In October, a son was born to an Indian man named Ramjeet Raghav and his wife, Shakuntala. This story made news around the world because Raghav claims to be 96, which would make him the oldest man living to have fathered a child. Lost in the questions about Raghav’s age is the fact that his wife was 53 when their second child was born.
India isn’t the only place where new parents are getting older. In a recent New Republic cover story, Judith Shulevitz notes that having children “much later than we used to” has become “perfectly unremarkable” for most Americans.
But “unremarkable” is not the same as “without consequences,” which is why her article is entitled “How Older Parenthood Will Upend American Society.”
What will “upend” our society isn’t the occasional outlier, such as Larry King becoming a dad at age 66—it’s countless Americans postponing having children until their mid-to-late thirties and even forties.
Since 1970, the average age for first childbirth for American women has gone up by four years: from 21.5 to 25.4 years old. The average age for first-time fatherhood is now 28.
That may not sound all that significant, but averages can be misleading: a college graduate is more than three times more likely to have her first child in her thirties than her non-graduate counterpart: 30 percent of them postpone childbirth until their thirties.
Even more telling is the fact “as the U.S. birth rate slumps due to the recession, only men and women over 40 have kept having more babies than they did in the past.”
According to Shulevitz, we are in the midst of a “natural experiment” that will measure the impact of “aging reproductive systems and avid consumption of fertility treatments” on family life.
The results won’t be completely known for a long time, but what we already know, as Shulevitz puts it, “should alarm us more than it already does.”
That’s because there is a well-established correlation between the age of the mother and chromosomal abnormality: a child born to a mother in her forties is 15-20 times more likely to suffer such an abnormality than one born to a mother in her twenties.
Then there’s the less well-known link between parental age and mental illness: “men over 50 were three times more likely than men under 25 to father a schizophrenic child.” Earlier this year, the British journal Nature published a study whose conclusion was that “the greater number of older dads could help to explain the 78 percent rise in autism cases over the past decade.”
These results are controversial, to put it mildly. But what isn’t controversial is that postponing childbirth increases the health risks to our children. What Shulevitz dubbed “a vicious cycle of declining fertility . . . [and] the damage caused by assisted-reproductive technologies” was producing a generation of children who are “phenotypically and biochemically different” from previous generations.
Yet despite these undeniable risks, our culture treats this phenomenon as a “triumph.” Technology has “freed” both women and men from having to make difficult choices.
Except that it has done no such thing: nature is not infinitely malleable to be conformed according to our selfish whims. Biology will have the final say, even if those fighting biology aren’t around when the bill comes due.
So, what should the Christian response be? That’s the subject of our next broadcast. Please tune in.