`Retirement Pregnancies': Are Limits Needed?

IF all goes according to schedule next week, a 63-year-old Italian woman will become the world's oldest new mother. Rossana Dall Corte, who became pregnant through what is euphemistically called ``assisted reproduction,'' is expected to deliver twins - babies she and her husband wanted after their 17-year-old son was killed in an accident.

Mrs. Dall Corte's delivery comes seven months after another much-publicized birth last Christmas to a 59-year-old Englishwoman, identified only as Jennifer F., who also became the mother of twins. Public reaction to these cases has ranged from gasps of disapproval to cheers of joy.

Although both women are married and financially secure, their ``retirement pregnancies'' raise questions about the limits of high-tech procedures to stretch the frontier of reproduction. Their pregnancies were engineered by a fertility clinic in Rome, which so far has delivered about 50 babies to women over the age of 51. The Italians have even devised a name for these women: mamma-nonna, or ``granny mother.''

Already the practice is prompting a worldwide debate about the ethics of encouraging motherhood at any age, for any price. In Italy last month, a panel of experts recommended a ban on many forms of artificial insemination, including those involving women over 51. The measure has received approval from the Italian Cabinet and the Roman Catholic Church.

Last month the French Parliament also gave final approval to a bill setting strict limits on test-tube births. It would ban artificial fertilization for women past childbearing age or without a stable male partner. It would also forbid tampering with embryos to create made-to-order babies.

As if in defiance of any such limitations, doctors attending a British Medical Association conference last week gave their support to middle-aged women who want to become mothers. They rejected a proposal deploring the use of fertility treatment for older women. One female physician called the proposed policy ``ageist'' and warned her largely male audience that they would look ``ridiculous'' if they voted for it.

Still, that view runs counter to a resolution the World Medical Association, a global body representing doctors, is expected to pass at its annual meeting in Stockholm in September. The proposal states that doctors should not artificially assist women to get pregnant after natural menopause.

American fertility doctors generally limit their treatment to women under 45. But even for women decades younger than Dall Cortes and Jennifer F., what is the price paid, in dollars and in anguish, for failure to fertilize, more common now than success? The commentator Anne Taylor Fleming, whose new book ``Motherhood Deferred'' (Putnam, $23.95) offers an unflinching insider's view of what she calls ``clinical breeding,'' sadly confesses to spending eight years and nearly $100,000 on fertility treatments, only to be frustrated in her ``baby chase.''

What technology can do, technology will do - this carefree truism seems to hold whether a breakthrough concerns babies or bombs. Yet society rightly demands other standards than mere capability - and hit-or-miss capability at that. High-tech reproduction requires the most delicate balancing act, acknowledging the legitimate, heartfelt desire for children while avoiding any abuses of genetic engineering.

In an overpopulated world, where children of 14 have children, can anybody argue for a need to extend the age of fertility by 15 or more additional years?

Perhaps most important of all, is a 63-year-old mother going to be the best nurturer for her child? What happens when Mom, at 76, finds a feisty teenager on her hands?

``Just do it'' should never be the motto for something so precious as bringing children into the world - least of all for grandmothers, however loving and energetic, who would be mothers again.

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