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Jewish World Review August 14, 2001 /25 Menachem-Av, 5761

Betsy Hart

Betsy Hart
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Consumer Reports

Science and the 'sisterhood': Why is mixing feminism and facts not kosher? -- WHAT do advancing age, smoking, being overweight and sexually transmitted diseases have in common?

Each can negatively affect a woman's fertility, according to a new ad campaign sponsored by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine. The society is the largest professional organization of fertility specialists in the United States, and it has raised quite a stir because of a public service campaign splashing the information across provocative posters on buses in suburban Chicago, New York and Seattle.

No one seems to mind pointing the declining-fertility finger at smoking, weight, or disease --- but advancing age is a landmine. Sean Tipton of the society told me that doctors behind the campaign considered dropping the warning about age, knowing it was a social hot potato. But, because it's such a major risk factor, they finally felt compelled to include it --- let the chips fall where they may. They weren't being paranoid. As Tipton explained, it was difficult even to find an advertising agency that would take on the age aspect of the campaign.

And no sooner had Newsweek magazine featured a cover story this week on fertility, age, and the launch of the public service announcements than leading feminists voiced their opposition.

Kim Gandy, the new president of the National Organization for Women, predictably made the round of top talk shows denouncing the age element of the the society initiative. The complaint she and other feminists share? Women, they argue, already know about their biological clock, so this stress on it just adds to a woman's, well, stress. Worse, Gandy told me, "it may needlessly pressure women to start families before they are ready."

Gandy objects to the "screaming headline" on the age poster, "Advancing age decreases your ability to have children." Yet, it happens to be true. The text of the add reads that "while women and their partners must be the ones to decide the best time when (and if) to have children, women in their twenties and early thirties are most likely to conceive. Infertility is a disease affecting 6.1 million people in the United States."

That's hardly coercive.

Sure, as Gandy emphatically reiterated to me, there are women in their forties who have no trouble conceiving while their much younger sisters struggle to get pregnant. But the fact remains that advancing age is a major risk factor for decreased fertility in women, and on average, women in the United States are dramatically delaying the age at which they first give birth. In a generation, there has been a significant increase in first births to women in their 30s and 40s, and a corresponding drop in first births to women in their twenties, though still just two percent of all babies are born to women over 40.

Enter fertility specialist Dr. Michael Soules. He spearheaded the campaign because, he says, he was frustrated at consistently seeing heart-broken women in their late thirties and early forties who wanted to start a family - and couldn't. For example, about 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. In addition, the risk of birth defects and miscarriage are much higher for women over forty.

Maybe some older moms-in-waiting didn't know the risk of delaying the start of their families. Maybe some had no choice but to wait. Maybe others knew the risks, but just thought or hoped infertility wouldn't happen to them.

In any event no one is blaming the victim. It's just that in spite of regular news reports of breathtaking technological advances in fertility treatments, Dr. Mark Sauer of Columbia University's Center for Women's Reproductive Care told Newsweek "we haven't seen any real improvement in treating women over 40. You can't change biology."

But knowledge is power. We're not talking about hip replacement surgery here, something a person has to find the least bad time to deal with. Having children is a joyous life event that most women want. No one should be afraid of giving women information about maximizing their opportunities for that joyous event. Can't we trust women to be smart enough to use this information wisely?

The siren song of feminism has long been: Your life on your terms, baby -- career, marriage, men, money, children, all if, and precisely when, you want them. Maybe the real concern of leading feminists, then, is that these public service announcements may help more women to make the choices that are right for them -- regardless of whether those choices advance the cause of the Sisterhood.

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


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