This article was updated at 1:38 pm February 10th, 2010 to insert a link to data referenced in the body of the text.
Childless women of all ages are under assault in
America. If you’re a
teenager, you’re pushed toward motherhood by “moralizers” bent on denying you
information about, and access to, birth control. If you’re a women 35 and older, you’ve been subject to a
decade of news stories set to the ominous sound of a ticking clock and bent on
creating fertility anxiety—if you wait, you’ll be too late. And lately the anxiety peddlers have
been expanding their targeted danger zone to include women in their late 20s
and early 30s. Women lose 90 per cent of ‘eggs’ by 30,” ABC
news and others
informed us recently, and the message was more of the same: get busy!
We have abstinence-only ed to thank for the recent upswing
in the teen birth rate, a job assisted by the glamorization
of teen moms in the media and of babies, babies, babies in the tabloids and
the reality TV shows. Of course the glamour fades fast, and teen moms face big
problems such as plummeting high school graduation rates for the moms and,
later, for their kids, a higher likelihood of poverty and less hope of a
long-term relationship with or support from dad. Those are personal problems for the girls and their
families, but they’re also national problems as our hope for a globally
competitive, educated work force goes south. Education reform not linked to real birth control
information doesn’t just leave kids behind, it actively sets them and all of us
And sure, older women need to know that fertility declines
with age. But what are the actual
fertility rates of women in each age range? And why is it that increasing
numbers of women choose to delay in the first place? What is lost when they
don’t? Instead of facts and
understanding of the causes and effects of delay, we get a lot of
sentimentality aimed at getting you to start your family now.
When you consider that 2007 saw an upturn in the birthrate
in every age category between 10 and 45 as US births hit an
all-time high, there’s a clear disconnect between the high rates of birth for
women 35 plus and the claims of the anxiety peddlers. Women seeking full fertility facts should know that the only
rigorous study of natural fertility rates (conducted in the 1950s from data
collected over years prior) indicated that the infertility rate was 3.5 percent at 25, 7 percent
at 30, 11 percent at 35, 33 percent at 40, 50 percent at 41 and 87 percent at 45. (Click here for more on the 1950s data). Of course individuals differ, no
one group is generalizable to all other groups, and data from the first half of
the twentieth century wouldn’t reflect fertility degradation that may have occurred from STDs, stress or
pollution. But indications are
that health and medical advances have improved, not undermined,
our natural fertility rates within these age bands. However you understand the relation of this study to the
present moment, the rate of decline is nothing like what is suggested by a
story with the headline “women lose 90% of eggs by 30,” implying a similar
percentage likelihood of infertility.
In addition, IVF, egg donation, adoption and egg freezing
have expanded women’s options after their natural fertility declines. But while
these often work, they are expensive and unpredictable. And, hard though it may be to
imagine in our baby-wild world, many women are happy without kids. They’d be even more likely to be
happy if they weren’t being reminded all the time of how unhappy they should
be. But instead of a real look at
women’s life options, we get a sentimental, inaccurate and incomplete narrative.
As for that report
on 30-year-olds’ remaining eggs – though the report implies that low egg
reserve means a low fertility rate, a closer look at the data makes clear that there is no link. The abstract only cites figures for 30-
and 40-year-olds (12 and 3 percent, respectively), but the full report makes
clear that women of all ages have a
hugely diminished reserve when compared (as they are here) to the number of
eggs a female fetus has at 20 weeks past conception! According to these figures, 25-year-olds have 22 percent,
20-year-olds a mere 37 percent, 15-year-olds only 52 percent, 10-year-olds only
70 percent and 5-year-olds about 87 percent of the number of eggs they had
in the womb. Since few women
are infertile at 30, apparently 12
percent is all you need.
What’s left out
of all these stories is why women wait. To get an education. To earn a decent wage so
they can afford good childcare and have enough clout to negotiate a flexible
schedule that they wouldn’t otherwise get. To find the right partner for the
long term. To mature and maybe see the world. All of these are good reasons. And in fact the average age at first birth of
college-educated US women of all races is 30.
It is when those reasons for waiting are ignored that everybody
loses. The lack of good childcare
systems and flexible schedules means many college-educated women who become
mothers, like teen moms, are locked into limited career paths that ensure
long-term low wages and a limited voice in business and public policy creation
(while 50 percent of middle managers are women, just 17 percent of Congress is
and 3 percent of CEOs). Women and
their families lose out when women’s wages are low, when divorce is
inequitable, when careers are “mommy tracked.” The nation loses when the
education and insights of half its citizens go unused.
Circularly, because the national
family-support infrastructure hasn’t changed, women have been unable to move in
sufficient numbers into positions where they could change it much. What
progress has been made on this front has been entirely due to women’s having
delayed kids (by a few years or by many) or not had them at all. If women are pushed to start
their families earlier through false or incomplete information, even that
progress will erode.
Because fertility is experienced
by each woman as a very personal issue, it ends up getting very little critical
discussion, and that’s a big problem since then many women end up with bad
information on which to make life-shaping decisions. Time for an honest exploration of the dynamics of birth timing and women’s
work, especially in our recession.
That would be a fertile discussion.