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Women Assaulted by a Stork Reality

TIMES STAFF WRITER

You are a woman of reproductive age. You work. You live in the United States in 2001. And the ticking is making you crazy.

Everywhere you turn, friends, parents, TV, newsstands, society, the world reminds you that your biological clock is ticking. It is ticking so loudly that probably people at cocktail parties can hear it over the background music, your boss can hear it over the office din, and your neighbors at dinner parties can’t even hear your lively conversation because the ticking drowns out anything you--a highly educated, witty, smart career woman--are trying to say. Your man, if you have one, can hear it louder than anyone else in the world, because he holds you close, and he can feel it pounding through your skin at night, when your fears leak out unchecked, in dreams, or whispered conversations.

Starting Tuesday, a national group of fertility doctors is launching an ad campaign to remind you--whether you have a psychological Timex, or a wall-mounted cuckoo clock that sends out a screaming bird ever hour to signify the relentless passage of time--that time is running out.

In case your biological clock slipped your mind for a moment, as you ponder all the other things that matter in life--God, career, friends, your beloved, whether your sister is still depressed and whether you fed the dog this morning--you might see an ad on a bus that declares in the frightening print of the surgeon general’s warnings to smokers: “Advancing Age Decreases Your Ability to Have Children.”

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The poster (online at https://www.protectyourfertility.org) shows an upside down, baby-bottle shaped hour-glass with this message: " ... Women in their twenties and early thirties are most likely to conceive. Infertility is a disease affecting 6.1 million people in the United States.” The campaign will feature three other ads warning that smoking, weight, and sexually transmitted diseases also affect fertility.

The campaign is small--a mere $62,000 is budgeted for the bus ads, brochures, Web site and radio public service announcements. But the campaign has generated publicity far beyond the reach of its limited initial run in Seattle, New York and suburban Chicago.

The campaign has been covered by National Public Radio, the “Today” show, the Los Angeles Times, and most prominently, as a Newsweek cover story. It is the talk--and terror--of young women who are struggling to balance career, love and life.

“Why do they target it at us?” asks Jo Stein, 32, an actor in New York. “Don’t women have enough to worry about? We have to find the man. We have to lure him in. We have to worry about his commitment-phobic issues, and then we have to worry about our biological clock. It takes a decade in and of itself just to get the guy .... Men think they can just take their own sweet time and do it whenever they want to without any repercussions. Look at the Michael Douglases of the world. I just don’t think it’s fair.”

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It’s not.

And that biological reality is what infuriates some women.

Beautiful women in their prime may have trouble conceiving, while doddering men can still father babies.

Men’s sperm slows down, but it still swims. Women just run out of eggs.

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It is not news that with age, conception becomes more difficult. But Dr. Michael Soules, the president of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, the 9,000-member group that is behind the campaign, says a confluence of social factors has created an “epidemic” of women rendered infertile by age. According to the Family Growth Survey Branch of the National Center for Health Statistics, in 1982, the earliest year for which statistics are available, 12% of American women between the ages of 15 and 44 sought infertility services. In 1995, 15.4% of women in that group sought help. For one thing, women have easier access to contraception than ever before. For another, more American women than ever are attending college, and many are delaying marriage and childbearing until they are established in their careers. Most women in their 30s don’t have a problem getting pregnant, Soules said. But if they wait until their late 30s, or 40s, they might.

Experts still disagree about the actual age at which fecundity decreases most sharply. A 1973-80 French study of 2,193 women using artificial insemination under controlled conditions observed a “slight but significant” decrease in the ability to conceive after age 30, and a “marked” decrease after age 35. Women younger than 31 had about a 74% chance of being impregnated within a year’s time. The figure fell to 61% for those ages 31 to 35, and to 54% for those older than 35.

Scientists are finding that men, or more accurately sperm, also have a biological clock. A Columbia University study recently found that men between the ages of 45 and 49 were twice as likely as those younger than 25 to have children who developed schizophrenia, and the children born to men older than 50 were at three times the risk for the disease.

The barrage of news about advances in fertility technology makes people believe the only barrier to conception at any age is the amount of cash in one’s wallet.

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The ad campaigns, Soules hopes, will correct that misperception. It is not meant to be alarmist.

“We like to use the word provocative,” said Soules, an obstetrician and reproductive endocrinologist. “If women would promise not to come to my office and say why didn’t anyone tell me,” he says, “we will stop the campaign.”

Thirty-five-year-old Colette Sartor, who is just starting a two-year writers program at the University of Iowa, was sitting in her Los Angeles gynecologist’s waiting room when she first saw the Aug. 13 Newsweek cover story on the campaign.

