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Family Requires Responsibility

Mal Fletcher
Posted 25 May 2009
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This week has been, unofficially at least, designated the week of the family in Britain.

The promoters of National Family Week, the London-based Henley Media Group, say they aim to "encourage families to play, learn, eat, read, compete and - most importantly - spend quality time together."

Recent stories in the media suggest that this kind of emphasis is well overdue.

We are reminded on a regular basis that the UK has the highest rate of teen pregnancy in Europe and one of the highest rates of abortion. We constantly hear or read stories about youth stabbings and other problems associated with social breakdown in our major cities.

Many of these can be traced back to what one British judge called, "a period of family meltdown whose effects will be as catastrophic as the melt down of the ice caps."

One story released last week ought to make us think seriously about the status of family in modern society.

A 66-year-old businesswoman is set to become Britain's oldest mother, after having IVF treatment in the Ukraine.

It is always difficult to take an individual case and draw from it conclusions for the rest of society; especially when the details of the woman's situation are, for good reason, not open to the public.

However, the general principle of women of this age embarking on such a course should give us pause for thought. Our major concern should be what is in the best interests of the child.

First, there is the issue of the child's health to consider. Medicos know that the older the mother, the greater is the risk of abnormality in the child.

The fact that the aspiring mother in this case opted for treatment in the Ukraine adds to the risk. In this country, regulations and tests are apparently less stringent than in most of Europe.

There is also the question of how the child will cope with adolescence, having such an old and possibly infirm parent - in this case a single parent.

In 2002, the average life expectancy for women in the UK was 81 years. This woman will be that age when her child reaches puberty, a major landmark in any child's development.

Even if the mother survives into her nineties, common sense suggests that mothers of this age are unlikely to have anywhere near the energy levels required of a parent with teenage children.

The rapid hormonal changes teenagers face can lead to erratic behaviour and rapid mood swings which, in most cases, they themselves don't understand. Those changes place great physical, emotional and psychological demands on parents.

Also, because the mother in this case is so far removed in age from the child, she will not be well equipped to empathise with the teenager about his or her life experience.

Of course, the fundamental needs of the human psyche do not change with time and, yes, age can bring with wisdom. However, too much distance between child and parent can create a generation gap which is nigh on impossible to bridge.

How does a teenager cope with having a parent who is in her eighties, when the parents of his or her friends are in their thirties or forties? What does this do to the teenager's sense of self?

The second concern with this particular story is that there is no mention of a father anywhere in the relationship. Studies have consistently shown that a child fares better in all areas of development when he or she has the benefit of a loving father and mother within a stable relationship.

This will sound to some like the ultimate in political incorrectness. However, the traditional family unit -- a term some would use as a pejorative these days -- has been the strength of human societies for millennia.

Sometimes, governments seem determined to undermine the family unit. British legislation says that IVF can be used to create a child without the need for a father in the relationship. This kind of legislation removes one half of the natural parenting mix from the very beginning of a child's life.

Laws like these rob children of the strength and security that a caring father can provide. And today, even some ardent feminists are saying that the anti-male agenda in our culture has gone too far. It is emasculating men, they say, so that men no longer know what's expected of them.

Some commentators believe that the next step in this process will be the total removal of the word "father" from legal documents, like birth certificates. Instead of a "father", a child will have a "supporting parent". And, they say, it won't stop there. Eventually the title of mother might be replaced by "birthing parent."

I'm a long way from being a conspiracy theorist. But you don't have to be paranoid to see that once mothers and fathers are removed from the leadership of families, we're one step away from having the State raise our children.

It's time we faced the fact that we post-60s baby boomers are not the repositories of all wisdom. We can and must learn from the past, if we are to build a strong platform for our children's futures.

Almost all successful and strong cultures throughout history have been founded on the family unit of mother, father and children. There is a very good reason for this -- it produces the most stable and helpful environment for the child.

That is not to say that single parents can't raise great children, for so many in our society do just that. But they are doing so against the odds.

In the case of a 66-year-old mother, we might also ask what happens to the baby or young child if the mother is incapacitated by health issues associated with old age?

We can be grateful that dementia issues are now openly discussed in the public square. In the light of this growing problem among the elderly, this woman's child may effectively lose its mother at quite a young age, even before she dies. If that happens, who will care for the child?

There are also questions of concern for the mother herself. Carrying and giving birth to a child brings psychological and physiological risks for any mother. These are normally dealt with quite well by healthy younger women but the jury is definitely out on whether, in today's pressured world, those stresses it would be too much for an older person.

Professor Severino Antinori has pioneered the IVF techniques involved in impregnating older women. Even he believes that 66 years is too old for child birth.

"I am shocked by the idea of a 66-year-old woman giving birth," he told The Times newspaper. "I respect the choice medically but I think anything over 63 is risky because you cannot guarantee the child will have a loving mother or family.

"It is possible to give a child to the mother up to the age of 83 but it is medically criminal to do this because the likelihood is that after a year or two the child will lose his mum and suffer from psychological problems."

There are many issues of concern with this story but, above all, our concern must be the long-term welfare of a child.

There are good reasons why IVF is not normally offered to people of her age and, in most cases, they have less to do with the mother's rights, focusing more on the rights and interests of the child.


Follow Mal's daily comment at twitter.com/malfletcher


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Keywords: childbirth | child rights | family

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