Darn, I Forgot to Have Babies!

Stem Cells, HBO, and Passing Buses Fuel a Fertility Panic

Here it is: fertility panic number 47. This latest round of official consternation over when women should have babies was sparked by Newsweek's "Science Can't Beat the Biological Clock" story—complete with a taut, pregnant belly featured on the cover. Or was it the American Society for Reproductive Medicine that started it all with the announcement of its "public service" ad campaign, which will soon bring images of hourglass-shaped baby bottles to buses and subways near you? "Advancing age decreases your ability to have children," the fertility doctors' group warns, in case women haven't gathered as much from the visual—or perhaps just from living on earth.

The politically charged question of when women should have babies is always in the air—inextricably entwined, as it is, with the ongoing struggles over birth control, abortion, and women's position in the workplace. But with fertility specialists hitting the talk-show circuit and the hourglass campaign poised to launch in New York, Chicago, and Seattle next month, the early-procreation push is once again moving into high gear.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the social pressure over pregnancy timing is tightening just as anxiety-provoking reproductive issues are swirling out of Washington's control. Earlier this month, after Congress had already voted overwhelmingly to outlaw the cloning of humans, several rogue scientists stepped forward to announce their intentions to defy the ban and do just that. (The fact that the person leading the pro-cloning pack believes in aliens and claims to have seen a UFO probably does little to assuage fears of Frankenbabies.) Meanwhile, policy makers have been grappling with the related question of research on stem cells, the primal building blocks that, when taken from embryos, can grow into brains, hearts, kidneys, and other body parts.

Illustration by Catherine Parr

The whole thing is enough to make a legislator long for the good old days, when organs were just organs and Mom stayed at home and made cookies (and, of course, babies). But, while elected officials remain unable to stave off the Brave New World, nostalgia for our bygone social order seems to be bubbling up through the popular culture.

It's as if collective fear is taking over where laws leave off, as it mysteriously seems to at times. Remember the 1986 "news" that college-educated women over 35 were more likely to be killed by a terrorist than to find a husband, which also ended up on the cover of Newsweek? As Susan Faludi pointed out out in Backlash, that study had a closer relationship to political battles over equal pay and rights than it did to the truth. Well, this time, reproduction is the trigger—though, once again, women are getting the squeeze.

Even TV's usually carefree Sex and the City characters are feeling it. In the latest episode, Miranda reluctantly decides to go forward with an unplanned pregnancy by her ex, Steve. While the show's hardboiled, thirtysomething lawyer continues to balk at marriage for marriage's sake, she recognizes pregnancy as a limited-time offer. ("I'm still not ready, but when am I ever going to be ready?" she asks Steve.) So, as her baby-obsessed friend, Charlotte, submits to hormone shots in her butt—and brings the show's fertility-oriented plot score to 50 percent—Miranda resignedly starts throwing up in the toilet and preparing for motherhood.

None of their decisions is simple. While Miranda stares down the barrel of single-motherhood, Charlotte tries to get pregnant despite her antagonistic mother-in-law, her ambivalence about her husband, her husband's ambivalence about having children, her own fertility limitations, and perhaps those of her husband. (This last possibility is not unlikely, since male infertility actually accounts for some 40 percents of couples' difficulties conceiving, though the issue never seems to come up much on talk shows or magazine covers.)

Real women have even more complicated lives than characters on half-hour TV shows, of course. They get those irresistible job opportunities that leave them single-mindedly toiling—in Russia. Or their seemingly solid relationships suddenly explode after eight years. Or illnesses hit just when everything else seems to be coming together. As the MTA says of its own scheduling difficulties, "It's more than you can explain in a poster."

Nevertheless, women will be accosted with actual posters bearing the frustratingly simplistic message: Time's running out. As if women who want to have kids but haven't had them just somehow forgot to do it and a passing bus could jolt them into making this major life decision. Maybe the women who don't take public transportation should dictate reminders into their personal tape recorders: "Note to self: Get pregnant before it's too late. Oh yeah, and make enough money and find right partner. Also, buy milk."

All of which is not to deny the true limitations of female fertility. While most men can continue to make sperm as long as they live, a woman's reproductive cells are on their way out even before she's born. "Egg suicide," as some doctors like to call it, starts seven months after conception and continues unabated until menopause, which typically begins around 51 for American women. In the mid thirties, the cells begin offing themselves even more precipitously. By 40, getting pregnant is decidedly dicey. Only about 2 percent of all babies are born to women over that age, as the Newsweek article points out in the second paragraph.

For women raised with the hope of having both a career and a family, this reality can result in a frenzied midlife crunch, says Naomi Wolf, whose latest book, Misconceptions, focuses on the travails of American motherhood. "The workplace makes it virtually impossible to become mothers when it's reproductively ideal," the 38-year-old Wolf said in a recent phone interview, as her children vied for her attention in the background. "It can be heartbreaking."

On this point, at least, the creators of the subway ads agree. "Social reality and biological reality are not intersecting where they should," the American Society for Reproductive Medicine's spokesman, Sean Tipton, explains. Tipton insists that the point of the group's ads—which can be seen on protectyourfertility.org, and also caution women about the counter-reproductive effects of weight (both too much and too little), smoking, and sexually transmitted diseases—is simply to address the social/biological mismatch.

But the message seems to be aimed only at only one-half of the equation, holding individual women responsible for a situation that's much bigger than they are—and, in the process, tightening the knots already in many stomachs. Feminists have long pointed out that social policies—most notably paid parental leave and adequate financial support for child care—could go a long way toward making American motherhood more viable. "We need to radically restructure social organizations so that women can truly give birth when they want to give birth," is how Wolf puts it.

Perhaps that radical restructuring bill got stuck in committee. In any case, while they're waiting for the grand overhaul, women are having children later. Indeed, to the extent that there is news on the fertility front, it's not that women's baby-making days are numbered (that's always been true), but that the biological picture is improving for older would-be mothers: The number of women in their thirties and forties giving birth for the first time has quadrupled since 1970, pushing the median age of first-time moms to its current all-time high: 24.5. Between 1980 and 1995, the number of 40-to 44-year-old women giving birth shot up by 81 percent.

There has yet to be a scientific breakthrough on the level of the discovery of stem cells that solves the egg-suicide problem. But there's no shortage of women having babies well past what we used to think of as the age limit. After Wendy Wasserstein gave birth at 48 and Cheryl Tiegs, using a surrogate, produced twins at 52, the recent news of photographer Annie Leibovitz's pregnancy seemed almost ho-hum. So far, response has centered less around her age—51—than on how a little one will affect her jet-setting work life.

Gray-haired moms could hardly be as scary as cloned people. Still, the success of these women may well be somewhere in the destabilizing mix that's making the biological alarm clock ring right now.

"Just as women get some confidence in figuring out their own trajectories and giving priority to their work, these things come and hit you," says Rosalind Petchesky, a distinguished professor of political science at CUNY and author of Negotiating Reproductive Rights. Petchesky can't explain exactly how this backlash comes to be expressed in the collective consciousness. But when it does, she says, the message is usually the same. "The burden is on women to make sure that children are produced and that they're healthy," says Petchesky. "We are just not allowed to have an unguilty relationship to maternity."

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