, ethics spokesperson for the British Fertility Society, explains: "It doesn't matter how young you look or how healthy your lifestyle, Mother Nature knows when you were born and you cannot Botox your ovaries. IVF using own eggs has disappointing success rates for women over 40 - and a positive pregnancy test is only the start as the miscarriage rate is 35% at 40 and 75% at 45."

The latest technique some older women are opting for, to improve statistics using their own eggs, is "second generation" PGS, or pre-implantation genetic screening, to select the healthiest embryo. "But," Lockwood adds, "some women will not produce any embryos that 'pass' the genetic test."

It's not cheap: some women may be eligible for donor egg treatment on the NHS but top clinics in London, for example, quote £2,000 to import ampoules of sperm into the UK, and another £1,000 per cycle of insemination, while egg donation costs up to £8,000 (or more than £10,000 in the US). But by using eggs donated from another woman - who is usually in her twenties or thirties - the chances of a successful pregnancy are far higher than the miniscule chance a fiftysomething woman might have, says consultant gynaecologist Amanda Tozer. 

"Women [who come to me] either consider trying with their own eggs and using donor sperm if single, or, particularly those aged 42 and above, look at egg donation as offering a more realistic chance of conceiving. If they are also single then they will need both egg and sperm donation. Some in their early forties come to talk about egg freezing but it's a more realistic option for those under 35."

That could change. A fertility clinic in Athens last year claimed it had reversed the menopause in a group of patients by injecting women's ovaries with platelet-rich plasma from their own blood to reinvigorate resident stem cells. The doctors say they fertilised eggs from their patients and have set out plans to implant these embryos - meaning some babies could be born of apparently post-menopausal women later this year.

But the technology is untested - and certainly unapproved in the UK. In pursuit of anonymity, some women are flying abroad, often to Denmark, Spain, the Czech Republic or the US, for treatment. And while the relationship requirement has long withered away, foreseeably - in terms of science, if not ethics - there could soon be no upper age limit on pregnancy either. With egg donation, Eyvazzadeh says, "50 could well be the new 40 when it comes to fertility". Lockwood goes even further. "With appropriate hormonal manipulation any age of uterus can be primed for pregnancy," she says.

"There have been cases of women of 60, 65 or even over 70 giving birth to donor-egg babies, although the health outcomes for these women - and the consequences for their children - have been pretty bleak. We are one of the few mammalian species [others being minke and killer whales] that live beyond menopause. The evolutionary explanation is that grandmothers have an important role to play in helping their daughters' children survive."

Yet fertility doctors say the biology-beating mother is far from just a celebrity trend - it's just often kept quiet. The number of middle-aged women having babies in London hospitals overtook younger mothers for the first time in 2015, while in China, the baby boom which kicked off as soon as politicians relaxed the one-child policy last year wasn't spurred by young, career-orientated "tiger moms", but the over-forties. The British fertility specialist the Bourn Hall Clinic, set up by the IVF pioneers behind the birth of the first "test tube" baby Louise Brown, is expanding its China operations from one clinic to five in the next few years.

"Non-celebrity women are just getting on with it," Tozer says of her patients. "Should people be honest about it? That is the big question. While we all know that any woman older than 45 is likely to have had egg donation, is it really anyone's business but her own?"

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