‘The IVF treatment leaves a lot of people bitterly disappointed; and the older you get, the more likely you are to suffer.’ Photograph: Alamy
It’s been sad and moving, the outpouring of anguish that has greeted an apology from the Catholic church for its adoption policy during the 1950s, 60s and 70s. It’s reckoned that half a million babies were prised from their young mothers’ arms in the days after birth, within the context of a wider society that backed the actions of the church.
Disapproval of girls who got “themselves” “in trouble” and an unwillingness to accept them and their babies was the norm. Even a “divorcee” with children was looked upon with a mixture of pity, disdain and sneaking admiration. So there are many more of these awful tales than we have heard.
It isn’t surprising that for so many of the people affected by this policy, the apology means little. It has come in the wake of great societal change. The people taught the church the error of its ways, not the other way round. It’s good that the church acknowledges that what it did, again and again and again, was grotesque. One rather suspects, however, that the apology has been made to allow the church to draw a line under the matter as much as to make amends.
It’s astounding, of course, that such moralistic barbarity was occurring on these shores just 40 years ago. In truth, the girls who had their babies taken were simply the most egregious example of general attitudes that insisted not only that the sole fulfilling role for a woman was to be a mother, but also that the context in which motherhood could be attained was narrow, prescriptive and financially dependent. My own mother, who married at 26 and had her first baby within the year, said many times that before she met my father, people feared that she had been “left on the shelf”. My mother had feared it too. In the early 1960s, a first baby at 27 was considered rather elderly.
Yet, even though a revolution in attitudes to women and their babies has been achieved since the last home for morally repugnant teenage sex maniacs closed, the motherhood issue remains fairly fraught.
Women have escaped from the ghastly idea that they must find a partner and start a family, strictly in that order, so that they can properly begin their lives. But they haven’t escaped from the uncomfortable fact that in one respect the church was right. Biologically, the perfect time to have babies is when you’re in your 20s. The church didn’t go around controlling the lives and reproduction of women without keeping a shrewd eye on what served it best, in the way of producing a new generation of recruits.
The sad stories of reproductive regret and anguish are different now; but they’re still around. This week, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority announced that the number of babies born through IVF in the UK has now passed the quarter of a million mark. That’s a quarter of a million happy endings. Of course IVF is great when it works.
But the sheer volume of demand speaks of an overreliance on the technique. The latest figures put the proportion of treatments that result in a live birth at 26%. The procedure leaves a lot of people bitterly disappointed; and the older you get, the more likely you are to suffer. The proportion of successful treatments is 14% for women aged 40-42; just 5% for women aged 43-44; and a crushing 2% for women aged 45 and over.
The idea that a woman has plenty of time to establish her career before starting a family is beloved of feminism. Biology’s not so keen. In fact, biology is even less keen than these figures let on. We know that female ova are present in the female body from birth. I spent my youth believing that they sat there, undamaged by time and environment until their turn came for a go at fertilisation. But that was just silly.
Everyone knows, and has known for years, that the older the mother, the greater the risk of Down’s syndrome. But little bits and pieces of research have been floating around for years, warning that the risk of various learning disabilities, including autism, gets higher the older the parents are. It’s not uncommon to see families in which learning and social difficulties become more pronounced in the younger children.
None of this is what ambitious young women want to hear. Of course, people like to believe they have many choices in their lives and that starting a family shouldn’t have to be something that’s factored in at an early stage in adulthood, like it was in the days when such preoccupations were considered the absolute centre of female existence.
But plenty of women find themselves surveying their years spent putting themselves through a string of unsuccessful IVF treatments and wish someone had told them how things might turn out, back at a time when they still had their choices to make. I wish it wasn’t so. But it is.
Of all the testimony from the women whose babies were taken, most touching are the stories of reconciliation. These women didn’t nurture their children as babies and didn’t see them growing up. But they did get to know them and to love them. Which is something.
Women fear being put back in their box, treated as reproductive vessels who have to follow strict rules in order to be allowed to achieve their mothering destiny. Sometimes, however, the tendency is to see realism as an attempt to regain control over women, their bodies and their choices. But we retain control over our own bodies by heeding the rules of nature – not of church, establishment or man.