This time it’s Holly Hunter who joins a growing number of famous women
having twins astonishingly late in life. They include Beverly D’Angelo
(who had her twins at 49 with 65 year old Al Pacino), Geena Davis (who
had twins at 48), Jane Seymour (45), Marcia Gay Harden (45) and Cheryl
Wow. Despite the fact that a woman’s fertility rate is virtually zero
by her mid-forties, there’s something in Hollywood’s bottled water that
keeps rich and famous ovaries pumping out multiple eggs well into
middle-age. Or not. Fertility experts scoff at the idea and point to
Hollywood’s dirty little pregnancy secret: egg donation.
“Celebrities may be different from you and me, they may be better
looking but one thing they’re not is more fertile” a Beverly Hills
doctor told US Elle magazine recently. This doctor has helped several
middle-aged stars have babies with donor eggs and describes it as the
last taboo of infertility. More about that later.
Famous or not, the most common cause of infertility in women is age. Too many of us simply leave it too late – for a whole bunch of reasons. Sadly, after a certain point there’s nothing you can do to increase the number of eggs you have or extend their expiry date.
That’s not to say that every pregnant woman in her forties has had fertility treatment. I personally know two women who fell pregnant at this age unexpectedly and without IVF, let alone egg donation. But as they themselves acknowledge, they are the exception; the proverbial one in a million.
For the other 999,999, the reality is very different.
One of my friends had IVF at 33 and was shocked to discover her fellow patients were all in their mid to late forties. “They looked visibly desperate,” she remembers. “It was so sad. I felt like saying ‘go home, save yourself the heartbreak.’ How could they believe anything would make them pregnant at that age? Then I picked up a magazine to see Geena Davis pregnant at 49 and I suddenly understood.”
This is a frustration that doctors on the frontline of infertility face every day. “A pregnant actress in her forties gets a page in a magazine,” says Dr Ric Porter, director of IVF Australia. “But if those same magazines printed all the stories of all the women who couldn’t get pregnant, the magazines would be the size of the yellow pages. These celebrity ‘miracle pregnancies’ give women ridiculous expectations. I’m yet to see a patient who had viable eggs in her mid forties. Even with IVF, we’ve never had a pregnancy after age 45”.
No woman is obliged to tell the world how she got pregnant, famous or not. Infertility is an intensely difficult and personal experience.
But to safeguard our own fertily and our self-esteem, we need to start filtering “miracle” celebrity pregnancies through a reality-check. Which brings us back to Hollywood’s donor egg explosion.
Getting pregnant using someone else’s egg has become an increasingly popular option for infertile women in America where the average egg donor recipient is aged 43.
In the US, the market for buying and selling eggs, sperm and renting wombs is very open. In fact, if you’re a single, infertile woman – or man – you can buy an egg from one person, sperm from another and even have the resulting embryo implanted in a third person who will carry the pregnancy as a surrogate. Money talks.
And with American college girls being paid up to US$5K per egg harvest, the supply is plentiful (in Australia, the only way you can get a donor egg is via a friend, relative or altruistic stranger. No money can change hands).
But while the occasional celeb will admit to IVF, when was the last time you heard anyone admit to using donor eggs? Never.
When Larry King asked Cheryl Tiegs in 2000 if she’d used an egg donor to conceive her newborn twins with a surrogate, the 52-year old shot back “No, it’s my eggs and my husband’s sperm so they’re our babies. I’ve been taking care of myself for so long, I know my reproductive organs are much younger than I am.”
Interestingly, when she split from her husband shortly afterwards, Cheryl and her perky reproductive system lost custody of the infant twins to her husband.
According to doctors, having twins well past your early forties is a strong indicator that a donor was involved (there is a higher incidence of twins at the end of your reproductive life as your ovaries make a last-ditch effort, but this peters out by your early forties).
Which is fine for those involved but can be dangerous for a woman looking in from the outside and assuming she too has years –heck, decades! – up her reproductive sleeve. This mix of false hope and complacency can have devastating consequences.
When celebrities pretend they’re naturally fertile into their forties and fifties, it has the same effect as when they pretend they eat cheeseburgers 24/7 and stay naturally thin due to their “fast metabolism”. Ditto those who pretend they’re surgery-free and are just “lucky” to look 25 when they’re 45. It’s misleading at best, irresponsible at worst because it makes the rest of us – who have to fight our weight and our wrinkles – feel like crap.
So why the stigma? Why aren’t more famous women honest about infertility? For the same reason they lie about their surgery: a desire to appear young. As Rupert Murdoch can tell you, men can keep making that sperm virtually until their coffin is nailed shut. But for women, getting older is not compatible with fertility. Nor is it compatible with a Hollywood career.
Socially, we’ve happily redefined our expectations of 40. Shopping at Sportsgirl and moshing at the Big Day Out are totally appropriate. But we can’t change what’s on the inside: our reproductive system is not age-defying. There’s no such thing as botox for the ovaries. Even in Hollywood.