Recent reports indicate older women are giving birth more than ever before. The number of new mum over the age of 50 has doubled in the past four years, and there has been a 13 percent increase in women giving birth over 40. There are also increasing numbers of women using fertility treatments to have children even into their 60s.
These cases, although rare, raise a whole host of ethical issues – aside from health risks associated with such a pregnancy, is it morally justifiable to bring a child into this world with a parent who stands a much smaller chance of living to see the child grow up? Indeed, a Spanish woman, who gave birth to twins just before her 67th birthday, died when the twins were two.
Nevertheless, in the Torah we see many cases of advanced parenthood. Most famously, Sarah gave birth to Isaac at the age of 90: when she was told by the angel she would become a mother, she laughed, asking: “after I have withered I shall become fresh again?”
While Sarah’s story is well-documented, according to the Midrashic chronology Yocheved gave birth to Moses when she was 130 years old. We also find advanced fatherhood in the Torah – Abraham fathered Isaac at 100; Noah had children at the age of 500!
While these figures belong to a pre-history, miraculous time, Rabbi Joshua in the Talmud says: “Even if a man married a woman in his youth, he should marry again in his old age. If he had children in his youth, he should also have children in his old age, as it says: ‘Sow your seed in the morning and do not rest your hand in the evening.’” There is much discussion as to the scope and force of this passage – is it a commandment, meritorious or advice?
However, the cases in the Torah are either natural or through miraculous intervention – what would they say about conception through modern medicine? In these cases, halachah would take a nuanced, individual view, taking into account particular needs and circumstances, offset against the command to have a family in a healthy, responsible manner.
Rabbinic sources that speak of the Days of the Messiah describe how “women will give birth every day”, how the Land of Israel will “produce fruits like cakes”. For many, these sources speak of a miraculous shift in the laws of nature, of a new physical productivity tied in with spiritual renewal. Perhaps these will be part of a natural scientific development – one that we have already begun with amazing technologies, such as fertility treatments.
We have begun the physical renewal. Let us pray we can continue it alongside the spiritual renewal that will lead to the Days of the Messiah.
• By Rabbi Garry Wayland, assistant rabbi at Woodside Park United Synagogue