The Spectator

Baby gloom

Michael Hanlon warns women they’re being conned into believing they can have babies late in life

Michael Hanlon
19 October 2002
The Spectator

Sometimes, the bigger the lie, and the more obvious the lie, the more persistently it is believed. This paradox is nowhere more true than in the case of a truly enormous and terrible con-trick that is being pulled on the women of Britain.


‘It’s a death threat from my mum, Miss.’

For this is a con-trick on a magnificent scale. The perpetrators are legion: business and industry, ‘society’, the medical establishment and, most importantly, the women of Britain themselves — its very victims. Its effects are only just starting to make themselves felt but, in a few decades or less, this particular lie will cause a great deal of grief and suicidal misery.

And just what is this lie? It is the one which says that there is no real time-limit on starting a family; that in today’s modern world women can have a baby any damn time they choose. Just last week we learnt that a British couple had given birth to a baby conceived using a frozen egg; evidence, surely, that when nature fails us science will step into the breach.

But, as we shall see, this is all part of the trick. And the trick is working: today’s woman, on average, has her first child when she is nearly 30. A quarter of a century ago she would have been 23 or so. In the future, she assumes, it could be even later. Women think that in the shiny new 21st century they will be able to start their families into their early, mid, even late thirties.

But, of course, often — very often — they can’t and, increasingly, they won’t. Despite presumably widespread knowledge of the basics of human biology (although with the British population one can never be sure of this), despite reams of advice in women’s magazines, on television and in books like the recent Baby Hunger by Sylvia Ann Hewlett, which chronicles the despair of women who have left it too late; despite all this there is blanket refusal by both women and society to face up to one basic fact: with female life-expectancy now nudging 80 in Britain, women are effectively fertile for only one quarter of their lives. As Dr Alison Murdoch, IVF expert and chair of the British Fertility Association, puts it, ‘There is a difference between knowing something to be true, and understanding the implications of something you know to be true.’

One of the greatest revolutions in human society and thinking ever to have occurred is the realisation — in the West, at least — that women are not inferior to men, and should be treated as equals. This revolution has undoubtedly been beneficial. It has given women financial independence and access to economic power. It has allowed women to take their place as full and equal members of society, rather than as chattels and mere reproductive vessels. And it has allowed men to be freed from the burden of sole breadwinnerdom.

But there is a problem. Biology, human biology at least, is not feminist. The sheer unfairness of it is a brutal shadow from the Pleistocene casting a shade into our modern world. ‘There will never be true equality between the sexes,’ says Lord Winston, test-tube-baby pioneer and fertility expert. ‘You and I are making gametes — sperm cells — all the time, every single day well into old age. Women, on the other hand, are losing them.’

The bleak biology of female aging makes grim reading for any feminist — female or male. When a girl is born, her body contains around a quarter of a million eggs. Not a single one more will be made during her lifetime. As she ages, these eggs are shed at a rate of maybe 1,000 a year. By the age of 40, not only does a woman have far fewer eggs than she did when she was young; it is probable that these old sex cells will be of lower quality.

At age 30, most women are about 90 per cent as fertile as they were in their early twenties — the best time to have a baby. But by the age of 35 this ability to procreate starts to decline, rather dramatically, in a way that has been dubbed the ‘fertility cliff’. At 38, a woman has only about a 75 per cent chance of conceiving. By the age of 40 this is down to one-in-two. At 45, despite the best efforts of the Prime Minister’s wife to convince us otherwise, the chances of getting pregnant are in single-figure percentages. But men, of course, continue making sperm all their lives. These are the facts of life.

But you wouldn’t know it, to speak to women. Women have been told — and believe — that the best thing is to get their career established first, to make money and a place for themselves in society, before having children. And from the perspective of a 21-year-old graduate, this is wholly understandable. But that 21-year-old may well be storing up trouble ahead. ‘The trouble is, when a woman starts to try getting pregnant at 30, and she has fertility problems without knowing it, she will spend one to two years trying before she seeks help,’ says Dr Murdoch, who tries to help 600 women with fertility problems every year in her Newcastle clinic. ‘She typically won’t want treatment straight away. But, by that time, her fertility is declining dramatically anyway; she is on the slippery slope.’

So who is responsible for all this, for convincing our women to put off having children until they might well be too old to do so? Well, for a start, doctors. There is probably nothing deliberate about this, no sinister eugenicist memo from the ministry, but the fact is that Britain’s GPs and the NHS in general seem to have an absurdly strong bias against pregnancy.

