Last week, the Japan Office of the Nevada Center for Reproductive Medicine announced that a 60-year-old Japanese woman gave birth to a healthy baby at Jikei University Hospital in Tokyo. Though the woman’s identity and the child’s gender were not revealed, the mother released a statement through the Japanese representative of the center. The statement was notable more for its tone than its content; it read in part, “It is wrong if [a couple] cannot have a child simply because the woman is older.”
The defensiveness was understandable and, considering the media response so far, prescient.
The statement marks the first time that a postmenopausal Japanese woman who has given birth has talked about her experience, a development that is significant in itself. Apparently, 43 other anonymous postmenopausal Japanese women have made use of the center’s services, including two 56-year-olds and one 54-year-old who gave birth to twins.
These women cannot undergo fertilization treatment in Japan because, according to the medical authorities, postmenopausal women are not “eligible” for such a procedure. Actually, the matter is rather more complicated. At present, in vitro fertilization can only be carried out for married women and only using sperm and ova from the husband and the wife (third-party sperm can be used in artificial insemination). A panel commissioned by the former Health and Welfare Ministry has recommended liberalizing these guidelines, but it will be at least two years before any changes go into effect.
Dr. Yahiro Nezu, an obstetrician working in Shimo-Suwa, Nagano Prefecture, has already made a name for himself by violating these standards in the service of childless couples. However, even Dr. Nezu has voiced objections to the recent blessed event. As he told a Fuji TV reporter last Wednesday: “It is difficult to imagine the parents enjoying their lives with their child because of their ages. Just because you want a child doesn’t mean you should have one.” Coming from Dr. Nezu, this is a very strong statement, and it echoes the prevailing sentiment in the media.
A Tokyo Shimbun reporter asked: “The parents will become very old as the child grows . . . Is that a good environment for the child?” The Sankei Shimbun’s article ended with the statement: “We must discuss further the matter of in vitro fertilization for older women. It is too early to approve such treatment.” And in an accompanying editorial, the (female) writer outlined all the problems with the case, most of which have to do with the fitness — financial and otherwise — of elderly parents who rear children.
Many TV news shows did what they usually do. They went out on the street and asked people their opinion. Mostly they talked to women in their 60s, and the response was almost unanimous revulsion: They could never imagine having a child at their age.
Most of these women probably already have children, which brings up an important point. The 60-year-old mother is, by definition, not a typical case. For whatever reason, she did not marry until well into her 50s, and she and her husband decided that they wanted to have a child together. They took advantage of the available technology, but had to go to Nevada to do so.
The uniqueness of this tale was lost on the media, which couldn’t get past the age thing. A Fuji TV reporter said all he could think about was that as soon as the child became a teenager, “the child will have to take care of sick parents.” A female announcer on the same show commented: “Why couldn’t she have a baby when she was younger? It seems to me she is being selfish.” For years now, we have heard pundits expound on the selfishness of Japanese women who have decided to place careers or their own whims before childbearing. Now, here is a woman who has obviously spent considerable financial and emotional capital in order to have her own baby, and people are saying that it isn’t fair “to the child.”
This argument might have more validity if the responsibilities of parents and the rights of children were more clearly defined. The media are recycling the government position, which is that only married couples of a certain age should have children and that it is the government’s task to create an environment in which this condition is the norm. It’s not only why older women are discouraged from having children, but also why children born out of wedlock face legal discrimination and why the paternity of any child born in Japan is subject to bureaucratic approval.
These days, the news seems to be filled with stories about infanticide, child abuse, parental neglect and runaways. Family dysfunction is supposedly on the rise, despite official measures to promote a “model” family. Regardless of the media’s opinion of old ladies having babies, the anonymous 60-year-old did what she did because she truly wanted a child, and not because she felt an obligation to have one. It’s safe to assume that she will now do whatever she thinks necessary to ensure that her child grows up in a loving, secure home.
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