According to new figures, more than 20 IVF babies are born to women aged over 50 each year in the UK. In 2002, 96 women older than 50 were treated at fertility clinics across the country, according to the latest figures released by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), the UK's regulator of licensed fertility services. However, the treatment was only successful for 24 of these women.
The HFEA's latest figures show a marked increase in the number of children born following IVF generally - in the decade covered by the data, IVF births trebled, rising from 2360 to 7,740. The figures also show that between 1992 and 2002, the number of births following fertility treatment in women aged between 45 and 49 increased from just 15 to 105. Both the number of births and the number of IVF attempts in women over 50 increased by 24 times in the same ten year period.
HFEA guidelines suggest that age should be taken into consideration when clinics decide whether or not to offer patients treatment. Couples receiving treatment on the NHS are generally subjected to an upper age limit (for the woman) of about 39, while some private clinics will treat women older than this, sometimes including those who have gone through the menopause. James Healey, a spokesman for the HFEA, said that clinics can have their own eligibility criteria, but they 'must take into account the welfare of the child - including the mother's age, health and ability to provide for the needs of the child - as well as the risk of serious medical, physical or psychological harm'. There are more medical risks for older women during pregnancy, such as an increased risk of heart attack, stroke, pre-eclampsia or diabetes.
The British Fertility Society (BFS) said that it offers 'unofficial' guidance to fertility doctors stating that women over 50 should not generally be offered treatment. Allan Pacey, speaking for the BFS, said he did not see that any change needed to be made to the law. 'Most people have a certain degree of common sense', he said. Doctor Richard Kennedy, also from the BFS, described the HFEA's data as 'a concern'. 'We thought it was a handful of women around that age being treated' he said, adding 'I would argue against the HFEA regulating this issue... but we need to make clear that there is an increasing strain put on the health of women going through assisted conception over the age of 50 and there is a serious concern about the welfare of the child'.
Meanwhile, as debates on the ethics of treating older women continue in the UK, reports suggest that since the news broke about Patricia Rashbrook - who will soon become the oldest woman to give birth in the UK following IVF treatment - Professor Severino Antinori, the Italian doctor who treated her, has received numerous phone calls from other interested women. 'My office has received lots of calls and emails from Britain in the last few days. They all want a baby', he said.