A new study published by Scotland’s St. Andrews University and Edinburgh University suggests that the sooner women begin their families the less likely they are to encounter fertility issues related to egg production. The study of 325 women from the UK, US, and Europe found that 95 percent of women have less than 12 percent of their ovarian egg reserve left by age 30 and only 3 percent remains by age 40. The eggs are lost for good and production cannot be regenerated. While it’s common knowledge that older women often have more difficulty conceiving than younger women do, this study is significant because it provides evidence that a woman has a fixed number of eggs in her ovaries, and that the number declines as she ages.
Over the years I’ve heard more than my share of complaints from women about the Church’s stance on family planning. Most often I heard righteous cries from those who thought their fertility threatened their equality with men. They felt it necessary to delay starting families in order to climb to the top of the corporate ladder and could not understand how contraceptive sex could have any negative consequences. Now scientific evidence shows that by postponing childbearing they were running the risk of not having families at all.
The study indirectly proves something else: the Catholic Church is a font of wisdom. Even without scientific evidence, the Church has for centuries taught against violating the functions and rhythms of nature and the vitality of the mind-spirit-body connection. In fact, much of what the Church teaches is as good for our bodies as it is for our souls. The Mary gardens of the Middle Ages offer one example. It was a common practice to walk through such gardens while praying the Rosary. Later, science revealed that physical activity strengthens our bodies and sharpens our mental capacities. Or consider the practices of fasting and abstaining from meat which the Church recommends to the faithful. Science now suggests that a reasonable fast is good for our bodies; it cleanses and renews our internal organs. And how many health organizations have warned us of the dangers of consuming too much red meat? Eat meatless meals on Fridays for six weeks and see how much better you feel afterwards.
The same wisdom is found in the Church’s teaching that we should be open to new life from the very beginning of marriage. “By its very nature the institution of marriage and married love is ordered to the procreation and education of offspring and it is in them that it finds its crowning glory.” (CCC 1652) Therefore, it shouldn’t be any surprise that, in the Rite of Marriage, we’re asked, “Will you accept children lovingly from God, and bring them up according to the law of Christ and his Church?” The Church doesn’t demand that women stay home barefoot and pregnant, nor does she require us to irresponsibly have child after child without the ability to care for them. Some women are perfectly justified in working outside the home. Some women long for children but are unable to conceive or carry a baby to term. Some women have legitimate reasons for refraining from childbearing. Others are caught in difficult situations that make raising a family impossible. The Church does, however, ask us to honor the natural rhythms and functions of our bodies and to work with them according to God’s plan. In doing so she is not limiting our freedom; she’s guiding us toward the fullness of life. And it should come as no surprise that modern science bears this out.