ALEWA, INDIA—Rajo Devi Lohan, a 72-year-old with weathered skin and short white hair, loosened her shirt and gingerly sat down, leaning back against a stack of fresh cut sheaves of wheat.
As her 80-year-old husband Bala Ram stood nearby in their sunstruck farm field, using an old rusting oil drum to separate wheat kernels from chaff, Lohan’s daughter Naveen had been quietly tugging at her sleeve, delivering an unspoken message: the 2-year-old wanted to breastfeed.
Lohan smiled as her daughter settled into her lap.
“Before her I was living a life with no purpose,” Lohan said, stroking Naveen’s black hair. “I am the happiest person now. She is a bundle of joy. I feel like the chosen one.”
Lohan said motherhood has been a gift. “I love it,” she said. “Naveen goes to bed at about 8 p.m., gets up two or three times in the night, and finally gets up at 6 a.m. She likes milk and eats everything, chapati and every vegetable, whether it’s spicy or not.”
Two years ago, Lohan helped to put this dusty village on the map when she became the world’s oldest known first-time mother, impregnated with the help of an in vitro fertilization clinic in a nearby city in the north Indian state of Haryana.
Nowadays, Lohan is fulfilling multiple roles. She helps her husband tend to their 12 hectares of farmland, she raises Naveen, who has just started speaking and will begin school next year, and she has become an unlikely brand ambassador for IVF and a symbol of hope for other women throughout India who are struggling to conceive.
Perhaps one of this country’s best-known mothers, Lohan has also sparked a debate about the practice of IFV in elderly women.
Critics point to India’s 1.2 billion population and say encouraging women in their 60s and 70s to have babies runs contrary to the government’s efforts to slow population growth. And at best, parents like Lohan can expect to be around for perhaps the first 15 years of their child’s life.
But IVF advocates say giving India’s elderly women a chance to have babies is triggering a string of positive social changes. Finding ways to help women have babies, even late in life, will cut down on divorce rates, bigamy and even suicides.
“It was an empty life without her,” Bala Ram said, wiping sweat from his forehead as Naveen ran around the oil drum wearing a red jumpsuit, her yellow shoes squeaking like a squeeze toy with every step.
“Is there a life without a kid? We now have a lot of respect from everyone, my neighbours, my relatives, and a lot of encouragement.”
In a state where female foeticide is still troublingly common, Lohan said they were overjoyed to have a baby girl.
“I have seen women crying outside their houses, putting up a show about losing their children when they were the real murderers of their daughters inside,” Lohan said, anger flashing across her face.
While many families here pine for a son, Naveen has helped her family reverse its fortunes. For years, Lohan and her husband were shunned by their neighbours, left off invitation lists for weddings, pujas and festivals. Bala Ram was advised repeatedly by friends to leave his wife and find someone younger who could help him carry on his family line.
For decades following their arranged marriage in 1950 — Bala Ram was 20 then and Lohan was just 12 — the couple failed to conceive. At one point, to stop him from leaving their daughter, Lohan’s parents gave Bab Ram her younger sister Omni as a second wife but she, too, could not get pregnant, further stoking gossip in the streets of Alewa, a village where women sit in doorstops next to lounging dogs and buffalo and drying pies of buffalo dung and straw used as cooking fuel.
When a neighbour told Lohan that she had read in the newspaper about a 60-year-old woman in the nearby city Hissar who had delivered twins through IVF, Lohan investigated. She went to visit the family to see if the story was true. Then she went to the clinic and asked for help.
After taking out a loan for 175,000 rupees ($4,000), Lohan bought a donor egg.
“It was a local girl, a good girl,” said Dr. Anurag Bishnoi, who runs the private National Fertility Centre, the IVF clinic in Hissar that helped Lohan to conceive.
Bala Ram, who has smoked unfiltered bidi cigarettes for more decades than he can remember, provided his sperm. But it was so weak that it could not penetrate the donor egg and had to be injected directly.
“I agree that it is a dangerous trend for elderly people to try to get this done but there has not been a single death reported,” Bishnoi said, adding that would-be mothers are given a stress test and electrocardiogram and are monitored after walking on a treadmill for 15 minutes to ensure they are healthy enough to proceed with a pregnancy.
Of the 500 babies Bishnoi has helped to deliver using IVF, about 10 per cent have been borne to mothers older than 50.
While the Federation of Obstetrics and Gynecological Societies of India said this year that IVF for elderly women should not be encouraged on ethical grounds, Bishnoi said the decision should be left to the aspiring mother.
“When a woman cannot have a child, the husbands wind up sleeping with more than one woman,” he said. “Women who are divorced are cursed by society and sometimes committing suicide. Now they maybe have a better chance. When we first opened up, we had maybe two or three cases a month. Everyone in the community was against us and thought that we put other men’s semen into their women. But now we have 50 to 100 women coming in here each month. They look at Rajo Devi and say, ‘If a 70-year-old can become a mother, so can I.’ ”
There’s little doubt that’s the attitude in his waiting room, where anxious couples sit in a room decorated with news clippings about Lohan.
“When you can’t bear children it adds so much tension in the family,’’ said Balveer Singh, 42, whose wife was in the clinic for a checkup after delivering twins a week earlier. “The husband comes home tired after a day’s work only to be stressed by the loaded atmosphere at home. A lot of men find a second woman, which finishes off the peace at home. For a lot of women, either suicide or divorce are their only choices.”
IVF, Singh said, presents another option.
Infertility has become a big business in India. Thirty years after the government approved IVF, many foreign couples now come here to hire local women to carry their babies to term. While critics call it exploitation, the surrogate mothers say they’re happy with the arrangement — some say it would take them decades of working as a labourer, perhaps carting bricks on their heads, to make as much money as they can during nine months as a surrogate.
And as India’s surrogacy business has surged in recent years, the IVF trend has similarly spread to India’s smaller cities, where even low-income farmers take out loans to pay for the treatment.
As Singh stood proudly accepting congratulations inside the clinic on a recent weekday afternoon, Naseeb Singh and his wife Jaspal paced in the courtyard outside. Jaspal, 35, has been trying to conceive for 22 years. After hearing about Lohan, Jaspal came to the clinic a year ago.
To help pay for fertility medication, she and her husband have borrowed 400,000 rupees ($9,068) so far — more than 200 times the average Indian worker’s $42 monthly income.
Child care advocates say there are well over 1,000 orphanages in India, but even low-income farmers like Singh and Jaspal say adoption isn’t an option they would consider.
“It’s not the same thing as our blood,” Jaspal said. “What are I and my husband going to gain by having a kid whose parents we know nothing about?”
And so Jaspal and others wait for good news from Bishnoi, no matter the cost or health complications.
Lohan’s pregnancy wasn’t without troubles. Eight weeks before her due date an ultrasound scan showed a problem. The 70-year-old lost three litres of blood, delivered Naveen by caesarean section — she was three pounds, five ounces — and stayed in hospital for a month.
“I have no regrets,” Lohan said with a shrug.
For months after Naveen’s birth, Lohan and her husband talked with their neighbours about trying for a son, someone who could help bring a dowry to repay the loans they took out to pay for fertility medicines and someone who could carry on the family name.
“No more kids,” Lohan said with a wave of her hand. “We are great parents to Naveen. I will send her to school next year and she will learn English from the very beginning. And when I marry her off I will give her a lot of dowry, everything in my possession. Even if she marries a boy of her choice that will be okay if it’s in my caste.”