We Are All Sarah Now
Giving birth at 90 is the newest women’s right.
Sex is dying, and fertility is going down the drain with it. It is a headline that we’ve seen over and over in the last several years, and while it likely dramatizes the real story, there is no denying a decline in intimacy and a decline in childbirth are linked. Figures out of South Korea show record-low birth rates, while scores of women go on long-term sex strikes to prove their dedication to the cause of feminism. Other countries, including the United States, are not far off.
So the end of sex is near, and it spells the end of the human species, not to mention familial happiness. But what seems more imminent than all these things is the end of science fiction. There will hardly be anything fictitious about it before long, thanks to the visionaries and activists of the biotech industry.
Consider a recent article in the New Yorker about potential solutions to the fertility problem. Even taken with all the seriousness such a publication deserves, which is to say not very much, it’s a troubling account. The reporter interviews scientists and science-adjacent tech executives who are searching for ways to make babies without any of the typical hurdles—such as the act of sexual intercourse, a fertile mother and father, or even an egg and sperm. Yes, you read that correctly. The broad goal is to increase the years in which a woman is fertile, but the particular tool is a clump of stem cells, transformed (they hope) into the sperm and egg necessary to form a human child, matured and fertilized in a petri dish, and either planted in a woman’s womb or grown, again, in an artificial setting. There goes Brave New World, The Giver, and maybe even The Handmaid’s Tale.
These Frankenstein-esque experiments, called “in vitro gametogenesis,” or IVG, may mercifully fail, but they are only the spear tip. Behind them is a generation or more of angry, menopausal women—eggs stocked like beer cans in a refrigerator—demanding their God-given right to bear children. They were promised they could have it all, and now they are going to move earth and heaven to do so.
It’s not really a new idea. Extending female reproductive longevity is “the natural and necessary progression of the women’s-rights movement” one source, Nicole Shanahan, told the New Yorker. Considering many feminists’ deification of the working woman, she’s right.
Shanahan, former wife of one of the Google founders, has donated $6 million to a San Francisco research center to solve this fertility problem. While female life expectancy has extended since the Industrial Revolution, female fertility has retained its firm cut-off date around 40 to 50 years of age. This, Shanahan and others like her believe, is entirely unfair, given that a man can often father children well into old age.
The subtext of this “problem”—assuming we view it as a problem—is something the concerned parties are not too keen to admit. That is, if we accept that women ought to be fertile for longer, we are accepting two facts that have long been anathema to the women’s rights movement. The first is that delaying children for a career does often mean foregoing a family. You cannot have it all. The liberal crusade for equal representation of the sexes in the workplace doesn’t fit with this; a full-time job today starts right around the same time a family used to, which is also already past the peak of a woman’s fertile years. This used to be perceived as a good thing: a career had the welcome side effect of curtailing the number of children you could have to a tidier digit. But as the number of children women are having continues to decrease, the number of children they desire has, like the cut-off date for their fertility, remained stubbornly still. Even among women who do have children, the majority do not have as many as they wish.
The second and more important fact is that most women do desire to raise a family. Indeed, they desire these things strongly, especially at the aesthetic level. That goes for the pantsuit and uterus-hat-wearing class too, much as they hate to admit it. The author of the New Yorker article describes herself a bit more favorably, as a “late bloomer.” Her question, and her desperate appeal, essentially amount to the old refrain of teen rom-coms: Is there hope for the ugly girl?—or rather, for the man-hater?
But increasing a woman’s childbearing years is not actually in her interest at all. Any woman who has given birth past the age of 40 will tell you it is not the same as having a baby in her 20s. Childbearing, and childrearing, for that matter, is an athletic event, and like every serious sport, that means it’s a young woman’s game. A surprise pregnancy at 75 years old would be far more serious for the health of the mother than one at 14 years old. For her mental wellbeing, too, the natural end of the season of fertility allows her to return her focus to other creative endeavors, and to pass her knowledge to the next generation. Even the best of us cannot live, and do not want to live, in the newborn phase forever.
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This means that the end of the female fertile window is not a curse but a blessing. It’s a blessing for the children as much as for their mother. Genealogy matters; who we are born to, and who we are made of, is not inconsequential. The poor child produced from some combination of Tom, Dick, and Harry—or worse, of the spare skin cell of his mother and no one else—knows for the rest of his life that he was not the result of love, or even a moment of fleeting passion. He is a product.
What happens when we dabble in human concoctions is as consequential as it is unknown. The scientists working on in vitro gamesis get this, sort of. “It feels like: we can go to Mars, so why can’t we make eggs?” Pirate Beim, CEO of biotech company Celmatix, told the New Yorker. “But I think making eggs that have transgenerational reproductive potential—I think it’s probably, like, one hundred times as complex to do that as to go to Mars.”
The future of IVG is complicated, to say the least. Fortunately, children can still be made in other ways. These ways require hard things, like lifelong commitment and perhaps even career trade-offs, but they are far from complicated. Indeed, they come quite naturally to us.