Aging Sperm? Not the End of the World

sperm in motionWhile female infertility is old news (literally), issues with male fertility create a new cultural frisson.

[This piece first appeared on RH Reality Check and later on Huffington Post]

WBUR On Point panel on this topic: Shulevitz, Gregory, Aronowitz.

Judith Shulevitz’s recent New Republic essay on how later parenthood is “upending American society” claims that delaying kids could lead us down a rabbit hole of genetic decline. The piece gathers much of its energy from new studies suggesting that male sperm quality decays with age.

While female infertility is old news (literally), issues with male fertility create a new cultural frisson. Apparently, genetic errors may be introduced into sperm every time they divide—which is often.* So the children of some older men may have issues, cognitive and physical, that the kids of younger men don’t generally face (at least not due to their dad’s contribution to their DNA).

There’s a lot of emphasis on the word “may” in the New Republic piece—since most of the evidence it’s based on is inconclusive. And there’s a strong element of anecdote as well. Fertility catastrophizing is an ongoing sport. For instance, here are some other fertility scaremongering pieces of the past few years which turned out to be not the big problems the headlines suggested: the ovarian reserve scare; the later-parenthood autism scare; the childlessness scare; earlier this month we had the low-birth-rate scare (which turns out to really be about young women delaying kids in order to establish themselves—a time-lag effect).

In the case of new dads over 50, several studies do suggest that their kids may have a higher rate of schizophrenia (about 1 percent) than those of younger dads (about 0.25 percent), and there may be links to other ailments. Time, and more completed studies, will tell. The same is true of studies of the effects of fertility treatments like Clomid on both kids and moms, which the essay also raises as potentially devolutionary. The data is still in the gathering stages.

As there has been all along, there’s reason to ask women and their doctors to think through their fertility options before turning to fertility tech and drugs. Firm data on rates of pregnancy in the late thirties and early forties is scarce, because doctors can’t mandate that a big group of people have unprotected sex constantly for the sake of an experiment. But one study indicates that most women not already known to have an endocrinal disorder or blockage will get pregnant without aid in their late thirties within two years. Many find two years too long a wait before seeking fertility boosters—and certainly it’s reasonable for women to get their hardware checked out early on in their fertility efforts, or even before they’re ready to start trying for kids. But of the 580,000 kids born in 2010 to women over age 35, only about 5 percent of them involved IVF.* (We can’t track how many involved Clomid or IUI.) For more on rates of decline click here.

Fertility treatments should be more regulated and tracked than they are. We know little about the long-term effects of the treatments we’re using on a wide scale. But the presentation of data in this essay is questionable. Potential problems should be noted and discussed, but there’s no basis for jumping to end-of-the-world conclusions. We are not falling off a fertility cliff.

Looking at the same question from the positive side, at least such hand wringing does open up discussion of these issues. Suggestions of declining quality of sperm among later dads shares out some of the weight that’s been jammed on the shoulders of later moms in our fertility discourse.

Different from older moms’ situation, however, these male fertility issues can be addressed with relative ease. For women, IVF and egg donation involve injections of high doses of hormones with unknown long-term effects, huge expense for each attempt, and ethical questions over the use of poorer women’s genetic material for the benefit of richer couples.

By comparison, for men worried about potential issues with their aging reproductive materials, arranging for sperm donation is a breeze. The cost is negligible and no risky hormone injections are required. If you want familial DNA connections, there’s the real option for many of using a nephew’s sperm—or that of a younger brother. Or if you don’t have such a handy relative, or it’s not a real option given your family dynamic but you do hope to propagate your own DNA—you can push for further research around generation of new sperm cells from an individual’s adult stem cells, skin cells or other tissue. If perfected, such advances could allow men (and, interestingly, women too!) to generate new sperm cells bearing their DNA. These would be free of the genetic errors that older sperm have, because they haven’t divided as often. Some animal experiments along these lines have been successful.

The understanding that spermatic dynamism fades with time may surprise us for a few minutes. But viewed in wider context, it’s not the end of the world, guys.

Modern fertility is changing at lightning speed, and along with it the stratification of tasks based on gender. Many of our old-world assumptions are being upended. But for women, men, families, and society, the new options introduced by control of fertility are largely positive and open the way to ongoing positive cultural evolution.

*More specifically, the sperm themselves do not divide – it’s the cells in the gonads that generate the sperm that divide, creating the possibility for potential genetic errors.

