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The Drive to Procreate:
Reexamining the Biological Clock

by Amy Richards

Opting In Amy Richards

The following is an excerpt from Opting In: Having A Child Without Losing Yourself by Amy Richards (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008).

The Drive to Procreate: Reexamining the Biological Clock
"[O]ppression can warp, undermine, turn us into haters of ourselves. But it can also turn us into realists…" Adrienne Rich

On April 15th 2002 Time published one of its characteristically sensationalistic cover stories. The cover line read: "Babies vs. Career: Which Should Come First for Women Who Want Both? The Harsh Facts About Fertility," with "vs.," "women" and "fertility" all strategically in bright red letters, contrasted with the black and white cover centered on a picture of a happy baby.[i] The article, "Making Time for a Baby," was prompted by the publication of Sylvia Ann Hewlett's book, Creating A Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children, and essentially summarized Hewlett's premise – women who put off having children until their careers are in place, around forty years of age, are eventually resentful, sad and bitter, because they learn it's too late to conceive, even with the help of Assisted Reproductive Technologies (ART). The take away message: if you want kids, do it today. People perked up, in part, because Hewlett specifically profiled white, professional women—a demographic that society is overly invested in and whose behavior is perceived to be indicative of larger cultural shifts—but also because pregnancy was pitted against feminism. After all, wasn't it feminism that originally told women to get to work, which led to this "fertility" crisis?

In big bold letters the article screamed out "27 IS THE AGE AT WHICH A WOMAN'S CHANCE OF GETTING PREGNANT BEGINS TO DECLINE." Most women I know read the article and were publicly outraged and privately scared. Politically they were angry at Time for making women feel guilty and for pressuring women to procreate. Just as young women were tasting their independence and embarking on a professional life, they were being warned that something that they most likely wanted, children, might not be available to them unless they hurried up.

The synthesized feminist response to Hewlett and articles such as these is to downplay the hype by countering that this information is manufactured precisely so that women abandon their careers in order to have children according to some loosely constructed, society-imposed time-frame. It's natural for feminists to label these types of stories anti-woman, and to ridicule the messengers for pressuring women to be baby machines and stay at home bread bakers. Articles such as the one in Time anger feminists because in retrograde fashion they dismantle what the women's liberation movement worked so hard for, namely, ensuring that women could choose to have children without discarding their own ambitions. They created the women's movement as a safe-haven for women otherwise badgered into being controlled by their biological clocks.

As the response to this one media moment proves, there is no consensus on the extent to which promoting or discouraging procreation is in a woman's best interest. Some feminists have argued that the mere act of procreating is anti-woman because it perpetuates a dependence on women as biological creatures; others want to leave children and pregnancy to the realm of personal choice unimpeded by society's expectations. I fall more on the side of leaving pregnancy to the realm of personal choice and I would add that to deny women this option, including access to fertility help, is implicitly anti-feminist because it's denying women a choice. The mixed messages from feminists have left women confused about whether there is an appropriate feminist thing to do and, if so, what it is.

I initially towed the feminist line on Hewlett (that she was simply scaring women and attacking feminist accomplishments). I worried about the implications for women in the workplace and for women approaching their mid-to-late thirties who hadn't yet had kids and wanted them. I was also wary of her data. Because it is only in the last generation that more than a small percentage of women over age 40 have given birth, I argued that the samplings Hewlett used to make conclusions were too limited. Also, I had read Susan Faludi's Backlash and considered myself well-versed in how the media systematically works to undermined women. In her book, Faludi famously uncovered the back-story of a 1982 article which touted that women between the ages of thirty-one and thirty-five had a forty percent of being infertile; the article failed to mention that this study was based on a sampling of women who were seeking fertility treatment because all were married to sterile men.[ii] And yet, as much as I wanted to dismiss Hewlett, I couldn't deny that as this news was swirling about I was also thirty-two, in a newish relationship, and worried that maybe she was right.

By the time I actually read Hewlett's book, I was researching for this book, and had already warmed up to the reality of her proposal. I had read many statistics supporting her claims and personally had collected lots of anecdotal evidence to confirm how much harder it was for women over 38 to get pregnant. I also approached her research knowing that Hewlett is a self-defined feminist and extremely pro-working mother. Her work through the Center for Work-Life Policy has helped working mothers enormously, mostly by arguing for reduced-hour jobs and careers that can be interrupted or "on ramped" to make room for parenting. I came to sympathize with Hewlett and eventually realized that she was sadly just in the uncomfortable position of having to tell it like it is. Hewlett wasn't saying women must procreate, but women who wanted a chance at having their own biological child, should try sooner rather than later.

