I did a couple of media appearances yesterday (as my friend said, I’m getting to be like David Jason, always on the telly) regarding the revised NICE guidelines which propose that the NHS should now offer one free cycle of IVF to couples between the ages of 40-42. I didn’t get to expand upon my points about more effective techniques, ideally I would have liked to have discussed the success rates of NaPro technology and neither was it the forum to launch into apologetics surrounding assisted reproductive techniques.
Without going into a lengthy discourse as to the ethics and wisdom of IVF as a whole, one thing struck me as being missing from the entire debate. We, in the Western World have some very confused, peculiar and disjointed notions of female fertility, which are tied into the shortcomings of a society based on moral relativism, whereby personal autonomy is king and every choice is equally valid, regardless of consequences.
One of the recurrent themes of yesterday, was not that women were choosing to have their children late, simply that life didn’t pan out the way that they wanted – Mr Right didn’t turn up until their late ’30s and early ’40s by which point, female fertility is rapidly diminishing. Whilst on the one hand I totally sympathise, having made more than my fair share of romantic mistakes, I also think this must cause us to question the prevailing mentality with regards to female choice and autonomy, without wishing to remove any of those options from women.
Suzanne Moore makes some salient points here, not least emphasising the low success rates of IVF and echoing some of my themes around society’s attitudes towards the right age for motherhood. The Holy Grail of female choice, has paradoxically led to a situation whereby women feel that they have very little choice and control when it comes to the timing and amount of children. The everyday expectation for women is that following education they should go straight into the world of work, spend some time establishing financial independence and their career and only once secure should they then begin to think about potential offspring. The problem is that building up a successful career requires a substantial amount of time and effort which leaves precious little emotional and physical resources for the business of finding a life partner, which these days is treated as an optional extra to the all-consuming world of work and career. Add in the whole business of setting up and maintaining an independent home, it’s no surprise that most women aren’t really paying much attention to any sort of long-term game plan in terms of marriage and children. It’s all about surviving on a short-term basis, particularly in these days of austerity and hoping that the future will sort of magically fall into place, once everything else is established.
One of my suggestions was that women need to take into account the fact that fertility begins to decline frighteningly early at the age of 27, and begins to drop rapidly from the age of 35. Women (and men) need to be giving some thought as to starting their families earlier and we as a society need to be implementing solutions to make life more feasible for working women with children, seeing as we are in an economic situation which necessitates dual-income households. I also think that we need to readjust attitudes towards younger mothers, whilst no-one should be encouraging young teenage mothers, there is a palpable snobbery and distain towards mothers under 25. Whilst no-one should be making value judgements in terms of the age of parents, both the old and the young cohorts have their advantages and disadvantages, my experience has been that younger mothers tend to be much more flexible and adaptable in terms of their attitude to their children, and far less prone to stress as a result. Young mothers are less likely to have become perfectionist control freaks, stuck in their ways and tend to be able to take various setbacks or the less palatable aspects of childrearing in their stride, with patience and good humour – children being just the next exciting adventure. Having had a child in my twenties and then a progression of three in my mid thirties, each pregnancy becoming progressively more tiring, difficult and risky with age, I certainly think that youth has something of an advantage here.
Vanessa Feltz on BBC Radio London, felt that I was being overly prescriptive in terms of suggesting that women need to think about marriage earlier and it certainly could appear like a reactionary solution, but given not only the low success rates of IVF, but also the physical and emotional pain involved as well as the financial cost, society has little other choice and neither do women who need to accept that one day, it is likely that they are going to want to give serious consideration as to trying for a family.
Whilst Moore is indeed correct that society needs to be welcoming and accepting to mothers of all age, whether that be the teenage mother or the grandparent unexpectedly cast into a parental role as a result of unforeseen circumstances, she, in line with society as a whole, has got the whole issue back to front in terms of framing this issue of being solely about women, understandable when it is indeed women who bear the brunt of the responsibility for pregnancy and childbirth. The whole situation in terms of the growing problem of infertility, the costs of IVF and the rise in the age of the average first-time mother highlights the limitations of a society that is based solely around individualism and doing only what is right for oneself, in that our decisions always have some impact on others, especially if, as in the case of delaying motherhood, they result in others being asked to bear the cost.
Instead of thinking purely about women’s individual needs or even rights to have children, we need to start giving more consideration to children’s rights and needs in conjuction with our own.That children ideally need a loving mother and father in a stable relationship and with a permanent home is indisputable. We need to be putting that as our starting point, whilst factoring in that women have a limited window of opportunity in which they are able to conceive a child. That is not to usher people into hasty or unsuitable relationships, but that both sexes need to be giving the whole notion of finding a life partner, more thought much earlier than is currently the case. After all, who on their death bed, gives thanks for the hours spent in the confines of the office and which is a better legacy – a career as an HR manager or procurement officer for a paperclip company in Worthing, or a legacy of love and laughter in having brought and nurtured the next generation into being?
One of the whole perplexing aspects of this entire debate is that on the one hand women are being given a (worthy) ideal of being able to be in control of their reproductive destiny and then on the other, they are presented as victims who were passively and patiently waiting for Mr Right to come along. Actually I think there are several Mr Rights – Plato got this one wrong. Most women and men who marry older admit to having had several partners in their past with whom they could have had a happy and successful marriage and children, but that they had other priorities and lacked the maturity and desire for long-term commitment.
We have a situation whereby women are being enculturated into suppressing their natural fertility with long-acting hormones, (which take the body a long time to get back into sync and recover its natural rhythms of fertility), we have the NHS funding almost 200,000 abortions a year on the basis that it is not the ‘right time’ for a woman to have a baby and then on the other, they are shelling out copious amounts of cash for those who have unwittingly sleepwalked into infertility.
Female fulfilment is not solely to be found in the act of giving birth as feminists are always trying to tell us, some inelegant commentator tried to suggest that childbirth was no different to the act of defecation, but reproduction is clearly a sensitive issue that is innately and inexorably linked to our gender, which is why the feminists tie themselves in knots about it. Someone suggested that be it abortion or IVF, the whole issue is shrouded in blame in terms of women who have made the so-called ‘wrong’ decisions. Women are, according to this mentality, victims of their own Fertility with a capital F, either a rampant beast that needs to be tamed or an elusive will-o-the-wisp – but either way it should be ours to capture, pin down and use to our own ends.
Whichever way, we need to learn that we can’t have our cake and eat it too. The promotion of an ideal is not the same as shaming those who fail to achieve that, neither is it a judgement upon others’ morality, other than to note that scarce resources should not be spent on elusive and unlikely solutions that have come about as a result of a lifestyle choice, particularly when the condition does not cause an immediate and pressing threat to a person’s life, or impair their ability to go about their day to day life. The myriad of issues surrounding IVF is symptomatic of what results when sex and procreation are separated. IVF is simply a modern society’s attempt to find a solution for a self-inflicted problem. When are we going to join the dots?