This month’s cover story in the Atlantic (I’m loving the Atlantic right now), “How Long Can you Wait to Have a Baby?” by Jean Twenge, basically all of the fertility studies that journalists have been using for decades to scare/shame women into having babies in their earlier has been based on out-dated, if not uncorroborated data. For example:
The widely cited statistic that one in three women ages 35 to 39 will not be pregnant after a year of trying, for instance, is based on an article published in 2004 in the journal Human Reproduction. Rarely mentioned is the source of the data: French birth records from 1670 to 1830. The chance of remaining childless—30 percent—was also calculated based on historical populations.
As Alexis Sobel Fitts points out in her own story on Twenge’s story in the Columbia Journalism Review that data comes from a time before electricity, antibiotics, or fertility drugs…or really any of the knowledge we’ve gained about pregnancy and in the past SEVERAL HUNDRED YEARS.
Sobel Fitts takes this case as yet another reminder to journalists to check the origins of the data and especially that of the statistics being used when reporting on science. Too often, science reporting is based entirely off of press release’s published by a university’s PR office summarizing a faculty member’s latest journal publication, without much or any follow up, save for perhaps getting a quote or two about the findings from the author or someone else in their field.
One of the things that really strikes me about the irresponsible, on-going publishing of this data about fertility is how it has been used to shame women into believing that they have to choose between having a family and having a career. Statistics are not innocent, but rather are always value-laden, implying norms about the right way to be in the world. It has become common wisdom that men can wait, but women cannot because their biology simply won’t allow it. This is treated as a brute fact of nature used to undermine the very idea that female humans should pursue careers–and as Twenge points out “an analysis by one economist found that, on average, every year a woman postpones having children leads to a 10 percent increase in career earnings”— suggesting that if they do they will be punished with miscarriages, infertility, or babies with Down Syndrome when they finally realize that their lives cannot be complete without children.
This also kind of reminds me of a recent interview I read with radical black feminist Alice Walker’s daughter Rebecca. One of Walker’s major arguments was that child-rearing is a form of slavery that prevents women from reaching their true potential as humans. It’s pretty clear from the interview that Rebecca had a rough childhood and now is finding a lot of solace in her own rebellious motherhood, but in light of the Atlantic piece, I’m now pretty wary of what seemed to be her strongest argument against her mother’s work:
Then I meet women in their 40s who are devastated because they spent two decades working on a PhD or becoming a partner in a law firm, and they missed out on having a family. Thanks to the feminist movement, they discounted their biological clocks. They’ve missed the opportunity and they’re bereft.
Feminism has betrayed an entire generation of women into childlessness. It is devastating.
Has it really, or were the women she describes instead betrayed by the circulation of faulty statistics and bad science reporting that led them to believe that motherhood was no longer an option? Twenge’s story isn’t just a lesson about how we report science, it is a lesson about how science is used to reinforce ideas about how women should live.