Toronto Sun

July 14, 2002

To have or not to have ... children

The fertility rate in Canada has dropped to a record low: 1.52 children per woman

By VALERIE GIBSON -- Toronto Sun

It sounds a bit like a fertility Chicken Little story.

No, not whether the sky is falling or even whether the chicken came before the egg but what women in Canada are doing -- or, more to the point, not doing -- with their own eggs.

It's about fertility -- Canadian women's fertility, to be exact.

Statistics Canada has announced that the birth rate in Canada is falling with a report stating that the fertility rate has apparently hit a record low of 1.52 children per woman.

What's more, it states that the fertility of Canadian women aged 20 to 24 has decreased a whopping 40% and, among those 25 to 29, it has declined about 25%.

Which doesn't surprise me at all -- or, I'm sure, most women whether or not they're in those age groups.

It's common knowledge that the birth rate has been declining since the birth control pill was launched in the early '60s.

It revolutionized contraception and certainly revolutionized sex. It was the deep fear of unwanted pregnancy, whether we were married or not, that always pervaded and inevitably restricted sexual activity. Available methods up until then were often unpleasant, unwieldy -- and always a gamble.

The women at that time were like a large flock of butterflies suddenly released from a closed box. We flew out in our thousands to explore the sexual world, clutching our little plastic wheel of liberation pills. These were heady times.

But even with the newfound sexual freedom, most women still followed the traditional path of having babies in their early 20s. Leaving it any later than mid-30s was not just frowned on as foolish but considered risky and dangerous and we were told could result in a challenged child.

Age not a major factor

Decades later, medical technology now ensures such risks are far lower and age need not be a major factor in having a healthy baby. That, combined with women deciding to concentrate on their careers before having a child has meant most mothers are older now than in past decades.

With new in-vitro technology, where donor eggs can be implanted even in women whose eggs are past the sell-by date, women can now become mothers at a time when once they'd be grandmothers instead.

So with the child-bearing years considerably stretched and decisions to have a child moved upwards and out of the traditional youthful age groups, it's obviously going to strongly affect the average youthful fertility rate.

More of a problem, and surely one that greatly affects youthful fertility, is that women are discovering to their distress that, having focussed on their careers and put off having a child, they're unable to conceive.

"A lot of women still don't realize that it can become very difficult to conceive the longer she leaves it because their egg quality has declined -- especially after the age of 35," says Shira Benson, R.N., IVF manager and co-ordinator of the OOCYTE donor and surrogacy program, Isis Regional Fertility Clinic in Mississauga.

She says she's definitely seen an increase in the number of young women visiting the clinic for help, but feels it's probably because they're more aware of the wide variety of technology and treatments available now to treat infertility.

Benson says the treatments range from clearing blocked Fallopian tubes to in-vitro fertilization with eggs from the donation program. One of the most recent advances is the removal of a woman's eggs which are then injected individually with their partner's sperm and replaced.

"This is carried out when a couple find the man has a problem with fertility such as a low sperm count," she says, pointing out that men with this problem are on the increase.

But although infertility or difficulty conceiving is certainly a factor in the low birth rate in Canada, it's also true that a lot of women are making a conscious decision to either not have children or only have one.

This is, they say, because they find it almost impossible to focus on a demanding career when they have to cope with the daily needs of children, home and family, and they also cite the increasing cost of bringing up kids these days.

"Although I'd love to have a couple of children, who can afford to have more than one nowadays?" asks 29-year-old sales director Anne, who says she's waiting until her 30s to get pregnant and feels that's "soon enough."

But whatever the reasons and difficulties of having a child these days, the declining birth rate is becoming a major concern to the government.

At present levels, deaths are expected to exceed births in Canada in about 20 - 25 years and with the aging population, there'll be an imbalance in the general supportive structure for the elderly, plus slower economic growth. It also means immigration will be the key to population growth which, with the newly introduced restrictions, may not be fulfilled.

So for the first time since the '50s when there was a post-war surge of births, it's possible that having children could soon be looked on as a Canadian woman's patriotic duty.

Mmm. Try telling that to today's stressed-out young working women!


Valerie Gibson can be reached by e-mail at valerie.gibson@sunpub.com or write to: Dear Val, The Toronto Sun, 333 King St. E., Toronto, Ont. M5A 3X5.
Letters to the editor should be sent to editor@sunpub.com.

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