The male biological clock

Nicholson and Beatty notwithstanding, men's fertility declines as they age, too.

Published July 7, 2008 9:00PM (EDT)

Years ago, the first time I ever brought up the idea of parenthood with someone I was seeing, the guy in question allowed as how he was in no rush. He'd been born when his own dad was 50-something, and like many men, he fully bought into the idea that there was no expiry date on his swimmers. "Hey, look at Trudeau!" he said, offering a geeky Canadian version of the examples Jezebel suggests -- "notorious celebrity cads like Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty" -- in a post on male infertility today. Granted, that boyfriend was just trying to sidestep the question of whether we'd have kids together (and thank heaven for that, in retrospect), but his response was typical of the way many people regard men's fertility. While Adrienne Barbeau giving birth to twins at 51 was a bit of a man-bites-dog story, male celebrities having children at the same age or older are just thought to be doing what all aging men could do if they were lucky enough to have partners with sufficiently young eggs.

According to the BBC, though, men have their own "biological clocks," and they're ticking faster than we might think. In a study of over 12,000 couples, French researchers found that "the chance of a successful pregnancy falls when the man is aged over 35" and is "significantly lower if he is over 40." A recent L.A. Times story also notes, "At least 20% of infertility cases are due solely to male factors such as low sperm count, and in 40% to 50% of cases, male factors contribute." Unfortunately, men aren't nearly as keen as women to get themselves tested. A survey conducted by fertility center network IntegraMed found that in almost 70 percent of cases, it's the woman who first seeks out fertility treatment, and not quite 50 percent of female respondents said they had to pressure their male partners to be examined.

Let's recap: Women automatically leap to the conclusion that there's something wrong with their bodies, while men have to be nagged to admit they could possibly have health issues. Please forgive me for all the times I've argued that sitcoms don't reflect reality. Seriously, though, it sounds like heterosexual couples who are trying to conceive need to understand that Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty are not examples of what every man could achieve with a little Viagra and a woman young enough to be his daughter. Given recent advances in male reproductive technology, if both partners get tested, says male fertility specialist Dr. Thomas Walsh, "We can dramatically increase the likelihood of couples conceiving at home or with the least amount of technology possible."

By Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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