Myrtle the Fertile Turtle

When I was in graduate school (which was a freaking decade ago now and when the hell did I get old?) my area of study was medical anthropology; i.e. how culture effected medicine, medical practices, and medical diagnosis. I focused particularly on reproduction. Having a baby is NOT treated like the same event cross culturally, not even between cultures that are comparable in other ways. You would think something so basic to human life would have a lot of commonality, but no.

Anyway, while I was studying reproduction I saw, like the pioneers in medical anthropology before me, that much that what was believed about reproduction in the USA was either bullshit, conjecture, or couched in such misogynistic terms your mind just boggled. This phenomenon is wonderfully chronicled in Emily Martin’s fabulous book The Woman in the Body, which pointed out in minute detail the fallacious impression so-called impartial scientists created by their word choices to describe reproduction, and women’s reproduction in particular.

For example, the in medical/biological texts the fact women have about 400,000 eggs was/is called wasteful while the fact there are millions of sperm in each male ejaculation was totes normal and cool and smart on the part of the male body. Those texts would also present the menstrual cycle as inherently weird and “abnormal” because the “normal” body – a male body – didn’t do anything like it. Pregnancy, which was also something that didn’t happen to guys, was also discussed in terms which made it seem an illness that women had to be “treated” for. Worse, the uterus was treated as a disposable object, something the body didn’t really NEED since men’s bodies did just fine without it. All that data that hysterectomies could lead to severe health consequences down the road was somehow overlooked.

This fascinated me, of course. I quickly started to notice that untested and unproven assertions about female reproduction were popping up CONSTANTLY in the media, especially in regards to fertility. The female partner alone is only responsible for 1/3 of infertility cases, but to hear the media tell it the infertility "epidemic" is almost entirely caused by (implied) selfish bitches who had careers in their 20s instead of making babies. As punishment for their unfeminine desire to encroach on masculine territory and not fulfill their patriarchal roles, when they turned 35 their uteri dried up into bitter husks, their fallopian tubes drooped, and their eggs rotted in the hot sun of their antiquity. Moreover, even if they DID manage to get pregnant the baby would probably have a horrible birth defect and it would be ALL THEIR FAULT. Not only was the risk for birth defects for older moms presented in very misleading and inflated terms, studies linking the father’s advanced age with Down’s syndrome and schizophrenia were largely ignored by the mainstream media.

It was irksome.

Nor has it become less vexing (or more accurate/truthful) over time. However, there may be light glimmering at the end of the tunnel of love. The Atlantic published an article pointing out that:

“the “baby panic”—which has by no means abated since it hit me personally—is based largely on questionable data. We’ve rearranged our lives, worried endlessly, and forgone countless career opportunities based on a few statistics about women who resided in thatched-roof huts and never saw a lightbulb. In Dunson’s study of modern women, the difference in pregnancy rates at age 28 versus 37 is only about 4 percentage points.”

Slate magazine picked up on it and spread the word that “a lot of what we’ve been told about the fertility plunge that happens to women in their 30s has been highly oversold.”

Of course, these helpful messages are buried under a deluge of fear-mongering conclusion-jumping data-scanty articles claiming that women’s fertility starts to decline by age 27. Yep. According to stories written here, here, and here, your eggs are mummified in your withered old crotch by the time you are in your late 20s. Notice how these are all based on the same unproven and speculative report and hypothesis? Me too! Did you notice the date was based on the study of “782 healthy Italian couples using natural methods of contraception — that is, only the rhythm method — to determine the impact of age on conception”? Me too! Did you notice that you had to read really far down into any of the articles to find out that the “youngest women had a 50 percent chance of achieving a pregnancy in any one menstrual cycle … [which] fell to 40 percent for the 27- to 34-year-olds”? Me too! Did you think that didn’t look like a huge drop? Me too! Did you wonder if it maybe had something to do with older women being more serious about avoiding sex on conception friendly days, even though that WASN’T a consideration in the study? Me too!

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