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Belinda Brown: Falling fertility – the price of feminism


The less privileged in our society take the biggest hit from the unintended consequences of feminism. The men without education and employment, the children without a father, the mothers without a partner.

But educated women also pay a very high price.

This is because today’s educated women have bought the feminist mantra and focused on their careers, often leaving babies until it is too late. For example in the US, while 47 per cent of women with no high school diploma have three or more children, 47 per cent of women with a bachelor’s degree or higher have none. Evidence suggests that the patterns in the UK are much the same.

While children might benefit from mothers who put babies first and not their careers, highly educated women are missing out.

There are many contributing factors. Ever since the hard-won family wage was replaced with the living wage, the birth rate has been going down. But we now have wage equality and far more women in the labour force. So I suppose everybody has won.

Tuition fees mean young people are carrying a financial burden even before they launch themselves on the world. This will only add pressure to establishing a career; plus there seems to be an assumption that babies shouldn’t come along until you own your own home.

The hurdles couples have to overcome before they can have a baby means reproduction is pushed into the future – age of first birth creeps up, with the result that the number of children which women have goes down.

Fertility starts to decline at 30, by 35 it declines steeply, by the age of 40 only two in five women who try to have a baby will be able to do so. There has been a spectacular increase in the percentage of women who have not yet given birth by the age of 34, and it has been suggested that many will remain childless as a result.

We come across women who experience infertility but we tend to see this as a personal misfortune and private tragedy. In fact, many cases of infertility result from ignorance and being misinformed.

It could all be so different. PSHE classes are supposed to prepare pupils for the opportunities, challenges and responsibilities of adult life to which parenthood and family are absolutely central. This would be the ideal context to educate young people about the unpredictable and terminal nature of (female) fertility, which in turn would provide a springboard to discussions of parenthood and family, and the kinds of decisions which at some point in the future they might make.

But information about the reproductive lifespan and the time-limited nature of fertility is off the agenda. Pregnancy is mentioned only in the context of something to be studiously avoided. Family and parenthood don’t appear to be discussed.

This is not surprising. PSHE classes were largely the product of a desperate drive to reduce rates of teenage pregnancy. The focus has been on contraception and, failing that, abortion.

As for family planning, that is a complete misnomer. Family prevention is what they are paid to do.

This leaves young people with the impression that babies are rather peripheral to how they organise the future. And that when they decide they want to have one they will simply stop contraception and, regardless of their age, a pregnancy will result.

The reality is different. Research suggests that at the age of thirty, 75 per cent of couples trying for a baby will have one after the first year. Of those remaining, some might be infertile and some might have to wait three or four years. At the age of 35 the majority can become pregnant after three of four years of regular sexual activity (every two or three days). Those who were hoping for slightly larger families might have been anticipating a more fruitful result.

The Key Stage Three science programme does not fill in the gaps. The intention of the programme is to ‘help all young people to become confident individuals who are able to live safe, healthy and fulfilling lives’. It will encourage them to ‘ask questions and discuss issues that may affect their own lives, the direction of societies and the future of the world’. Yet issues of parenthood, the reproductive lifespan or fertility – all so central to our own individual futures and the future of the planet – are simply not discussed.

Once out of the education system the media is not going to help fill in the gaps. Women are egged on (sorry) to delay baby-making by images of celebrities having babies well into their forties. They don’t know that 63 per cent of IVF cycles are unsuccessful. The number is even higher if you look at individual treatments, and even these figures become significantly worse the older the women are. Nor do they see the pain and physical discomfort of the treatment. Nor do they take on board the huge emotional and financial costs.

Forty might look and feel like the new thirty but we still have menopause at the same age. All these uncomfortable truths are airbrushed out.
Advocates of assisted reproductive technologies suggest these are a way of boosting rates of fertility. The truth is that their presence may well be increasing rates of infertility. Research on high-achieving women between the ages of 28 and 40 shows that they believe reproductive technologies will allow them to get pregnant into their forties. This is palpably false. The presence of assisted technologies is more likely to increase infertility by giving women the impression they can wait.

In 2014 more than 51,000 women were receiving infertility treatment. Hidden in this number is a huge amount of profound physical, psychological and financial distress. A great deal of this could have been avoided if people knew more about the facts.

Maximising women’s choices and autonomy requires raising awareness about the limitations and terminal nature of (particularly female) fertility. PSHE and science classes present an obvious context in which this can be done.

Incorporating information about fertility into the curriculum would enable discussion about parenthood and encourage value clarification regarding important life goals.

Teaching young people about the reproductive lifespan and fertility might draw their attention to the fact that sex is not a hedonistic activity. It is ultimately about creating happy relationships and making babies. It might provide a counterbalance to the diet of pornography to find out there is a purposeful, constructive dimension to sex, while of course ensuring that any good work in counteracting rates of teenage pregnancy is not undone.

PSHE literature waxes lyrical on teaching children about relationships. Thinking about fertility throws the spotlight on the family. Maybe this is not a bad place to start.

Just this week we have heard again about the steep rise in self-harming behaviour among girls. Perhaps this is linked to the culture of instant gratification and the offer of a future built around self-promotion and self-fulfilment. I suspect for many young women this feels vacuous and empty. Thinking about a future where you might care for others through starting a family might actually present a far more fulfilling goal.

Of course femininists should be at the forefront of pushing for these changes. But when they talk about ‘choice’ and ‘autonomy’, they mean the ‘choice’ to fulfil the feminist ‘equality’ agenda, rather than the desires of women. As such, feminism is largely a dreadful own goal.

In fact far from giving women freedom of choice, the focus on career and self-fulfilment means that sadly for many women, the possibility of making the most important choice of all, the choice to have a baby, has been completely removed.

Most of the ideas and data in this blog come from the following papers:

Fertility, the reproductive lifespan and the formal curriculum in England: a case for reassessment

Belinda will be joining Dr Nargund and Dr Nathanson for a discussion on fertility at The Trouble Club on November 6 at 7pm. If you are interested in coming along please book here.

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Belinda Brown
Belinda Brown
Belinda Brown is author of 'The Private Revolution' and a number of well-cited academic papers. More recently, she has started writing and blogging for The Daily Mail and The Conservative Woman. She has a particular interest in men's issues and the damage caused by feminism.

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