THE FOUL REIGN OF THE BIOLOGICAL CLOCK. Moira Weigel. The Guardian, Tuesday, May 10, 2016.
I wasted years with x!” I have never heard a straight man say this. But when a woman does, after a breakup, everyone immediately understands what she means. We are raised to believe that female bodies are time bombs. Any relationship that does not “work out” – which is to say, does not get a woman pregnant by a man committed to helping her raise their offspring – brings her closer to her expiration date. At the stroke of midnight, our eggs turn into dust.
Women in many times and places have felt pressure to bear children. But the idea of the biological clock is a recent invention. It first appeared in the late 1970s. “The Clock Is Ticking for the Career Woman,” the Washington Post declared, on the front page of its Metro Section, on 16 March 1978. The author, Richard Cohen, could not have realised just how inescapable his theme would become.
His article opened on a lunch date with a “Composite Woman” who is supposed to represent all women between the ages of 27 and 35. “There she is, entering the restaurant,” Cohen began. “She’s the pretty one. Dark hair. Medium height. Nicely dressed. Now she is taking off her coat. Nice figure.” Composite Woman has a good attitude, too: “The job is just wonderful. She is feeling just wonderful.” But, then her eyes fall.
“Is there something wrong?” her date asks.
“I want to have a baby,” she replies.
Cohen insisted that virtually all of the women he knew wanted to have babies, regardless of the kinds of romantic relationships they found themselves in.
“I’ve gone around, a busy bee of a reporter, from woman to woman,” he wrote. “Most of them said that they could hear the clock ticking … Sometimes the Composite Woman is married and sometimes she is not. Sometimes, horribly, there is no man in the horizon. What there is always, though, is a feeling that the clock is ticking … You hear it wherever you go.”
Within months, the clock was stalking career women everywhere. Ann Kirchheimer, a staff writer for the Boston Globe, reported that “the beneficiaries of the women’s movement, a first generation of liberated young ladies … who opted for careers, travel, independence rather than husband, home, and baby are older now and suddenly the ticking of the biological clock is getting louder and louder.” One woman Kirchheimer interviewed, a psychiatrist, jokingly diagnosed the affliction from which she and her other single friends were suffering as “withering womb syndrome”.
Americans were, at this point, primed to pay attention to stories about waning fertility. The birth rate had dropped precipitously over the previous two decades. In 1957, the average American woman had 3.5 children; by 1976, that number had fallen to 1.5. In the wake of the feminist movement, the development of effective oral contraceptives and intrauterine devices, and the legalisation of abortion, more and more women were delaying marriage and motherhood in order to pursue education and careers.
Even women who would eventually become mothers were waiting longer to do so. By 1977, 36% of mothers did not have their first child until age 30 or older. It was starting to look as if many women might put off motherhood indefinitely. Would this be the way the world ended? Not with the bomb but the pill?
The spate of stories about the biological clock sometimes alluded to these broad demographic trends and anxieties. But mostly, they focused on individuals. The media glamourised professional women who decided to have children while pursuing demanding careers, and warned women who put off having children that they would regret their diffidence later. (The idea that a woman might not want to become a mother at any point rarely came up.)
In February 1982, the actress Jaclyn Smith, one of the stars of the TV series Charlie’s Angels, appeared on the cover of Time magazine. She was wearing a loose blue dress, but clutched her rounded belly firmly. “The New Baby Bloom” the cover read. “Career women are opting for pregnancy, and they are doing it in style.” Inside, the author John Reed reiterated a warning that was becoming increasingly familiar.
“For many women, the biological clock of fertility is running near its end,” Reed wrote. “The ancient Pleistocene call of the moon, of salt in the blood, and genetic encoding buried deep in the chromosomes back there beneath the layers of culture – and counterculture – are making successful businesswomen, professionals and even the mothers of grown children stop and reconsider.”
The metaphor of the biological clock sounded less florid than the metaphors that followed, but it evinced the same determinism. Reed invoked the existence of a biological clock as proof that women could not venture too far from their traditional roles. He defined female life in terms of motherhood, or the failure to become a mother.
Even if women could now compete with men for high-paying jobs, and sleep around outside marriage, these articles implied, free love and the feminist movement had not changed the fundamentals of what they were. Women could dress up in trouser suits all they liked. In the end, their bodies would yearn for children.
