Scrambled science or an ovulation revolution?
Fertility is a precious commodity for the modern woman. Greater opportunities, education and choice, along with the difficulties of finding the right partner can make it easy to delay falling pregnant. Being able to stow eggs away for the “right time” is an alluring prospect.
In this context, a recent discovery by Dr Jonathan Tilly of Harvard’s Massachusetts General Hospital offers massive temptation. The American scientist has found that ovaries of young women harbour very rare stem cells capable of producing new eggs.
He made the discovery after an initial study found that stem cells in the ovaries of adult mice could give rise to viable eggs. This means that although women are born with a finite number of eggs, they now have more chances to fall pregnant later in life. But it’s also a risk of epic proportions.
Just because we can give women the opportunity to bear children at such a late stage in their lives, doesn’t mean that we should.
Here’s the explanation Dr Tilly gave Nature Medicine magazine:
A woman could come in and have a small biopsy taken from her ovary for us to retrieve these cells…Once we get these cells out, we could take 100 of them and make a million of them. If we could get to the stage of generating functional human eggs outside the body it would rewrite, essentially, human assisted reproduction.
Fellow scientists have called it a “game changer” because fertility may no longer have a use-by date.
Unlike the process of IVF where women are given the opportunity to create more than one egg every cycle, Tilly’s discovery would encourage ovulation and rebuilding of new eggs, enabling women to conceive well into their late 50s and 60s.
But that’s a good 15 to 20 years later than is normally advised. From age 35 female fertility decreases rapidly with each advancing year, and we’re at greater risk of major genetic abnormality and birth complications. Older parents also risk lacking the physical energy and earning capacity needed to raise a family.
Tilly’s discovery also presents significant social costs. “It’s an ethical minefield,” Dr Chris O’Neill, a professor of Reproductive and Developmental Medicine at Sydney Medical School, told The Punch. Not only would it encourage women to delay their childrearing years past 40, it may also encourage surrogacy.
Giving older women access to healthy eggs is only half the story, because you also need a healthy uterus to carry pregnancy to full term. In these cases O’Neill says the option of “hiring” a young uterus could become viable, opening up a whole host of ethical dilemmas.
The most confronting thing about this kind of science is the “wish” factor. No matter how busy or pre-occupied women become with careers, education or adventure, very few choose to completely miss out on the chance to try for a family.
Tilly’s research taps right into the very heart of this fear in its appeal of “compromise”. It says: Do whatever you want now and you can have those kids you want later.
There is no doubt that a 60 year old year old first time mother could offer her child a wealth of life experience. But do we really want a generation of 60 year old mothers? At the end of the day, it’s the child who misses out.
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