**5% is correct. The rate was listed as 6% in an earlier posting.

Share

Delayed Parenting Upends Society – Positively

121107_heitkamp_baldwin_hirono_ap_60

This past week I participated in two radio panels with Judith Schulevitz, whose recent New Republic essay spawned a lot of media response.  I have to say I’m getting less and less impressed with the world of media response–since it feeds us, and blows itself up with, similar catastrophe narratives around women’s control of our fertility practically every month, never noticing that there’s a pattern there. Over and over the stories turn out to be half truths or completely pointless, but they put the new ones out anyway.

I just posted a piece on RH Reality Check around one dynamic of Shulevitz’s piece (its big concern about the possibility that some older dads’ sperm may be suboptimal) relative to the ease of addressing that concern, should it prove to be a major issue (the science jury is still out on that, as it is on practically all of Shulevitz’s concerns). Not to say they shouldn’t be discussed – they should be, so that’s the positive side of the dynamic.  But no need to jump to end of the world conclusions. Will repost it here tomorrow. [here]

KQED’s panel also included Joan Williams, and WBUR’s On Point panel also included Nona Willis Aronowitz.

Schulevitz argues that later parenthood upends American society in negative ways, to do with possible genetic problems introduced by unregulated fertility treatments and the genetic errors that build up in the sperm of older dads over decades.  Down the line the children of older parents will be a lesser race, due to genetic problems introduced by delay, she suggests.  And the kids will lose their parents too soon (mid 30s to mid 40s)–especially problematic for adult kids with major ailments.

I of course agree that later parenthood upends things, but I see it as an overwhelmingly positive phenomenon in terms of the social dynamics of women’s participation in public life and in policy making that delay allows.  And it’s only because women have delayed kids or refrained from having them at all that we now have even a discussion of the possibility of a family friendly workplace — the condition that would allow women to delay less long.  Only because women have delayed is there the chance that later they won’t have to.  How much later we have to wait is in large part up to us at this point.  When does the group throw the TV (or the inequity) out the window and start yelling?

In the meantime, delay has been our form of silent protest of the status quo. Women have figured out that delaying their first child in order to finish their educations and to establish at work means that they make enormously more in salaries over the long term (12% annual gain in life time earnings per year of delay for college graduate women!).  This money and education then translate into expanded political and social influence that they would not get any other way.  It’s millions of women’s delay of family by a little or a lot that has brought us to the point where our issues are now at least being discussed in the public forum.  Not so much acted upon yet, and not always discussed very thoroughly (every time we bring up a national childcare system in a discussion people’s eyes glaze over and we’re told there’s no chance so why bother to discuss it).  But at least there’s a vocabulary of family friendliness now.  Baby steps, as it were.

Other benefits women have found in later motherhood (a quick recap of READY‘s findings ):

  1. stronger family focus (because they’ve been out, and now they want to be at home)
  2. more clout in the workplace – to command a family friendly schedule for oneself, and to change policy for the group
  3. higher salaries (see above)
  4. rising class (delay can be a class elevator: women born into lower class families who are able to delay and invest in their educations, often themselves give birth to middle class kids)
  5. more likely to be married or partnered (that’s true for women 30 and over: in 2009 11 percent of first-time moms at 18 were wed, 30 percent at 21, 62 percent at 25, 83 percent at 30, 84 percent at 34 (the high), 78 percent at 40, 77 percent at 45-55)
  6. single moms who give birth or adopt later are generally more financially stable than their younger counterparts
  7. younger husbands (80% of women who married in their 20s married older men, where only 60% of women who married at or after 35 did so)
  8. peer marriages (marked by equal power, based on similar educations and earning ability, greater likelihood of shared childrearing and housework, and shared interests )
  9. greater self-confidence in making one’s points and advocating for one’s kids and other concerns
  10. longer lives (yes, it’s true – linked to higher wages and better medical care, as well as better education – and also, it seems, to having more reason to live longer and take care of oneself),
  11. greater longterm happiness and life satisfaction (see Myrskyla & Margolis, Happiness Before and After Kids – especially Figures 3A & 3B)
  12. greater participation as citizens in the shaping of government, business and social policy to reflect the interests and concerns of 51% of the population and their families (like pay equity, fair education for citizens of all ages [infancy through college], end to violence against women and children, responsible environmental policy, and so on).

In my view, these effects are hugely more important than the possibility that some later dads in their 50s may be at risk for having kids with genetic problems (about 1%, up from 0.25% in their 20s), especially since this possibility now that it’s being identified can be addressed at low cost and limited trouble by sperm donation, either from a sperm bank, or if you’re concerned about perpetuating your DNA, then from a younger relative, or even potentially soon from other of your body’s cells that can be made to generate new, error-free sperm.