"The point is that while encouraging women in the '70s and '80s to reach for the sky, none of our purple-clad, feminist mothers thought to tell us the truth about the biological clock. Our biological clock. The one that would eventually reach exploding point inside us," wrote Virginia Haussegger, an Australian ABC news presenter. "Maybe they didn't think to tell us, because they never heard the clock's screaming chime. They were all married and knocked up by their mid-20s. They so desperately didn't want the same for us."[iii] Haussegger is childless and angry that she took "the word of my feminist mothers as gospel." I talked to dozens of other women who, like Haussegger, listened to what they heard feminism promising them—you can have a career and a baby without caving to a patriarchal society that wants women to have babies and reinforce their second class citizenship.

"Thirty eight is too late to wait to start thinking about whether or not you want children," said Dr. Kelly Greening, my obstetrician. When I asked her if that was an unpopular stance – to essentially spell out fertility for her patients – she countered that it actually was her responsibility. She's not saying that you have to get pregnant at the age of 27, but if you want to be pregnant you have to make that decision before you are on the precipice of your declining fertility.

It benefits feminism to acknowledge the medical realities—it's part of feminism's truth telling and information sharing. "I totally disagree with feminism's stance on fertility which is mirrored in the larger U.S. society," one woman wrote to me after hearing me talk about grassroots activism on the Diane Rehm show. "[L]et's not compound this by lying to [young adults] about fertility's limited time offer." She went on to plead with me, "Please tell these young college students who ask you for advice about fertility or when to have babies that they need to put as much research into this as they would for a term project and then arrive at their own decisions." Or as another person wrote to me when I was in the midst of writing this chapter: "Why do some of the radical feminists appear to be against a woman wanting to have a family, especially if this is her desire as a woman?"

It seems to be the "ultimatums" that upset feminists because this is exactly what many feminists try to protect women from. They argue that just because you have a womb doesn't mean you have to use it. For instance, The Mommy Myth, an information-packed book written by two moms in their fifties, argues that women aren't free enough to choose not to be moms. "The only truly enlightened choice to make as a woman, the one that proves, first that you are a 'real' woman, and second that you are a 'decent,' worthy one, is to become a 'mom'…"[iv] Perhaps true, but if, in my experience, it truly is a legitimate choice many women are making, why challenge their motivation or their conclusion?

Exploring feminism's resistance to encouraging procreation seems central to the debate about whether or not feminism is in fact a pro-mother movement. Some feminists second guess women's choices and presume that it's regression to want what society wants for us, and they might have a point if we can't also find some deeper meaning for our lives. Is this something that women want or do we want it because we don't know how to step outside the boundaries of tradition? In feminism's quest to be pro-family, there must be some serious attention given to biology and tradition, and women themselves shouldn't be judged for giving into this pressure.

My own personal gripe with Hewlett's argument is that she solely pressures women to shoulder the responsibility for reproducing. She warns women not to wait while ignoring the fact that most of the women she interviewed didn't so much wait to have babies, but waited for someone to have babies with. Unfortunately, there are still too many societal limitations that make doing it solo a more plausible option. In all of those anecdotes about women who delay child rearing for the sake of their careers, there is never a mention of all of the men who won't get married or the men who resist having children. Only one woman in Hewlett's book articulated this exact point, "I ran into an unexpected problem—a husband who was dragging his feet."[v]

Feminism wants pregnancy to be able to happen without reinforcing women's dependence on men—not solely the act of getting pregnant, but raising kids and what that entails. It's not that women need a partner per se, but the constraints on our lives—skyrocketing costs of health insurance, little public funding for child care, minimal economic support for any time spent rearing children—make it harder to do without a partner. The majority of women who do it alone mostly do so because they don't feel like they had another choice. My mother did it alone. I have never met my father and she has never remarried. She did a great job, but it was out of necessity. In fact, the majority of single mothers default to that role after husbands and boyfriends leave, or they have made the choice between "punishing" and "less punishing;" tired of tolerating a mediocre relationship, some women realize that doing it alone couldn't be worse than their current situation.

And though we might need "help" doesn't mean that we aren't partnering in new ways. Choosing to parent with no partner can often be a difficult choice, but that doesn't mean it isn't the better choice for some women. For instance, one conclusion from Promises I Can Keep, which interviewed 150 mothers in Philadelphia living below the federal poverty line, is that "Poor women clearly believe that they can be perfectly adequate adults and parents outside of marriage, though the middle class might disagree."[vi] Children aren't tied to marriage for many poor women, which isn't to stay that they don't want to marry. However, finding eligible men frequently doesn't preclude their desires to reproduce.[vii] Also, for many black women in this country and for many women in other parts of the world, motherhood is both a biological and a social event. Community mothers and "othermothers" share the responsibility of childrearing, making conventional partnerships less necessary. "Black women's experiences as bloodmothers, othermothers, and community othermothers reveal that the mythical norm of a heterosexual, married couple, nuclear family with a nonworking spouse and a husband earning a 'family wage' is far from being natural, universal and preferred but instead is deeply embedded in specific race and class formations," wrote the sociologist Patricia Hill Collins.[viii] This "help" makes the idea of doing it alone more entertainable for some women, which isn't to say that single motherhood in these communities is always a choice.

