There is no epidemic of thwarted motherhood.
The claim that Americans are experiencing some kind of fertility crisis because women are delaying marriage and childbirth for a few years has always had a whiff of concern troll behavior to it. It’s impossible to unbuckle “concerns” that women might wait “too long” from the more obvious and direct concerns expressed through anti-choice legislation, defenses of pay inequity, and evidence-free wish fulfillment pieces claiming that women are reverting back to pre-feminist lifestyles: Concerns that women’s independence is here to stay and that men will really have to learn to live without being blessed as the superior sex from birth. Threatening women with infertility if they wait “too long” has always been icky, because people making the threat never actually seem to be truly concerned that some women might miss out on the joys of motherhood. It’s always been more rooted in anger at women for holding out for more. Women who feel they have to get married and start having babies by 25 are women you can bully into accepting less: Less respect from their husbands, less ability to compete with men in the public sphere, just less. Not that being married by that age automatically means those things, of course, but it’s also true that if you reshuffle your priorities so that “married by 25” trumps “married to someone who truly respects and supports me”—someone who may not appear before 25—then the odds go way up that you’ll have to settle for less. Which is the point of the bullying.
Well, the “biological clock” bullies just had a little more power taken from them. A new study from the National Center for Health Statistics shows that infertility rates remain unchanged even as women are delaying childbirth more. It doesn’t seem to be an increase in the use of infertility treatments, either, because the rate of use of those flattened out in 2002 and even appears to be down some. (Though it seems that the efficacy of those treatments could have gone up, but at this point we’re talking about such a small percentage of babies born that it has to be statistically insignificant.) Tara Culp-Ressler elaborates:
Studies have found that fertility does decline with age. And it’s true that U.S. women are choosing to delay childbearing — from 1970 to 2013, the average age that women have their first baby has risen from 21.4 years old to 25.6 years old. But the evidence suggests that those two facts aren’t currently colliding to create a perfect storm of women who aren’t able to get pregnant by the time they decide they want a family.
Part of the problem is that people exaggerate what it means to say that fertility declines—or more accurately, infertility rises—with age. All that really means is that the percentage of women who have trouble conceiving goes up as they age. That percentage would have to be really big in order to make a difference in overall infertility rates as women’s age at first childbearing goes up, and it just wasn’t big enough.
Which isn’t to discount the experiences of women enduring infertility that may have had an easier time conceiving at a younger age, of course. This discussion is about the benefits and tradeoffs of social trends overall. Hand-wringers have been claiming for a long time that the benefits of the social trend of women delaying childbirth—which has been increasing equality, better education for women, lower divorce rates, and happier marriages—are not worth the tradeoff of growing infertility rates. To make that claim, however, you have to start by demonstrating that there are, in fact, growing infertility rates. (And then you have to make a convincing case, which I don’t think they have, that having more infertility is objectively worse than losing the benefits of delaying childbirth.) Since the claim that there’s growing infertility can’t be demonstrated, even the basic premise of the hand-wringing argument has been demolished.
Not that I think it will go away, of course. Anti-feminists are notoriously not bound by factual inaccuracies. But at least there’s now solid ground to push back.