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Jewish World Review April 16, 2002 / 5 Iyar, 5762

Betsy Hart

Betsy Hart
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The politics of fertility --- and the right to have it all | What is all the fuss about? Science continues to confirm that a woman is far more likely to conceive when in her twenties than as she approaches her late thirties and early forties. This is not some Communist plot, it's our bodies. Ever heard of a woman's "ticking biological clock"?

But the release of a new book, "Creating a Life: Professional Women and The Quest for Children" by Sylvia Ann Hewlett, which looks at the apparently volatile mix of women's fertility, aging and careers, is creating shock-waves as the subject hits magazine covers and television and radio talk shows.

Thousands of years ago Abraham and Sarah knew it would take a miracle for her to conceive at her advanced age. That miracle was, of course, granted in Isaac.

Fast-forward, and age-related female infertility may still take something of a miracle to overcome. For example, 33 percent of women in their thirties who undergo in vitro fertilization will conceive but only about 8 percent of women in their forties will.

Fertility experts agree that, perhaps surprisingly, there is nothing promising on the horizon for treatment of age-related infertility. Forget about the corporate "glass-ceiling" - it seems there's a fertility "age-ceiling" that just doesn't want to shatter.

This is one reason why the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, the largest professional organization of fertility specialists in the United States, recently launched a public service campaign to let women know it's generally much easier to conceive when they are younger.

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So, why the fuss? Because in some quarters, women's bodies are the ultimate political statement. Kim Gandy, the president of the National Organization for Women, told me that highlighting the age issue when it comes to infertility might "needlessly pressure women to start families before they are ready." Gandy kept adamantly reiterating to me that there are women in their forties who have no trouble conceiving, and women in their twenties who just can't seem to make a baby.

True, but the fact remains that it's typically much harder to conceive as a woman gets older, and that's important information since there has been a significant increase in first births to American women in their 30s and 40s, accompanying a drop in the rate of first births to women in their twenties.

The "problem" for some women is that their twenties are great both for getting their careers and their families started. So, which to do? That most women can't or don't want to commit fully to both at the same time is evidenced by the fact that, as Hewlett found in her survey of almost 1,700 "high-achieving" women, 42 percent were still childless after age 40 and that rate climbed to almost 50 percent for women earning six figures. (Many more had "time" for only one child.) In the general population, only 20 percent of all women age 40 to 44 have never had a baby, but even that figure has doubled in the last two decades.

Sure, some of these women never wanted kids anyway. But Hewlett found the overwhelming majority had wanted to have children - it just never "happened." (Yes, as Hewlett points out, some men get to have high-powered careers and kids too. But mothering is very different and life isn't "fair," so what else is new?)

None of this means that women should be blamed for not trying to start their families sooner. The right husbands don't just drop into the laps of twenty-somethings, after all. Nor should anyone suggest that women shouldn't pursue a thriving and satisfying professional life.

At the same time giving women the very real, if politically incorrect truths about the advantages of youth when it comes to fertility should hardly be seen as threatening.

Hewlett suggests lots of policy "solutions," like mandatory paid parental leave, that would really do little but make women of child-bearing age less attractive to business.

It may come down to the fact that -- gasp! -- no one has a "right" to have it all on her terms, or to force the working world to change just so parents don't have to make choices. But one recommendation does make sense: Hewlett suggests young women project where they want to be, in terms of motherhood and career, when they hit say 45, and then work "backward" from there when it comes to life's planning. (Such advice surely makes sense for men, too.) Of course, life is full of surprises after all. But if we take the politics out of childbearing, age-related infertility doesn't have to be one of them.

JWR contributor Betsy Hart, a frequent commentator on CNN and the Fox News Channel, can be reached by clicking here.


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