Baby at 50? Yes please, and I’ll pre-select the sex too. As Elle Macpherson shows age is becoming irrelevant, Lucy Tobin sees the future of fertility
What do you do when your body is too old to have a baby but you really, really want one? Or you’re faced with a catastrophic medical problem that the doctor says is incurable? Or you’d like to live until you’re more than 120 years old but, looking around, that doesn’t seem very likely?
Once you would just stop dreaming. Now leaps in medical science make all those things a possibility. Sure it may only be open to the 0.1 per cent — the super-rich with cash piled higher than the average Londoner’s stress levels — right now, but soon these options will be within reach for all of us.
Elle Macpherson and her billionaire husband are reportedly spearheading progress made in fertility. The supermodel, who is celebrating her 51st birthday this week and is already a mother of two, plus stepmother to hotel heir Jeffrey Soffer’s children, is said to be organising a surrogacy with eggs she froze about 20 years ago, after failing to fall pregnant naturally over the past 18 months.
“They realised after a few months that having a baby naturally was a lost cause,” a friend of Macpherson and her husband told Australian magazine Woman’s Day. “They barely discussed adoption [but] agreed on surrogacy quite quickly. Elle is thanking her lucky stars she had the foresight to freeze her eggs years ago. She figured they’d come in handy.”
Most of us just have dusty piles of old jeans in our cupboard but the woman once known as “The Body” had handily set aside some of her own brand of super genes. And medical intervention doesn’t have to stop there — it’s not just the conception timeline that money can stretch. Scientists say nearly every element of having a baby — until recently still the most unpredictable of human acts — can now be controlled.
Take the 150 couples who visit gynaecologist Dr Paul Rainsbury’s clinic each year to embark on pre-implantation gender diagnosis, or PGD. It’s a scientific route that, used in combination with IVF, ensures an embryo is both healthy and of the chosen gender before it’s implanted back into the mother. After hormone injections and sprays, Rainsbury’s clients have eight or 10 eggs harvested and fertilised with their partner’s gender-filtered sperm.
The embryos are screened for abnormalities such as Downs’ syndrome — “We only put chromosomally-normal embryos back, so if a woman gets pregnant she can be assured it’s a normal baby,” Rainsbury explains.
It’s not much bother for those with a private jet waiting in the wings but PGD can’t take place on British soil. If the process is for non-medical reasons — what Rainsbury calls “family balancing” — it’s illegal in this country. So couples have their initial hormone doses and medical checks in Harley Street before flying abroad, usually to Greece or the US, for the treatment. It’s £11,000 for one cycle, or £18,000 for two, which most women up to the age 40 need. Further attempts, which Rainsbury says are more likely for the over-forties, are “price negotiable”.
The fertility expert has been involved in IVF and PGD for two decades, but remains one of the only gynaecologists in the UK to offer gender-picking: “Over the past 18 months demand has trebled,” he says. “People are realising the technology is available, and the fact it can’t be done in the UK doesn’t deter people.”
His patients stretch from wealthy City workers spending their bonus on guaranteeing a male or female heir to “people with corner shops who have saved up for a long time”. Rainsbury points out that half of his patients want girls and half boys, so he’s not tipping the population’s gender balance. But now the technology is in place some wonder whether embryo-picking means healthy children could soon be another status symbol of the rich.
Making healthy babies is one thing; keeping grown-ups healthy can be even tougher. We can all splurge on cosmetic surgery to keep our faces and exterior looking young but doctors are now focusing on procedures that will keep our insides maintained too, the the aim of keeping the whole body in fine — young — health.
Angelina Jolie this week spoke out about undergoing preventative surgery to remove her ovaries, two years after a preventative double mastectomy. Of her decision, taken as she carries a mutation in a gene that increases her risk of breast and ovarian cancer, the actress and UN ambassador said: “I know my children will never have to say, ‘Mom died of ovarian cancer’. It is not easy to make these decisions. But it is possible to take control and tackle head-on any health issue.”
Sadly, that may not be true for those without extensive financial means or generous medical insurance. Yet genetic testing of the kind that alerted Jolie to her higher risk of cancer is surging in popularity in London. The so-called Angelina effect was attributed as the cause of the number of women undergoing genetic screening for breast cancer rising by two and a half times in just three months of 2014, compared with the same time a year earlier, according to a study in the journal Breast Cancer Research.
Some, however, want to go further: paying for full DNA analysis to measure their risk of developing diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer’s, or even estimating their likely lifespan. From its Harley Street base, GeneticHealth charges clients £825 for a “premium check”, which claims to evaluate the risk of health problems including thrombosis, osteoporosis, cardiovascular diseases and some cancers. The company has seen a 20 per cent rise in demand over the past six months, with a spokesman claiming the surge in interest is mainly from the “over-45s who have a new interest in their likelihood of age-related diseases, as well as an awareness that they can find out about their risks”.
Not everyone is keen: US rival 23andme, which held a “spit party” at which guests including Rupert Murdoch, Harvey Weinstein and Ivanka Trump were offered the chance to deposit saliva into a plastic cup to find out more about their genes, was banned in the US over concerns for its medical guidance and the accuracy of its data.
Still, it’s set up camp over here, offering Britons the chance to find out more about inherited conditions and genetic risk factors for £125 (“shipping included”).
Soon there could be an even more radical option for those given the genetic all-clear but who want to stick around on Planet Earth a little longer. California-based hedge fund Palo Alto Investors, which has more than $1 billion in assets under management, has launched a $1 million prize challenging scientists to “hack the code of life” and stretch the human lifespan. The initial cash will be handed over to those who can make a mammal live 50 per cent longer than it usually does, but more money will be available for future life-extending feats.
Billionaire Microsoft founder Bill Gates wasn’t impressed: “It seems pretty egocentric, while we still have malaria and TB, for rich people to fund things so they can live longer,” he said, but then conceded: “It would be nice to live longer, though.”
And since most of the world’s wealthy agree they would pay for that privilege, scientists and doctors are racing to fulfil their wish-lists.
BUY BUY BABY — HAVE A PERFECT CHILD AND LIVE FOREVER
Fertility test in your lunchtime: £200
One cycle of egg-harvesting treatment: £5,000 (though more may be required)
Annual egg storage costs: £250
Eggs to be reimplanted: £6,000
Average cost of surrogacy (in US): $100,000
Full DNA analysis: £825 for a “premium check”, which claims to evaluate the risk of health problems including thrombosis, osteoporosis, cardiovascular diseases and some cancers.
Genetic screening for breast cancer: offered to potentially-affected patients on the NHS
Published: 26 March 2015. LUCY TOBIN
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