Perspective: Jennifer Aniston’s infertility story reveals truth about late pregnancies
Hollywood tries to tell us women can have children into their 40s and even 50s. The truth is more complicated
Early in October, the headlines in the entertainment industry heralded the first-time pregnancy of actress Hillary Swank at age 48. She didn’t just find herself pregnant. No, there’s even more: She’s expecting twins, in what she called a “miracle.”
But was it actually a miracle, or a modern miracle (of science)? Medical professionals in the field of fertility were less than confident that Swank’s pregnancy was the result of natural conception.
Odds of "miracle" pregnancy @ 48 are effectively zero. IVF success even at 44-45 yo is low single digits.— Paula Brady, MD MFA (@DrPaulaBrady) October 5, 2022
This is from donor egg or long frozen eggs/embryos.
I'm thrilled for them! And no one needs share their medical history.
But public knowledge re: fertility & age is VITAL. https://t.co/9M0xrk33xx
In an interview, Swank said she’s “feeling great right now” and that twins run in her husband’s family. The probability of twins doesn’t go up when there are twins on the father’s side of the family, but they do go up with the use of fertility treatments.
Juxtapose this messaging — that a pregnancy almost certainly achieved with the help of assisted reproductive technology is a “miracle” — with that of actress Jennifer Aniston, who revealed for the first time that she had undergone unsuccessful fertility treatments in her pursuit of motherhood. People magazine explained, “Aniston didn’t give any timeline to her IVF journey, Allure noting that it was simply ‘several years ago.’ But now at 53, she said she has ‘zero regrets’ to how things worked out.”
It’s an important message for women to hear, that Aniston, presumably in her late 40s, with all the wealth in the world, was unable to get pregnant. There are some things that money cannot buy, and the manipulation of one’s biological clock is sometimes one of them. That’s especially true for those without significant wealth. Swank and other stars, like Janet Jackson (who gave birth to a child at the age of 50) are outliers, and are without question pouring resources into their motherhood journey the average American does not have. But for most women, it’s simply not possible, no matter how much money is spent on the process, to achieve a pregnancy well into one’s 40s.
Women are becoming mothers later and later in life. Over the past three decades, birthrates have declined for women in their 20s and jumped for women in their late 30s and early 40s, according to a spring 2022 report from the U.S. Census Bureau. The result: A median age of U.S. women giving birth for the first time moved from 27 to 30, the highest on record.
If Hollywood stars are going to model pregnancy and birth as something naturally achievable well into a woman’s 40s, that trend could continue, only with more women facing the disappointment that inevitably results in a failure to achieve the desired result: a healthy pregnancy.
Aniston’s honesty is an important counterbalance to the lie that IVF is a magic bullet, no matter one’s age or circumstances. But Aniston’s statements regarding her journey were imperfect. In the same Allure interview Aniston explained, “I would have given anything if someone had said to me, ‘Freeze your eggs. Do yourself a favor.’ You just don’t think it.”
Writing for Deseret back in August, Naomi Schaefer Riley injected some reality when another Hollywood star, Mindy Kaling, advocated for egg freezing for women trying to outrun their biological clocks. Riley explained, “According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only about a fifth of cycles among patients using their own frozen eggs ultimately ended in live births. The Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology says that the odds of a live birth are closer to 11%. It is not that there is no success using such methods, but they can be expensive, painful and frustrating. Banking that you can put off childbirth by a decade or two is a big risk. As one infertility specialist told NBC a few years ago, freezing your eggs is ‘an expensive lottery ticket.’”
Like attempting IVF in one’s late 40s, the chances of success and the cost-benefit analysis of egg-freezing is fraught. Instead of telling women that miracle babies at the age of 48 are attainable, and that egg-freezing is a pause button on nature, they instead deserve honesty about the reality of their hopes and plans when envisioning when in the future they’ll attempt motherhood. Aniston’s forthrightness should be applauded, but it’s just a fraction of the message that women should be getting about the limits of science and biology on their reproductive choices.