Fertility, Equality, Biology and George Orwell’s Animal Farm

“Feminism is not a dirty word… it means you believe in equality– Kate Nash 

What Kate Nash says here is what I believe. I believe that being a feminist is simple. It means that I believe in the social, economic and political equality of the sexes. My boss thinks it means I support women no matter what and the struggle to convince him otherwise is so “real” but that’s a discussion for another day. What being “typecasted” in the workplace may mean for your career.

That is not what I want to talk about today. Today I want to talk about a recent visit to the gynae and the multiple conversations with colleagues and peers in their late 30s to early 40s who are facing the heartbreaking struggle to conceive that led me to the realisation that, in some ways, in real life, equality operates exactly as it does in George Orwell’s Animal farm. All are equal but some are more equal than others.

I believe the best illustrator of this is the question of having children. The battery in an average man’s biological clock must be a Duracell because it lasts much much longer than an average woman’s. In fact, an article on a study done on male fertility by American Researchers stated that “although men may have a biological clock, it does not start ticking as fast as women’s. Scientists claim women’s fertility begins to decline in her early thirties and then drops rapidly between the ages of 35 and 40. However, men do not reach a ‘threshold’ of sudden decline when they hit a certain age…It is more a gradual change over time.” Very very gradual if you ask me because many men can father children up to their 70s.

I have heard many women told and tell that they can have babies whenever they want to. I’m not so sure that that is 100% true. I am pro-choice but, beyond that, I am pro-informed-choice. If you are very keen on being a parent one day, it is important take the science into account before making a decision on when.

“The Age Game

Like it or not, age remains the biggest determinant of fertility. “No matter how much you take care of yourself, you can’t slow down ovarian aging,” says Dr. Kutluk Oktay, medical director at the Institute for Fertility Preservation at the Center for Human Reproduction in New York City. Here’s why you shouldn’t wait until your 40s to hit the baby panic button:

Your ovaries have a life span. Making a baby requires a healthy egg, but eggs become more scarce as you age. You’re born with about a million eggs, but most of them never mature. By the time you reach puberty, you’re down to half your original supply, and the number continues to fall each year. And not every egg that survives can make a baby. Even in your prime, about half of all eggs have chromosomal abnormalities, and the proportion of eggs with genetic problems increases as you age, explains Dr. David Adamson, president of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine. Eventually, you simply run out of viable eggs. “As of today, we have no way of changing that,” he says. “It’s the natural course of human life.”

Fertility peaks in your 20s. Most women hit their fertile peak between the ages of 23 and 31, though the rate at which women conceive begins to dip slightly in their late 20s. Around age 31, fertility starts to drop more quickly — by about 3 percent per year — until you hit 35 or so. From there, the decline accelerates. “The average 39-year-old woman has half the fertility she had at 31, and between 39 and 42, the chances of conceiving drop by half again,” says Adamson. Approximately one in four women age 35 or older have trouble getting pregnant.

The average woman can have a baby until age 41, but that’s no guarantee. Your ability to naturally conceive a child ends about 10 years before menopause, but “we do not have good tests to predict when that life change will occur,” says Adamson. While the average age at which women deliver their last child is 41, for some women it’s 30; for others, 45. Currently, doctors can measure a few markers of fertility, such as the hormone FSH, but “these only tell us the bad news,” says Oktay. “Even if FSH is normal, that doesn’t tell us how many reproductive years this woman has left. Once it’s elevated, we know it’s too late.”

Fertility patterns can run in families. “But it’s not something to plan by,” Adamson says. “While your mother may have had her last baby at 43 years old, you can’t count on that being your destiny.”

What the article quoted above says is exactly what the gynae told us when we asked how long we could wait to have a child. It is not for anyone to tell you when to have a baby. It never is. What this information says to me is that when you make that decision, make it knowing that women are at an apparent disadvantage in matters relating to the biological clock.

In short,

  • An average man will be able to have babies long after a woman of the same age is no longer able to. It is important to note that men also have fertility issues that are not discussed here.
  • The risk of genetic abnormalities and birth defects increase with age.
  • The likelihood of conception is greatly reduced after the age of 35.
  • Once the biological clock slows down or stops, it is irreversible.
  • I have a colleague who had her first baby at 42. Both mum and baby did great. It was also a very easy pregnancy followed by a textbook vaginal birth. I have another who is 38 and she has been trying for a few years to have a third child without success.
  • The possibility of a healthy and even easy pregnancy in one’s 40s is real. I also know a remarkable number of women below 35 who are struggling to conceive so the reality of the risk of difficulty conceiving is real too. Research shows that “at 40 a woman only has a 5% chance of becoming pregnant in any month.” At 30, it’s 20%. Those are some heavy odds.
  • “A woman over 35 is nearly 2.5 times more likely than a younger woman to have a stillbirth. By age 40, she is more than five times more likely to have a stillbirth than a woman under 35… For a woman aged 40 the risk of miscarriage is greater than the chance of a live birth.”

All this seems to paint the picture that fertility is ageist and sexist in favour of men. I only share this because I wish the devastating silence and consequent loneliness around fertility issues would be broken. I also share it because I believe knowledge is power. Making one’s choices freely is key. Making free choices empowered by correct and up to date knowledge is the ideal. I urge anyone making a decision on the subject to research, speak to experts and make an informed choice that is best for their unique circumstances and choices.

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