Infertility rates in the United States have remained largely unchanged over the past two decades, according to new federal data released on Tuesday. That’s despite the growing number of women delaying marriage and childbirth — and counter to the conventional wisdom that modern women must race against the clock to have babies.
Federal health officials explain that the conventional wisdom about the country’s current fertility crisis — assuming that the American women who are increasingly choosing to focus on their careers in their 20s, rather than immediately starting a family, are seriously jeopardizing their chance to be a mother — are somewhat overblown.
“Contrary to popular perceptions based on infertility service use and media coverage about biological clocks, we still don’t see that,” Dr. Anjani Chandra, a NCHS researcher, told NBC News. In fact, the fertility rate is actually slightly down. “That surprises people because they think it is going up. In fact, it really hasn’t been the case,” Chandra explained.
That’s partly because medical advances over the past 20 years have allowed women to be successfully treated for infertility. In vitro fertilization (IVF) was perfected the early 1980s and has increased in use since then (although, since it’s still quite expensive, it remains out of reach for many women). Federal researchers note that the number of people of childbearing age opting for IVF hasn’t increased since 2002, but they suspect some people are having more success with the treatment because they’re able to undergo multiple IVF treatments in the same year.
Studies have found that fertility does decline with age. And it’s true that U.S. women are choosing to delay childbearing — from 1970 to 2013, the average age that women have their first baby has risen from 21.4 years old to 25.6 years old. But the evidence suggests that those two facts aren’t currently colliding to create a perfect storm of women who aren’t able to get pregnant by the time they decide they want a family.
“Even though the ages at which women in the United States have their children have been increasing since 1995, the percentage of the population suffering from infertility or impaired fecundity has not increased,” physician Richard Reindollar, who heads the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, pointed out to USA Today.
The United States’ birth rates have indeed been falling, a statistic that some conservatives use to point to the decline of the traditional family structure. But they’re not falling solely because women can’t physically get pregnant. According to the NCHS data, not all women who are classified as “infertile” are actually trying to have a child. About 40 percent of the childless women with fertility issues said that they didn’t want to have a baby in the future.
Obviously, there are many reasons that U.S. women may not want children, not least of which is how incredibly expensive it is to raise a child in a struggling economy. If the United States is interested in fostering a higher birth rate, however, policymakers could look to the example of some other countries that are currently struggling with many of the same issues. In Germany — which is currently fighting a big population drop — researchers say that the best way to encourage women to have children is to find a way to better support working mothers, like expanding daycare programs and increasing workplace flexibility. “If you look closely at the numbers, what you see is the higher the gender equality, the higher the birthrate,” a researcher at the Berlin Institute for Population and Development told the New York Times.