Title: “Catch-35: Delayed Childbearing in 20th Century America.”
Speaker: Jenna Healey, PhD Candidate, Yale University
Date and Time: April 15, 2015, 12:00 PM to 1:30 PM, Claire Fagin Hall, Room 2019, Floor 2U
Abstract: “Am I too old to have babies?” In the late 1970s, gynecologists became inundated with patients obsessed with this question. Widely accessible contraception, the women’s movement, and a stagnant economy all contributed to the trend of delayed pregnancy among white, middle-class “career women.” Contemporary medical and lay experts advised against childbirth after 35, arguing that it was dangerous or difficult for a woman to conceive after this point. But this new generation of empowered patients demanded a more nuanced answer, not just a one-size-fits all recommendation that ignored the realities of women’s lives.
Why 35? To some physicians, an upper age limit of 35 was not just a suggestion but an unimpeachable scientific fact. What their certainty obscured, however, was that the upper age limit for pregnancy had been constantly in flux throughout the 20th century. When the connection between Down Syndrome and maternal age was first established in 1929, physicians took little notice, as they were far more concerned with the dangers of early motherhood. It wasn’t until the postwar era, with its cultural shift towards early childbearing, that physicians became fixated on the “elderly primigravida” (a first-time mother in her 30s). The elderly primigravida became the obstetrician’s “most dreaded” patient, and popular medical guides urged women to start their families before “high noon for procreation” had passed.
Using archival documents as well as medical and popular literature, this paper will explore the politics of negotiating the upper age limit for pregnancy. I will focus in on the 1970s, as both patients and health care providers grappled with the question: how late is too late to have a baby? Patients demanded better research on the risks of delaying childbirth, while physicians focused on medical technologies with the potential to mitigate these risks. Even as the rule of 35 came under scrutiny, little consensus emerged about what advice should be given to women worried about reproductive aging.
Speaker Bio: Jenna Healey is a Ph.D. candidate in the Program for the History of Science and Medicine at Yale University. She is interested in the cultural history of biomedicine in the late 20th century, with a focus on reproductive medicine and technologies. Her dissertation explores the history of the “biological clock” and the uses of medical technology to mediate the relationship between aging and pregnancy. She holds a Bachelor of Arts and Sciences from the University of Guelph, and a M.A. in the History of Science and Technology from the University of Toronto.
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