Scaring & Shaming Women About Fertility Isn’t Helping Anyone

Photographed by Eylul Aslan.
Twenty-three-year-old Beth is feeling under pressure. What’s weighing on her? It’s not one of the big questions that young adults often ask themselves in their early 20s: What should I do with my life? What sort of person do I want to be? No. She is worried about her fertility
"I’m literally 23," she says. "And I’m really feeling worried. I’ve been told I’m not allowed to have any fertility tests until I’m actively trying for kids but I don’t want to wait until I’m older only to find out that the years I chose not to have kids were the ones I was fertile in. It’s wild."
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Similarly, 27-year-old Lola* (who asked not to be named) is churning over the question of when to have a baby. "Fertility is constantly on my radar," she explains. "I am a doctor, which means I spent a long time at university, an even longer time training to do my job and am still waiting for the stable part of my career so, inevitably, children are going to need to be later down the line."
It wouldn’t be so bad, Lola says, if it weren’t for the media coverage of women’s fertility. "It feels so intense. It’s all about 'leaving it too late' and IVF and it has definitely created a huge amount of 'fertility noise' in my head," she says. "It makes me feel like I have to make plans for things which I’m not even sure yet that I want!"
At the end of January the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported that more than half of women in England and Wales don’t have children before they turn 30. About 50% of women in 2020 had not given birth by the time they reached their 30s, marking a record high since data collection began in 1920, ONS data showed. 
My own life could never be entirely representative given that most of my peers are university-educated and in professional jobs but this tracks with the situations of most of my close friends. I’m 33 years old and only three of my close friends and acquaintances (a circle of roughly 30 people) have started families. One of them was given the deposit for a house at a young age, and the other two’s first pregnancies (though welcome) were unplanned. The others are not necessarily childless because they don’t want children. Like Lola they have been studying, establishing their careers and, crucially, saving enough money to get themselves to a financially stable position. 
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As the American writer Susan Faludi wrote in her 1991 book, Backlash: the Undeclared War Against Women: "All of women’s aspirations – whether for education, work or any form of self-determination – ultimately rest on their ability to decide whether and when to bear children." For as long as there is no universal, free childcare in Britain and indeed across the world, this will remain true for anyone who wants to have a child. 

The fact that women are having children later isn't what's causing anxiety and panic. It's our society's hysterical reaction to this fundamental shift.

