Rejecting the Biological Clock
Earlier this month, Apple and Facebook made headlines when they announced a plan to cover the costs of egg freezing for female employees, the first corporations to offer such a benefit. The announcement inspired passionate responses from every corner, both celebratory and critical. Despite the controversy, all of these responses had one thing in common: the constant invocation of the “biological clock.” After all, the imagery is irresistible. The metaphor perfectly captures the anxieties of women struggling to balance their professional and procreative lives. But embracing the language of the biological clock also places real limits on how we think about the problem of age-related fertility decline, as well as its appropriate solutions.
The biological clock is at once an inescapable feature of the female anatomy and a technical problem waiting to be solved. The mechanical nature of the metaphor frames the issue in such a way that we are stuck searching for technological solutions to what is a complex social and economic problem. If female fertility is a clock, than it can be unwound, repaired, or even stopped. This fascination with technological solutions has distracted us from addressing the real reasons why women feel compelled to postpone pregnancy later and later in life.
The 1970s saw the beginning of an en masse postponement of pregnancy by middle-class and professional women. The combination of widespread access to reliable contraception and expanded opportunities in the workplace meant that more women were starting their families later in life. The expression “biological clock” first appeared in 1978 in the Washington Post to describe the dilemma of the modern career woman. The expression quickly became a cultural mainstay, appearing everywhere from advertisements for Cosmopolitan magazine (because every CosmoGirl needs to know about her biological clock!) to the popular comic strip Cathy.
It was also in 1978 that in vitro fertilization (IVF) emerged as a miraculous new technology to treat infertility. This simultaneous debut of assisted reproductive technologies (ART) and the biological clock meant that they would become inextricably linked in the public mind. Although IVF was developed to treat a very specific type of infertility caused by blocked fallopian tubes, it was presented in the media as a technology that could help any older woman conceive. This association between IVF and age-related infertility was amplified by the advent of egg donation programs in the early 1990s. Like IVF, egg donation was developed to treat a specific kind of infertility that was not age-related. But it did not take long for the technology to be used to achieve pregnancy in older women, some of them well past menopause.
Egg freezing is just the newest, and most powerful, weapon deployed in this thirty-year battle between reproductive technology and the passage of time. Like the technologies that came before it, egg freezing has other important applications – namely the preservation of fertility among cancer patients. But its ability to stop the biological clock, while also ensuring that a woman can use her own genetic material, has captured the lion’s share of public attention.
What this parade of reproductive technologies obscures, however, are the reasons why women postpone pregnancy in the first place. American family policy provides little support for working parents. The most prestigious career paths – business, law, medicine, and academia – dictate that the most important years of career advancement must perfectly overlap with one’s peak reproductive years. Women who take time out for childbearing pay a steep price professionally. In this system, the ideal worker has no family responsibilities. This ideal disadvantages both women and men who hope to combine family life with a fulfilling career.
How do we create a corporate culture in which reproduction is both valued and supported? We can start by shifting the conversation away from clock-talk and towards more mundane issues of family policy. We need to guarantee that all workers – both women and men – can take time out to start a family without being penalized. Let’s imagine a world without the biological clock, no technology required.
Jenna Healey is a Ph.D. candidate in the Program for the History of Science and Medicine and an ISPS Policy Fellow. Her research focuses on the history of reproductive technologies and fertility behavior, with a specific emphasis on the intersection between age and pregnancy.