A few weeks ago I read a news report that got under my skin and got me thinking about how our choices determine our fertility and family lives. It’s been bothering me ever since, so I thought I’d get it off my chest and on to yours.
The article in question concerned a major study on women’s fertility. Led by medical experts in Barcelona, the study had revealed a not-entirely-unexpected result: a woman’s fertility falls off a ‘cliff edge’ soon after the age of 35. According to the findings, 44-year-old women are 18 times less likely to get pregnant than 38-year-olds, while only 25 per cent of 38-year-olds have successful fertility treatment.
The researchers said women who want children should either conceive or freeze their eggs by 35, and should be ‘more realistic’ about their lower chances of getting pregnant – as though they didn’t already know.
What really set my dormant womb twitching was the following sentence: “Senior doctors said findings from the study … showed the need for women who want children to stop delaying motherhood, or putting careers first.”
And just to hammer home this point, the article quoted a medical professor who said: “I’m amazed at how many women say, ‘I’m going to have my career, relationship with the man of my dreams, buy a house then have a family’. And I think, ‘No you cannot do that’ … Even the most well-informed women are ignorant and still just don’t realise how much age affects fertility.”
Quite a few readers seemed to agree. “Why do so many women object to the idea of having children in their 20s?” asked one. “A great many educated women are making life choices without any understanding of the impact of their plans on their chances of having children,” remarked another.
So, what they seem to be saying is this: if you’re one of the growing numbers of working women in their mid or late 30s who still harbour hopes of having a family ‘someday’, you’re either ignorant, naïve, selfish, deluded or blindly ambitious; if you miss the fertility boat, you’ve only got yourself to blame.
At least, that’s how I interpreted it anyway.
Perhaps I’m reading too much into it. Perhaps I’m being defensive. Still, I can’t help but get a bit irked at the all-too-common assumption that the sole reason Western women are generally giving birth later in life is that they’ve chosen to sacrifice their chances of procreation on the altar of careerism.
Some, admittedly, have. But let’s be clear: not all women over 35 who want kids but still find themselves childless (or child-free) have made a conscious ‘choice’ about this. The same is true of men.
What about telling the full story? That it takes two to tango; that some older women just haven’t encountered the right partner yet; that some would rather not settle just for the sake of settling down; that some have been trying to conceive for longer than they’d like; that some have partners with fertility problems; that some are perfectly happy to adopt. (Meanwhile, we need to remember that some individuals and couples have equally chosen not to have children.)
Whichever way you slice it, fertility and family planning is a complex, sensitive and personal topic for many: one that divides opinion both inside and outside the church.
As someone who works in international development, I often find it difficult to explore issues like this without considering the situation overseas. Inevitably, my mind will wander away from my soapbox and meander elsewhere.
And that’s why, as I think about choice and procreation, I think about the flipside. I realise there are still too many women in poor communities worldwide who have very little power over their own reproductive lives, and no say in if, or when, they become pregnant.
Too many women still have little or no access to family planning services, to help them regulate how many children they might have and anticipate the spacing and timing of these births. Around 225 million women in developing countries would like to delay or stop childbearing, but aren’t using any method of contraception, says the World Health Organisation.
Every day, approximately 800 women die from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth, 99 per cent of them in developing nations. Meanwhile, girls are being forced into early marriage, with often disastrous consequences: babies born to adolescents have higher rates of neonatal mortality, while the girls themselves are at greater risk of complications during and after childbirth than older women.
As Christian Aid points out, in a recent policy paper on family planning: “In the world’s poorest countries, having children remains a high-risk activity.”
The Christian Aid paper goes on to say: “Poverty is a lack of power. In the context of reproductive health, this lack of power is demonstrated not only by a lack of access to essential health services, but also a lack of information and knowledge, as well as the means with which women and men might control their own fertility and thus the size of their families.
“This lack of power … is all too often within a context of fundamental gender inequalities that mean women and girls are without voice or control over their own bodies.”
As I read these words, my annoyance at the ‘injustice’ of the comments in the aforementioned article is swiftly overtaken by this realisation: whatever my views on fertility, at least I have a voice and control over my own body. At least I’m not entirely powerless on the matter.
Too many women don’t even make it to their 35th birthday: their maternity inextricably linked to their mortality.
This, I think, is the greatest injustice of all.