A 59-year-old woman has become the oldest person ever to be offered fertility treatment by a British clinic.
Doctors at the private London Women’s Clinic on Harley Street, one of the most successful IVF units in the country, have unanimously agreed to help Susan Tollefsen conceive.
Mrs Tollefsen, a retired teacher who turns 60 in October, said: ‘I’m still so full of life and healthy at 60 I don’t see any reason why I shouldn’t be treated.’
Until last week’s decision, older women have had to travel abroad for treatment – so-called ‘fertility tourism’ – because Government guidelines say the NHS should not recommend IVF to women over the age of 40 and private clinics generally will not treat women older than 50.
But in a move that has provoked an ethical storm over whether post-menopausal women have the right to fertility treatment, the clinic has decided to revise its policy.
Mrs Tollefsen already has a two-year-old child, conceived at a Russian clinic after she was refused treatment in the UK because of her age.
There are now calls for an upper age limit for fertility treatment to be enshrined in law, rather than simply a guideline.
Clinicians usually refuse to offer to treat women older than 50 because of health concerns, the reduced chances of success, and fears for the upbringing of children with such an old parent. Critics claim that women who put off motherhood until later in life are selfishly putting their own needs before a child’s.
Clinics also risk having their licences suspended if they do not take the welfare of any resulting children into account when providing IVF treatment. However, they do not have to inform the regulators if they are treating an older woman.
Normally, private clinics treat women over 50 only in exceptional circumstances, for example if she still has a menstrual cycle.
'Other women my age should do this too'
That Mrs Tollefsen will now receive help demonstrates how concerns about upper age limits have relaxed. In sharp contrast, Elizabeth Buttle, who also gave birth at 60 in 1997, received IVF treatment only after lying about her age, telling doctors she was 49.
It is feared that last week’s decision by the London Women’s Clinic could lead to a flood of older women seeking treatment.
Last night, Tory MP Nadine Dorries described the plans as ‘preposterous’ and called for Parliament to intervene with new laws setting an upper age limit for IVF.
She said: ‘Once you pass the point of natural conception, that’s when you should stop. We need to legislate for this because inevitably society will have to pick up the cost later. Perhaps the cut-off point could be extended by a couple of years into the early 50s, but moving as far as 60 – which is a huge leap – is slightly preposterous.’
It has been learned that senior staff at the London Women’s Clinic unanimously voted in favour of treating Mrs Tollefsen at a meeting on Thursday. The clinic has also decided to consider treating another, unnamed 57-year-old woman.
Retired special-needs teacher and educational adviser Mrs Tollefsen, from Laindon, Essex, became one of the UK’s oldest first-time mothers in March 2008 when she gave birth to daughter Freya, at the age of 57, following fertility treatment in Moscow.
The embryo was created using sperm from her partner, Nick Mayer, a warehouse manager who is 11 years her junior, and a donor egg.
On September 9 last year she approached the London Women’s Clinic about further treatment. She had a consultation with medical director Peter Bowen-Simpkins, who agreed in principle to help her, provided the clinic’s governance committee gave the green light. Last Thursday, they gave that unanimous backing.
Mrs Tollefsen said: ‘I emailed so many British clinics asking to be treated here but they all said no because I was too old and didn’t offer me a consultation.
‘But the doctor I saw gave me hope.
I really want to do it – 110 per cent. The clinic said they’d have a look if I definitely wanted to go ahead. I agree, there should be a cut-off point. Perhaps 65 is too old, but I’m still so healthy I don’t see why I shouldn’t be treated.’
She added that each case should be considered on its merits, saying: ‘I just don’t think it’s acceptable to say that someone would be a good mother at 49-and-a-half, but not such a good mother at 50.
‘I know other people are looking forward to retirement and so on, while I’m looking forward to kindergarten and infant school. If the circumstances are right, I would encourage other women my age to do this.
‘The sad thing is that I had to run around Europe to find somewhere prepared to help me have my first baby.
If I do have another child I want to do it here in the UK.’
Mr Bowen-Simpkins, a respected consultant and spokesman for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, said he had been surprised there was so much support for treating her among his team of doctors.
He said: ‘No one at the clinic has seriously opposed seeing these patients as individuals. Everyone agreed we should change the policy and now treat women over the age of 50 on a case-by-case basis.
'The staff voted unanimously that we should take Sue Tollefsen’s case to the next stage. The other 57-year-old who put herself forward for treatment was also given unanimous consent.
‘Sue will still have to go through more detailed assessment. She’ll have to be seen by our counsellor and get a supporting letter from her GP. We’ll also want to know that her partner is 100 per cent supportive of her decision.
‘But we’ll consider her now for treatment if she wants to go ahead, yes.’
Mrs Tollefsen’s consultation was filmed for a BBC documentary on the world’s oldest mothers, to be screened later this month. In the film, Mr Bowen-Simpkins says he is ‘persuaded’ by their meeting that she has a ‘strong case’
and that it would be ‘very valuable’ for Freya to have a sibling.
Too Old To Be A Mum? will be screened on BBC1 at 10.35pm on Tuesday, January 26.
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