Time–and Fertility–Waits for No Woman

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Thursday, April 11, 2002

By Heide Seward, Research Fellow

Three recent events-a new book by economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett, the April 15, 2002 Time magazine cover story about it, “Making Time for a Baby,” and a recent “60 Minutes” story by Leslie Stahl on the same subject-have re-ignited the ongoing debate about women balancing career and family. The current furor centers on the growing epidemic of childlessness, especially among successful women. In Hewlett’s new book, Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children (Talk Miramax Books, March, 2002), she notes that many women who put off having children until their 30’s or 40’s to follow the career track have found themselves unable to conceive without expensive and often emotionally taxing fertility treatments. This should come as no surprise to anyone who paid close attention in biology class. Women are most fertile in their teens to mid-twenties. Fertility begins to decline slightly as early as age 27 and continues to decline. By age 42, according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, as stated in the Time article, “once a woman celebrates her 42nd birthday, the chances of her having a baby using her own eggs, even with advanced medical help, are less than 10%.” The incidence of miscarriage or chromosomal abnormalities is also much higher for older mothers. Add to this the growing numbers of women who find themselves infertile in their peak childbearing years because of a sexually transmitted disease that went undetected and untreated when they were younger, and it is apparent why there is cause for concern.

Unfortunately for many women, by the time they finally settle down and change their focus from career to family, it is too late. As Hewlett found in a national survey of 1,647 women that she conducted for her book, childlessness was less an affirmative decision than what one woman called a “creeping nonchoice.” They were so busy climbing the career ladder that relationships took a back seat. Before they knew it the years had flown. By the time they got married or, in the case of those who did marry young, simply turned their attention to starting a family, their biological clock had run down. Certainly some of these women never intended to have children, but only 14% of the women in Hewlett’s survey said they definitely did not want children.

As related in the 2001 report, Gaining Ground: A Profile of American Women in the Twentieth Century by Dr. Janice Shaw Crouse, Senior Fellow of the Beverly LaHaye Institute, the percentage of American women age 40-44 who have not had at least one child almost doubled in just over 2 decades. Data compiled by the National Center for Health Statistics indicate that the percentage increased from 8.8% in 1975 to 16.5% in 1998. Recent Census data indicate that by the year 2000, the percentage had reached 20 percent. Among what Hewlett calls “high achieving women”-those who earn in the top 10% for their age group or who hold advanced professional degrees-42% are childless. Among women earning $100,000 or more, nearly half (49%) reach 40 without having given birth.

The reasons that so many women find themselves in this predicament are complex, but one of the most tragic reasons is ignorance. Even highly educated women, it seems, have not fully grasped the reality that their childbearing years are relatively limited and that they must take this reality into account when establishing their life priorities. An online survey conducted last fall by the American Infertility Association (AIA) offers a picture of just how little women know about their own fertility. Out of the 12,524 women who responded to the survey, only 1 answered all 15 questions correctly. (Only 13% knew, for example, that fertility begins to decline at age 27; 39% thought it began at age 40.) Concerned by the lack of awareness about age-related infertility, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) conducted an ad campaign last fall, featuring a picture of a baby bottle shaped like an hourglass, implying that time might be running out for women who wished to have children. Perhaps not surprisingly, the ASRM was excoriated by radical feminists for scaring women with a message that they must have children early or risk childlessness. Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women, openly displayed her hostility to the ad campaign in an interview for the “60 Minutes” story.

Some of the radical feminist backlash to the effort to educate women about their fertility may be attributable to defensiveness. After all, it was radical feminists who expended so much effort over the past several decades pushing women into the workforce and discouraging early childbearing, especially if it meant (heaven forbid!) having to depend solely on a husband’s income for a time. If feminists were chiefly concerned-as they claim they are-with expanding women’s choices, then the choice to make family a higher priority than a career would be celebrated, not belittled, and ensuring women’s ability to have children would be pursued with as much passion as ensuring their ability not to have them. As AIA president Pamela Madsen puts it, “Reproductive freedom is not just the ability not to have a child through birth control. It’s the ability to have one if and when you want one.” It is not clear whether Madsen’s definition of birth control includes abortion & abortifaciants. Certainly radical feminists would include them under their definition. In any case, their near-exclusive focus on that side of the equation and their silence on the issue of age-related infertility indicate that many of them would not agree with her. And many women who listened to the feminist siren song of “career before children” have been cheated of their chance to have children as a result. Maybe the current controversy will help keep the next generation from repeating their mistake.

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