This may have sounded like a description. It was an order.
The story of the biological clock is a story about science and sexism. It illustrates the ways that assumptions about gender can shape the priorities for scientific research, and scientific discoveries can be deployed to serve sexist ends. We are used to thinking about metaphors like “the biological clock” as if they were not metaphors at all, but simply neutral descriptions of facts about the human body. Yet, if we examine where the term came from, and how it came to be used, it becomes clear that the idea of the biological clock has as much to do with culture as with nature. And its cultural role was to counteract the effects of women’s liberation.
First, conversations about the “biological clock” pushed women towards motherhood, suggesting that even if some of the gendered double standards about sex were eroding, there would always be this difference: women had to plan their love lives with an eye to having children before it was “too late”. Second, the metaphor suggested that it was only natural that women who tried to compete with men professionally, and to become mothers as well, would do so at a disadvantage.
The idea that being female is a weakness is embedded in the origin of the phrase “biological clock”. The term was originally coined by scientists to describe circadian rhythms, the processes that tell our bodies when we should rise, eat, and sleep. In the 1950s, the US air force began sponsoring research into how the biological clock worked. Soon researchers were racing to develop drugs that could eliminate the need for rest. The idea was that if we understood the body well enough, we could overcome its limitations. In the 1970s and 1980s the meaning of the term shifted to the way we use it now: a description of female fertility. But is being female a weakness that we believe professional women should want to cure?
At a time of dramatic social and economic change, the ways the biological clock was talked about reinforced old ideas about gender difference. Indeed, it exaggerated them, creating a sense that male and female partners were even more different than traditionalists of the 1950s had imagined. More and more women were breaking into the previously male world of well paid work. Nonetheless, conversations about the biological clock suggested that reproduction was an exclusively female concern.
Commentators such as Cohen and Kirchheimer warned female readers that they would feel increasingly panicked if they put off getting pregnant for too long. At the same time, they presented a set of supposedly timeless “truths” about masculinity that were rather new. They said that men’s bodies programmed them not to want long relationships or offspring. Free of the time pressures that dictated the love lives of women, men had evolved to want no-strings sex. (In universities, at around the same time, the new field of evolutionary psychology was explaining that heterosexual human mating rituals were a compromise between males who wanted sex and females who wanted protection – and had to rely on their nubility to get it.)
Never mind that surveys showed that, as recently as the 1950s, most Americans considered marriage and family the cornerstones of personal happiness. Experts of the 1980s agreed that men and women were destined to approach dating with directly opposing goals and very different privileges. The perpetual bachelor was ageless. But if the career woman hoped to catch a worthy partner, she had to plan her life meticulously.
By the mid-1980s, baby boomer women had become an army of “clock-watchers”, as the journalist Molly McKaughan called them. Her 1987 bestseller,Biological Clock, reported that women who otherwise held widely diverging attitudes were all “consumed by the subject” of having children. A few expressed remorse for having waited too long to begin their hunt for a father. However, most women had recognised early that they had to date strategically. “Time can literally pass a woman by,” McKaughan reflected, “if she waits too long.” There is no literature saying comparable things about these women’s boyfriends.
To this day, evidence of exactly how much female fertility declines with age remains hazy. As the psychologist Jean Twenge has pointed out, many frequently cited statistics concerning female fertility are misleading. In a 2013 article in the Atlantic, Twenge exposed the shaky bases of many of the facts often handed down to women as gospel. After scouring medical research databases she discovered that, for instance, the often-quoted statistic that one in three women between the ages of 35 to 39 will not be able to get pregnant after a year of trying came from a 2004 study that was itself based on French birth records kept from 1670 to 1830. “In other words,” Twenge wrote, “millions of women are being told when to get pregnant based on statistics from a time before electricity, antibiotics, or fertility treatment.”
Another problematic element of data on fertility is that, in general, the information we have comes from patients who visit doctors because they are experiencing fertility problems. As a result, it is difficult to assess what is going on with the population as a whole. How many couples are not conceiving because they do not want to? How many are using contraception? It is nearly impossible to control for all these variables.
