Photo courtesy of the McLaughlin family
After a decade-long struggle with fertility issues, a 56-year-old Maryland woman died after giving birth to a pair of healthy but premature twins conceived with IVF. “She was just on cloud nine,” Lisa McLaughlin’s husband Mike, told the Omaha-World Herald about the day their babies were born. “That’s the happiest I’ve probably seen her in my life.” But just one week after the birth of her boys via cesarean section, McLaughlin died from a bowel obstruction, and now Mike, 67, will be raising their babies alone.
The tragic death of McLaughlin, a Red Cross medical officer, highlights the increased risks faced by women, especially older women, who more and more are using assisted reproductive technologies to push the boundaries of fertility.
“Even if you’re the healthiest of 56 year olds, I would say you should really give it some more thought,” Dr. Vincenzo Berghella, president of the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine, tells Yahoo Parenting. Berghella, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, says he is all for pregnancy for any woman who wants it. But he’s also careful to go over all the risks involved, he says, and compares opting for IVF pregnancy at an advanced maternal age to that of people who choose to not wear helmets while riding their bikes. “If the risks are not too high for you, then you do it,” he says. “But while the baby might be healthy, it might not be able to enjoy a healthy mom.” The risk of pregnancy-related death for women 40 and over, according to the Guttmacher Institute, is five times higher than that of women 25 to 29.
While McLaughlin had a highly accomplished professional life — working as a lawyer and an assistant attorney general before deciding to attend medical school and become a doctor — she yearned to be a mother, according to her husband. “She wanted what every other woman had,” he said, “and that’s children.”
She became pregnant after undergoing many in-vitro procedures (presumably with donated eggs), and had an uneventful pregnancy besides being put on bed rest and developing gestational diabetes toward the end. She gave birth in late December and went home without Jordan and Dylan, who remained in intensive care at just about 3 pounds each, on New Year’s Eve. But before that, her husband noted, “She held the babies and was able to stroke them and love them.”
Berghella notes that being pregnant when you’re over 45 brings “significant rise,” due to a woman’s uterus not being in the best shape and because advanced age brings more risk of complicating conditions, such as stillbirths and premature births. “Plus she had a double whammy — she had twins,” he says of McLaughlin.
The use of IVF was also likely at play, according to Diane Beeson, a medical sociologist with the California State University East Bay and the Center for Genetics and Society. “Women are being sold IVF, which is a business,” she tells Yahoo Parenting. “And when you’re sold something, there’s a lot of enthusiasm about the positive possibilities. You don’t want to frighten people.” There are many risks associated with fertility technologies, she says, but a lack of studies on those risks, particularly long-term. Because of that, Beeson notes, “I don’t think most practitioners even understand the possible problems.” She points to a noteworthy recent study, published in the Journal of Perinatology, which looked at the health impacts of women using ART (assisted reproductive technology) in California. It found ART pregnancies to have significantly higher rates of stillbirths, cesarean sections, preterm deliveries, multiples, and longer hospital stays.
In 2011, meanwhile, a British Medical Journal editorial argued that maternal deaths related to IVF indicated clear risks to older women, and that it was important to uncover more information about possible risks.
“I don’t think most people appreciate the risks associated with IVF,” Beeson says, noting that McLaughlin was exposed to a number of risks — advanced age, twins, C-section. “I think [her death] is emblematic of what’s become our tendency to view the body not as a sensitive ecological system, but as a machine with parts that have no relation to each other.” She adds, “Women need to understand that IVF is a business, and that there has been too limited research done on the health impacts.”