The case of pensioner Annegret Raunigk, who has just had four babies, raises disturbing questions, writes Lori Anderson
IT IS the teenage years that I keep thinking about. Those angry germinative years when in order to form oneself we have to rebel against our parents. When we slam doors, hurls insults and stomp off in disgust screaming: “I hate you, I hate you, I hate you!” It just seems so very wrong when the subject of such vitriol will be a frail octogenarian, hard of hearing, failing of sight and brittle of bone. Yet such is the fate for the newly-born children of Annegret Raunigk, proud mother and an artificially fecund pensioner of 65 years old. Welcome to our Brave New World.
Samuel Beckett, that cheery, twinkle-faced leprechaun, once wrote of life that we “give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more”. But even he couldn’t quite imagine a time when a new mother was so old that she could quite easily be keeling over into the grave soon after giving birth. Yet such are the dubious gifts of our scientific enlightenment.
In case you are unaware of the oldest woman ever to give birth to quadruplets, Ms Raunigk is a retired teacher who was refused fertility treatment in her native Germany and then travelled to Ukraine where she was implanted with donated fertilised eggs. She then returned to Germany and on 19 May, during her 26th week of pregnancy, four babies were delivered by caesarean section. Shortly after their birth, two of the newborns were given breathing support and two had to undergo surgery. However it was reported this week that the four babies, a girl called Neeta and three boys, Dries, Bence and Fjonn, are now finally expected to leave the Charlite Hospital in Berlin. Raunigk is a woman who clearly loves children to a degree that may be psychologically questionable. It was reported that she already has 13 children aged between ten and 44 years old born to five different fathers. She told the Associated Press that she had embarked on the fertility treatment after her youngest child said she wanted to have a little brother or sister. I wonder how the child now feels about having a sister and three new brothers? What is clear is that Raunigk has little time for conventional views about what is proper behaviour for a pensioner. In an interview with German TV she said: “How does one have to be at 65? One must apparently always fit some cliches which I find rather tiring. I think one must decide that for oneself.”
In a way she is quite correct. The decision to have a child is inherently selfish, for at the heart it is all about what the parents or mother wants. Why should this decision be condemned purely on the grounds of age? After all we now live in a society that gives a collective Munchian scream anytime anyone tries to “shame” anyone for their behaviour, or even, god forbid, make a personal judgment about someone else’s decisions; but let me tell you about one of our rabid, most judgmental packs - children. Out of the mouth of babes, the classmates of Ms Raunigk’s little darlings, will come the cruellest comments about their “granny” as she waits for them at the school gates. The sad fact is her youngest children will be deeply embarrassed by their aged mother and the fact that she looks so different from the mothers of their peers.
Is that the only reason to pity them? Embarrassment. Who hasn’t been embarrassed by their parents? What if they will be lavished with love which is more than likely? The problem then is, for how long? It is a parent’s responsibility to raise a child and although tragedies do happen and children are robbed of their parents in accidents and by disease, the fact remains that the odds of death rise rapidly as one ages and there is every possibility that Ms Raunigk may not even be around to witness her youngest children’s terrible teenage years. There will be those who say, what about elderly fathers? Well while I also disapprove of 70-year-olds fathering children who they may not live to see grow up, it does remain a relatively natural act. Powerful older men have been fathering children for centuries and leaving their younger, fertile wives to raise them.
Out of the mouths of babes will come the cruellest comments
Older mothers are also here to stay and are growing in numbers. This week Laura Wade-Gery, executive director at M&S, announced that she would shortly be heading off on maternity leave at the age of 50. Over the last two decades the fastest growing birth rates in Britain have been among those over the age of 35 while the number of women who give birth in their 40s have almost doubled in the past 20 years from 9,336 in 1989 to 27,000 in 2010 according to the Office for National Statistics.
While we now accept new mothers at 40 as an increasingly common occurrence, we are right to be shocked by a new mother who is a quarter of a century older. I do hope however that her children aren’t, and that one day they may think: “I don’t care how I got here, I’m just glad to be here, to be alive, to be in the world with all its wonders and possibilities.” However she did it, with whatever artificial assistance, she has brought into being four new children who could grow up to become a musical prodigy, a successful politician, an erudite author, or that most elusive vocation, a happy, well-adjusted person.
Then again, they might not; they might have miserable lives but at least they’ll have a life. We can’t wind back the clock, we can’t wish them out of existence but we can perhaps wish that they were born to someone younger.