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Book Questions Feminism's Role With Infertility

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The "Big Lie"
Tanya Selvaratnam had no idea that infertility would play a starring role in her life when she delayed getting pregnant until her late 30s. Sadly, at 37, 38, and again at 40, she had miscarriages that made her face that reality. In her new book The Big Lie: Motherhood, Feminism, and the Reality of the Biological Clock, Selvaratnam writes, "I admit I didn't know how hard it was until I tried to have a child myself, and that was when I was in my mid- to late 30s. I also saw quite a few friends having kids in their late 30s, and I didn't think it would be an issue for me."

For many of us Gen-Xers and Millennials who grew up in the post-feminist movement world, "having it all" was de rigueur. We took equality for granted and knew we could have a career, marriage and kids on our own timetable. TV shows like Dynasty and Dallas had strong female leads that effortlessly fell into motherhood after they made their millions. Moving into the '90s, one couldn't help but notice the dramatic increase in actresses beginning motherhood later in life.

Selvaratnam writes, "I don't blame anyone for this situation. Advances in reproductive science dovetailed perfectly with the liberating messages of feminism and made women feel they could do things on their own timetables. … Our biologies do not bend to feminist principles, and science can't work miracles."

The fact is, feminism did suggest that delaying motherhood while you worked your way up the male-dominated, corporate ladder was "empowering." Statistics show that women followed that lead, and many are now facing serious problems with fertility.

The counterpoint
The author of the Salon article "Feminism Didn't Lie to You About Your Fertility" doesn't hold back in her distaste for the premise of the The Big Lie or in her defense of feminism.

"Here's an important news flash, ladies: You can't have it all. I know, I know. This is quite the bombshell. Nobody's ever mentioned before that juggling career and relationships and personal achievement and family might require compromises or sacrifices or not getting every single thing you ever aspired to, or getting them but not having those things be exactly as you'd imagined," Mary Elizabeth Williams writes.

To Selvaratnam's claim in her book that "no one talks about fertility," Williams links to several articles, books and a documentary on the subject in an effort to prove that we already "get it" about fertility.

Williams agrees that The Big Lie gets certain issues right. She cites the "shock and pressure women feel" when faced with infertility, the lack of woman-to-woman support during childbearing years and the ever-present "stay-at-home mom vs. working mom" fight.

In the CNN story The 'Big Lie' in Putting Off Pregnancy, journalist Wendy Sachs shares Selvaratnam's startling report on the number of eggs a woman has throughout her lifetime. Around the time of a girl's first menstrual cycle, she has about 300,000 to 400,000 eggs. At age 30, she will only have about 13 percent of her original amount, between 39,000 to 52,000. Just a short decade later, she will have only 3 percent of the original amount, and of the 9,000 to 12,000 remaining eggs, "many of these eggs will not be viable."

Celebrities can do it; why can't we?
Was this a problem for the celebrities who made big news with their late-in-life pregnancies? Actresses Halle Berry and Kelly Preston gave birth at 47 years old; Uma Thurman had a baby at 42; Jane Seymour had twins at 45; and Mariah Carey delivered her twins at 41.

"We see celebrities having kids seemingly without any problems, and we have no idea what they went through. We see the end result, but not the struggle," Selvaratnam says.

Selvaratnam would like to see changes in how our girls and women are taught about their own cycles and given more awareness of fertility. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 11 percent of women between the ages of 15 to 44 have difficulty getting pregnant or carrying a pregnancy to term. The CDC also reports that about 20 percent of women are having their first baby after age 35, and that each year women wait after 35, the infertility rate rises dramatically.

"Aging not only decreases a woman's chances of having a baby but also increases her chances of miscarriage and of having a child with a genetic abnormality," the CDC says.

While many women believe that medical intervention can overcome their infertility, CDC statistics suggest that science isn't always the savior we believe it to be. According to 2011 CDC data on Assisted Reproductive Technology (a term that encompasses in-vitro fertilization and other methods of fertilization outside of the body), in any given cycle these methods lead to a live birth:

  • 40 percent of the time in women younger than 35
  • 22 percent in women 38 to 40
  • 1 percent in women 44 and older

Whether feminism is to blame for women postponing pregnancy or not, Selvaratnam and others argue that young women need to be better educated about their fertility and about their options. Selvaratnam points out other options, such as freezing your eggs, adoption and a blood test that estimates how many eggs you have.

She says she's taking a break from trying to get pregnant right now.

"I'm trying to live in the moment and take things one day at a time," she says. "I was very happy to start a new year. I need that renewal right now."

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