When women do choose single parenting, there remain obstacles, namely a pecking order around who is acceptable as a single parent. Rich and famous women are perceived to be responding to their biological clocks and maternal instincts, whereas a poor woman is likely to be labeled irresponsible and said to be endangering her children. Many black women who choose single parenting are scrutinized for cutting the men in their lives out, while white women in this same situation are often considered abandoned and in need of support and pity, (as in the Vanity Fair writer Leslie Bennetts warning women not to give up their careers since men are likely to just leave them).

If you are not white and not middle class or are somehow disadvantaged, your choices and your fertility are more likely to be under attack—from stealthy sterilizations and a healthier adoption market for white babies to the number of minority and immigrant women who are manipulated into having cesareans, too disempowered to demand otherwise.[ix] For instance, in the early seventies, one-hundred thousand plus poor women throughout the South were sterilized annually, in programs whose funding was federally subsidized.[x] Going back even further, one of the few laws that didn't automatically transfer across the Atlantic, as most other British common laws did, was that children inherit rights from their fathers, precisely so that any progeny resulting from rapes by slave owners would not inherit the rights of the white slave-owning inseminator.

On the other hand, white and privileged women are encouraged to go to extremes to procreate, with little consideration to how this group's fertility often has been promoted at the expense of black and poorer women's fertility. Egg and sperm "donations," as well as other Assisted Reproductive Technologies (ART's) are promoted as miracle solutions to fertility problems, but this attitude ignores the fact that they are most readily available only to those who can afford them.

Northwestern University Law School professor Dorothy Roberts calls this, "The devaluation of Black reproduction." For instance, the Committee on Women, Population, and the Environment, a multiracial alliance of feminist activists, health practitioners, and scholars, is one group challenging the campaign for population control under the guise of environmental protection. Exploding populations contribute to environmental degradation, true, but the lifestyles of richer people do far more environmental damage than the lifestyles of poorer people. However, most campaigns to curb population growth are targeted toward impoverished nations. Indirectly then, white and rich communities are allowed to continue to exploit the environment as long as poorer nations pick up the slack. Also, saying that environmental degradation is primarily a consequence of overcrowding relieves makers of public policy from taking responsibility for why so much unregulated pollution happens in the first place.

"Having kids has become dependent on one's economic status," said author Rickie Solinger, in talking about her latest book Pregnancy and Power: A Short History of Reproductive Politics in America. Her terse tone hinted that she didn't consider economics a justifiable consideration to weigh when thinking about having kids. But it can be cost-prohibitive to have children and guarantee them certain necessities, such as health insurance, let alone perks like swimming lessons and back-to-school outfits. When the Guttmacher Institute polled women about why they have abortions, 23% percent gave not being able to afford a baby right now as a top reason.[xi] Social conditions practically mandate that two parents and two incomes accompany child rearing. No woman is prevented from reproducing or screened for financial stability (at least not formally), but there is a resulting implication of good and bad mothers based on what mothers can provide for their children. As Conscience magazine reported, "The major problem facing low-income families is that the cost of basic necessities—in particular child care and health care—takes up a disproportionate share of their income."[xii] There are very real financial obstacles to raising kids, difficulties that are exacerbated at lower income levels.

As a result of women's more mediocre wages and limited access to higher-salaried professions, women usually can afford much less than what men can afford. So in addition to desiring a partner for romantic reasons and those of sharing responsibility, many women have economic incentive for parenting with a man. This incentive underscores the ways procreation is entangled with how society generally undervalues women and women's work. This isn't to imply that some people should say no to parenting because of economics, but we should pay attention to why some people are free not to worry about the impact of their choices, while others have to deliberate more carefully; hampered by concerns of what others think of them and the choices they make. When people say "some people just should not be parents," many people hear that primarily as poor people, who are assumed to be irresponsible and neglectful or just not in a stabilized place to raise kids. It's a challenge for us to change whom we automatically envision as appropriate parents and to consider why parenting is harder on some folks than others—examining the social implications rather than judging the individual. Only those in alternative situations, such as those who adopt children or undertake a surrogate, are asked to define what would make them good parents, which implies that conventional couples, as well as those who are straight and fertile, are automatically qualified to be good parents. Of course, some barriers are in place because they have to be—for instance, there has to be a paper trail when transitioning children from the state's care to a family. But those of us who can just have kids should at least contemplate what would make us good parents and it shouldn't be an automatic conclusion that we will be.

As much as mothering is an experience available to most women and thus should be a unifier among women, there are still considerations that divide us. We can't erase these differences or past wrongdoings, but we can be more thoughtful about our choices and who might not be able to make the same choices that we can. And we can challenge ourselves to consider the larger implications of having children: what message does our example send to others, and do our choices have negative consequences?

"Pregnancy is barbaric"

While feminism probably never intended to deliberately marginalize motherhood, the overwhelming perception that motherhood and feminism are incompatible persists. And in truth feminism's history reveals some resistance to women procreating—or evidence that the women's movement doesn't want women to feel beholden to this societal expectation.

