Everything you know about fertility is wrong

Women! You are running out of time to have a baby!

Women! You are running out of time to have a baby! Photo: Getty images

For decades now it’s been the headline guaranteed to strike fear into the heart of any woman over 30 who ever contemplated breeding: Women! You are Running out of Time to Have a Baby! It's appeared on every mainstream publication from Women's Health and Fitness to Time Magazine to the blessed Daily Mail, usually accompanied by 1 or 2 corporate types in their 40s who, having risen to the top of their respective fields, still felt like there was a hole in their souls in the shape of a child. The take-home implication? Don’t stay too long at the fair, ladies. Not earning enough money to support a child? Can’t find a willing partner? That’s not sciences’s problem, gals!

So we heeded the stern warnings from medical professionals, worried relatives and every other interfering busybody. (I once had a co-worker whisper ‘tick-tock tick-tock’ at me –I was 33 years old.) No matter that they sounded like concern trolls, the truth was irrefutable: a woman’s fertility declines in her 20s and then sharply declines at the age of 35.

Check out the infertility/age graph – hey, the last time I saw such a dramatic cut-off was at the denim shorts sale at Dotti. Can I get a What-What from Kathy Lette?

But then, just days ago, this article How Long Can You Wait to Have a Baby arrived on the internet and has quickly become the Snopes web page of female fertility. It seems that we’ve been relying on faulty or at the very least, outdated data. All it took was tenacious psychology researcher, Jean Twenge, to unearth some good news facts, including -

  1. The statistic that one in three women aged 35 to 39 will not be pregnant after a year of trying is based on French birth records from 1670 to 1830. In other words, women are being told when to get pregnant based on statistics from a time before electricity, antibiotics, fertility treatment, better nutritional options or, you know, proper hygiene standards came into play.
  2. A recent study found that 80 percent of white women between 38 and 39 of normal weight got pregnant naturally within six months. The real drop doesn’t occur until 40.
  3. The difference in pregnancy rates at age 28 versus 37 is only about 4 percentage points. Fertility does decrease with age, but ‘the decline is not steep enough to keep the vast majority of women in their late 30s from having a child.’
  4.  Studies based on historical birth records are more optimistic than what the press normally reports: One found that, in the days before birth control, 89 percent of 38-year-old women were still fertile. Another concluded that the typical woman was able to get pregnant until somewhere between ages 40 and 45.

Which explains why, even though your GP was probably telling you to ‘get a wriggle on’ in that wonderfully condescending way of his, many of the women you knew in their late 30s kept having kids with little to no dramas. Yes, the risk of birth defects rises with age but even those statistics are not as high as previously reported. Here’s the other thing Twenge found: much of the recent data we have on infertility actually comes from infertility clinics. So while it’s true that some women do have heart-breaking problems trying to conceive a child, their age isn’t likely to have a lot to do with it.

So, what are we to conclude from all of this? Well, before I get clamber up on my fertility feminist high horse I want to admit that sometimes, when the medical establishment and the media get together, bad things happen. You know that statistic that 95 per cent of diets fail? Yeah, not true. Also, medical professionals like to err on the side of caution. An example of this is the 'no alcohol during pregnancy' rule. You can drink during pregnancy but physicians just don’t know the level at which it can harm your unborn child so they put a blanket ban on the whole thing.

Now, here comes the high horse. Medicine has a rich history of ignoring women’s reproductive and sexual health. Remember how long it was before physicians even considered the clitoris to be more than just a superfluous, non functioning organ? Remember too, that just last month a book called What Do Women Want?: Adventures in the Science of Female Desire finally proved what women have known for eons: we love sex just as much, if not more than men. In fact, monogamy is more of a challenge for women – not less.

So here we are in 2013, chipping away to find the finer nuances of women’s fertility. What took us so long? Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Susan Faludi had a theory about this when she wrote Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women in 1991. Faludi posited that ‘trend’ stories such as ‘There’s a Man drought!’ and ‘You’re Running Out of Time to have a baby!’ which began in the 1980s (yeah, it’s been 30 years) were a direct result of women’s progress. While the feminist movement made serious dents in patriarchal assumptions and structures of the 1970s, many women didn’t become a threat rise up the ranks of corporations until the following decade.

As Faludi wrote, ‘this counter assault is largely insidious ... it stands the truth boldly on its head and proclaims that the very steps that have elevated women's position have actually led to their downfall.’

Hence, the article with the female executive who would trade it all in for a screaming bub.

The reason the biological clock headline is only being questioned now is because most people accept that women in management positions aren’t dissipating. More to the point, pop culture has helped cement the fact that women don’t want to settle down until they’re good and ready. Both of these concepts, once considered shocking 30 years ago, no longer scare women like they used to. Which explains why the ‘biological clock’ headlines have shifted slightly –  toward men.

But, as Faludi theorised almost 20 years ago, all this means is that the battle lines against women are redrawn. So while we can finally deconstruct the ‘Biological Clock’ agenda, we will always have new headlines to contend with. Don’t believe me? Then perhaps you recognise this question: Can Women Really Have it All?