There are sound and logical roots to this. Britain has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in western Europe, and this is seen, almost universally, as a Bad Thing. So is unmarried motherhood at any age, which is now disapproved of for financial reasons (all those state benefits) rather than moral ones. For the past 30 years governments of all shades have sought to dissuade Britain’s feckless girls from getting up the duff with fiercely effective campaigns involving sex education and contraception.

All well and good, but the problem is that the medical mindset when it comes to babies is far more to do with avoiding them than encouraging them. As Dr Murdoch says, ‘There has been an underlying tendency here. The NHS has been very good at making some women not have unwanted pregnancies. What has been neglected is helping women to conceive.’

This means that it is almost impossible to imagine a doctor advising a young woman in her early twenties with symptoms that may indicate potential fertility problems, say, to go out and try as hard as she can to get pregnant before it is too late. Instead she will be showered with advice about pills and condoms. This may be in part a reaction to what happened in the past, when paternalistic GPs were unwilling to prescribe contraception to unmarried women at all. But in embracing the (wholly good) idea that women should have control over their own fertility, the baby may quite literally have been thrown away with the old sexist bathwater.

But we can’t just blame doctors. The very way our society is structured will need to change if women are ever again to feel that they can happily procreate at the biologically optimum time. ‘There is a general societal pressure for women to be equal in the workplace,’ says Robert Winston. ‘If you come out of the workplace, you are disadvantaged.’

Twenty-first century Britain is a far from leisurely society. We work long hours, want to earn more money, and are generally obsessed with our careers. Most young people now go to some sort of university. This happens in their late teens and early twenties. Then they enter the world of work. Getting to a decent position takes several years of hard graft; a female entering one of the professions — medicine, say — may well be in her mid-thirties before she reaches the sort of status and salary from which she would want to launch herself into motherhood.

It is a cruel fact that the 20 years when women are fertile are the same 20 years when society has decided that we need to knuckle down and think of little else but training, jobs, money and buying things (all those childless twenty-something women with big salaries have helped fuel the consumer and leisure boom). Taking a few years out to have a baby is simply not an option.

So what can be done about this? Well, decent childcare for a start. The Left have been banging on about this for years, and they are right. It is too much to expect women, families or even employers to shoulder all the burden themselves; children, to some extent, are the concern of society. Interestingly, in progressive Scandinavia, having children when young is the norm. In Iceland, teenage pregnancy is quite common, and is not seen as a great social evil. Girls have their babies young and then get on with their lives, going to university and out to work. This is made possible by blanket state-childcare provision and generous maternity entitlements. The politically paradoxical result of socialised childcare is a return to traditional family values, lots of babies, and babies born to younger women. It is in conservative, family-values Italy and Spain where there is a baby shortage, not in liberal Scandinavia.

We could also restructure work. There is no reason, for example, why people have to go to university in their teens and work like dogs in their twenties. As we are all living longer anyway, it should be possible for people, women in particular, to do things back to front — to have their children, then start their careers. Go to college in your forties ...why not?

None of this will make any difference unless women themselves change their attitudes. We all seem to be incapable of grasping the enormity of our own mortality: a possibly irksome visit to the dentist the next day causes most of us more trepidation than the certainty of our own (often unpleasant) demise decades hence. Life would probably be unlivable if this were not so. But women have an extra date with destiny — one which occurs now on average halfway in their lives. And, like death, the inevitability of infertility is quietly ignored. If it is thought about at all, it is often dismissed with the notion that technology will step in to save the day.

The news that eggs can be frozen gave rise to all sorts of ludicrous nonsense about the ‘Bridget Jones’ generation: a cohort of young women able to stave off the inevitable until they have sorted out money, career, home and man. Add to that ovary transplants, IVF, ICSI (Intracytoplasmic Sperm Injection), all the rocket science of assisted-reproduction technology.... But the reality is that using frozen eggs, IVF and the like will not always work, and will never be cheap. Not as cheap as the natural way of doing things, anyway.

Which is all a great pity, because the seeds of future regret are being sown. ‘If a 20-year-old woman is told that she will never be able to have a baby,’ Dr Murdoch says, ‘a typical reaction would be, well, so what? But for a woman in her late thirties, when the reality kicks in, well, it’s not so what? She can be suicidal.’

Michael Hanlon is a staff writer on the Daily Mail.

© 2002 The Spectator.co.uk