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Caroline Farrow: The biological clock is ticking despite attempts to spin latest fertility figures


Thinking of leaving it a bit later to have a baby? Don’t worry, you’re far from alone, because according the latest figures released from the ONS, fertility rates for women over 40 surpassed those for women under 20, for the first time since 1947. 2015 saw a 3.4 per cent increase in women over 40 giving birth, whereas women in the under-20 age bracket having babies decreased by 7.1 per cent, continuing a decline begun in 1999. The live birth rate for women under 20, was 14.5 per thousand women, as opposed to 15.2 live births per thousand women in the over-40 cohort.

All of which brought out the usual suspects in the Guardian, attempting to leverage these statistics, to advance their own particular feminist agenda. Representatives from the Fawcett Society and Maternity Action, claimed the spike in older mothers had to do with poor treatment towards younger mothers by employers, which is motivating women to delay as long as possible.

Though there isn’t any actual evidence to support this – the Fawcett Society have reached their conclusions about the allegedly poor treatment of younger mothers after studying research from the Equality and Human Rights Commission. They are therefore assuming that most young women have the same access to the data and analytical skills as themselves and are factoring this into their decision-making, when there could be any number of reasons why more women over 40 are having babies. I’d posit it has something to do with the decline of marriage as an institution, the difficulties of finding a spouse and the willingness of men to make a long-term commitment in the age of Tinder.

Maternity Action’s claims that women are leaving it later thanks to a combination of financial pressure and job insecurity are probably more realistic, but there’s no proof to suggest that maternity benefits are declining; there has been no new legislation attempting to curb maternity benefits and UK women enjoy some of the strongest employment protections in the world.

But, most staggering of all, was Clare Murphy, director of external affairs of BPAS, the UK’s largest abortion provider, coming over all Corporal Jones on us, telling women not to panic, or listen to the media stories which suggest that fertility falls off a cliff at the age of 35. Could there be anything more cynical than an organisation that profits to the tune of millions for providing abortions, telling women not to worry about their ticking biological clock?

As always, one needs to ask, cui bono – who benefits from this narrative that there is always plenty of time to have another baby, if a woman in her thirties has an unplanned pregnancy? Is it the woman, or the abortion clinic, who stands to trouser around £700 either from her or the NHS? Who is it who profits from the notion that the time needs to be right for a woman to have a baby, and that she has plenty of time to try again, if she has an abortion? It’s certainly not the woman and the loss is even more savage if she later finds herself needing to go down the route of IVF in order to conceive.

What these stats do not tell us, is how many of the women in the over-40 age group giving birth, had managed to conceive naturally. That particular data is not, as yet available. Furthermore, the term, ‘fertility rates’ is deceptive. It’s not that women in any particular age group are more fertile than other groups, or are more fertile than in previous years, it simply refers to how many of them gave birth.

It does not, contrary to Claire Murphy’s claims, affect the scientific data that female fertility begins to decline after the age of 35. Over a third of couples in which the woman is over the age of 35 experience fertility problems, which rises to two-thirds, when the woman is over 40. If you don’t believe me, just ask the NHS. It may not be true that fertility falls off a cliff over the age of 35, you still have a 78 per cent chance of conceiving within a year, compared to an 86 per cent chance if you attempt to conceive between the ages of 30 and 35, but after the age of 40, your chances of both getting pregnant and carrying a healthy baby to term are dramatically reduced.

That’s not to say it cannot happen – I conceived and delivered a child at the age of 40, and BPAS claim to be seeing more older women (though they do not say how old) who believed that they were no longer fertile and fell pregnant. What this data tells us is not that women are suddenly more fertile in their 40s, as implied, but simply that more of them are having babies. However, the numbers are still significantly fewer than all of the other age cohorts, bar the under 20s. There are still almost 4 times as many women aged 20-25 (the next lowest fertile group) having babies, as there are over 40, and the largest age group is the 30-34 year-olds.

Clare Murphy does women absolutely no favours at all when she suggests that they need no longer worry about their ticking biological clock and seeks to downplay the increased risks of serious health complications in older pregnancies, as things which can be managed, and brushes off the likely need for a Caesarian as being a minor matter. Of course these issues can be managed, but is it prudential to deliberately court risk? I’d love to know whether or not they took such a sanguine attitude towards the risks, if a potential client in their 40s presented for abortion counselling?

Of real interest in these figures is the fact that the overall birth rate is declining, down to 1.82 from 1.83 and below the UK replacement fertility rate of 2.075, and also that the number of live births to women born outside the UK, reached a record high of 27.5 per cent. Both statistics ought to give the new Government pause for thought.




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Caroline Farrow
Caroline Farrow
Columnist for the Catholic Universe

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