She freaked out.

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After her appointment she rushed out and bought a copy.

She waited a day to say anything to her boyfriend. But the next morning, as they were making the bed, she said, “Bob, this is the situation .... “

Married women, too, are feeling the pressure.

“I just feel totally overwhelmed and, frankly, highly irritated at what I perceive to be an onslaught of negative, pessimistic, verging-on-hysterical information about the difficulty of getting pregnant,” says Naomi Despres, 32, a Los Angeles film producer who has been married a year and would be happy to put off kids for another 10 in order to focus on her career. “I’m totally in love with my husband. I’m totally excited about having kids, and it is just bad news everywhere I look. It’s not the best environment to start getting pregnant.”

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Despres adds: “The first issue should be, have you found the person you want to have a baby with, and would he be a good father. The idea that a woman would be hunting men down in their 20s so they can have a baby at 27 is so backwards.”

Hannah McCouch, 35, a New York freelance writer, married two years ago. She and her husband are trying to conceive, but they don’t feel financially ready.

“Women don’t need to be reminded that their time is running out,” McCouch says. “And in a lot of cases it is the men who are holding things back. Why isn’t that addressed? I’ve been totally paranoid about my fertility for years, from the age of 30 on. Basically I started pestering my husband from the time we got together. I was, like, ‘Babies! Babies!,’ and he was, like, ‘Settle down. I don’t even know if I like you.”’

Cindy Simons Bennett, 43, of Virginia, wishes someone had told her she was risking her fertility by waiting. She ended up adopting two children. “As a sister, if I could prevent any woman from going through the pain I did, I think that can’t be a bad thing,” says Bennett, who runs an adoption and infertility Web site https://(www.childofmydreams.com).

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Shari Brasner, a Manhattan gynecologist whose practice is filled with career women, says the fear is already out there.

“Thirty-four-year-old women are coming in and saying, ‘I’m so worried. Should I be freezing my eggs now?”

She says fertility declines, but her patients do not need to be more stressed out than they already are.

“I am dealing with a patient population that is already fearful. I don’t want to make them fearful every day of their lives, especially when they might not even have a significant person.”

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She says there are other considerations for career women. It is harder to go back and finish your education after having children, or to begin climbing the corporate ladder at 40.

She worries doctors might scare women into having babies before they really want to. “You might end up in a relationship that is not ready to bear that commitment. The divorce rate in this country is already sky high. We don’t want to see more children of broken families.”

One 32-year-old magazine editor in New York, who asked not to be identified, says the ads miss the mark. “The idea of a public service campaign cooked up by a lot of old male fertility doctors to warn women about their biological clocks just infuriates me. When I see the first one go by, I almost want to scribble ‘ Immature men decrease your ability to have children’ on it.”

Men who were willing to talk about the fertility issue--and it’s not their favorite topic--admit that they may indeed be part of the problem. “I feel bad for the good girls who didn’t get pregnant at 18, didn’t have premarital sex and suddenly find themselves in a three-to five-year window,” says a single 35-year-old Hollywood movie executive. “It seems like girls who got pregnant by accident wind up winning.”

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He says he has felt pressure by girlfriends and female friends to help them get pregnant. But he has never felt ready, even during his most recent relationship, which ended last year after a decade.

“I felt guilty that I was so immature,” he says. “I felt really sorry for them that I was so immature. I just wasn’t ready.”

While women in their early 30s worry about their withering ovaries, men try to decide if they even want to be in relationships.

Brent Keller, 32, who lives in Orange and works in the construction industry, is dismissive of the ad campaign. “It doesn’t pertain to me personally,” he says. “I don’t have a time clock.”

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Marriage is not on his mind, let alone children. He enjoys being single. In fact, he says, if he knew having kids was a high priority for a woman he “might not even get involved.” And anyway, he reasons, if they can’t have kids, they can always adopt.

Julia Indichova, author of “Inconceivable: Winning the Fertility Game,” a tale of her battle to overcome infertility at 42, is so angry about the campaign, she says, that if she could, she would launch a counter-campaign.

The slogan? “Be the Best Possible Mom to Yourself Today to Stay Strong Enough for Motherhood Tomorrow.” The image? An upside down woman drinking herbal tea. (Headstands are terrific fertility boosters, she says.)

“What we need to talk to our younger sisters about is how to take care of yourself,” she says. “The pressure itself becomes self-defeating. It creates panic. I call it the collective hysteria of the last egg.”

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