In her hometown of Highland, at the foot of the San Bernardino Mountains, Arceli Keh feels she can hide the fact that, at age 63, she became the oldest woman on record to have a baby.
Keh says few townspeople seem aware of the controversy surrounding 5-year-old Cynthia's 1996 birth, and when people mistake her for Cynthia's grandmother, she rarely bothers to correct them.
"I just wanted to have a healthy baby and live a quiet life," Keh says.
But the normality of Keh's life and her desire to blend in belies her extraordinary quest to have a child--and the resulting impact she and similar women have had on society and the field of reproductive medicine. While it appears that raising a child in one's 50s and 60s is not a choice many women would make--fewer than 300 U.S. women age 50 and older give birth each year--this small group of mothers wields enormous influence. Their well-publicized successes, Keh's chief among them, have made pregnancy in one's 40s appear almost young.
"I think that there are women who saw Mrs. Keh and say, 'I'm only 51. She was 63,'" says Dr. Richard Paulson, the USC infertility specialist who helped Keh become pregnant with the use of eggs donated by a younger woman. "She's the one who makes it so much easier for the women 15 years younger."
The birth rate to women ages 40 to 44 rose 44% from 1990 to 2000 while the number of births to women ages 45 to 49 reached its highest number in more than three decades. Among women ages 50 to 54, births jumped from 174 in 1999 to 255 in 2000, according to the recently released National Vital Statistics Report, which cites infertility therapies as one factor behind the increases.
Such births evoke both the nation's fascination with medical miracles and its empathy for women who want children so badly they're willing to undertake pregnancy at an advanced age. Reports that actress Geena Davis gave birth earlier this month at age 46, and Britain's first lady, Cherie Blair, had a son two years ago at age 45, generated intense interest.
But such late-life pregnancies are not without criticism. Some social critics and medical experts suggest that the births do not always take into account the welfare of the child.
And the effect on women is great as well, says Sylvia Ann Hewlett, founder and president of the National Parenting Assn., which promotes family-friendly policies in the workplace and communities. The medical risks and emotional and financial costs of having a baby late in life are enormous, she warns.
In her new book, "Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children," Hewlett writes that post-50 moms "send a dangerous message: that women can wait to have children because technology will be there to save them when they are ready. But for every 52-year-old woman who succeeds, thousands more waste an inordinate amount of energy, time, and money."
While in vitro fertilization success rates are 28% per attempt (one cycle of treatment) for younger women, the success plunges to 8% per attempt in women age 39 and to 3% for women age 44.
Even the medical specialists who discovered a way for post-menopausal women to get pregnant (by using a younger woman's donated eggs) now urge younger women to be realistic about their chance of bearing a child. Last year, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine began a public education campaign to raise awareness that peak fertility occurs in a woman's 20s and that trying to become pregnant after age 35 can be difficult.
But Keh couldn't care less about what kind of message she sends or her place in history. Like other older mothers, she was driven by her deep desire to have a baby.
She Thought She Still Had a Chance
Unlike some women who delay bearing children until well past their 30s, Keh did not arrive at late-late motherhood because of career demands. She and husband Isagani were married in 1980 in their native Philippines when she was 47 and he 44. They immigrated to the United States to be near relatives.
"I thought I would still have a chance to have a baby then because I was under 50," says Keh, granting a rare interview on a recent afternoon in the couple's home. Keh kept her identity secret when Cynthia was born and has revealed very little, publicly, about her family's life until now.
Like many women, Keh mistakenly thought she could still get pregnant simply because she had not yet completed menopause. Years passed with no pregnancy, and she came to think she'd never have a child. But her hopes were renewed when she read about the use of donor eggs. In 1993, scientists reported that even post-menopausal women could have a baby through in vitro fertilization if a younger woman's eggs were used.
"I thought maybe I still had a chance," Keh says.
In 1995, Keh made an appointment at USC's infertility clinic, which has a liberal policy on treating older women, taking qualified patients until age 55. Most clinics turn down women older than 50.