This is a less weighty matter than I usually discuss on these pages, but I am becoming concerned about the misinformation which is apparently prevalent about this.
The first time I encountered the common misconception about fertility and age, I didn’t think much of it. It was just me hanging around with a couple of friends, one my age, the other much younger. They are both, by the way, exceptionally intelligent and well-informed women. But for some reason, I alluded to the fact that I, then 38 years old, and the friend of the same age, were unlikely to have any pregnancies in our future. Both of them firmly informed me that I was just as fertile at 38 as I had been at 22.
The conversation turned to other things. In the back of my mind, I decided that what they had meant was that pregnancy is still possible at 38; their insistence that a 38-year-old is not less fertile than a woman in her early 20’s was just one of those incidents of conversational carelessness. None of us is as careful to keep every fact and meaning straight when chatting with a couple of friends as we are when writing an essay intended to be taken seriously.
But a few months later, at work I made a similar remark in passing. Three women jumped on me and declared that women could continue to have children up to the age of 63. I swear on a stack of Torah scrolls that this is what they said.
I think that likely there had been some news item about a woman who got pregnant at 63 – probably with considerable medical help – and these women were too stupid to distinguish between “possible with a lot of luck and a great deal of expensive and risky hormonal treatments” and “normal”.
[EDIT: I was correct. A Romanian woman gave birth at the age of 66.]
But I’m starting to see this more and more, in random places. This attitude that women’s fertility is as long-lived as men’s. A woman of 30 saying carelessly that “someday” she’ll start a family – when her most fertile years are already behind her.
For thousands of years, humans have known that women decline in fertility as they age. Mary I of England, who married Philip II when she was 37, piled gold upon any quack who promised that his treatments would enable her to conceive despite her age. I once read that an elderly woman was once given a generous sum of money simply for presenting herself at the palace and telling the queen that she had recently given birth; the queen paid well for the sliver of hope the old humbug gave her. Mary I never conceived the child she longed for so desperately.
Women today, it seems, are similarly grasping at straws. The American Society for Reproductive Medicine became sufficiently alarmed at how widespread the misconception has become that fertility does not decline with age to broadcast commercials presenting the facts. Feminist outrage led to these nefarious attempts at disseminating facts being taken off the air. This website, for instance, claims with apparent seriousness that the only reason women in their 20’s and early 30’s have more children is that that is the age at which women choose to have children, having nothing to do with biology, and that unwanted pregnancy in women over 40 is a widespread problem, surpassing that of unwanted teenage pregnancy.
Meanwhile, women who have swallowed these lies are paying through the nose. Fertility treatments for older women cost in the thousands. Martha Stewart’s daughter, at 42, reportedly pays $28,000 a month in her attempts to conceive. Thus far, it hasn’t worked. What do women in their 40’s whose families are not filthy rich do?
It’s easy enough to see why this misinformation is being promoted. On a practical level, women who know that conception is unlikely when they reach their mid-30’s are not going to squander their youths in getting advanced degrees or pursuing a career; if they want to do these things, they will, like Phyllis Schafly, wait until after they have had their children and the children are, if not grown up, at least old enough not to need constant care.
On a theoretical level, fertility is just one more area in which men have the biological edge. Male fertility does decline with age, but not as soon as ours does. Women stopped claiming that if we had “equal rights” women would grow beards before the 20th century. By the 1980’s, most had stopped claiming that without societal conditioning, women would be just as strong as men, but it does still crop up from time to time.
The facts, however, show that nature has been more generous to men in this area as in so many others. Or actually, not so much. We tend to forget that we did not evolve as an urban, technologically advanced species. For primitive tribespeople, for cavemen, having our reproductive organs die years before the rest of us did was a positive boon. If a man dies when his child is an infant, the child still has a good chance of survival. But if the mother dies? Maybe, if the tribe has enough food and enough time, other women might raise it. But if times become hard, well. No, nature was doing us a favor by ensuring that we would probably live long enough to rear our youngest child. Men stay fertile longer because, in terms of simple survival, they are not as important to their children as women are. Only civilization gives them a role as vital as the mother’s.