When entertainers speak, the world listens, and one message they’re delivering lately is profoundly disturbing to at least one leading obstetrician – namely, that giving birth relatively late in life is okay. It’s not, Kyoto Medical University professor and infertility expert Nobuhiko Suganuma writes in Shukan Bunshun (April 12). Suganuma has a message of his own: “If you want children, have your first before you turn 30.”
The influence of celebrities on matters remote from their talents is a remarkable fact of life. When Mariko Shinoda of the girl band AKB48 mused in January about getting married around 40 or 50, Suganuma took notice – he could easily imagine young women listening starry-eyed and thinking, “Me too.”
Suganuma has been treating women for infertility since the dawn of the artificial insemination era more than 30 years ago. His own patients over the years number some 5,000. He has seen the numbers soar nationwide during those decades – and no wonder, he says. Ovaries, wombs and hormones, in his view, are in prime condition before 30. A first childbirth then can prolong the reproductive peak, but starting after 30 “entails risks” – of Down’s Syndrome or other diseases in the child at worst, of miscarriage, or simply of infertility. “There are no firm statistics,” he writes, “but the rising number of women marrying late and then being unable to conceive is an undeniable fact.” Moreover, “the success rate of infertility treatment starts dropping at age 30 and plunges past 35.”
Entertainers whose own highly public lives have popularized late marriage and childbirth include the model Rika, who had her first child at 38; Shoko Aida, formerly of the pop duo Wink (41); actress Koyuki (35); and comedian-actress Naomi Matsushima (40).
For a woman of a certain age who is aware of the risks and decides to proceed with pregnancy anyway, “that’s a matter of individual freedom,” writes Suganuma. The problem, he claims, is that many are not aware of the risks.
Liberal-Democratic Party Lower House lawmaker Seiko Noda was 50 when she gave birth a year ago through artificial insemination. Her son Masaki has been hospitalized ever since with serious medical problems. Suganuma in his Shukan Bunshun article quotes Noda as saying, “No one ever told me that having a child after 40 could be difficult.”
Every year, says Suganuma, the number of women giving birth past age 35 is rising. In 1985, late births (not necessarily first-time births) comprised approximately 7% of the total. By 2010 they accounted for 23.8%.
“Japanese sex education,” he writes, “is all about birth control. Of course, it’s important for teenagers to know how to prevent unwanted pregnancies. But it seems to me it also needs to be taught that under 30 is the most suitable time of life for women to begin giving birth.”