Ten years ago I wrote an article for LILITH in which I scoffed at the “panic” that seemed to be gripping the Jewish community regarding our relatively low birth rate: “Has our ‘fertility’ been attacked by some previously unknown disease and taken a sudden downward plunge?” A decade later, remarkably enough, the answer seems to be “yes.”
Whereas in that early issue of LILITH I observed that the lamentations about the low Jewish birth rate attributed the phenomenon to everything but the growing aspirations of Jewish women thanks to the women’s movement, by now that connection between low birth rate and women’s aspirations has finally been made, and we who are concerned both with the Jewish community and with women’s issues find ourselves face to face with an alarming situation that we might call the “New Infertility.”
Infertility is linked to delayed childbearing (or “delayed” attempts at becoming pregnant) and this is linked directly to the number of years one stays in college or graduate school. Since Jewish women, as a group, stay in school longer than any other American women, Jewish women are a high-risk group for the “New Infertility.” Ironically, the most educated Jewish women, those with postgraduate degrees, have the largest family-size expectations: 2.5, as compared with 2.1 for all graduates. These are precisely the women who are most likely to be disappointed when they do try to conceive.
According to current ubiquitous though not necessarily accurate estimates, one in six couples — and some say one in every five Jewish couples — are now experiencing fertility problems. These problems are attributed largely to having waited too long — that is, beyond the early 20s — to begin the process of trying to conceive.
But how many of those with fertility problems would have had the same problems even if they had started earlier? Even before so many women pursued higher education and high-powered careers, there were couples evidently unable to have children. And they didn’t have the benefit of fertility drugs, in vitro fertilization, and other medical wonders that might be expected to work in favor of today’s infertile couple.
What they did have, however, was access to more babies than are available today. The once-large pool of adoptable babies is smaller, because of the results of other women’s choices, most notably the legal right to have an abortion and the acceptability of a woman’s raising a child alone.
While one cannot deny the problem and the real and intense anguish of infertile couples, we ought still at least to question whether or not we are again being subjected to yet another “women-get-back-to-the-bedroom-and-the- kitchen” scare, perhaps calculated subconsciously to frighten women in their 20s back into the safe old roles of wife-and-motherhood.
We ought also to examine the underlying premise that a person — especially a woman — is a failure in life if childless. It is nothing new for women to feel like failures, no matter how successful they are, if they do not marry and have children. What is new is that women have much more of an opportunity now to become successful in career terms — and if they make a choice then they are likely to see themselves as being to blame.
Jewish women, it is generally felt, may be more prone to feeling they are failures if they don’t have children, because the Jewish community is so family-oriented. It is difficult to be single or childless and join a synagogue or a Jewish Community Center that proudly counts its membership in terms of “families.”
For those who find themselves caught between a heart-breaking infertility problem and the yearning to raise a Jewish family, there is still another option — one which, like infertility, has been there all along: adoption.
Just when there are great numbers of couples struggling with the “New Infertility,” there is also a dearth of babies — at least, healthy, white, American-born infants — available to adopt. And although the number of prospective Jewish adoptive couples is thought to be disproportionately high in relation to the rest of the population, the number of adoptable Jewish babies is almost nil. Recent articles in the Jewish press indicate that Jewish parents have been steadily adopting children from Korea, Central and South America, and India.
What is the Jewish community doing to help people who find themselves in this situation and/or those who are considering or actively pursuing adoption as a means of resolving it?
Certain Jewish Family Service agencies, most notably those in Boston and Baltimore, and the Jewish Child Care Association in New York, are leading the way in providing consultation and counseling services to prospective adoptive families, although today very few babies are adopted through traditional adoption agencies.
Frequently, the reason why certain Jewish agencies have begun to offer help to adoptive families is because of the efforts of a social worker with a personal interest in the problem. Dr Lucy Steinitz, Executive Director of the Baltimore Jewish Family Service agency, herself underwent the trauma of infertility and the arduous process of adopting a child from South America. Both she and Judy Lee, a social worker who serves as adoption consultant to New York’s Jewish Child Care Association and is the adoptive mother of two small children, are eager to help other people succeed in adopting children.
Those who have adopted children universally report surprisingly ready acceptance both from their families and from the Jewish community around them. There is also a growing informal Jewish self-help network that several hundred families have joined, called “Stars of David.” This organization, founded by Phyllis Nissen, a Boston-area adoptive mother, now has local chapters all over the country.
The 92nd Street Y in New York City offers informative short-term workshops for couples with fertility problems and/or those considering adoption. Eventually, it can be expected that other Jewish institutions and organizations will begin to offer similar information and support systems.
One of the issues the Jewish community will have to face sooner or later is the question of integrating into the community the increasing numbers of Jewish children who will have been adopted from other races or cultures. Very little work has been done on this, in part because the situation is, on a large scale, a relatively new one. The vast majority of Jewish children adopted from the Orient or from South or Central America are still preschoolers.
Another question for the Jewish community to consider is the issue of money. Will expensive infertility treatments only be available for the wealthy? Will adoption only be available for the wealthy?
Maybe the Jewish community should encourage accidentally pregnant Jewish women not to get abortions but to carry their babies to term and put them up for adoption.
At least some of these issues, and others, will all come together at a groundbreaking conference scheduled to take place under the aegis of the Commission on Synagogue Relations of the UJA-Federation of New York in April. According to Blu Greenberg, originator and organizer of the conference, infertility is “a Jewish community problem. It is not the way of the Jewish community,” she says, “to say that the ones who have the problem have to solve it themselves. Everyone is touched by this in some way or another Each person shouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel to get to the best place the fastest.
“There should be a standing and simple and accessible address from which to get help,” she continues. “This problem needs to come out of the closet. People shouldn’t be embarrassed. It’s important to admit you need help — and to know where to get it.”
Shirley Frank is assistant director of communications at the National Jewish Welfare Board and editor of the JWB Circle.