Despite these gaps in our knowledge, strong scientific evidence has demonstrated that the quantity and quality of a woman’s eggs do diminish over time. Countless women, who delayed child-bearing for whatever reason, have experienced anguish upon discovering that they cannot conceive. To this extent, the anxieties of the clock watchers were well-founded. But most of the vast body of writing about them fails to mention another, crucial fact: male fertility declines with age too.
There are, of course, famous exceptions – men like Charlie Chaplin and Pablo Picasso, who fathered children as septuagenarians. But the widespread belief thatmale fertility is invulnerable to time is simply false. Since the 1980s, a large and growing body of research has shown that sperm counts, and quality, diminish over the years. The children of older fathers have much higher risk of autism and other complications than those of younger ones do. Often “old sperm” simply flail and perish around an egg they are trying to fertilise.
These facts have been reported occasionally – almost always as news of a “malebiological clock”. The need to append the adjective “male” to the phrase “biological clock” hints at why this data has mostly gone ignored: society speaks as if only women had bodies.
According to the American Society of Reproductive Medicine, of couples seeking treatment for subfertility in the United States, 40% discover that the problem is being caused by the “female factor”, 40% of the time it is the “male factor”, and 20% of the time they cannot tell. Women and men are found to experience fertility problems at roughly equal rates, but you would never know it from reading most press coverage of the subject. Our assumption seems to be that reproduction is a female responsibility first and foremost. Anything going wrong with it must be a woman’s fault.
Female reproductive systems are not, in fact, much like clocks. Our bodies move by the month, rather than the hour or day; hormonal cycles rarely proceed as smoothly as a second hand. And male, as well as female, fertility declines with age. So why was the idea that women, and only women, had to race against time, so compelling? Why did talk about the biological clock catch on as widely as it did?
The answer may be more prosaic than some Pleistocene temporality particular to female bodies. At the moment when the idea of the biological clock was taking off, changes in the economy were altering how work and time were organised. And the reason that women began to feel that they were racing against time had less to do with some mysterious biological force than the fact that they were beginning to enter the professional workplace, while continuing to do most of the unpaid domestic labour. In other words, they were busier – they literally had less time – than ever before.
The kinds of nine-to-five jobs that had been common for most of the 20th century divided life into two kinds of time: on the clock, and off the clock. In the 1950s and 1960s, work performed on the clock was thought of primarily as male. Women worked in the home – a space that society defined as “off the clock” and external to the economy. What they did there looked less like labour than like love.
The “family wage” that a man earned was supposed to be sufficient to subsidise his wife’s unpaid efforts. In the 1970s, however, wage stagnation meant that fewer and fewer families could afford to have only one working partner. The dismantling of social services put further pressure on families. White educated feminists celebrated the new opportunities for women to break into the male workforce. But the exodus of housewives from suburban homes was driven by economic necessity, as well as the desire for liberation.
Workplaces did not change their protocols to make it easier for women to succeed. The result was that women had to constantly play catch-up, if they wanted the combination of career and family that their male colleagues enjoyed. They had to find a way to manage the very different demands of family life and corporate schedules, and any jetlag they might feel as a result of living between them. Tick, tock.
In 1989, the sociologist Arlie Hochschild coined an expression for the phenomenon of working women continuing to do the majority of housework. She called it “the second shift”. Around a decade later, she observed that many women took on an additional “third shift” as well. This involved managing the emotions that getting through your first and second shift inspired – the intense feelings of guilt and resentment that women began to feel as they realised that “having it all” often just meant “doing everything”.
The endless discussion about the biological clock helped make the difficulties of balancing work and life sound like a pathology that afflicted individual women, rather than a large-scale social problem. (Recall the psychiatrist and friends with “withering womb syndrome”.)
This obscured the truth that the real conflict concerned social priorities. A country such as the US, which mandates almost no parental leave and provides no support for childcare, makes it impossible for women who elect to become mothers to participate equally in the economy. The biological clock hysteria, with its image of a time bomb lodged in each and every woman’s ovaries, made each woman personally responsible for dealing with that handicap.
Many career women bought it. At least, they did not organise to demand better maternity leave or state subsidised childcare. Instead, they listened to experts who told them what experts always tell women: There is something terribly wrong with you! But luckily, there is also something new and expensive that you can buy to fix it.
