Earlier this week it was announced that Murray Edwards, an all-female college at Cambridge University, is now offering fertility seminars that warn women that they risk childlessness if they don’t start a family by their mid-thirties.
President Dorothy Byrne claims that the classes are about ‘empowering’ women, but the reality is that this is nothing more than scare-mongering. Yes, the birth rate is falling; from 1.92 children per woman in 2011 to 1.53 in 2021, to be precise. But we are not quite at the Children of Men stage yet. We do not need vaguely dystopian, ominous warnings about declining egg quality; instead, we need to consider why parenthood is not financially, professionally or socially viable for so many people.
Despite what Byrne may think, talking to women about their fertility is not ‘taboo’; in fact, quite the opposite. No young, highly educated woman is unaware of her biological clock — we are reminded by everyone from family members to Instagram influencers to medical professionals on an almost weekly basis. Only a few months ago one IVF expert publicly stated that “if you want to have the opportunity to have three children, you probably have to start trying when you’re 23.”
This advice is terrifying: at 23, my main skills were finding nights out and ordering Deliveroo; I could navigate night bus routes more easily than a nappy. It’s also misleading. A lot of data on declining fertility rates is horribly out-dated; one oft-quoted statistic, that one in three women between 35 and 39 will not be pregnant after a year of trying is based on French birth records from 1670 to 1830.
More recent studies paint a much more positive picture: one paper by Obstetrics and Gynaecology found that with sex at least twice a week, 82% of 35 to 39 year old women conceive within a year, compared to 86% of 27 to 34 year olds.
Furthermore, should we also not be talking to male students about how male fertility has been declining for decades, or how sperm concentration has fallen by 60%, or how men are responsible for half of all infertility problems?
There are so many other social and economic factors to consider. Yes, Byrne is right that it is a “woman’s right to choose to have a baby,” but it is hard to exercise that right when there are so many obstacles to overcome. If we really want to make parenthood more appealing (and more feasible), then there are three main areas we need to address.
Firstly, the crippling costs of childcare: only Slovakia and Switzerland have more expensive systems, and a recent survey found that 96% of parents believed these costs impacted their standard of living. Secondly, our extraordinarily expensive housing market: the average first-time home buyer is now 34 years old. In London, the average tenant spends half of their salary on rent, which is hardly conducive to starting a family. Finally, inflexible work policies: women are far more likely to take on part-time or lower-paid jobs, and one study by the EHRC found that 54,000 new mothers lose their jobs every year.
We should not bury our heads in the sand about biological realities. It is true, for example, that IVF is more successful in younger women, and the risk of chromosomal abnormalities does rise with a woman’s age. However, these facts should form part of a much wider, more holistic, more inclusive discussion, and should not be used as a stick to beat women with.