Is 65 too old for having quadruplets? | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 15.04.2015
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Is 65 too old for having quadruplets?

A 65-year-old woman in Berlin has been warned by doctors not to give birth to her quadruplets, but it appears she will ignore the advice. What is certain: the story has Germany - and medical experts - talking.

Every weekday morning at just after nine, the WDR 5 public radio station features a program called Tagesgespräch (Daily Debate), a 40-minute segment in which listeners in western Germany can call in to "talk about what the rest of Germany is talking about."

On Wednesday, the debate was all about a 65-year-old woman (pictured above on left) on the other side of the country.

"Quadruplets at 65? My brain is bursting!" exclaimed one participant, calling in from the city of Hagen.

"Reproductive medicine needs to be reined in at some point," said another caller. "This woman quite consciously decided to have more children, even though she already has 13 and seven grandchildren. We aren't the ones who should be deciding what she can and cannot do. It's an ethical question for the specialists."

"A big family is the most wonderful thing in the world and not you or I - or anyone else who calls in here - has the ethical right to prohibit her from having children," said another. "We can object all we want, until we have no more air in our lungs, but we can't stop her."

Ethical question?

Not so fast.

The medical procedure used in this case is strictly prohibited in Germany. The 65-year-old, who doesn't have a partner, went abroad to have it performed. However, it wasn't only sperm that she needed. She was artificially inseminated with genetic material from a father donor and a mother donor, because she no longer produces usable egg cells.

"It distresses me deeply that medicine - simply because it's possible - can make such pregnancies happen," said Frank Louwen, a leading German obstetrics professor at the University of Frankfurt, in an interview with DW.

"Ultimately, we are talking about the creation of children. And this wonderful phenomenon is being turned into a competition: Who can become the oldest mother? This is horrific," Louwen said.

In Germany, artificial insemination is only allowed when the mother spindle is provided by the actual mother. There are differing legal situations throughout Europe with regard to artificial insemination, and according to media reports, the 65-year-old in question has traveled frequently to eastern Europe to attempt the procedure, with this particular time being a success.

Künstliche Befruchtung

Insemination in a petri dish? Only allowed with a male donor in Germany

What are the dangers?

One of the most frequent objections raised on Wednesday's Daily Debate concerned the safety of such a pregnancy. And indeed, giving birth to quadruplets can bring with it serious complications for any mother: At 65, it is downright dangerous to life.

But it's not just about the harm that can be done to the mother, say ethicists.

"We know that children who grow up very happy with their social parents eventually develop a deep human need to be connected with their genetic parents," said Jochen Vollmann, head of medicinal ethics at the University of Bochum. "When this desire arises, it must be made possible - even in the case of artificial insemination from donors abroad - to tell this person who his or her real parents are."

Vollmann's strongest objection to the case of the 65-year-old, however, concerns a growing social issue in Germany regarding the question of career versus motherhood.

"This isn't just about the wishes of a mother, or about how she wants to live her life; it's also about the well-being of the child. The case that's being discussed at the moment is so interesting because it represents an extreme of a general social tendency."

Should there be an age limit imposed on mothers looking to get pregnant via artificial insemination?

"No," said Vollmann. "However, the parties involved should consider thoroughly the moral implications of their actions. And the well-being of the child should be at the center of those considerations."

Sabrina Pabst contributed to this report.

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