What ‘infertility timebomb’?

It's not obesity and office work that puts women off having children.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

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We are, warns fertility expert Professor Bill Legder, on the brink of an ‘infertility timebomb’. A combination of factors, from women deciding to have children later to working patterns to smoking to obesity to falling sperm counts to an increase in sexually transmitted infections (STIs) have apparently led to a situation where people find themselves unable to have the family that they want. This, claimed the front page of the Independent, is ‘The price of modern life: Within ten years, one in three couples will have problems conceiving’ (1).

Talk of timebombs makes for great headlines – but the sheer number of demographic ‘timebombs’ that are supposedly set to explode in the near future should alert us to the fact that they are made up of 99 per cent alarmism based on one per cent real social trend. There is the ‘population timebomb’ in the developing word, the contemporary recycling of the old Malthusian argument that the world population will keep growing and growing until we run out of resources. In fact, since world population growth peaked in the mid-1990s, it is now beginning to slow. According to the United Nations, the average family size has declined from six children per woman in 1960 to around three today, and ‘projections suggest total population will start to level off by the middle of this century, as fertility drops to replacement level or lower’ (2).

The ‘ageing timebomb’ in the Western world symbolises fears that the small proportion of children born in the developed world will be unable to support the burgeoning number of needy and unproductive elderly people. But as Phil Mullan has argued eloquently on spiked, our ageing population is also a healthier and potentially more productive one – society is well capable of organising around such changing demographic patterns, if only it has the will to do so (see Ageing: the future is affordable).

Now the ‘infertility timebomb’ suggests that humanity will die out simply because we won’t physically be able to reproduce. This, too, is more of a fear than a fact. Yes, the total fertility rate across Europe has fallen to below the replacement level of about two children per couple. In the UK in 2003 it was 1.7 children per couple. Yes, in Britain there are fewer women having fewer children than previous generations. But projections suggest that this will remain pretty stable for the next 30 years or so. Children are still being born: there were 696,000 live births in 2003, a slight increase from 2001 figures. And women are still having children: of women born in 1958, and now at the end of their childbearing years, only one fifth are childless; of women born in 1968, three quarters had children by the time they were 35 (3).

So talk of social apocalypse resulting from an ‘infertility timebomb’ seems premature, to say the least. However, there is something about the fertility trends in countries like the UK that should concern us. The fact that fewer women are having fewer children, and that they are older when they do it, will not cause the UK population to die out. But it indicates a certain negativity about how we view life.

Our man on the ‘infertility timebomb’, Professor Bill Ledger of Sheffield University, was talking to a conference organised by the European Society for Human Reproduction and Embryology about the future demand for IVF treatment. One in seven couples currently has problems conceiving, he argued, but this could rise to one in three as the various ills of modern life (later childbirth, working patterns, smoking, obesity, falling sperm counts, STIs) conspire to prevent wannabe parents from getting pregnant. He called upon the government to recognise infertility as a ‘disease’ and to introduce tax breaks to encourage women to have children earlier.

Whatever the scientific truth about Professor Ledger’s assertions about the direct impact of certain lifestyle factors upon fertility (and some of his claims, such as ‘The obese child is almost destined to become an obese adult’, seem rather dubious to me (4)), some points he makes are clearly right. In biological terms, it is better to have children in one’s teens or twenties (a fact that is often glossed over by the UK government, otherwise happy to bully women into doing all kinds of things to promote the optimal health of their fetus, in its war against teenage pregnancy). And remarkable as fertility treatment is, with a success rate of about 23 per cent it is no magic solution for those who cannot have children naturally.

But Professor Ledger seems to assume that the primary reasons behind Britain’s low fertility rate are biological: that women want to have kids, and are thwarted in their attempts to do so by the medical impact of lifestyle factors. In fact, the reasons why women are delaying childbirth or remaining childless are primarily social, to do with a broader ambivalence about whether family life is desirable in the first place.

Look at the context of the total fertility rate, and statistical indicators suggest that, on every level, society is becoming more atomised and infantilised. We are less likely to create basic family relationships, and when we do so it is later in life. So there are half as many first marriages in 2003 as there were during the peak years around 1970, and about the same number of divorces as first marriages. Fifteen per cent of men aged 25-44, and eight per cent of women, live alone (twice the proportion in 1986/87). Twenty-four per cent of men aged 25-29, and 12 per cent of women, live with their parents (5).

The average age at first marriage has increased to 31 for men and 29 for women. The average age of married women giving birth for the first time has increased by nearly six years since 1971, to 29.9. Since 1992, the fertility rate for women aged 30 to 34 has exceeded the rate for those aged 20 to 24, and in 2003 was almost as high as the rate for women aged 25 to 29. For my mother’s generation, 38 per cent of women born in 1948 were still childless at age 25; now, 65 per cent of women are childless at age 25 (6). And so it goes on.

Taken all together, the statistics above paint a picture of a society that holds back from forming intimate relationships and from having children. Of course, people do still form intimate relationships – about 50 per cent of people are married or re-married, and one quarter of non-married people are cohabiting (7) – and people haven’t stopped wanting children, or having them. Aspects of this trend have been motivated, at least in part, by positive social developments: the availability of contraception and abortion giving women more control over their fertility; women’s increased participation in the labour market giving them more independence and choices.

But when looking at the reasons why fewer women have fewer children, and have them later on in life, it is simplistic to assume that these same women would be destined to be mothers if only they hadn’t slept around as teenagers, let their diet and their biological clock go, and decided they couldn’t take a career break in their twenties because nobody offered them a tax incentive. In reality, they probably hadn’t even met their partners yet, felt far too young to get on the parenting track, and thought little of it because today’s culture sees singledom and late parenthood as so normal.

Women over 35 may not be at their optimal fertility – but plenty of them still manage to have the couple of kids that they want, without too many problems. And when everything around us promotes the notion that the worst kind of parent is one who is too young, and that having children is a seismic leap that will take away all our freedom and put an unbearable strain on our relationship, is it any wonder that people spend longer and longer feeling that they are not quite ready?

The trouble is that for a few women, this cultural ambivalence about settling down and having a family can mean that, by the time they get around to marriage and parenting, it’s all a bit late – and childlessness becomes not a positive choice, but rather what the American writer Sylvia Ann Hewlett has termed ‘a creeping non-choice’. It’s not an infertility timebomb, or ‘the price of modern life’. It’s what happens when society starts to get scared about growing up.

(1) ‘Britain’s fertility timebomb’, Maxine Frith, Independent, 22 June 2005

(2) World population, 1950-2050 (projected), United Nations Population Fund; Population size and rate of growth, EconomicsWisconsin

(3) Social Trends 35 (.pdf 4.97 MB), Office for National Statistics, 2005

(4) ‘Infertility time bomb’ warning, BBC News, 20 June 2005

(5) Social Trends 35 (.pdf 4.97 MB), Office for National Statistics, 2005

(6) Social Trends 35 (.pdf 4.97 MB), Office for National Statistics, 2005

(7) Living arrangements, Office for National Statistics, 22 June 2005; Social Trends 35 (.pdf 4.97 MB), Office for National Statistics, 2005

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Topics Politics


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