Debra Goldman’s Consumer Republic

Nothing proves the effectiveness of advertising like a good public service campaign. Case in point: the $50,000 push from the American Society for Reproductive Medicine. The ads, to run on buses in New York, suburban Chicago and Seattle next month, have already inspired a Newsweek cover story.

Or rather, one ad has caused a stir: a message to women who are considering motherhood that it may be later than they think. At least 20 percent of American women now postpone childbearing until they are past 35. The ASRM wants them to know that if they really have their hearts set on motherhood, that might not be such a great idea.

We’re not talking about “This is your brain on drugs”-caliber work, either. The ASRM copy is sober and windy, more suitable for the fine print of a pharmaceutical ad than the side of a bus: “While women and their partners must be the ones to decide the best time when (and if) to have children, women in their 20s and early 30s are more likely to conceive. Infertility is a disease affecting 6.1 million people in the United States.” It’s readable only in a traffic jam. The killer is the image: an inverted baby bottle pinched into the shape of an hourglass.

Feminists are outraged, accusing the ASRM of terrorizing young women with the specter of their mother’s milk draining away with the years, thereby scaring them into making bad career decisions and worse marriages. It does seem those poor X-er girls cannot catch a break, sex-wise. First they had to deal with AIDS, which took the fun out of casual sex at the very age when the possibilities are infinite. Now every 32-year-old between romances and every 28-year-old hoping to make law partner is shadowed by the threat that time is running out. At least the boomer gals enjoyed their go-getter 20s and 30s, happy in the delusion that they could pull off a pregnancy when the right time came.

Unfortunately, ladies, either way you are screwed. What’s more painful for women who want to become mothers: pressure in the present or regrets for the past? It’s a toss-up.

Dr. Michael Soules, the ASRM’s executive director, says the ad was inspired by legions of infertility patients over 40 who, when they learn that their chances of conceiving are small and of giving birth even smaller, exclaim, “Why didn’t anyone tell me this before?”

Could this possibly be true? Every American woman alive knows her biological clock is ticking. Unfortunately, many of them may also have an exaggerated sense of how easy it is to beat.

And who can blame them? It is now commonplace for sperm and egg to be mixed and matched in petri dishes and embryos to find homes in freezers and the wombs of strangers. Gay men and women have biological children without ever fraternizing with the other sex. Cloning produces new creatures without conception. The headlines are filled with biotech miracles as grotesque as they are amazing-like the 63-year-old grandmother who bore her daughter’s child. Add to this the stem-cell debate, a different issue than fertility but one that gives the public still more evidence that the stuff of life can be manipulated at will.

Besides, Madonna’s done it. So has Susan Sarandon. The average woman inevitably asks, why not me?

There are many reasons why not you. For example, if you are one of those perfectly normal women who enters menopause at 44, your chances of bearing a child at 40 are grim. If your menopause begins at 54-also normal-you’ve got a better shot. Alas, no one can tell a 34-year-old which kind of normal woman she is.

Advances in fertility have made motherhood possible for some older women. But not many-just enough to make over-40 motherhood chic. Indeed, nothing says “you can have it all” like an educated professional, accomplished and successful enough to afford treatment, who crowns her rich life with a baby. She is an advertisement for the benefits of reproductive choice precisely because-thanks in part to dumb luck-she does not have to live with any of choice’s irremediable consequences.

The pithier, implied message of the ASRM ad to young women is, “Maybe you can have it all. But maybe not. Think about it.” Some choices do have irremediable consequences. Worse, there are some things in life over which you have little choice at all-like having a partner and a livelihood all arranged in time for your most fertile years.

These are hard truths rarely whispered in the Consumer Republic, let alone plastered on the side of a bus. No wonder the ad makes so many people nervous.