I think these issues also outweigh even the risk that the grandparents of the kids of delayed parents will be less energetic (another topic of Shulevitz’s emphasis), though there’s plenty of room for moving to address such concerns of families around too much delay by fixing the policy around women’s work in the USA.  Activism, ladies, activism.  History suggests that nobody else will do it for us.

Just saying.

Share

“Delaying Childbirth Could Reduce Risk of Triple-Negative Breast Cancer”

Interesting new data on the protective effects that delaying childbirth into at least your late 20s and breastfeeding have against triple-negative breast cancer.  Click here for the full story.

“The study shows those women whose first childbirth is delayed by at least 15 years after first menstrual period, age at first childbirth, and breastfeeding were all inversely associated with risk of triple-negative breast cancer.”

Share

Marianne Moore Breaks 125

Women’s work takes many forms–including poetry, which advances the life struggles it carves sense from.  

Modernist Marianne Moore (1887-1972) excelled in this labor, innovating early and late, ever ready for the battles fought both at home, abroad, and in the bookstores, both fierce and playful (see “Roses Only,” “Marriage,” “The Fish,” “Silence” “In Distrust of Merits,” “Armor’s Undermining Modesty,”  “Combat Cultural,” & “To a Giraffe” for a few examples).  At once “the most high-brow poet in the world” per critic Richard Aldington, and a writer “in plain American which cats and dogs can read!” per herself.

Here’s a favorite (from 1921), for friends in Moore’s old west village neighborhood, recently dark and wet:

NEW YORK

the savage’s romance,

accreted where we need the space for commerce–

the centre of the wholesale fur trade,

starred with tepees of ermine and peopled with foxes,

the long guard-hairs waving two inches beyond the body of the pelt;

the ground dotted with deer-skins–white with white spots

“as satin needlework in a single color may carry a varied pattern,”

and wilting eagles’ down compacted by the wind;

and picardels of beaver skin; white ones alert with snow.

It is a far cry form the “queen full of jewels”

and the beau with the muff,

from the gilt coach shaped like a perfume bottle,

to the conjunction of the Monongahela and the Allegheny,

and the scholastic philosophy of the wilderness

to combat which one must stand outside and laugh

since to go in is to be lost.

It is not the dime-novel exterior,

Niagara Falls, the calico horses and the war canoe;

it is not that “if the fur is not finer than such as one sees

others wear,

one would rather be without it–”

that estimated in raw meat and berries, we could feed the universe;

it is not the atmosphere of ingenuity,

the otter, the beaver, the puma skins

without shooting-irons or dogs;

it is not the plunder,

it is the “accessibility to experience.”

 

 

 

For lots more on Moore, check out http://moore123.com/

Share

College Grads See Big Wage Gains from Delaying Motherhood

The economic roots to the ongoing trend to delaying motherhood have become only more clear in the recent recession.  But economics has been a motivating factor all along, since the 1960s when the trend began.  (Numbers of first births to women 35 and over started rising in the 70s, but the trend began when those same women refrained from earlier births in the 60s.)

A 2011 study by Amalia Miller on compensation (based on a pool of women who first gave birth between ages 20 and 34) indicates that women with college degrees go on to gain 5 percent in wages per year of delay on average, and 12 percent or more in earnings per year of delay.*

The difference between wages and earning comes from expanded hours on the job—delayers can work full time before kids and maintain that schedule once kids arrive because they can at that point afford good childcare.  Thus, if you are 18 and childless, go to college, graduate at 22, go to work, then have a child at 25, you will make about 36 percent more per year from there on than you would have made if you had had that child upon graduation.

If you delay till age 30, the average age when female college grads have their first child (for male college grads, it’s 32), you will make roughly 96 percent more across your career than your younger-mom, college-grad self.  And so on, increasing with each year of delay.

College grads get special benefit because going to college in itself provides women with part of the boost in wages, based on training and new eligibility for better paid professions.  The rest of the boost comes from concentrated time put in on the job, which is easier without kids in a context of limited affordable childcare and employer bias against mothers.

Though economists can now demonstrate that delay links to higher earnings and other benefits, for decades prior steadily increasing numbers of working women have been figuring that out without benefit of experts, through deduction, happenstance, and attention to one another’s examples, as they’ve negotiated the still-shifting world of work in our post-birth control world.

Current anti-contraception politics would have strong economic and political effects, since limiting women’s ability to control their fertility means lowering their wages and their political clout.