Doctors mastered the first procedure for in vitro fertilisation (IVF) just months before journalists started clamouring about the biological clock. On 25 July 1978, the world’s first “test-tube baby”, Louise Brown, was born in Oldham general hospital in England. Baby Louise briefly became a global celebrity. But if a marketing team had been trying to come up with an advertising campaign to sell a broader population of women on IVF, they could hardly have done better than the flood of stories about the biological clock that the Washington Post article by Richard Cohen started.
IVF had been designed to solve a specific medical problem. The mother of Louise Brown had been unable to conceive because of a blockage in her fallopian tubes. By 1981, however, researchers figured out how to use hormones to stimulate the ovaries of any woman to release many eggs at once. Rather than relying on the natural menstrual cycle, doctors began extracting as much genetic material as they could from their patients. Soon, they were selling IVF to women who had no fallopian tube problems at all.
In 1983, the doctors Sevgi Aral and Willard Cates, both at the Center for Disease Control in Washington DC, published an article announcing the beginning of an “infertility epidemic”. It was widely read and cited. As concern spread, the assisted reproductive technology industry grew in response to the new demand. By the mid 1980s, clinics offering IVF treatments were opening across the US. By the 1990s, agencies offering egg donation and gestational surrogacy followed, as did ICSI (intracytoplasmic sperm injection, a method of injecting sperm directly into an egg to fertilise it).
IVF helped many women to conceive but it was not an easy fix. It is an expensive procedure. In the US, as of 2015, the average cost of a “fresh” IVF cycle (a cycle using newly harvested eggs) is $12,400, plus $3-5,000 for medications. Many patients undergo more than one cycle while trying to get pregnant, and few health insurance plans cover all of it. In the UK, the average cost ranges from £4,000 to £8,000 per cycle – and not all women can get it on the NHS. IVF is also an invasive procedure. It comes with significant physical and emotional risks. There are countless studies that detail how disruptive and debilitating many women find it.
There have been few studies of how IVF hormone treatments affect women’s bodies in the long term. In October 2015, researchers at UCL released a study tracking more than 255,000 British women who had received IVF treatment from 1991 to 2010. They found that these women were 37% more likely than members of a control group to develop ovarian cancer. Whether this is because the IVFcaused the cancer, or their fertility problems were the result of an underlying condition that went undiagnosed, is impossible to know. Neither possibility is good.
And yet, our culture so takes for granted that women will suffer in order to become pregnant, and these methods are so profitable that few researchers are invested in exploring alternatives. Even if a couple is having trouble conceiving because of “male factor” problems, the female partner still has to undergo IVF.
Reproductive technologies are often described as means to circumvent the body’s biology. But there is a significant risk that after the expense and anguish of IVF, the procedure just won’t work. The most recent report by the American Society of Reproductive Medicine, published in 2012, shows that the success rates of any given IVF cycle are low. For women over 42, the likelihood that a cycle will result in their carrying a baby to term is 3.9%.
If a woman has been counting on these procedures to start a family, discovering that she cannot do so can be devastating. The notion that miracle technologies exist may well increase her sense that the failure is her own.
Like any industry, the assisted reproductive technology industry seeks to expand and to capture new markets. Studies have shown that since the turn of the millennium, women are growing concerned about their fertility at younger and younger ages. In 2002, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Survey of Family Growth reported that in the US the number of 22 to 29-year-olds who had received fertility treatment had doubled over the previous seven years, to 23%. In 2006, Conceive, a magazine based in Orlando, Florida, whose slogan is “We’re the experts at getting pregnant”, found that 46% of its readers were younger than 30.
Over the past decade, the assisted reproductive technology industry has begun marketing expensive interventions to growing numbers of people who may not need them. Egg freezing in particular has been marketed to career women as a chance to be proactive. In 2014, the company FertilityAuthority launched a startup called Eggbanxx, which provides access to a network of doctors who perform egg-freezing procedures. It aims to expand the market to appeal to women who are not yet having any fertility problems. “We will be like Uber, but for egg freezing,” Gina Bartasi, the company’s CEO told the Washington Post in the spring of 2015.