In the sixties, feminists worked under the premise that motherhood trapped women into the never ending feminine cycle and did nothing to interrupt the enforcement of biological inequalities. Controlling reproduction had been a means of controlling women and feminism sought to expose this and ensure that women had alternatives. The concern among consciously feminist individuals centered not so much on the choice to be mothers, but rather on what the role of "mother" implied. Motherhood was (and still is) widely perceived as the ultimate expression of femininity and thus this role was implicitly suspect due to feminism's primary goal of freeing women from gender based expectations.

With the evolution of the Women's Liberation Movement, many mothers began to realize for the first time the limitations parenting had put on their larger identity. In many cases, women's motivation to change the expectations had to do with women fleeing their own biographies, this ingrained sense that women who were wives and mothers couldn't also be individuals. One result of this realization is that by the seventies some women admitted that they didn't want to have kids and felt free enough to publicize that choice. Some women famously remained childless – such as Gloria Steinem, who mothered her mother and then a movement.

The most radical opposition to motherhood came from Shulamith Firestone, author of the 1970 feminist classic The Dialectic of Sex, wherein she opposed women reproducing. "The heart of woman's oppression is her childbearing and childrearing roles," wrote Firestone. Though Firestone never gave birth herself, she adamantly maintained that "pregnancy is barbaric." Firestone and many of her radical feminist cohorts saw procreation as the primary reason for women being marginalized. As long as they were reproducing, they would be inferior.

Seventy years before Firestone and her contemporaries were accused of burning their bras, Charlotte Perkins Gilman challenged why women shouldered the responsibility for children. Her primary insight into childrearing was that it was well-primed to be a mutually shared experience. "The human mother does less for her young, both absolutely and proportionately, than any kind of mother on earth," wrote Gilman. "She does not obtain food for them, nor covering, nor shelter, nor protection, nor defence {sic}. She does not educate them beyond personal habits required in the family circle and in her limited range of social life."[xiii] She also noted that it is not maternity which makes human females unique, but sex-indulgence.

Ahead of her time, Gilman advocated that men and women equally share domestic chores and that women have their own independent work lives. Her most respected work, Women and Economics, argued that women's station as second class citizens was entirely culturally enforced and could be eliminated if women weren't economically dependent on men.

Gilman never shied away from strong opinions and though this didn't leave her in favor with the masses, her work nonetheless is still in print today and reads like a foreshadowing of what women would actually act upon nearly a hundred years later. She acknowledged that there were differences between men and women and simultaneously advocated that they have access to the same things. Nearly fifty years before Gilman, Fanny Wright, an outspoken abolitionist, radically proclaimed: "the family must be abolished if human beings were to be liberated." Wright proposed that children be taken out of the private sphere of the family and placed firmly in the public realm.[xiv]

The misinterpretation of feminism's stance on mothering in part was fueled by Firestone and Gilman, but also exacerbated in the seventies by feminism's promotion of sexual freedom—disentangling of sex from procreation left people assuming that sexual liberation was a marketing campaign against procreation. The belief that women should be free to romp around without getting knocked up got interpreted by the media and the mainstream culture as women shouldn't ever get knocked up. Of course, only certain women were "allowed" to be sexually liberated in the first place. Black women who did so were labeled irresponsible and oversexed—not to mention that though birth control was promoted as key to women's reproductive freedom, from the get-go it was also a means of controlling population and certain women. Margaret Sanger, the pioneer of birth control in the United States, argued that birth control was in the country's best interest because it would eventually cut down on the number of "unfit" children that were born. Some understood Sanger as using "unfit" as a code word for "children of black families."

I believe that a big reason feminism isn't more readily associated with motherhood is because the issue has been dwarfed and confused by the abortion debate, both of which fall under the overarching heading of reproductive rights. Feminism's defense that it is pro-mother primarily comes back to its crusade for reproductive rights for women. And though "pro-choice" was meant to encompass the full range of choices, far too many people understand this only as "pro-abortion." From the pro-choice side, the concern is that emphasizing motherhood will overshadow the need to talk about abortion, which is a less secure and certainly more controversial right for women. And yet these two issues—being pregnant when you want to be and being able to terminate a pregnancy when you don't want to be—are complementary and can never be disentangled. Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision celebrated as confirming a woman's right to access to abortion, was actually an argument for a woman's right to determine pregnancy, not solely the right to terminate one.[xv] An even greater connection is that 60 percent of those who have abortions are already mothers.[xvi] It's also possible that one can simultaneously have an abortion and be pregnant, as was the case when I was pregnant with triplets, which were reduced to one fetus that I carried to term.

