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The Biological Clock: Myths, Men, and the Politics of Time

July 23, 2018
Katie Visco

The expectations of motherhood affect women whether or not they are concerned about their fertility.  Ovaries are regarded as a ticking time bomb, and women are encouraged to “beat the clock” and push out children as early as possible. Women’s fertility does decrease over time, but men are not exempt from the test of time. Rather, fertility and the viability of pregnancy is affected by both parties involved. Read on to learn more about the infamous biological clock:

  • Decreasing Fertility in Women
  • No, Men Aren’t Endlessly Fertile
  • A Wrinkle in Time (and the Patriarchy)

Decreasing Fertility in Women

You’ve probably heard that couples should ideally conceive children before the age of 35, but the consequences of “geriatric pregnancy” are less severe than the general public might believe. Although both men and women have an age range in which they are statistically more likely to conceive children without birth defects, the term “biological clock” is more directed towards women.

One of the most quoted studies on female age and fertility concludes that the ability to conceive does drastically decline after 35, but what readers sometimes overlook is that:

  1. This study examines French birth records between 1670 to 1830 (almost two centuries ago!).
  2. The authors never recorded other factors besides the woman’s age that may have contributed to the declining birth rates. Could it have been the man and not the woman who was the problem? Were there medical conditions involved? What about how active the couples were?

In more modern fertility studies, the percentages of women in their 20s and 30s didn’t have significantly distinguishable results. A study on sample size of about 800 European women found that with sex twice a week, 86% of 27-to 34-year-old women and 82% of 35-to 39-year-old women were able to conceive within the year.

With a sample size of about 3000 women looking to conceive, another Danish study found that about 84% of 20-to 34-year-old women and 78% of 35-to 40-year-old women were able get pregnant within the year. Though it’s true that fertility decreases with age, the percentages are not considerably different.

Having children before the age of 35 does reduce the likelihood of birth defects and raise the possibility of conception, but not as drastically as the mainstream media publicizes. Though fertility naturally decreases with time, having children is not as urgent as people think.

As long as a woman is healthy and seeks out appropriate care, pregnancy is a possibility at many ages.

No, Men Aren’t Endlessly Fertile

Men are also affected by age-related fertility issues. It’s true that men could have children later than women because they are not limited by menopause, but their fertility does decrease with age.

Research shows that men’s fertility rates decrease as they age and after 40. Even if they are able to conceive, their children have a greater chance of developing autism or schizophrenia.

Every parent hopes for a healthy child, but studies have shown that fertility and health of children does not depend entirely on the mother’s fertility. While men can have children at older ages (see: Clint Eastwood), there is a considerable increase in risk involved for both the mother and child.

For instance, women’s risk of miscarriage is twice as high with partners over 45 compared to those with partners under 25, and it may take five times as long to conceive.

If a woman is in the same age range as her partner, then his age does not affect chance of conception greatly. If a younger woman is with an older man, however, the statistics point to a marked decrease in conception and healthy pregnancies due to the male’s age.

In a study done by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School in Boston, researchers found that women under 30 whose male partners were 30 to 35 had a 73% chance of a live birth. For women that same age with partners aged 40 to 42, this chance dropped to 46%.

It has recently become more evident that women’s fertility alone is not responsible for conception. Fertility is an issue that affects men and their sperm in tangible ways. Often, the discourse surrounding fertility is geared towards women and their ticking ovaries. By acknowledging that men’s fertility is just as time-sensitive, we can begin moving towards more productive (literally) conversations about fertility.

A Wrinkle in Time (and the Patriarchy)

Women are the biggest victims of the “biological clock.” Although men and their fertility are just as important to discuss, the responsibility has always been put on women to consider fertility from a young age. Why is this so?

The year was 1978, and women were beginning to thrive. For the first time, the “career woman” was in the limelight, and power started shifting. The message of “The Clock is Ticking for the Career Woman,” was published in the Washington Post as a reaction to the working woman—“All women want babies, and career women are unhappy with their ‘liberation’ if it puts their traditional role of motherhood at risk.”

As Susan Faludi argued in her book Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, two things have frequently triggered backlashes against women’s rights: economic independence and increased control over our fertility. The 1970s seemed to be bringing both. While U.S. women have always worked, the 1970s brought a massive surge of women entering professional and management jobs. Between 1972 and 1985, the number of management roles occupied by women almost doubled, and the landmark abortion case Roe v. Wade happened in 1973.

The “biological clock” was introduced to make women feel guilty about their career and lifestyle choices. This is why women are disproportionately targeted with conversations about their “dwindling” fertility.

Summary

A threat to the supposed “natural order” prompted a decades-long crusade that has been harmful to ovaries and testicles alike. With new research and awareness, however, it is apparent that fertility and pregnancy are not just a woman’s issue. After all, it takes two to tango.

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