*“The Effects of Motherhood Timing on Career Path,” Journal of Population Economics 24, no. 3 (July 2011): 1071-1100.  Miller’s article documents that the overall wage gain to all women averages out to 3 percent per year of delay, but  notes that the gain is realized only by college grads.  When calculated for the smaller pool of college graduates only, she finds a 5 percent wage gain, and confirms via email to the author a concomitant earnings gain of roughly 12 percent.

–Based on material from READY: Why Women Are Embracing the New Later Motherhood (Basic Books, 2012), pp. xv-xvi.

 

 

Share

Babies on Hold: The Birth Rate Drop & the Time-Lag Effect

[This piece has appeared in variously edited versions, with various titles on RH Reality Check, Huffington Post, and Ms Blog]

New CDC birth data out Wednesday confirm that the U.S. birthrate dropped one percent to reach an all-time low in 2011, extending the downward trend begun with the recession in 2008. Put down your knee-jerk fears about smaller population. This drop is a good sign, foretelling not a diminished but a strengthened workforce down the line.

Historic lows make headlines, but the deep story here is the time-lag ripple effect of delay that this year’s data demonstrate. The big birthrate declines we’ve seen since the recent high in 2007 (down nine percent overall) have been sharpest among teens ages 15 to 19 (a 25 percent drop over the four years) and to young women ages 20 to 24 (down 19 percent). Both of those age bands hit historic lows in 2011. We’re talking framework change here.

On the other hand, rates among women ages 25 to 29 have fallen a much smaller nine percent since 2007; those among women ages 30 to 34 fell four percent between 2007 and 2010 and held steady in 2011; and those among women ages 35 to 39 also fell four percent between 2007 and 2010, but rose three percent in 2011. Rates among women ages 40 to 44 never fell: they’d been rising steadily since 1981, and rose another seven percent between 2007 and 2011.What we’re seeing here looks not so much like a big decline in the number of women who have kids over their lifetimes, or even necessarily in the number of kids they have, as like the time-lag effect of postponement. The big switch in the timing of when women have children was underway long before the recession of 2007 (see this CCF fact sheet), but the recession intensified it. We can see that in the chart below, in the rising birthrates for women ages 30 to 44, and the falling rates for women ages 15 to 29.

Already some women who stayed on the maternity sidelines in their thirties in the early part of this decline have jumped back into the game (visible in the rises among women 35 and older). Though the increases to date are not yet sizable, the scene is set for a flood of later mothers down the line. The overall rate of decline was lower than in the three previous years, suggesting that an overall upturn may be on the way in the next year or so. But though the recession officially ended in 2009, younger women’s rates are still dropping drastically in 2011 (down 8 percent from 2010). These indicators confirm that the recovery still needs to gain traction before people trust it with their families. They also tell us that the national birth timing dynamic is changing fast.

In their 25 percent rate plunge in just four years, young women today are enacting a sped-up version of the trend to delaying kids that’s been growing since the introduction of hormonal birth control, in 1960.[1] Like millions of women before them, these citizens are refraining from having a first child early on (first births were also at an all time low in 2011), or sometimes a second, and choosing instead to invest in their educations (high school completion and college entry levels are up since 2007) and to build up their credentials at work. They may not be changing the number of kids they’ll have overall by much, but they are changing the economic circumstances into which those kids will arrive, for the better. Not all recession effects are problematic.

This sped-up delay effect has at least three overlapping causes. Most obvious is the recession/slow recovery (recessions are historically powerful contraception—before the Pill, the lowest recorded birth rate occurred in 1936). If people don’t feel they can afford kids, they become more vigilant about controlling fertility. A second cause lies in recent improvements in birth control methods and access, which make it easier to be vigilant.

A third springs from the fact that not only did young women refrain from having kids for the downturn; because they didn’t have kids quite a few of them were able to complete high school and enroll in college. That put them on track for perhaps a decade of further delay (the time required to finish the Bachelor’s degree and maybe grad school, and then to establish at work) rather than just a year or two (on average college graduate women of all races have their first child at 30).

This will have a major positive effect on the workforce, both because these women will be more educated themselves, and their kids—when they do have them in a few years—will be more educated too. In the fertility realm, more does not necessarily mean better. While the current birth-rate drop responds to and signals the continued slow economic recovery, it is also itself a positive sign of economic growth to come.

Birth-Control Battles

This is not what you’ll hear from the pro-natalist conservatives, who have been pushing higher birthrates, both directly through pledges to support “robust childbearing” and stated concerns that we won’t have enough workers to fund social security for retiring boomers, and more covertly through a coordinated effort to cut access to birth control and abortion. Though this is not the way they’re discussed, the most direct effect of cuts to birth control and abortion is to raise birthrates.

