Halle Berry Battles the NOvary: Pregnancy Defies the Odds of Fertility
April 17, 2013 | By: Liz
So Halle Berry is pregnant at age 46. She’s approximately my age. Jealous much? You betcha! You all know I want another baby. It’s hardly a secret; certainly not from my kids, my dear husband (DH), most of my friends, and Dr. C. I have become somewhat preoccupied with the notion of being pregnant at such an advanced age — my BFF from High School and my BFF from College both think I am absolutely, completely and utterly insane to want to bear a child at this age. [btw, I have a college reunion coming up, whadya wanna bet that many of my classmates have just started down the path toward parenthood and have little ones?! I am taking bets!]
But clearly, if judging from no other demographic than my client base, I am far from alone at wanting a baby in my mid-forties. I was somewhat surprised but quite happy when I heard that ASRM just increased the recommended age limit — cutoff — for women undergoing ART procedures to something like age 55. While I am not sure my own mojo is going to keep me going for another 10 years, I am delighted that ASRM is now recognizing and giving an opportunity to all those healthy women who are in a deadlock battle with the NOvary because they decided they wanted a seat on the New York Stock Exchange before they wanted a seat next to a breast pump. And these days those goals can and do become mutually exclusive. Sheryl Sandberg aside — who managed to pop out her babies in her mid-late 30’s, and no doubt did her research about declining fertility before making an educated decision to have her children while she still had a decent chance at doing so using her own eggs — most women who truly want and love their careers, or who truly want to find the right partner, wind up face to face with their biological clock, otherwise known as the NOvary.
The NOvary, to remind you, is the ovary that says NO! I am not going to give you a healthy egg. My days as a functional ovary have ended. Didn’t you read the memo I sent you (and Sheryl Sandberg) when you were 35 and I was starting to explore ads for condo’s in Miami? I am the NOvary, I am in control of your egg quality and egg quantity and good luck trying to have a baby without my cooperation!
But thanks to egg donation and now expanded age limits by ASRM, those of us with career aspirations or who haven’t quite found the perfect partner have been given a reprieve, a few more years in which to squeeze in our baby-making, and laugh at or otherwise stare the NOvary down.
The funny thing was, as I sat down to tackle today’s blog I wasn’t sure whether I was going to write about choosing an egg donor and some recent hullabaloo over ads for egg donors that were posted at MIT, or whether I was going to explore the whole notion of whether someone can or should be deemed too old to become pregnant. As I perused all my research on age and egg donation, and age and parenting, I stumbled across an article from TheBostonChannel.com which I had printed out in February of 2012. “How Old is Too Old To Have A Baby? Older Celebrity Moms Blurring the Biological Lines.” Half way through the first page of the article I read the following:
“Since 1980, the number of women giving birth after age 35 had tripled, and after 40, guadrupled, as more women climb the career ladder and take longer to find ‘Mr Right.’ In the media, we are bombarded by images of glamorous, 40-something celebrity moms like Halle Berry . . . who make it all look easy.”
BINGO, topic decided. Clearly Halle and I have something in common and something of which I wish to speak. But before I do, I want to be clear and say that I have no personal knowledge of whether Halle used any kind of assisted reproduction to conceive her baby (despite the myriad comments on facebook from my colleagues — all of whom stop just short of stating she used an egg donor to avoid risking a lawsuit), but I do find it interesting that an article and quote from a prominent fertility doctor written a little over a year ago would mention Halle Berry as an example of celebrities who are blurring the lines between what can be achieved the old fashioned way, without medical technology. You do the mental computations on this one. Coincidence, or did that doctor know something and Halle’s hiding something?
For what it’s worth, I do have more than one personal friend who conceived on their own in their mid-late 40’s such that I do believe it is possible that Halle could have conceived without assistance, coincidences raised by the aforementioned article aside. But Halle is my blog inspiration for today because she is blurring the lines and that pisses me off.
The reality is that for most of us mid-forty-aged women, we will need an egg donor to conceive a child. The NOvary has hit her stride by the time we have hit 40 — let alone 45 — and she ain’t gonna budge from her beautiful condo in Boca no matter how much we beg and plead. As I have been working on my egg donation book recently, it has taken on a new meaning as I often find I am writing not just to a group of women whom I typically represent in my legal practice, but I am writing to myself and for myself. I also am finding my new book enriched by my own efforts to justify my decision to bring another life into the world at this age, and gaining a better understanding of how and where to conceive this new life. For example, I recently was astonished to learn that by the time a woman reaches age 40, her chances of conceiving using her own egg in any given month declines another 2-5% per MONTH. The NOvary is powerful and while one day I am sure science will find a way to stop her, right now my age alone pretty much guarantees that I need an egg donor. And Halle and I are in the same age demographic whether or not she hit the genetic jackpot and managed to defeat the NOvary by some major miracle which did not involve donated eggs.