I think, consciously or not, people find it distracting to talk at the same time about abortion and motherhood, because doing so blurs the point at which those fetuses morph from potential life into life, hence the anti-choice retort, "It's a child not a choice." For instance, when Naomi Wolf famously wrote in The New Republic of her evolving opinion on abortion after having a child, she was vilified in feminist circles for being sympathetic to the pro-life side. The article came to fruition after Wolf challenged her previously unconditional support of the "fetus-is-nothing paradigm of the pro-choice movement." [xvii]

"Of course it's a baby" was her cranky response to an abortion rights foe asking her: "You're four months pregnant. Are you going to tell me that's not a baby you're carrying?" Like Wolf, many folks find their politics rattled once they have experienced birth and abortion.

For a myriad of reasons, from abortion and birth control to a few outspoken radicals, the anti-mother label has always received more attention than feminism's pro-mother efforts. The biggest proof of feminism's support of motherhood is the fact that the majority of feminists have always accepted, supported, and even taken advantage of the inevitability of motherhood. The suffragists went so far as to claim their roles as mothers as justification for their need for political power. Women of the late 1800s had barely demarcated their independent lives and used their responsibility for raising children to underscore their worth and reinforce their value. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the architect of women's suffrage, was unabashedly a mother first.

By the mid-twentieth century, with the suffragist crusade complete, the pendulum swung the other way; the dominant consensus was that "women's biology [was] used to justify women's oppression." In 1973 Jane Alpert, a vehement anti-Vietnam War protestor and, like most people who could afford that occupation, a privileged woman, offered a challenge to the perspective that women's biology was a negative. "Biology is hence the source and not the enemy of feminist revolution," Alpert wrote in the pages of Ms. Magazine.

Alpert's work can be read as a precursor to today's feminine-positive feminism, which argues that "girl" things are valuable and important. It can also be read as a foreshadowing of something feminism would eventually concede – there are biological differences between men and women that are inseparable from how genders are constructed.[xviii][i] In other words, we can challenge the limitations of masculine and feminine, and acknowledge that men and women are different.

Today, the feminist debate around pregnancy is centered less on whether or not women should procreate, and more on the question of to what extent they should do so. Fertility treatments have come a long way since Louise Brown was conceived in a test tube in Manchester, England in 1978. And though it gets less attention, fertility is also a man's problem. Men account for 34 % of all fertility problems; women account for 50 % and the remaining 16% are unresolved factors.[xix]

The abundance of fertility help, coupled with all of the press on the topic, creates confusion about what actually constitutes a fertility problem. In 2005, there were more than 68 major stories related to In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) coming from just three major media outlets, though only 12 percent of women of child-bearing years received some kind of infertility services.[xx] And all of this attention masks another reality: ART suffers the same fate that individual women do—the older you are the harder it is. It's assumed that ART can make pregnancy happen under any circumstance and yet only 3 to 5 percent of women over age 40 who use ART will actually succeed in having a child.[xxi] "The single most important factor in successful [ART] treatment is the age of the mother," said Dr. Brian Lieberman, director of reproductive medicine at St. Mary's Hospital, in Manchester, England. Promoting fertility help as a "last ditch" option is misleading—and women take the bait. For even the most well-meaning young women – the headlines have trumped the truth. As Nancy Hass reported in Elle, "Fertility doctors and their staffs keep tabs on these stories [those about celebrities having children at age 45], fascinated by the public's willingness to believe that science conquers all."[xxii] In Sylvia Ann Hewlett's book, one woman wrote to her: "I can't tell you how glad I am that this new reproductive technology virtually guarantees that you can have a baby up until forty-five. Or maybe it's even later. It seems that every time I pick up the paper there's another medical breakthrough. Go, doctors!"[xxiii] And this note is in keeping with Hewlett's findings: "89 percent of young, high achieving women believe that they will be able to get pregnant into their forties."[xxiv]

The fertility industry certainly has financial incentive to keep women anxious about how precarious their fertility might be, but individual women also put this pressure on science to tell them what is possible. And though there are unpleasant consequences to these medical advances, they also make it possible for women to gain medical information and independence. For instance, with the talked about, but not yet actualized, Wallace-Kelsey model, women would be able to predict their own fertility expiration date, leaving them less burdened by speculating about how much time they have. More importantly, because of these medical miracles, single women who want to remain unattached as well as queer individuals and couples now have the chance to bear their own biological children.

Five women in their late 20s and early 30s who were pondering their own future options created Extend Fertility, which will extract and freeze a woman's eggs for $13,000, putting the decision making in women's hands. As of September, 2006, six babies had been born as a result of their efforts. Their challenge will be science – eggs are much harder to freeze than sperm –and social resistance—insemination is more accepted.[xxv] While it's relatively harmless to ejaculate into a cup, donating eggs is more dangerous. Despite the hefty financial reward—approximately $6,000 an egg as advertised on college campuses—women must take precautions and educate themselves on the consequences before offering up their precious eggs.[xxvi] Even calling it "donated" is problematic –all eggs are bartered for cash.

In a way all of these experiments are leading toward an answer to a long ago feminist provocation – "who needs men?" But the other question that science will inevitably raise is who needs women? Scientists have begun constructing embryos; using one old female egg and one new egg they can create what is normally provided by the female egg and the male sperm.[xxvii] With science going to such extremes, it's feasible that babies will be incubated externally and women will no longer even be necessary to house the growing fetus.