Since poor young women would be most affected by such cuts, and many initially middle-class new moms would be pushed into poverty, the anti-birth-control push would lead to more low-skilled workers, including both the babies and more immediately the newly-created parents. That’s just what the nation as a whole doesn’t need, when even in a down economy many US jobs go unfilled for lack of adequately skilled applicants. When the recovery fully kicks in, the skilled-worker shortfall will only increase if we push our up-and-coming workforce off the educational track and into early parenthood.

Advocates push this agenda as “pro-life,” but since its major effect is to impoverish whole families, it resonates as a “traditionalist” move back to days in which women knew their “place.” This brings out many older and conservative voters and, by denying access to birth control and abortion, pushes young workers (male and female) into poverty, where they are much more unlikely to vote. Since early births keep women out of the paths to education and cultural power, this kind of pro-natalist agenda reinforces old power networks.

Benefits to Delay

 When women control their own fertility, the world does change, with big gains for women, their families and society. College-educated women gain on average 12 percent in long-term annual earnings for every year they delay kids. So a woman who has a first child at age 30 earns roughly twice as much for the rest of her career as she would have if she’d had her first child right after graduation, at age 22, and so on up with each year of delay. Without benefit of economic experts, steadily growing numbers of women have figured out through deduction and observation that delay makes a lot of bottom-line sense to families.

Delay also serves women as a shadow benefits system in our family-unfriendly work world, making it possible to climb the ranks at work before kids, and then to use your established clout to negotiate your own deal when the kids do arrive. Delay also makes possible the trickle up of women into policy-making roles in business and government. Only when female citizens control their own fertility do they achieve critical mass and win a voice in the way society is structured. The combination of the ongoing intentional trend to delay and the recession-born delay effect will speed up that trickle up, leading to positive outcomes for kids, parents and women overall.

The 2011 birth data tells us young women are not interested in that road back to the old ways. They want good lives for themselves and their families, and they are working to realize that hope by putting babies on hold.

(All data from CDC Birth Data Reports for 2007-2011.)

[1]The average age at first birth in the US rose to 25.4 in 2010, and has risen further in 2011—official number not due out til 2013

Share

Birth Rate Drops to All-Time Low in 2011

The CDC reports that the 2011 US birth rate hit a historic low, at 63.2 births per 1000 women aged 15.44.  The prior low was 63.6 in 1997.  The rate in 2010 was 64.1, down from a recent high of 69.3 in 2007.  This confirms the CDC’s earlier report in May of this year, and provides details on age, race and marital status of the new moms.

Results— The 2011 preliminary number of US births was 3,953,593, 1 percent less (or 45,793 fewer) births than in 2010; the general fertility rate (63.2 per 1,000 women age 15-44 years) declined to the lowest rate ever reported for the United States. The number of births declined for most race and Hispanic origin groups in 2011, whereas the rate declined only for Hispanic, non-Hispanic black and AIAN women. • The birth rate for teenagers 15-19 years fell 8 percent in 2011 (31.3 births per 1,000 teenagers 15-19 years), another record low, with rates declining for younger and older teenagers and for all race and Hispanic origin groups. • The birth rates for women in their twenties declined as well, to a historic low for women aged 20-24 (85.3 births per 1,000). • The birth rate for women in their early thirties was unchanged in 2011 but rose for women aged 35-39 and 40-44. • The birth rate for women in their late forties was unchanged in 2011. • The first birth rate in 2011 (25.4 births per 1,000) was the lowest ever recorded for the United States. • The birth rate, the number of births, and the percentage of births to unmarried women each declined for the third consecutive year. The birth rate was 46.1 birth per 1,000 unmarried women aged 15-44 and the percentage of births to unmarried women was 40.7.  (CDC, NVSR 61.5, October 2012)

The big birth rate declines we’ve seen since the recent high in 2007 (a 9% fall overall between 2007 and 2011) have been sharpest among teens 15-19 (a 25% drop over the four years) and to young women 20-24 (down 19%).   Both of those rates hit historic lows in 2011.

On the other hand, rates among women 25-29 have fallen 9% since 2007.   Rates among women 30-34 fell 4% between 2007 and 2010 and held steady in 2011.  Rates to women 35-39 also fell 4% between 2007 and 2010, but rose 3% in 2011. Rates to women 40-44 never fell: they’d been rising steadily since 1981, and rose another 7% between 2007 and 2011. 
Big changes to US birth timing, continuing the trend toward delaying motherhood that this blog has been tracking lo these several years.
Share