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How old is too old to have a baby?

By Sara Sidner, CNN
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66-year-old woman has triplets
  • Bhateri Devi, 66, gave birth to triplet after receiving fertility treatment
  • No upper age limit in India for those who want to have children using fertility treatments
  • Doctor Bishnoi Anurag says he's successfully impregnated a 70-year-old woman
  • Critics question what happens to children when they grow older and parents die

Hisar, India (CNN) -- Barely able to sit up due to intense pain, first-time mother Bhateri Devi steadies herself with the help of a family member. She has had a Cesarean section, an experience many women have endured.

But Devi is different: She gave birth to triplets in May this year and is 66 years old. It was her very first delivery.

"I wanted to have a family," she said. "Before I didn't have any children, even at this age, that's why I gave birth to these children."

"So what if she's old?" her husband Deva Singh chimes in. He's 70.

The couple tried for decades but had been unable to conceive until they discovered a fertility clinic that would treat Devi. The clinic was near their village in the Indian state of Haryana.

Doctor Bishnoi Anurag has become known in the area for using fertility treatments on older patients.

"Why not?" he asked. "We have been doing it for many years." He said he's helped more than 100 patients above 50 years old conceive and have babies without a single mortality or maternal death.

The science behind it is seemingly simple and has been around for more than 20 years. Bhateri Devi is post-menopausal and has no more eggs. In her case Dr. Bishnoi says he fertilized a young woman's egg with sperm from Devi's husband in a Petri dish and then injected the fetus into his 66-year-old patient's uterus.

"Medically it is possible, but medically it is also possible to use the same technique in a pre-pubescent girl.
--Dr. Sohani Verma

Before the procedure, patients have to take a few months of hormone treatment to prepare the body. This is known as in vitro fertilization, or IVF, a technique being used all over the world.

In India there is no legal upper age limit for those who want to have children using fertility treatments. The same is true in Britain and the United States.

But as we live longer the question is how old is too old to have a baby?

Dr. Bishnoi says as long as a woman is proven to be medically fit, age should not matter. He says he has successfully impregnated a 70-year-old woman as well.

He has fierce critics.

"Medically it is possible, but medically it is also possible to use the same technique in a pre-pubescent girl," said infertility and in vitro fertilization specialist Dr. Sohani Verma.

"She will get pregnant. But should we do that? Everybody would say the answer is no."

Dr. Verma runs the IVF unit in Indraprastha Apollo Hospital, one of Delhi's best-known hospitals.

She points out no matter how physically fit a person is there is still a high probability of physical complications and certainly ethical red flags. For one, the babies are usually born prematurely, which happened in Devi's case, creating a host of possible developmental problems later on.

Older mothers also have a high risk of developing diabetes and other ailments. In this case Dr. Verma is particularly worried about what happens when the children get much older and their elderly parents are no longer around.

"I feel that once we are involved in bringing a human being into the world there has to be concern about the unborn baby as well. Not just its development but also the social and psychological issues which the baby will have to face."

Life expectancy in India is 63.7 years, according to a 2008 World Bank estimate.

But Bhateri Devi and her husband have already beaten the odds when it comes to age. They say they had the children for a very practical reason: they needed heirs to "be the owners of our property."

But Dr. Bishnoi and his critics agree on at least one thing at least: the case brings a heightened awareness about the medical capabilities available to those who can't conceive.

In many villages in India there can be great pressure on women to have babies. Sometimes women are ostracized for being unable to conceive.

Still the dangers to an older woman and the babies she is carrying are significant.

But Dr. Bishnoi says he will continue the practice of allowing older women to receive fertility treatment. "It is very dangerous to go on a airplane -- it can crash. It is very dangerous to ride a bike -- you can always bash or someone may bash into your motorcycle -- but people do it. Why? Because they want to reach their destination."

"It's the same in these cases. They want to realize their dreams, their destination, so they take risks."