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Modern reproductive technologies give older women the same chances of having a baby as younger women who are trying to conceive naturally. That's according to new research that, for the first time, calculates a woman's chances of beating the biological clock.
But as NPR's Rob Stein reports, the findings come with some important caveats.
ROB STEIN, BYLINE: More and more women these days are delaying having babies. They're waiting to finish school or get their careers going. As a result, more and more older women are ending up at infertility clinics to help them get pregnant when they're finally ready.
The question is: What are a woman's chances of actually coming home with a baby? William Gibbons at the Baylor College of Medicine says there have never really been good numbers for that until now.
DR. WILLIAM GIBBONS: This study allows us to take women by age groups and answer the question: Doctor, will I ever have a child?
STEIN: Gibbons helped analyze data from women trying to get pregnant using in vitro fertilization, IVF. That's where doctors create an embryo in the laboratory and then place it into a woman's womb. They're publishing the results in tomorrow's New England Journal of Medicine.
GIBBONS: If you're less than 31, you've got a 60 to 75 percent chance of being pregnant after three cycles. If you're 41 to 42, it's 20 to 30 percent. And if you're over 43, it's only five to 10 percent.
STEIN: But - and this is big - that's for women who are trying using their own eggs. Barbara Luke of Michigan State University says the chances improve dramatically for a woman over 40 if she switches to using eggs donated by a younger woman. Then it's like she's in her 20's again.
DR. BARBARA LUKE: It is good news. Older women could actually achieve live birth rates equivalent to that of younger women anywhere from 60 to 80 percent after about three cycles.
STEIN: Luke led the study which looked at nearly 250,000 women who went through more than 470,000 attempts to get pregnant using IVF. But IVF clearly doesn't solve the problem. First of all, there are lots of people who have moral objections to the whole idea of creating life in a test tube, and a lot of embryos are destroyed in the process. And aside from that, many worry about perpetuating the misconception that IVF can truly reverse the biological clock.
ROSANNA HERTZ: Technology hasn't solved the biological clock.
STEIN: That's Rosanna Hertz. She's a sociologist at Wellesley College.
HERTZ: For older women, they still are subject to their clock ticking.
STEIN: Hertz says women having babies this way comes at a cost. IVF is expensive, it's unpleasant, and all the hormones women have to take to do it can be risky. And a woman who uses eggs from a donor is not genetically related to her child.
HERTZ: There is a sense of loss that she can't conceive a child who is genetically related to her and that they won't share necessarily the same traits or talents or whatever.
STEIN: There may also be implications for the babies. Hertz is studying children born from donated eggs. These children seem to have some of the same issues as adopted children.
HERTZ: They actually think about donors as live people, so that you're introducing another person into the family, so to speak, who may live in the shadows of family life but nonetheless is very real for the child.
STEIN: Hertz is among those who say the real solution is society making it easier for women to have children when they are younger.
Here's Barbara Katz Rothman. She's a sociologist at the City University of New York.
BARBARA KATZ ROTHMAN: It's really hard to have any kind of a serious professional life and have your children in your early 20's when the body is best for it, it's easy to get pregnant.
STEIN: She says far fewer women would need IVF if things like day care and maternity leave were a lot better and employers made it easier for women to have babies sooner. Rob Stein, NPR News.
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