But that’s the point! Halle is blurring the lines especially for anyone who isn’t ready to face the reality of our rapidly declining fertility in our forties. I have reconciled myself to the fact that my peak fertility has long since passed and I acknowledge that I share the same spot in the waiting room at the fertility clinic — or should I say egg donation agency — as all the Sheryl Sandberg wanna-be’s and all the women who hold seats on the NYSE, or who have finally found their mate. I doubt that most of my contemporaries, however, even those who know and understand what I do for a living, truly understand just how high the odds are stacked against us. Indeed, at a recent dinner with a fertility doctor I sought to learn more about the advantages of egg banking — or more precisely the decision to freeze one’s eggs to be used later in life when a woman is ready, willing, and able to have a baby on her terms. The doctor explained to me that far too many women are coming to him to freeze their eggs in their late thirties or even early forties — an age at which he often won’t even discuss permitting them to freeze their eggs. What he was trying to tell me, and he is by far not the first fertility professional to tell me is this: women are thinking of using egg freezing to buy themselves more time but are coming to the fertility clinic when their eggs already have passed their expiration dates and when the NOvary has taken up residence in Boca. The women who wish to take time before becoming a parent and who should be freezing their eggs are at a minimum ten years younger than the ones seeking out this new “stop-the-NOvary” technology. And Halle’s miracle conception isn’t helping doctors explain to all the women asking to freeze their eggs at age 35, 39, and most especially at age 41 that it’s probably too late; its certainly too late to spend thousands of dollars freezing crappy quality eggs! Just because ASRM says we can continue to try getting pregnant using medical technology when we are 46, 49 or 51, does NOT mean that medical technology will involve the use of our own eggs. Just because Halle got pregnant at 46 (presuming she has used her own ova) does NOT mean that women can wait until whenever we damn well choose to have a baby.
I love Halle, I think she is beautiful and talented, and a great mother. And it’s none of my business how she conceived this child. Except that if she did use an egg donor, or any kind of medical assistance to conceive her baby, she has truly done every woman who looks to her as a roll model a huge disservice.
My other love, Jennifer Anniston, who I hope will be the next celebrity to announce her impending motherhood, has made remarks which lead me to believe that she recognizes biology is not on her side (and to be fair Halle did say she thought this phase of her life was over — but what phase of her life did she refer to? Getting pregnant the old fashioned way or changing diapers and breast feeding?).
I also get, as a reproductive lawyer, why Halle might not be able to say she used an egg donor. If she used an egg donor and entered into an anonymous egg donation agreement, she might be legally precluded from making any reference to egg donation when relating details of her conception story, lest she inadvertently reveal the identity of her egg donor. This is a discussion I have had with celebrities whom I have represented and who have used egg donors: Whether and to what extent they are willing to go public, as there are ways to go public while still protecting the anonymity of their egg donor. It can be done and I am hopeful that one of them will one day — when she and her family feel the time is right for their family — make some kind of public remark about how their family was conceived. I also understand, however, that to make that statement is to forever disclose very personal details involving their children. These are details that their children should have a right to agree to share with the public or request remain a private, family matter. But many of my colleagues feel that the minute Halle Berry accepted her status as a premiere celebrity that she lost that right to be private and even more, voluntarily gave up her right to privacy in the interest of promoting that status as a female celebrity roll model which she has so openly embraced. I think it’s worth exploring this aspect of egg donation in the celebrity community in a blog devoted more to legal and ethical issues that are discussed when drafting an anonymous egg donation agreement. But putting these dynamics and very delicate issues aside, there is no getting around the fact that Halle’s pregnancy is going to perpetuate the overwhelming misconception that women in their mid-forties can get pregnant with a healthy infant, carry to term, and live happily ever after. The percentage of women who actually achieve this, however, are less than 2% of the female population.
More and more young women are getting the message. But far too many women age 35 and older simply do not understand the ticking time bomb that is the NOvary and will look at Halle and think “see she did it! so can I!”
Sadly, the reality is that Halle is (again assuming this is an old-fashioned conception) one of an extremely small number of women who get pregnant in their mid-forties. She is incredibly lucky. The kind of lucky that wins the $110,000,000.00 lottery. Congratulations to Halle (and my thoughts and prayers are with you Jennifer and Justin), but to anyone who looks at these women and think they are representative of the general population, or that they indicate a realistic chance for conceiving a baby using your own eggs at the same age as has (presumably) Halle, please do your research. By the time we turn 30, 90% of our good, genetically normal eggs have joined forces with the NOvary, by the time we are 40, 95% of those eggs have moved into that plush condo in Boca. The older you are, the more risk you face of serious infertility issues related to egg quality and quantity, and high rates of miscarriage due to chromosomally abnormal eggs. Halle may have won the lottery. That she is healthy enough to carry a pregnancy I have no doubt, but that she had healthy enough eggs to easily conceive this baby, that was a real long shot and if she did get pregnant using her own eggs, she is one helluva a lucky lady. Because 99% of the rest of us aren’t going to be so lucky. Please don’t look at Halle as your inspiration or roll model, whatever it was that led to the conception of this child defies the laws of fertility. I want all of us to have babies regardless of whether we are 35, 45, or perhaps even 55. But using our own eggs at those ages is something we must face as increasing unlikely as we increase in age.
Donor egg, and even egg freezing, give us the chance to wait until we are 46 to have a baby. Whether or not Halle is one of the many, many women who chose donor egg to help them conceive is something we may never know. But a word to the wise: don’t assume she conceived that baby without the help of medical science and/or another woman’s healthy egg. As I said in the beginning of this blog, a little over a year ago Halle Berry was cited as an example of the women in Hollywood who are blurring the lines and confusing women into believing our fertility exists far longer than it realistically does. What an interesting coincidence that a year later, she is announcing that she is pregnant and that a wonderful miracle has taken place.
All babies are miracles, the question is whether and to what extent Halle’s pregnancy and her little miracle will continue to confuse, confound, and frustrate all of the women who look to her as a symbol of fertility, of a fertility that frankly does not exist for the vast, vast majority of 46 year-old women. The odds of someone like me conceiving using my own eggs? Let’s just say I don’t play the lottery. If I choose to have a baby at any point in the coming months or years, it will be from the miracle gift of egg donation. I’d rather bet on the odds of having a 75% chance of conceiving and carrying to term than the 95% odds against me being another Halle Berry.