In India, age often doesn't stop women from seeking help to become pregnant

Rajo Devi Lohan, 72 -- who gave birth to a daughter, Naveen, 18 months ago after seeking fertility treatment in India -- is thought to be one of the oldest mothers in the world.
Rajo Devi Lohan, 72 -- who gave birth to a daughter, Naveen, 18 months ago after seeking fertility treatment in India -- is thought to be one of the oldest mothers in the world. (Emily Wax/the Washington Post)
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By Emily Wax
Friday, August 13, 2010

HISAR, INDIA -- Inside a crowded rural hospital, gray-haired Nananki Rohtash rested on a cot, her swollen legs elevated while her sister-in-law paced nearby. Rohtash is a 60-year-old mother of five and a grandmother of eight.

She's also nine months pregnant, the result of an in vitro fertilization clinic, one of hundreds that have opened recently in India, urging clients to "Come alone. Leave as a family. Age no bar.''

With 1.2 billion people, India is still growing rapidly, and there are few efforts to control population growth, in sharp contrast to China's one-child policy. Some planning advocates argue that India's population is stalling development, adding to unemployment, and overwhelming roads, schools, water supplies and other basic infrastructure needs.

There are no government regulations for IVF clinics, especially in rural areas of northern India, and women older than 50 make up a surprising number of their patients, in a country where giving birth to many children defines a woman's worth and is considered parents' best chance for financial security.

Rohtash was awaiting a Caesarean section in the private National Fertility Center in Hisar, a middle-class frontier farming town in the northern state of Haryana, more than 170 miles outside the capital of New Delhi.

In the past 18 months, the doctors at this clinic have helped 100 women older than 50 become pregnant. About 60 were able to carry those pregnancies to full term. Some of the women received eggs donated by younger relatives. Their husbands' sperm was used to fertilize the eggs in a lab, and the embryos were then inserted into the women's wombs.

"The women come to us and say, 'Even if I die, at least I won't face the stigma of being barren,' " said Anurag Bishnoi, the center's lead IVF specialist. "These women are like soldiers:, They are on the front lines for their family, their country. They may die, but their family and country will live."

Many fertility experts say performing IVF on women older than 45 can be dangerous for the mother, a stress on her heart and blood pressure. Many must have their uteruses removed immediately after birth, because they are weaker and rupture, doctors said. The baby is also more likely to be born premature and to face health problems. The average life expectancy in India is 63, according to World Bank data.

"We are talking about bringing another human being into the world," said Sonia Verma, a doctor at Indraprastha Apollo Hospital, one of the country's leading centers, which discourages the procedure after age 55. "What happens when the parents die? We shouldn't only worry about what the patient wants. We could get a prepubescent girl pregnant with the same technology. Should we also do that?"

More than 40 years ago, Rohtash gave birth to five daughters and one son. But seven years ago, her son died in a car accident. Now she wants to try again for a male heir, a powerful cultural preference in India that many population experts say contributes to women having babies until a son is born.

"The risk for a son and a balanced family is my destiny," she said. "I consider this place to be God."

Many other older Indian women agree. In another case at the Hisar center, Bhateri Devi, 66, in May became the world's oldest woman to give birth to triplets. She was unable to bear children throughout her married life.

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