It's easy to be seduced by the promises of fertility help—that you can wait or that you can do it independent of a relationship—but these options have a dark side that makes feminists suspicious and unsupportive. I believe that the big feminist investment in fertility treatments should be about their safety, as advancements in ART have gone largely unchecked. Other countries have created restrictions; Sweden only permits implantation of one embryo to avoid multiple gestations and Canada opposes public funding for ART because of low efficacy and high risk. Sylvia Ann Hewlett, too, questions the long-term health consequences and even cites a Stanford study, subsequently challenged for its validity, which proposed a link between ART and cancer.[xxviii] As I was drafting this chapter, the great feminist playwright Wendy Wasserstein died of lymphoma and there were some speculations that it was the result of the fertility drugs that she took in order to give birth at age 48. It's not so much of a leap to draw parallels to fertility drugs offered in other generations. Diethylstilbestrol (DES) was a popular drug readily prescribed from 1947 to 1971 to millions of women who had a likelihood of miscarriage. Today, many daughters whose mothers took DES have undergone hysterectomies after developing cervical cancer, due to the cancer-causing agents that are now confirmed to have been present in DES.[xxix] From putting pressure on the government for better regulations around ART to more funding for research to better calculate the risks, and promoting other options, feminism can simultaneously support women's access to choice and information and also hope that future generations will have better alternatives.

While fertility, procreation and biological thresholds are difficult issues to face, they aren't anti-woman in themselves, and their relevance is found in the realities of actual women's lives. Not to mention that in this generation, it's possible for women to have their babies and then their careers, something unimaginable for past generations. Additionally, there are very pro-woman reasons to encourage women to have babies sooner—the uncertainty of ART, including the unchecked dangers of this medical experiment, the emotional set-up that you might not get a baby in the end after all, the financial pressure of getting sucked in and loss of perspective on when to let go, and the political consequences of supporting an industry that might be leading the way to cloning and other selections that preference certain types of babies over others. Feminists can cop to biological limitations and simultaneously support women who don't want to have children. Our priority should be making it possible for women to make choices about when and if to have babies that don't feel so limiting.

Biological Destiny or False Publicity

Stephanie Linder, a San Francisco transplant by way of upstate New York and Ireland, is childless by choice. The latter point sadly needs to be over-emphasized since people often hear it only as childless for some reason beyond personal inclination – medical, fertility, lack of a partner or support network, and so on. In other words, it's assumed that if you are childless, it's precisely because you had no choice in the matter. "When I met my husband, he talked about having six kids (he's from Ireland) and I was agnostic on the issue of having kids," Stephanie said when I asked how she found a partner who shared her plans. To some people, being childless seems like an obvious choice for Stephanie—after all, she worked for Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA), an organization narrowly interpreted as being anti-birth or at least not encouraging of it. In fact, Stephanie's choice to remain childless pre-dates her involvement with PPFA. "[As a child] I just assumed I would have children because that's what people do, especially married straight people," she told me when I asked about how she first contemplated not having children. "As I discovered feminism in college, I began to question prescribed gender roles, including motherhood for women. For me, being pro-choice means that I believe women have the right to choose when and whether to have children without coercion from the government, other institutions or family." With that Stephanie and her husband realized that they could confidently choose not to have kids.

It might seem odd to reference deliberately childless people in a book more exclusively directed toward those who have made or are intending to make the choice to have children, but I think to fully understand what motivates people toward parenthood, you have to understand why it's a choice that not everyone would make. Initially I asked those who wanted to be parents what their motivation was, but I received mostly romantic or canned responses – it's an expression of our love, a way of extending or digesting our own mortality, and other softer statements that were sweet and believable, but didn't seem to get to the heart of the matter. Most people talked about the desire to parent and reproduce stemming from their desire to leave a legacy or to create a family. The only conclusion I can personally offer isn't much better: I loved my own childhood so much I wanted to recreate that for others. And yes, I knew for as long as I could remember that I wanted children, which one could argue is the result of gender brainwashing, but I know many men have this same desire.

Though the choice not to have children has been given theoretical space within feminism, it hasn't been given much attention or practical space. It's an obvious juxtaposition—on a superficial level feminists are presumed to be anti-child and anti-mother and have to compensate for this by not sounding as if they are encouraging women not to have kids.

We can also challenge the notion that everyone wants children. But still, individuals who are child-free or women who essentially take control of their fertility (a more "polite" way of referring to those who have abortions) are often viewed judgmentally. It's assumed that they just don't want to make the sacrifices parenthood requires. For me, I knew that I couldn't have had a child when I was in my twenties. I was too absorbed in my career, my friends, having lots of discretionary income, and traveling to places I had never been before. If I had postponed those experiences or given them up entirely, I would have been resentful. Selfish? Maybe, or perhaps just responsible.

