Bomb scare

Last week at a fertility conference in Copenhagen there was a bomb
scare, news of which went around the world. In between presentations on
the latest whiz-bang techniques for getting eggs and sperm together, a
professor from Sheffield University in England announced that an
“infertility time-bomb” threatened the population of Europe and of
Britain in particular.

Delayed childbearing, obesity, smoking, sexually transmitted infections
and falling sperm counts could all take a share of the blame, according
to Professor Bill Ledger,of Sheffield University in the UK (1). Already one in seven couples had problems
conceiving, and this figure could rise to one in three over the next
decade, he said. And in case anyone had missed the point he added, “The
sustainability of the population of Europe is at risk because there are
too few children being born. It is a threat to the future.”

Goodness! At that rate Europe could collapse before Turkey gets in and
the constitution is finalised. Alternatively Turkey, which doesn’t seem
to have an infertility crisis, could just wait for the implosion of
Europe and then take over, relieving everyone of the need for a
constitution. Already someone has speculated that the future of
Britain, if not of Europe, is to become a vast aged care facility
staffed by Turkish nurses.

Well, perhaps there is overdose of scare in the professor’s words, but
when a fertility expert admits there is something his trade cannot fix,
it pays to listen.

So is anyone really worried about the time bomb scenario? Reports of
major new initiatives to set the population of Europe and its
trans-Atlantic and Pacific Rim outposts on a more fertile footing have
been curiously lacking in the wake of Professor Ledger’s dramatic

The big stories this week were the legalisation of gay marriage in
Spain and its imminent arrival in Canada — moves somewhat lacking in
procreative potential. The same must unfortunately be said of the
United States National Institutes of Health grant of US$7.9m to the
University of Kansas to develop a non-hormonal male contraceptive pill
— a piece of unfinished business from the 1960s, presumably.

Australia, it is true, has announced a new sexual health strategy with
a A$12.5 million price tag. The aim is to reduce sexually transmitted
infections, notably chlamydia, which has increased by 20 per cent a
year for the past five years. An initiative of this sort is announced
almost every week in one or another part of the developed world,
showing that governments are onto the problem, but giving the
impression that they are losing the race against this particular source
of misery and infertility.

Still in Australia, the Federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner has
launched a lengthy discussion paper on how to get men to do more of the
work at home so that women can share more equally in paid work. (2)
Among the arguments given for this scheme is that it would boost the
birth rate, which in Australia, as in almost every developed country,
is well below replacement level (replacement fertility being the
semi-official goal of the human race).

Though it seems counter-intuitive, since men cannot share in
childbearing or share equally in the early nurturing of a child, the
idea that gender equity in all things makes women more disposed to have
children is said to be borne out by experience in some countries —
Scandinavia springs to mind. This, no doubt, is one of the reasons that
Spain, with one of the lowest birthrates in Europe, now has a law
requiring husbands to share in the ironing, child chauffeuring and
granny care.

But getting husbands to do housework and getting their wives to have a
second child is easy compared with the task of getting them married in
the first place. Falling marriage rates throughout the developed world
and increasing age at marriage are the trends which, more than
anything, threaten fertility and the sustainability of population.

Professor Ledger in his time-bomb speech emphasised the problem of
delay — women putting off having a family until they are in their late
30s and early 40s when their fertility is greatly diminished. His
colleague, Dr Allan Pacey of the British Fertility Society, drove the
point home: “Nature designed women to have children in probably their
late teens and early twenties… the sooner you do it the more likely it
is you will be able to conceive without medical assistance.”

That will be news, of course, to all the young women who have sat
through sex-ed classes at high school year after year and heard of
nothing but non-procreative sex -- apparently meant to fulfil their
emotional needs during those years of study and getting on the career
track that stretch endlessly into the future. What is a girl to think
when she hears that teenage pregnancy, the great taboo of developed
societies, is closer to what nature intended than having your first
baby at 30?

No, we do not need a return to the teenage baby boom of the 1960s, or
the marriage habits of the nineteenth century. What we do need is a
more coherent message to young people based on greater honesty about
the factors contributing to delayed childbearing, and the remedies.

The career breaks and tax breaks, the part-time work and the
housework-sharing that Professor Ledger and others advocate as
incentives for earlier motherhood and repeat motherhood are unimportant
compared with marriage itself.

As a major Australian study of fertility decision making recently
concluded, “being in a secure, stable and adequate relationship with a
partner and having a secure, stable and adequate income stream are
critical preconditions for most people to have a child or to have more
children”. The study also showed that the “relationship” in question
was, pre-eminently, marriage. (3)

Findings from recent German research are also instructive. A worrying
26 per cent of men and 15 per cent of women aged between 20 and 39 in
the study by the federal institute for demographic research did not
want to have children. “There is an increasing belief that not having
children is an ideal way of life,” the authors commented. But when
asked why, 83 per cent of respondents cited lack of a partner or a
stable relationship as the main reason. Another study found that only
29 per cent of German women were concerned about the financial burden
of a child, and only 39 per cent named not wanting to give up their
career as their reason for not having children.

Those few statistics point to a world of loneliness and frustrated
human instincts that could be more explosive than even the infertility
time-bomb. Why is it so hard for young Europeans to contemplate
marriage? The society that gets to the bottom of that question will
have solved its infertility crisis.

Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet

(1) "'Infertility time bomb' warning". BBC. June 20, 2005

(1) Pru Goward et al, Striking the balance: Women, men, work and
family. Discussion Paper 2005. Sex Discrimination Unit, Human Rights
and Equal Opportunity Commission, Australia

(2) Ruth Weston et al, “It’s not for lack of wanting kids…”, Research Report No.11 2004, Australian Institute of Family Studies


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