- The Washington Times - Friday, February 15, 2002

Like most mothers, Judy Bershak is a proud and effusive parent who will tell you not only how remarkable her 5-year-old daughter is how Sarah knew her full address including her ZIP code at the age of 2, how she tap dances and plays piano but also how sweet-tempered she is and how beautiful.

"We got the Gerber baby," she said.

What makes Mrs. Bershak decidedly different from most mothers with a 5-year-old is that Mrs. Bershak is 55. She gave birth to her daughter at age 50, after she had gone through menopause.

She did it with the help of an assisted-reproductive technology called egg donation, using an egg from a younger woman. In Mrs. Bershak's case, the donor was a 25-year-old art student who was paid $2,500.

The number of births to women ages 45-54 rose to 4,565 in 2000, the last year for which figures are available. Though a small percentage of all births, this is the highest number recorded for that age group in more than three decades, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and that's owing at least in part to fertility-enhancing therapies.

The percentage of women having children after age 44 was higher in 1960 than it is now, because more women then continued to have children until they hit menopause. Lacking convenient, reliable contraceptives, they lacked today's choices about when to have children. The birth-control pill became widely available in the early 1960s.

Why are women today choosing to have a child later in life?

Mrs. Bershak said she simply hadn't met anyone she wanted to marry until she turned 44. But because of her age, she and her husband, David Cook, couldn't conceive.

Initially, the couple turned to adoption, but were defrauded of $10,000. "It was a horrendous year and a half out of our lives," she said.

A neighbor told them about egg donation.

"Last chance," said Mrs. Bershak, a Los Angeles schoolteacher. She and her husband requested that the donor have light eyes, as they do, and be of medium height. They were able to examine a 27-page dossier on the eventual donor's background, from schooling to religion to medical history.

Sarah has been a joy, and Mrs. Bershak said her own age has not been any more of an issue in keeping up with her child than it is for any other mother.

Helane Rosenberg, another egg recipient, is perfectly happy not to have the donor's identity known, though, like Mrs. Bershak, she is open with her children about the fact that there was a donor.

Mrs. Rosenberg, an education professor at Rutgers University, is in her early 50s. She and her husband, Yacov Epstein, 60, live in Highland Park, N.J., and have 8½-year-old twins, Nathaniel and Allegra.

Mrs. Rosenberg and Mr. Epstein, a psychologist, counsel couples with fertility problems. The subject comes up in the family, and the children know, for example, that women who get pregnant with donor eggs often have multiple births 40 percent, in fact.

Mrs. Rosenberg said when she and her daughter were in a Manhattan park, they noticed an older woman with young twins. That lady, her daughter guessed, must have had an egg donor. "My little girl figured it out," she said.

Why did Mrs. Rosenberg put off having children? She, too, didn't meet Mr. Right until her mid-40s. But there was another reason: She grew up in the generation that was told women could "have it all" delaying a family until they had established a career.

"No one ever talked about a decline in fertility except for menopause, which seemed to be happening well into one's 50s. If someone had informed me, I might have reconsidered things. I would have thought more consciously about whether a man might be husband material, not just date material."

Around age 35, a woman's fertility rate drops and continues declining, then drops even more at 40, studies have shown.

Dr. Richard Paulson believes that ignorance about fertility and age continues to be a problem. Dr. Paulson is the head of the infertility program at the University of Southern California medical school and the co-author with Judith Sachs of "Rewinding Your Biological Clock."

Dr. Paulson, a pioneer in helping older women get pregnant with egg donation, explains the procedure: Eggs are retrieved from a younger woman and combined with sperm in a glass dish (in vitro literally means "in glass"), then the resulting embryos are transferred into the older woman's uterus. Often, more than one embryo is transferred in case they don't all successfully implant.

Egg donation has been around since 1983 for younger women; Dr. Paulson and his team first reported their success with women over 40 in 1990, and in 1993 for women over 50. For Dr. Paulson, the cutoff age is 55 because his clinic has had limited experience with women between 50 and 55.

Younger women should know the facts about age and reproduction, he said. "In fact, age is a problem. I still see it nowadays," he said, "when someone comes into my clinic and she's 45 years old and she said, 'I'm ready to have a baby.' They don't realize that even if they're having regular periods, at their age, their eggs frequently have chromosomal abnormalities."

Kris Bevilacqua is a psychologist in Brooklyn, N.Y., who counsels women with fertility problems. Miss Bevilacqua, 51, also became an older mother with the help of egg donation. She and her partner, Andy Novick, 49, have 4½-year-old twins, Kyra and Seth.

Some of Miss Bevilacqua's clients have pointed to celebrities giving birth in their 40s and 50s. Though few acknowledge it, she said, "I'm going to put money on it that it's a donor egg" in many cases.

Some see downsides to egg donation for older women.

The point of view of the child is not considered enough, said Harvard law professor Elizabeth Bartholet.

Those who believe that "birth heritage is completely unimportant" are mistaken, said Miss Bartholet, author of "Family Bonds: Adoption, Infertility and the New World of Child Production," a book about her own journey with infertility and how she ultimately opted for adoption.

"I think we should require not just record-keeping, but require that at least upon adulthood kids born with the help of donated eggs have access to the information. Just as increasingly, I think, people are coming to recognize that that would be a good idea for adult adoptees."

Demand is high for donor eggs, and some wait up to a year to receive them. Hoping to increase the donor-egg pool, many clinics in New York City and New Jersey have recently raised the fee they pay donors from $5,000 to $7,000.

The donor fee is only part of the cost for recipients which can reach $26,000 in New York, including doctor fees for the donor. Some older couples have taken second mortgages on their homes or liquidated retirement funds to meet the cost.

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