Use of medical infertility treatments in the United States doubled in the last decade. The common explanation for the increase claims these treatments go hand-in-hand with higher infertility rates, and that infertility is an escalating problem in the U.S.
But a recent government study claims the opposite is true. The National Center for Health Statistics recently found that infertility among married U.S. women has decreased in the last 30 years. But just becaue women can have babies, doesn’t mean they are embracing motherhood.
When the center conducted an infertility study in 1982, it found 2.4 million married women aged 15–44 were infertile. Between 2006 and 2010, the number dropped to 1.5 million. The study defined infertility as “a lack of pregnancy for 12 months, despite having had unprotected sexual intercourse in each of those months with the same husband or partner.”
Physician Richard Reindollar, president-elect of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, said the study was encouraging. “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.”
But the study found, in agreement with many others, the factor most highly correlated with infertility is age. The rate of infertility rises steadily as a woman gets older, particularly when she waits longer to have her first child, and is highest among women aged 33-44. The study found differences in socio-economic background and race have little impact on infertility rates.
Some experts said the decrease may simply result from fewer people trying to become pregnant. The proportion of couples regularly using contraception grew from 53 percent to 57 percent during the three decades studied.
Anjani Chandra, the study’s lead author, said the results show that the huge increases in infertility clinic use are market driven, rather than evidence of changing biology. He said the change has come from the market demand for infertility treatments generated primarily by affluent older women waiting longer and trying to have their first child at an older age.
Indeed, the market for medical infertility treatments, or “assisted reproductive technology,” has skyrocketed in recent years. The overwhelming majority of this therapy is in vitro fertilization. Research leading to in vitro started in the early 1900s, with the first proposal of an in vitro procedure appearing in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1937. The first in vitro baby was born in the U.S. in 1981. Amid religious and ethical controversy, the practice has become widely used, and today thousands of babies are born in the U.S. via in vitro fertilization each year.
But in vitro is expensive and comes with its own set of potential complications, including multiple births. While society encourages women to put off motherhood as long as possible, technology cannot overcome all the natural consequences that come with waiting.
“Today, people are free to try to have babies when they want to, but the biology doesn't change,” said Dr. Godfrey Oakley Jr., an Emory University epidemiologst who studies birth defects.