The confusing world of fertility

22 Sep 2015

BBC Woman’s Hour last week included an episode about fertility education in schools and the mixed messages being sent out to our children. This episode featured a visit to our very own CREATE fertility by women’s rights activist Nimko Ali, as well as a discussion between Ms Ali and Professor Geeta Nargund, Obstetrician and Gynaecologist Dr Susan Bewley and the show’s presenter Jane Garvey.

The arguments

Currently, fertility education in schools centres on the prevention of pregnancy, with very little attention being given to the facts about the reduction in fertility over time and the fertility options that are available. Many believe that retaining this focus is important, as avoiding teenage pregnancy should be paramount in school SRE lessons. However, others believe that this one-sided approach can be problematic and lead to mixed messaging whereby pregnancy is both feared and ‘fetishized’, in the words of Dr Bewley. While on the one hand schools are telling children to avoid pregnancy at all costs, on the other, the media regularly puts messages out about biological clocks and time running out. Women can feel pulled in different directions by a world in which they’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

The fertility dilemma

The result of these mixed messages is that sometimes women can feel bewildered and overwhelmed by the conflicting information they are receiving. Many adults are misinformed about the realities of reproduction, believing that pregnancy is possible and even likely well into the 40s. To a certain extent this viewpoint has been promoted by a celebrity culture where older women are regularly seen producing offspring later in life, while not disclosing when this may have been as a result of fertility treatment or egg donation. However, the facts remain that by the age of 41, 50% of women cannot produce their own eggs, and ½ of successful IVF cycles are carried out using egg donation. As Dr Bewley put it- ‘it is difficult to fight millions of years of biology and evolution’. However, despite these stark figures, more and more women are choosing to leave pregnancy attempts until later in life, often suffering unnecessary treatment and heartache as a result.

What can be done?

With regards to your own fertility, it really is true that knowledge is power. Being aware of your situation and informed about the options available to you can be empowering. One simple way of understanding more about your fertility is to attend a clinic for a simple Fertility MOT. This not only looks at the number of eggs, but also measures the blood flow to these eggs (thus giving a good idea of egg quality), as well as looking at the womb for obstructions and abnormalities. With this knowledge in hand, it is easier to make decisions about your life choices.

When it comes to education, is it sufficient to simply teach children the basics of contraception, or is it just as important to give them a well-rounded education about the realities of reproduction? Prof Geeta Nargund, our Medical Director, believes in the latter approach, and is doing all she can to campaign for more rounded sex education in schools, focusing on educating children about fertility as well as teaching them how to avoid unwanted pregnancy. Providing children with the knowledge to make informed choices later in life is the most valuable thing that we can do for them. 

By Anna Byrne-Smith