By Piper Wiess
Fifty years ago, the birth control pill revolutionized pregnancy planning. Today women are on the brink of another milestone: reversing the biological clock.
Research presented at the World Congress on Fertility and Sterility suggests that it’s possible to undo the effects of early menopause with the use of stem cells. The conclusions, based on testing reproductive organs in rats, is still in early phases. But the breakthrough comes on the heels of another study, from Newcastle University, identifying the cause of “reproductive aging”. The information could lead to even greater fertility extension.
And it can’t come soon enough. Every childless women over the age of 30 is rattled by the shrill alarm that bleats: “you’re running out of time!” It’s become the topic of reality TV shows like “The Rachel Zoe Project”, the “Real Housewives” and various Discovery Health series. It’s in the news—most recently the impact of athleticism on fertility. And it’s the subject of countless romantic comedies—Jennifer Aniston‘s “The Switch” being the latest. The term, which refers to the waning female production of eggs, was once relegated to doctor’s visits and maternal nagging. But as women continue to take over the job market and fertility treatments gain momentum, the phrase has become a national topic of discussion.
The current facts: Female fertility may begin to decrease by age 30. By 35 it’s in steep decline. However, 14 percent of all babies in 2008 were born to women 35 years or older, according to a 2010 survey by the Pew Research Center. On the flip-side, if you’re an athlete, infertility could develop even in your 20’s and if you’re in the 1 percent of the female population with early menopause your clock could turn off as early as 30. The statistics are so wide-ranging, and vary from person to person, that it’s hard to know what time zone you’re even in.
As a result there’s a collective backlash targeting female career success. “I felt almost like I wished I would have never played tennis,” Grand Slam winner Gigi Fernandez revealed to the New York Times in a candid interview on her struggles with conception.” As an athlete, you have this attitude, ‘I can do anything with my body’…So your biological clock is ticking, but you’re in denial.” Rachel Zoe, a successful stylist, who has admitted to physical concerns about pregnancy, said on a recent episode of her Bravo series: “I’m 38 years old…I need to do it. It hangs over my head every single day.”
With so much pressure to prove that career doesn’t detract from female biological function, the issue of having a baby can be obscured by the desire to “beat the clock.” In a 2003 episode of “60 Minutes”, doctors warned of the pitfalls of pushing back pregnancy in favor of career. “Women are born with a finite number of eggs… at a preset rate…and there’s no test that’ll tell you how much time you have left,” reads the transcript.
Seven years later, that’s about to change. Recent reports suggest we’re three years from an accurate blood test that would predict the onset of menopause. “If the accuracy of the test is confirmed in larger studies, women could take the test early in their reproductive life to find out their expected age at menopause, knowledge that would help them plan when to start a family,” says the study’s researcher Dr. Fahimeh Ramezani Tehrani in USA Today.
That knowledge could also compel more single women to freeze their eggs at an earlier age. Cryo-preservation is the layaway plan on the rise as women have children later and fertility rates can exceed IVF. Depending on the procedure, age and health, potential for success can be as high as 96 percent. “I wanted to buy biological time,” one woman who froze her eggs at 37 told the Chicago Tribune. “The older I get, the more I think, ‘God, maybe the eggs I froze will be my route to motherhood.'”
But there’s a chance, our brains will do the work for us. New research by psychologists at The University of Texas at Austin, suggest that women are capitalizing on their declining fertility by being more sexually adventurous in their 30’s and 40’s. From one-night stands to increased sexual activity, declining fertility is no match for our genetic need to procreate. As a result, we may be beating the biological clock all on our own.
“Our findings suggest that women don’t need to necessarily go ‘baby crazy’ in their 30s or go around thinking they’re supposed to be having a ‘sexual peak,'” one of the study’s researchers, Judith Easton told press. “It may be more difficult to conceive past the age of 35, but our research suggests women’s psychology will continue to motivate them to try until menopause.”
As women continue to push their deadlines back, they’re criticized for being too greedy. “Women Who Want It All May Find Out It’s Too Late For Children” is the title of the “60 Minutes” segment. The piece goes on to point fingers at those earning over $55,000 a year, for waiting too long to conceive. It’s a criticism that’s implicit to countless reports on childless working women.
But necessity may be more at play than greed. A generation raised by parents with record divorce rates, they watched their mothers reenter the workforce out of desperation, only to discover limited opportunities because of lack of experience. That could, in part, explain the census findings that single, childless women between 22 and 30 are earning 8% more than men. For younger women, work is equated with survival, not a flight of fancy. And even those in sturdy relationships, are more likely to be the sole breadwinner. Unemployment rates are staggeringly higher for men than women. The thought of carrying both the financial and physical burden of pregnancy is stressful. And stress is a major hindrance in fertility.
As outside factors push back deadlines, fertility treatments become more viable options. But they come at a high price— $12,000 or more. That means women have to work even harder, and make more career strides, to secure the funds to procreate. It’s not a perfect situation. But at least research is keeping pace with evolution.
And advancements on fertility are likely to accelerate as females dominate academia. Last year, more women received doctoral degrees than men for the first time in history, according to the Washington Post. The findings suggest that, in past years, the timing of motherhood stunted school completion. “Many women feel they have to choose between having a career in academics and having a family,” Catherine Hill, director of research at the American Association of University Women told the Post. “Of course, they shouldn’t have to.”
Sentiments like that date back to 1960. “For the first time in human history, a woman could control her sexuality and determine her readiness for reproduction,” writes Ms. Magazine found editor Letty Cottlin Pogrebin on the 50th anniversary of the birth control pill. “What it spawned was generations of empowered women who are better equipped to make rational choices about their lives.”