A controversial new study claims it may be possible for older women or those with fertility problems to produce an unlimited supply of human eggs and have babies later on in life.
Researchers at Harvard say they have extracted stem cells from women’s ovaries capable of generating new eggs. This challenges the long-established belief that women cannot make any more eggs after menopause.
The prevailing dogma is that fertility irreversibly decreases with age, explains lead researcher Dr. Jonathan Tilly of Massachusetts General Hospital. “Young girls are given a bank account of eggs at birth that’s not renewable,” Tilly said about most women’s pattern of fecundity. ”[A]s they mature and become a woman, then they use these eggs up.”
Tilly, nevertheless, says his findings, which appear in the journal Nature Medicine, have significant ramifications for women’s reproductive health and could restore infertility — even reversing the biological clock.
“These cells, when maintained outside the body, are more than happy to make eggs on their own,” he says. “If we can guide that process correctly I think it opens up the chance that sometime in the future we might get to the point of actually having an unlimited source of human eggs.”
This news comes as more and more women are delaying having children until their “biological clock starts ticking” because of financial insecurity, desires to advance professionally, or simply because they haven’t found Mr. Right.
Although this may be the experience of many, others, including professional black women, swear that several of their friends, role models or acquaintances have children — often in successful cohabiting or happily married relationships.
The best example, of course is, first lady Michelle Obama — an archetypal African-American female success story — with her brilliant career, loving marriage and beautiful children.
Still, the statistics on marriage are sobering. The general trend across all races is that marriage, which is often synonymous with raising children, is in decline. Even when women find a suitable partner, many are waiting until they are older to start a family.
Kimberly Seals Allers, founder of MochaManual.com, a black parenting magazine and blog, says Tilly’s research is “good news for black women” who in recent years have increasingly put off pregnancy and childbirth until after 40.
“Most studies have pointed to a priority on career, education and financial stability and the lack of suitable marriage partners, which has pushed childbearing to the back burner,” says Seals Allers, author of The Mocha Manual to a Fabulous Pregnancy.
“I also like to throw in the ‘40 is the new 30’ phenomenon,” she adds. “Black women feel younger, [so] becoming a mother at 40 and beyond just doesn’t feel as old anymore.”
Indeed, there has been widespread debate about the reported crisis facing single black professional women, who are reportedly unable to find black men at their same education and income level and as a result remain childless.
Studies also indicate African-American women are the least likely to marry. According to a recent Yale study, for instance, black women were twice as likely as white women to never have married by age 45, and are twice as likely to be divorced, widowed or separated. Nonetheless, there are African-American scholars who say if you look carefully at the data through a different lens, other conclusions can be drawn.
For instance, Barbara Katz Rothman, a sociologist at the City University of New York and author of numerous books, including Recreating Motherhood, says the phenomena of delaying childbearing or opting not to have children cuts across all races and can sometimes be attributed to what she describes as a “hostile family-friendly employment environment.”
She argues that: ”[Instead of] technological fixes [like Tilly’s research] to social problems, society should just make it easier for women to combine work and parenting when they are younger,” says Katz Rothman. “What if we just made it easier for people to have important, interesting careers and raise families at the same time?”
Seals Allers, however, points out that there are millions of women who struggle to conceive not only because of advancing age, but also due to health issues.
“This is often a taboo subject in our community mostly because of the stereotype of the hyper-fertile African-American woman,” says Seals Allers. “Many feel infertility is a weakness or they are ‘less than.’ There is much more open dialogue about infertility and treatments in the white community.”
In fact, there is a growing body of evidence which shows more African-American women are pursuing less traditional methods to have children, including costly procedures like IVF, or in-vitro fertilization. Despite the stigma of being a lone parent, single black women are also opting to adopt rather than wait for a husband.
In the face of moral and ethical issues around some types of assisted reproduction, Reverend Morris Tipton, director of media relations, at the National Baptist Convention, says he has no qualms about supported procreation.
“As long as the child is brought up within the confines of marriage,” he adds.
Yet, Tilly’s work has received criticism from scientists in the field. His previous work has drawn fierce skepticism, and independent experts urge caution about these latest findings. Scientists say the ramifications of his work — if it is even possible to implement — will become evident in the distant future and will require considerably more work to practically develop.
Tilly himself admits his research has a long way to go. He also told theGrio it is too early to address issues relating to how much the procedure will cost. Despite so many unknowns, Tilly’s desire is that one day cultured stem cells will produce viable, healthy and functional human eggs.