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.
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.’
The Mail on Sunday has learned 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.
He suggests she would need to begin using hormone-replacement therapy ‘because it will help prepare your womb’ and quotes her a ‘ball-park figure’ of £5,000 for treatment.
He tells her: ‘As I said, I think you have a strong case. It’s very unusual for us to deal with something like this but I’m very happy to take it to our governance committee. I’m afraid we won’t be able to give you an answer for two or three weeks, then obviously if the answer was yes we’d have to go through a whole lot of things in much more detail than I’ve done today.
‘Rather a drawn-out process, but hopefully we’ll come to some agreeable solution to it. The very fact you’ve had a pregnancy suggests your womb is in very good working order.
‘I must be honest and say when I first met you my feelings were, “No, we wouldn’t consider this.”
But because you already have a child and you have a much younger partner, those things are very much in your favour. And you’ve been through a pregnancy recently and all has gone well.’
Mr Bowen-Simpkins adds that the clinic had never treated a woman of her age before, but had treated other women over 50. He later said British attitudes were ‘softening’ and added: ‘We have to have guidelines – 50 is usual – but there are individual cases where sometimes there are very strong reasons for saying, “Well, OK, in this particular case we’ll do it.”’
Mrs Tollefsen would again have to rely on a donor egg fertilised by her partner’s sperm, which would then be implanted into her womb. Success rates for this process at the London Women’s Clinic are 26 per cent. Egg donation is controversial because there are risks to donors.
It is illegal in Switzerland, Norway, Italy, Germany and Austria. Elsewhere, donors cannot receive payment. In the UK, egg donation is legal but donors are paid only expenses.
The scientific director of the London Women’s Clinic, Dr Kamal Ahuja, pioneered ‘egg sharing’ in the UK in the early Nineties. The process, which involves couples seeking IVF donating spare eggs in return for subsidised treatment, was approved by regulators at the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) in 1998.
Unlike sperm banks, where sperm can be stored until they are needed, there is no equivalent ‘egg bank’ which means donor eggs are fertilised shortly after being extracted.
However, because the new Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act allows women to store their eggs for 55 years, compared to the previous limit of five, Mr Bowen-Simpkins believes egg banks may be possible in the future.
The London Women’s Clinic – which also has offices in Darlington, Swansea and Cardiff – is still one of the leading centres for egg-sharing and, because the scheme predominantly helps older women, could benefit financially if it begins treating more women over 50. Its gross profits were already up to £2.7million last year, compared with £1.7million in 2007.
Josephine Quintaville, of the pro-life group Comment On Reproductive Ethics, said: ‘This is extraordinary, it really is.
‘What’s always missing from this, apart from consideration of the rights of the child, is that there’s no real focus on egg donation and who the women donating the eggs are.
‘How much do they know about what’s happening to their eggs? Would women expose themselves to the risks of donation if they knew the eggs were going to a 59-year-old woman?
‘You’re exploiting a woman and putting her at risk to fulfil the fantasies of another woman who can’t accept she’s gone beyond the menopause.
‘There’s plenty of money in IVF and they’ll be inundated, I’m sure.’
Family campaigner and Tory MP Ann Widdecombe said treating the older women could set a ‘dangerous precedent’. She said: ‘This is very, very bad news and simply should not happen. It’s perfectly reasonable to ask the law to look at this.
‘I prefer to do these things without legislation and to give the medical profession discretion, but once you cross this line and let a 60-year-old have treatment it’s right to get Parliament involved.
‘What matters is the interests not of the mother but of children.’
Mr Bowen-Simpkins insisted: ‘We are not opening the floodgates to anyone wandering around the streets in their 50s who wants a child.
‘It’s a fairly tough road to go down and I would guess the majority of people of that age wouldn’t go through this process.
‘We don’t need legislation. We’ve got the HFEA, who are the Government body, and they regulate us. If they felt we were going beyond what was proper they would take away our licence.’
To date, the HFEA has never revoked a licence of any clinic for irresponsibly treating older women.
The HFEA said it did not want to comment on specific cases, but added: ‘There is no age limit on treating but the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act does specify that the welfare of the child has to be taken into account.
‘In terms of informing the HFEA of the treatment, there is no requirement to get approval from us.’
The London Women’s Clinic is regularly described as one of the UK’s top three fertility units because its IVF success rates are so high.
Latest figures reveal a success rate of 55.7 per cent for women under 35 in the first six months of 2007.
But it has also experienced controversy. In November, it was criticised for failing to screen sperm donors adequately, which led to sperm with genetic abnormalities being used in treatments.
Experts claimed this could have led to women miscarrying, although Dr Ahuja said there was ‘no medical basis’ for the claim and said no unhealthy babies had been born.
In 2006, the HFEA suspended the clinic’s licence for three months after it was discovered that a sperm donor had unwittingly fathered three babies for lesbian couples without his consent.
In 2007, Dr Ahuja allowed a pensioner to become the sperm donor for his own grandchild after the man’s son was found to be infertile.
He has previously spoken against older mothers. In 1997, commenting on reports that a woman aged 54 was to receive fertility treatment at another clinic, he said: ‘If you exceed [the unofficial age limit of 50] you are creating something perhaps that nature wouldn’t have approved of.’
Section 13 (5) of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, which governs IVF treatment reads: ‘A woman shall not be provided with treatment services unless account has been taken of the welfare of any child who may be born as a result of the treatment (including the need of that child for supportive parenting), and of any other child who may be affected by the birth.’
Tony Rutherford, chairman of the British Fertility Society and a consultant at the reproductive medicine unit at the Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, said: ‘This clinic is pushing the boundaries. Just because a woman can, doesn’t mean it’s right.
‘Our clinic has a limit of 46, simply because it’s unusual for women to conceive after this point, even with egg donation.
‘There’s no doubt we’re living longer but the age of the average menopause hasn’t changed. I would be uncomfortable treating this woman.’
Last year, 66-year-old Elizabeth Adeney, a company director from Lidgate, Suffolk, became the country’s oldest mother after travelling to Ukraine for fertility treatment.
The oldest mother in the world is 70-year-old Rajo Devi from Haryana, India, who gave birth to daughter Naveen last year after IVF.
* Too Old To Be A Mum? will be screened on BBC1 at 10.35pm on Tuesday, January 26, 2010