Pasted between adverts for chewing gum and the latest Hollywood blockbuster, a series of adverts on the tube are currently flogging ‘fertility for the over-40s’. They come at a time when Professor Dame Sally Davies, Chief Medical Officer for England, has recently commented on Britain’s attitude to fertility.
Davies said she was concerned about the ‘steady shift’ towards women choosing to postpone starting a family until their late 30s and early 40s, reducing their chance of conception, and increasing their medical risks. ‘We all assume we can have children later but actually we may not be able to,’ she said.
Why do women continue to assume they can have children at whatever age they like? Almost all the evidence suggests that it’s far healthier to have a child in your younger years. Looked at from a biological view, we are animals, designed to reproduce. There is a certain time frame in which to do this (the dreaded ‘ticking clock’) and after that, your time’s up.
For women, peak fertility is in their early 20s, and drops considerably after the age of 35. Fertility treatment has lengthened the time period in which a woman can have a child, and successful treatment has been documented in women as old as 67. But the point Davies makes is this: a longer window of opportunity is not necessarily a good thing.
Fertility treatment has many laudable aspects. But women are increasingly seeing it as a way of ‘having it all’. The assumption is that you can delay having a baby (often for the sake of a career) and that treatment will then come to the rescue once you decide you are ready.
The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists has previously published advice suggesting that if women want to start a family, they should consider doing so between the ages of 20 and 35. It is advice that continues to be ignored, given that the average age of a mother giving birth in the UK is now 30 – the highest in the world alongside Germany.
Patrick O’Brien, a spokesman for the institution, has confirmed that the average age of motherhood has been rising steadily for years. Following Davies’s comments, he said:
‘In my experience it is usually because women want to get an education, maybe travel and get established in their careers before they think about starting a family and often don’t appreciate the difficulties that can mean.
‘Quite often we will see businesswomen of 42 or 43 who will think that with IVF they can easily have a baby, whereas really success rates are very low for women using their own eggs.’
O’Brian added that women in their late 30s and early 40s have far higher rates of miscarriage and foetal abnormalities. They are also much more susceptible to health problems that can affect childbirth.
Like it or not, women must stop seeing fertility treatment as a lifestyle choice. It is wonderful that such treatment exists, but to see it as a ‘quick fix’ is wrong. Selling people fertility on the tube suggests we have taken a step in the wrong direction.