In contrast to the language of “stocks” and of “gifts” that we use to talk about sperm and egg donation, insurance is the metaphor that dominates discussions of egg freezing. Clinics that offer the treatment often use the language of high finance in their advertisements. They joke about “frozen assets” and speak earnestly about the wisdom of “hedging against” risk. Egg freezing is not only a choice but an “option”, in the sense that Wall Street traders use that term. When she freezes her eggs, a woman pays a certain amount of money – in the US this starts at around $15,000, plus annual storage costs – in order to be able to get her eggs back later.
Like IVF, egg freezing was initially developed for a specific purpose: young female cancer patients who had to undergo chemotherapy elected to freeze their eggs before doing so. But in recent years, clinics have started offering the experimental treatment as an option for healthy women, too. Indeed, they encourage women to freeze their eggs as early as possible.
Asking women to pay for an expensive elective procedure, which is still classified as experimental, years before they ever need it, does not sound like the most solid business proposition. And yet, the logic of egg freezing has convinced some of America’s most successful corporations. In 2012, when Google, Facebook, and Citibank announced that they were considering covering up to $20,000 of the cost of egg freezing as a health benefit for female employees, many people touted this move as a miracle fix for the gender inequality that continues to plague corporate workplaces. A Time magazine cover story on the subject declared that “Egg Freezing Will Be the Great Equalizer”.
In the media, women who freeze their eggs tend to say that doing so has made them feel “empowered”. Yet the sources in these stories often seem to be less worried about climbing the career ladder than about the difficulties of finding love as their biological clock ticks louder and louder in the background.
In 2011, Vogue profiled “a 35-year-old, willowy media company executive”, who had just frozen her eggs. She stressed the benefits that doing so would bring her while dating. “Leah knew she was coming dangerously close to the age when eligible men might search her eyes for desperation, that unseemly my-clock-is-ticking vibe. ‘Freezing my eggs is my little secret,’ she says. ‘I want to feel there’s a backup plan.’”
In 2013, the journalist Sarah Elizabeth Richards published Motherhood: Rescheduled. This book follows five women through the egg-freezing process. The author says that she herself is overjoyed at the pressure that having done so takes off her love life. “Egg freezing … soothed my pangs of regret for frittering away my 20s with a man I didn’t want to have children with, and for wasting more years in my 30s with a man who wasn’t sure he even wanted children. It took away the punishing pressure to seek a new mate and helped me find love again at age 42.” This makes egg freezing sound less like a tool for workplace equality than an expensive means to prolong the search for Prince Charming.
The go-getting women who are cited as advertisements for egg freezing often use the language of choice and self-empowerment. In practice, however, egg freezingpushes women to accept gendered expectations about romance and reproduction. The more the procedure becomes normalised, the more the idea is reinforced that women should take on the work and financial burden of managing reproduction. It is easy to imagine opportunities becoming obligations: that in a company that offers egg freezing as a benefit, a woman who does not elect to freeze her eggs will be perceived as unserious about her career. This seems like a strange form of empowerment: spending tens of thousands of dollars in order to make your date feel more comfortable. Or, so that you can climb a career ladder that will not bend, even slightly, to meet female workers in their reproductive years.
This seems a strange form of empowerment: spending tens of thousands of dollars to make your date feel more comfortable
The American workforce is now more than half female. In the UK, more than 67% of women hold full-time jobs outside their homes. Given a choice between policy changes – say, better healthcare and maternity leave policies – and a “time freezing” technology, do we really think that freezing time is the more realistic fix for the problems that workplace conventions cause women?
It is easy to understand why individual women might want to freeze their eggs. But freezing rarely solves a problem. On the contrary, it prolongs the existence of a problem.
The role of the biological clock has been to make it seem only natural – indeed inevitable – that the burdens of reproducing the world fall almost entirely on women. There are moral as well as practical implications to this idea: if you do not plan your life just right, you deserve to end up desperate and alone.
This fiction that it is female nature to take full responsibility for reproduction places a tremendous burden on women. And it strains romantic relationships between women and men. The idea that men and women who desire sexual and romantic relations with one another are hardwired to want opposing things is not good for anyone. Would it not be more straightforward simply to admit that both men and women have bodies that age – and that most humans share basic desires for affection, intimacy, and respect?
Geeta Narglund. “The doctor warning 15-year-olds about their declining fertility. The Guardian. May 17, 2016. (http://www.theguardian.com/education/2016/may/17/the-doctor-warning-15-year-olds-about-their-declining-fertility)