The sheer fact that some women are drawn to give birth and others aren't makes maternal instinct and biology not the primary reasons people have children. Though many people would have us believe otherwise. Patrick Steptoe, one of the popularizers of In Vitro Fertilization, and therefore, someone paid to make such predictions, offered: "It is a fact that there is a biological drive to reproduce." Margaret Mead argued that men's desire to have babies is learned, but today most men seem as antsy as women to arrive at this stage, though perhaps not as quickly. Gay men who take on childrearing truly are making it a choice.

More than biological pressure, women admit the burden of societal expectations– mostly that the natural progression of life is defined around the heterosexual norm of marriage and children. Across issues, people who make the socially accepted choice are afforded more respect and credence. The number of gay couples rushing to get married or at least to make their commitments legal are motivated by more than tax breaks and health care proxies: they want recognition and societal acceptance. These hierarchies, conformities and favoritisms are precisely what feminism tried to free society from. Even though feminism has made enormous progress in this direction, it's only realistic to admit that asking people to forsake the societal approved choice is essentially asking them to willingly be disadvantaged.

I'm sympathetic to those who resist forsaking their advantage; plus I've learned that denying ourselves certain privileges doesn't immediately make them accessible to others. (For example, as much as I want to believe that it doesn't matter where you go to school or if you have a higher degree, those who graduate from more established institutions are afforded more value.) But in the end, what distinguishes someone as a feminist is the person who is brave enough – or sadly desperate enough—to step outside the bounds of expectation and discern for themselves what is an authentic choice.

Today, evolution comes more in the ways women choose to procreate, rather than whether we do it or not. Most women spend more time questioning and are more aware of the consequences of our choices. For example, when Joanna Streeter was thirty-nine, she gave birth to Cassidy. "I always told myself that I wouldn't let a bad relationship choice end up determining that I would not be a mother," Joanna said of her decision to do it alone. "One of my best friends is an OB/GYN, and she took me aside one day to tell me how often her patients tell her that they wish they had known more about the difficulties of getting pregnant as you age." With that advice Joanna became intimate with ovulation test strips, websites of sperm donors, and eventually a tank of sperm.

Thirty-plus years of challenging society's dictates hasn't changed many of our core desires – most women still want to procreate and create a family. The authenticity of our choices may never be truly revealed, but that matters less than trusting that women are empowered to make their own decisions.


For more...please continue reading in Opting In: Having A Child Without Losing Yourself by Amy Richards, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008.


Interviews with Amy Richards:

Opting In (Mojo Mom Podcast)

'Opting In' to Progressive Parenthood: A Personal Challenge to Modern Mothers (Alternet)

Reclaiming Feminist Motherhood: An Interview with Amy Richards (Feminist Review)

The Motherhood Melee: An Interview with Amy Richards (RH Reality Check)

Q & A: Amy Richards, author of 'Opting In: Having a Child Without Losing Yourself' (Yahoo Shine)

Other writings at Feminist.com by Amy Richards:

  • The Revolutionary Next Door (excerpt from GRASSROOTS: A Field Guide for Feminist Activism by Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards)

  • What Is Feminism? (excerpt from Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future by Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards)

  • Cyberfeminism: Networking on the Net by Amy Richards and Marianne Schnall (excerpt from Sisterhood Is Forever: The Women's Anthology for a New Millenium by Robin Morgan)

  • "Ask Amy" column


    [i] Though the content is rarely as controversial as the cover line, every few years Time magazine produces a cover story that sends feminism into a tailspin. In this instance, the article was by Nancy Gibbs, "Making Time for a Baby," Time, April 15, 2002.

    [ii] Susan Faludi's Backlash was published in 1991 to much fanfare; its publication coincided with the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas Supreme Court hearings, the William Kennedy Smith date-rape trial and the beginning of Bill Clinton's era, and the book fueled an already energized feminist movement.

    [iii]Virginia Haussegger, "The Sins of Our Feminist Mothers," The Age, July 23, 2002. Haussegger received such a response from the article that she expanded her thoughts in a book, Wonder Woman: The Myth of "Having it All."

    [iv] Douglas and Michaels, The Mommy Myth, p. 5.

    [v] Hewlett, Creating a Life, p. 45.

    [vi] Edin and Kefalas, Promises I Can Keep, p. 135.

    [vii] Though poorer women are certainly able to choose to have children, there are other ways that the government seriously hinders this choice. For instance, President Bill Clinton's 1996 welfare reform financially penalized poor women with children in 24 states. "The child exclusion ('family cap') policy stipulates that if a woman receiving cash assistance gives birth to a child, the amount of her cash grant will not increase in recognition of her larger family size (as was done in the past in line with the formula for determining poverty, which includes household income and size)." This is all according to research and an article by Diana Romero, "Penalizing Poor Women: Welfare Policies in the United States Penalize Larger Families While Denying the Means to Plan for Smaller Ones," Conscience, Winter 2005-2006. Conscience is a publication of Catholics for a Free Choice, www.cffc.org.

