by Theresa Notare
August 31, 2001
A spectacular irony jumped off the pages of a recent issue of Newsweek (August 13, 2001). On the cover, a very beautiful very pregnant Asian woman in white leotard. Inside first two pages--an ad for computer software--page one, the techno gadget, page two, the words "Pro create." Where's the irony? The lead cover story trumpeted the truth about fertility--or as the subtitle noted, "Why More Doctors Are Warning That Science Can't Beat the Biological Clock."
Newsweek's use of the software ad perfectly captures a modern mindset--we are a people reliant on technology--dare I say, "in love" with technology? And what could be so bad about that? Isn't it better to wash our clothes in a machine rather than haul them down to the town well to scrub for three or four hours a day? And what about visiting Aunt Martha in Oklahoma? Wouldn't you rather hop in a plane from Virginia rather then spend months on a mule train? And then there is, of course, medicine. How would you like to go back to biting a knife as a surgeon takes out your appendix? Human know-how coupled with inventiveness and a dash of luck has been a wellspring for many good technological advances over the centuries. Clearly great contributions have been made to enhance our standard of living. However (there is always a "however") there is a "dark side" to human inventiveness; and therefore, to some technologies. The Newsweek cover story article reveals one such problem--"science can't beat the biological clock" when it comes to human fertility.
Due to a variety of factors--such as the social advancement of women, the prevalence of contraceptive use, the questioning of traditional marriage and other philosophies on the value of having children, or not--a significant number of women delay childbearing well into their thirties. The rates of first births for women in their 30s and 40s has quadrupled since 1970 and yet, only about 2% of all babies are born to women over 40 years old. This has created so great a concern that the nation's largest professional organization of fertility specialists, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, are warning women. They are launching a bold ad campaign in New York, suburban Chicago and Seattle. The headline: ADVANCING AGE DECREASES YOUR ABILITY TO HAVE CHILDREN. The message: women "in their twenties and early thirties are most likely to conceive."
So what's a woman to do? Many of my friends in their late thirties and early forties have asked me that. They know that the biological clock is ticking and that technology can't be relied upon. They especially puzzle over this problem because they have all gone to college, established themselves in their careers, and are looking for the "right man." Today it's pretty difficult to find the right spouse--for men and women alike. It's especially difficult if one believes in remaining chaste until marriage and in sharing our Catholic faith with a spouse. For this portion of the American population, who can think of babies when one can't even find a spouse! It's a puzzlement. The greater population is obviously operating out of a different mindset, but in no less deep waters. Most people would agree that a college education and developing one's talents, male or female, is a worthy goal. And yet, how are we preparing children for their futures? Do we give them unrealistic expectations? More specifically, are we teaching them about the goods of marriage and the value of having children? Are we teaching our daughters that their bodies are subject to time and won't be fertile forever? Are we teaching our sons that sex is sacred, belongs in marriage and is oriented to bringing new life into the world? Are we aware that we might be looking to technology rather than God to save us? Faith and learning about the realities of life are tricky dynamics to bring together.
Parents may want to reevaluate their hopes for their children and rethink some important things. They may want to speak to them about the goods of marriage and having children. Young adults may want to do some soul searching and reconsider the life altering sacrifices they may have to make for their careers. Newlyweds may want to reprioritize their goals and move "having a baby" to the top of the list. Striving to think critically about our world and our individual values is a good beginning. Taking seriously the study of our Catholic faith is a must--it can do so much to help us understand the value of a conscience formed by the faith. Fertility is a fact of life. It is also a gift from God--and a time-sensitive one at that. How do we reconcile the good advancements we have made with this reality? There are no quick and easy answers for this dilemma. It is one of modern life's puzzles.
Theresa Notare is the Assistant Director of the Diocesan Development Program for Natural Family Planning, Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.