Tick Tock

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Ginny and her niece

I’d like to be a mother—someday. Now is not a good time. I’m 28 years old, unmarried, and trying to build a freelance writing business from a small New York apartment.

I grew up in the wake of the feminist movement, and boy am I glad about that. Gender inequalities still exist, of course (ahem). But since grade school, my parents, teachers and favorite after-school-TV-show characters have encouraged me to invest in my education and career, just like any ambitious man. And I have.

Alas, biology still holds a trump card: my closing fertility window. By the time I’m 38, my bank account may be pregnant, but my eggs will be fossils. In last week’s issue of New Scientist, I wrote about a far-out experimental solution: freezing pieces of my ovary. The premise of the story was that if this technology ever gets off the ground, it could fulfill the original promise of the birth control pill, allowing women to make career decisions without the pressure of a ticking clock.

And it’s such a satisfying premise, isn’t it, especially for science-loving feminists like me. But after five months of airing it, triumphantly, to everyone I know, and thinking about their responses, my enthusiasm has waned. The cultural limits on the age of motherhood, I’m afraid, are far stronger than the biological ones.

Ovarian tissue freezing was first developed for women with cancer, and so far has resulted in only 19 babies worldwide. As my piece explains, researchers are still working out lots of kinks in the freezing and surgical techniques, so it’s unclear when or whether it will ever be reliable enough for healthy women to bet on. But let’s just pretend that it worked perfectly. I could freeze an ovary at age 25, put it back in at my leisure, whether at age 26 or 50, and conceive naturally. If that were possible, would the technology change societal norms?

There’s an obvious precedent. On May 9, 1960, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Enovid, the first birth control pill. Today more than 100 million women worldwide use some form of oral contraceptive.

Before the pill, women had children early and often wound up with more than they could afford. The pill’s initial backers, women’s rights activists Katharine McCormick and Margaret Sanger, argued in the 1920s that contraception would give women a way out of this form of poverty. It did.

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Katharine McCormick and Margaret Sanger Susan Perkins at the American Museum of Natural History is almost done with a truly heroic feat: overseeing a blog that features a new parasite every day in 2010. As we glide towards the end of the year, she's launched "The Twelve Parasites of Christmas." So far, mistletoe (that botanical equivalent of a tapeworm!), two turtle doves (and their blood parasites), and the cauliflower mushroom, bane of Christmas trees. What gifts await us in the next week?

From 1970 to 2006, the average age of first-time motherhood in the U.S. went from 21.4 to 25 years, and the proportion aged 35 years and older increased nearly eight times. Same deal in Europe and Asia.

Free from young motherhood, women can work and rack up degrees. Ladies in the American workforce climbed from 26.2 million in 1965 to 71.6 million in 2008. In 1970, less than 5 percent of first-year law students and 10 percent of medical students were women; by the ’90s, it was 45 and 40 percent, respectively.

Some economists point out that the pill’s benefits go beyond women’s work opportunities. It has dramatically lowered the number of unintended pregnancies, which saves a lot of healthcare dollars ($14,000 per woman for every five years of contraceptive use, according to one estimate). Fewer unwanted babies also means less alcohol and tobacco use during pregnancy, less child abuse and neglect, higher birth weights, and overall healthier families.

But the pill had another, not-so-rosy sociological effect: it helped turn infertility into an epidemic. Now, instead of being stuck with children too early, women are burdened by the fact that if we wait too long, we won’t be able to conceive. An estimated 10 percent of couples worldwide can’t conceive within a year.

So back to my earlier question. If we had a technology that could stop the clock, would a bunch of Good Things happen to women? Would we earn more money before having a kid, allowing us to give said kid better medical care and more educational opportunities? Would employers, no longer at risk of losing a young employee in her 30s, finally start paying us what they pay men for the same job? Would more women stay in science? Without the terrifying “use-it-or-lose-it” voice in the back of our heads, would more of us realize that, actually, we don’t want any of those smelly babies?

I wish I could say that if only the technology existed, it would give women (and their partners) more choices and help us make better decisions. But I’m not sure it would. There’s a surprisingly strong cultural resistance to the idea of delaying motherhood. When I mentioned this story to colleagues and peers, I heard over and over again, “Yeah, but is it good for the kid to be the one with the old mom?” or “I wouldn’t have enough energy to do it at that age” or “At some point, women have to make up their minds.”

I even heard this from researchers who work on fertility preservation. Take Nicole Noyes, a professor of obstetrics at the New York University Fertility Center. Noyes and her colleagues have done hundreds of egg freezing procedures, in which a woman does the first half of in vitro fertilization, but then puts the eggs on ice. When I told Noyes I didn’t see myself having children until at least my late 30s, she gasped. She told me that her mother, who had eight children post World War II, had encouraged her to get a job and hold off on family. Noyes got pregnant at age 33, but considers herself lucky. “Looking back, I shudder to think that I waited so long,” she says. “The generation behind me has to go, OK there’s a happy medium.” (Then, about 15 minutes after our call, Noyes sent me a follow-up email, writing: “I hope I didn’t scare you about your fertility but rather make you appreciate that you are at your peak of it NOW and I don’t want you to waste it.” No pressure or anything.)

I’m sympathetic to some of these arguments. For me, though, a technology that could give me even 10 years — between age 30 and 40, say — would mean a lot. And really, is there anything so terrible about a 40-year-old mother?

Ovarian tissue banking is way too experimental to help me. But maybe it will be there for my niece, or hell, my daughter.

Top image via Flickr

This post was originally published on The Last Word on Nothing