The reasons for delaying motherhood, then, are obvious. The cost of housing (both to buy and to rent) has reached record levels. Childcare is more expensive in Britain than anywhere else in Europe and yet maternity pay is pitiful, among the lowest in Europe. Less miserably, over the last 50 or so years women have entered higher education and the workforce in record numbers. As ONS statistician Amanda Sharfman noted, this trend of having children later in life is "likely to continue". 
The fact that women are having children later isn’t what’s causing anxiety and panic. It's our society's hysterical reaction to this fundamental shift.
As soon as the new ONS data was published, the usual fertility scaremongering ensued: Don’t leave it too late, ladies. Can you not hear the ominous tick-tock of their biological clocks? Radio 4’s Today programme presenter Nick Robinson put his foot in his mouth, asking if women were delaying motherhood because they wanted "more fun before becoming a mum". There were echoes of last autumn, when it was reported that students at the single-sex Cambridge University college Murray Edwards would be given "fertility seminars" because they run the risk of being "childless" if they "forget" to have a baby and leave motherhood "too late". And there were parallels with the pope’s ill-advised comments following his decision to weigh in on the topic earlier this year: he said that people today were choosing pets over babies, which is "selfish" and "diminishes" humanity. 
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These stories are harmful. "I do feel like there is a certain amount of shame attached to waiting to have children later, whether that’s societal shame, shame inflicted on us by our families or a mixture," says Lola. "And, of course, the focus is always on women’s fertility and women’s life stability rather than the fertility or stability of a couple (if indeed you are having children as part of a couple)."
Thirty-five-year-old Jess gave birth to her first child last year. She says that media coverage of infertility caused her to "panic": "I wasn’t even set on carrying my own child but I was going to turn 35 and I started worrying – what if I couldn’t adopt like I’d been planning to? What if I’d left it too late to try for my own?"
Jess says that she wouldn’t change having her daughter for anything in the world but does wish that mainstream conversations about motherhood were more balanced. "I wish women were encouraged to freeze their eggs (for free!) to stop this panic that lots of women I know have felt," she continues. "We’re just not in a good place career/life/money-wise to have kids in our 20s anymore and then all we get in the media are warnings that we’re leaving it too late and real-life stories about IVF not working."
Instead of addressing the reasons why women are choosing not to have children or to have them later, modern society is determined to hector us continually about these supposedly "ticking clocks", all the while peddling extreme myths about fertility which, incidentally, have fuelled a very lucrative egg freezing boom. Making women feel anxious – whether it’s about their fertility, their weight or their naturally ageing faces – has always made for good business. 
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Dr Jo Mountfield is a consultant obstetrician and vice president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. She says it’s important that the question of when to have a baby is addressed and that open discussions about infertility are able to take place.
"Infertility is still very much a taboo subject and while many couples go on to have successful pregnancies, one in seven couples encounter difficulties conceiving," she told Refinery29.  
There is no hiding from the fact that everyone’s fertility declines with age. "On average, there is a decline in female fertility starting in the mid 30s, with lower fertility especially after the age of 35," Dr Mountfield continued. "Men’s fertility also starts to decline around age 40 to 45 as their quality of sperm starts to decrease." 
That said, age-related infertility is a continuum. It does indeed become increasingly difficult to get pregnant over the age of 35 but the question we ought to be asking is precisely how much more difficult it becomes.
The reality of this situation and the answer to that question is far better expressed by expert researchers. A study conducted by David Dunson and colleagues which was published in the journal Obstetrics and Gynaecology in 2004 found that if they were having sex twice a week, 82% of women aged between 35 and 39 got pregnant within a year. 

I would say that the constant haranguing of women over their reproductive choices is sexist and regressive.

Katherine O’Brien, BPAS
Of course, as the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) notes on its website, this does not mean that everyone who wants to get pregnant in their late 30s will be able to. And therein lies the rub. The statistics cannot tell us what every individual person’s experience will be, exactly when their fertility will decline or how easy conceiving will be for them. 
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Nonetheless, Katherine O’Brien, associate director at BPAS, says the unbalanced and alarmist coverage of fertility and delayed motherhood has to stop. 
"I would say that the constant haranguing of women over their reproductive choices is sexist and regressive," she told Refinery29. "There are lots of positive societal developments which have contributed to women choosing to have children later in life – many women want to get established in a career and achieve personal goals before settling down to start a family. We also can’t ignore the barriers that prevent women from having children at the time that is right for them."
"The high cost of childcare, maternity discrimination and how difficult it is to afford housing are all factors that influence and indeed hinder women’s reproductive choices," she added. "Instead of scaremongering about ticking biological clocks, let’s focus on creating a society in which women are not penalised for having children."
She’s right. As Faludi said, the backlash against women’s progress seeks to establish "a divide-and-conquer strategy: single versus married women, working women versus homemakers, middle- versus working-class". What we are seeing now is a narrative which attempts to pit those who have children at a younger age against those who do not. To play those who want children and can have them against those who don’t or can’t. Such a system "of rewards and punishments", as Faludi described it, elevates "women who follow its rules" while "isolating those who don’t".
Jess concludes that everyone in new mum groups is older than her. "It can obviously happen later," she says. "I would say about half of the women in my classes and pregnancy appointment waiting rooms have been older than me. I’d just love to see wonderful stories about lots of different paths to parenthood in general – I think I would have felt less pressure if I’d been more informed about the different options and the actual research on fertility in your 30s."
Fertility shaming and scaremongering is just the latest iteration of Faludi’s backlash. It is a story which packages up old myths about womanhood regardless of the new information we have at our fingertips. It turns away from reason. We shouldn’t be surprised that the reaction to news of women having children later in life is to point towards their supposed moral and social failings. It’s far easier to be accusatory, to blame and shame women than it is to have a serious conversation about the state investment – in childcare, decent maternity pay, secure employment and social housing – that would be required to enable those who want to have children to do so. 
*Name has been changed

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