    [viii] Collins, "Black Feminist Thought in the Matrix of Domination," from Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment.

    [ix] The Women's Bioethics Project is one of many groups exploring how women of color are manipulated in the quest to procreate. (See the Resource Guide.)

    [x] Roberts, Killing the Black Body, p. 93.

    [xi] Other reasons women gave for having abortions included not being ready for a child and already having all of the children they wanted. This is all according to Reasons U.S. Women Have Abortions: Quantitative and Qualitative Perspectives, published by the Guttmacher Institute, www.guttmacher.org/pubs/journals/3711005.pdf.

    [xii] Jane Knitzer, "The Imperative of Developing a New Anti-Poverty Agenda," Conscience, Autumn 2006.

    [xiii] Gilman, Women and Economics, p. 189. In more recent times, Natalie Angier has pointed out why we might not want to draw too many parallels with the animal kingdom: "As much as we may like to believe that mother animals are designed to nurture and protect their young, to fight to the death, if need be, to keep their offspring alive, in fact, nature abounds with mothers that defy the standard maternal script in a [rash] of macabre ways. There are mothers that zestily eat their young's blood. Mothers that pit one young against the other in a fight to the death and mothers that raise one set of their babies on the flesh of their siblings." Natalie Angier, "One Thing They Aren't: Maternal," The New York Times, May 9, 2006.

    [xiv] Ehrenreich and English, For Her Own Good, p. 57. You can also learn more about Fanny Wright at the National Women's Hall of Fame: http://www.greatwomen.org.

    [xv] Before Roe v. Wade the general consensus was that abortion was allowed until "quickening"—that is, until you could feel the baby move, around sixteen to eighteen weeks of pregnancy (in current parlance that would situate it midway through the second trimester). The restrictions that did exist were done to protect women's health – and, unlike today, the woman's life clearly took precedence over the rights of the fetus. Early abortion laws in the United States were adapted mostly from British common law. And though the procedure wasn't "legal" pre-Roe, it was less talked about and women and doctors weren't criminalized. You can also read more about the Roe v. Wade decision through "Roe v. Wade and the Right to Privacy," a little black book published by the Center for Reproductive Rights, formerly named the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy, www.crlp.org.

    [xvi] According to the Guttmacher Institute, "six in ten U.S. women having abortions are already mothers. More than half intend to have (more) children in the future;" see http://www.guttmacher.org/in-the-know/characteristics.html.

    [xvii] Naomi Wolf, "Our Bodies, Our Souls," The New Republic, October 16, 1995.

    [xix] Brady E. Hamilton, "Reproduction Rates for 1990-2002 and Intrinsic Rates for 2000-2001: United States," National Vital Statistics Reports 52, no. 17, March 18, 2004, pp. 1-12.

    [xx] The 68 stories on IVF come only from the New York Times, the Washington Post and USA Today. Statistics on who receives fertility help come from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, http://www.cdc.gov/ART/ART2004/preface.htm.

    [xxi] Hewlett, Creating A Life, p. 32; and Hewlett took her findings on the percentage of women who successfully use infertility services from the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, www.asrm.org.

    [xxii] Nancy Hass, "Whose Life Is It, Anyway?" Elle, September 2005.

    [xxiii] Hewlett, Creating A Life, p. 113.

    [xxiv] Hewlett, Creating A Life, p. 87. Hewlett and Norma Vite-Leon also co-authored, "High-Achieving Women, 2001," for the National Parenting Association, now called the Center for Work-Life Policy. For a copy of the report, contact the Center for Work-Life Policy.

    [xxv] To learn more about Extend Fertility, you can access their website at www.extendfertility.com. There is also a New York Times article from September 21, 2004 on the group—Sally Wadyka, "For Women Worried About Fertility, Egg Bank Is a New Option." As winners of the Fortune Small Business 2004 business plan contest, Extend Fertility has been mentioned a few times in that magazine.

    [xxvi] For more on why not to donate your eggs, see Jess Milcetich, "Egg Donor Companies Target Univ. Students: Some Warn Procedure Can Be Dangerous," www.diamondbackonline.com, February 3, 2006.

    [xxvii] In 2004, scientists in Japan successfully created a fatherless mouse from the material of two eggs. See Gretchen Vogel, "Japanese Scientists Create Fatherless Mouse," Science, April 23, 2004.

    [xxviii] Hewlett, Creating A Life, p. 223. There was also a Danish study undertaken about the impact fertility treatments might have on males who mothers took fertility treatments. "Men [whose] mothers underwent fertility treatments had smaller testicles, 46 percent lower sperm concentration, 45 percent lower total sperm count, and fewer normal appearing sperm compared with their peers."

    [xxix] Judith Helfand's wonderful and personal film on DES babies, A Healthy Baby Girl (1997), goes into greater detail about how the information about the potential damages of this fertility drug were suppressed or not pursued until it was too late. You can learn more about her film at: www.itvs.org/external/babyg/hbgmain.html.

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