Are you too busy to have kids? No worries. Thanks to medical technology, having children in your 40s is no big deal. Your local fertility clinic is there for you with a bunch of fancy treatments to help you realize your dreams. In fact, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, which once discouraged older women from getting pregnant, now endorses fertility treatments for women up to 55. You could be warming baby bottles and having hot flashes all at the same time!
Some people believe this brave new world of reproductive medicine is a breakthrough for gender equity and women's rights. At last, we can have almost the same choices men have. But other people believe that deferred parenthood is a vast, uncontrolled experiment whose consequences are far less joyous than we think. These include hundreds of thousands of useless and costly medical procedures, thwarted expectations, marital stress, heartbreak and an epidemic of children with autism, learning disorders and perhaps even schizophrenia.
Let's start with crushed hopes. Women think that, because they've heard of some 43-year-old who popped out twins, they can, too.
"They say, 'Oh, I'll just do IVF,' " fertility expert Judith Daniluk, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia, told me. "But age-related decline just can't be compensated for by technology." Despite all the new bells and whistles brought to you by the fertility industry, the odds of having your own biological child after 40 are no better than they were 20 years ago. With each cycle of in vitro fertilization, the success rate is 11 per cent – meaning you're highly likely to walk away from the fertility clinic poorer and empty-handed. At 44, the success rate is 1 per cent.
Even extremely smart women are in denial about this. We're empowered, right? So don't tell us we can't get pregnant when we want. According to a new fertility awareness survey conducted by Dr. Daniluk, 81 per cent of men and 73 per cent of women believe that, for women over 30, overall health and fitness are a better indicator of fertility than age. They couldn't be more wrong. Fifty-one per cent of women and 66 per cent of men don't realize that a woman's eggs are as old as she is. And 91 per cent of women and 92 per cent of men wrongly believe that IVF can help most women have their own biological children until menopause.
The truth is, fertility treatments produce far more broken dreams than babies. "Some people don't give up until their marriages are on the rocks," Dr. Daniluk says. (Her website, myfertilitychoices.com, is a useful primer on the facts of life.) "It's financially costly and emotionally devastating."
But even if we could have babies until we're 55, should we? Maybe not. Some of the problems of deferred parenting – difficult pregnancies, multiple births and serious medical complications, to say nothing of not living long enough to enjoy your own grandchildren – are well known. Others might come as a shock. Most older mothers have even older partners, and the father's age has consequences, too. New genomic research has found strong links between the rising age of fathers and the soaring incidence of autism and other brain disorders. The reason is that, as men age, they pass on more random genetic mutations through their sperm. A 36-year-old passes on twice as many of these mutations as a 20-year-old.
Some experts believe that such mutations are responsible for 20 per cent to 30 per cent of all autism cases. The newest research even shows that older fathers are more likely to have autistic grandchildren. Other research has found that older men are also more likely to father children with schizophrenia and major depression. "People have always focused on maternal age, but now we know that paternal age matters, too," researcher Dolores Malaspina told Scientific American. "This is a true paradigm shift."
Writer Judith Shulevitz is the older mother of a son diagnosed with fine-motor delay and other issues. (She was 37 when she conceived him with the help of IVF.) In a powerful piece published last December in The New Republic, she speculates about the "scary consequences of the greyest generation" of parents the world has ever known.
"What if my son's individual experience, meaningless from a statistical point of view, hinted at a collective problem?" she wrote. "I kept meeting children of friends and acquaintances, all roughly my age, who had Asperger's, autism, obsessive-compulsive disorder, attention-deficit disorder, sensory-integration disorder." She found that, between 1997 and 2008 in the U.S., learning problems, autism, developmental delays and related disorders increased about 17 per cent. "We're conducting a vast empirical experiment upon an unthinkably large population," she concluded.
The experiment is getting larger all the time. In 1983, the average age of first-time mothers in Canada was 26.9. Today, it's over 29. Almost one in every three first-time mothers is now 35 or over. As more and more people put off having children until they're housed and financially secure, the collective impact of deferred parenting will only grow.
It's not fair, of course – especially for young women who are somehow supposed to juggle everything all at once. All I know is that, if I had a daughter, I'd tell her to get on with it.