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Time's Up for the 'Biological Clock'

March 25, 2018
Katie Visco

Some say 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. 

The myth of the biological clock was popularized by Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen in his 1978 article "The Clock Is Ticking for the Career Woman." 

The subject of his piece, Composite Woman, is a pretty, young professional who is preoccupied with the thought of starting a family before it's "too late" (aka before she turns 35 and her ovaries explode--just kidding). Composite Woman characterizes Cohen's generalization of career women, who are supposedly drawn to the traditional role of motherhood and grow anxious at the thought of not being able to fulfill it. 

Since the progression of women's rights and societal norms, Cohen has acknowledged that the article wouldn't be as accepted as it was back in 1978. 

Back then, women were just beginning to transition into more professional and management roles. In politics, the conservative party framed their disapproval as concern, claiming that women were more unhappy and less able to deal with stress than men in similar positions. In media, female characters in books and movies were often only able to find fulfillment in a family. But what study says couples should have children before 35? And who says modern women are preoccupied with the biological clock? 

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 (a range that passes more than 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?

However, that study does hold a grain of truth. Though modern fertility studies have shown that fertility decreases with age, the percentages aren't too different. A study on a 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 to get pregnant within the year. 

As for a woman's unhappiness with the inability to conceive, there are few studies that have studied a career woman's unhappiness in-depth. Furthermore, the sample size and the population of women who were involved in these studies are a bit too cherry-picked to be reliable. For example, a sample size of 23 women who all want to have families will likely have more concerns about fertility than a pool of "general" women--those who have thought about families and those who have not, and those from varying age groups and cultures. 

Men are also affected by age-related fertility issues. It's true that men could have children later than a woman because of the limit of menopause, but their fertility does decrease with age. 

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 mainstream media publicizes. Though there's some truth in the term "biological clock," having children is not as urgent as people think and Composite Woman is about as mythical as the biological clock itself.

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