Should Teenagers Be Worrying About Their Fertility?
The Debrief: Professor Geeta Nargund argues that fertility awareness should be taught to teenagers in schools as part of their sex education
Sex education at school. How much do you remember? Mostly the bit where they warned you about STIs and how important it was not to get pregnant? Not all that, was it?
There are many arguments currently being made about how we need to make sex education in schools better. One of them being that it should be a compulsory part of the curriculum in primary and secondary schools which, to the frustration and disappointment of many campaigners, was rejected by MPs earlier this year (as things stand, for instance, academies are not required to offer it). Another being that the current SRE (Sex and Relationships Education) provision needs to be extended and properly updated to address issues around consent, the accessibility of online pornography and problems of activities like as revenge porn.
Well, according to Professor Geeta Nargund it also needs to include teaching about fertility. ‘We have been very effective at teaching teenagers how not to get pregnant’, Nargund told the Guardian, ‘now, we need to start teaching them about fertility as well, so they can get pregnant when they choose to.’
She’s not wrong about the first bit. Teenage pregnancies in England and Wales are currently the lowest they’ve ever been, since records began. But do we really need to put yet more pressure on young woman by instilling the limits of their fertility on them while their still at school, before they’ve even left home and had a relationship that lasts longer than an academic year and worked out what kind of person they want to be, where they want to live, what they want to do or how they want to do it? Isn’t there enough to be worried about?
Yes we really do, says Nargund, ‘there are two sides of the coin – contraception and conception’. As a fertility consultant who has worked in the NHS for 20 years, she says she has helped many women conceive and met many who could not get pregnant – some who left it too late, some who didn’t meet the right person in time, some who never did.
As a result of this experience she is currently campaigning for fertility to be included in the sex education that every teenager receives at school and has written to the Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, to ask her to make this happen. There is, as she sees it, a lack of awareness about the limitations of fertility.
Speaking to the Guardian Nargund said ‘the first thing we can do is increase…awareness in young girls of the effect of their age on their fertility. The decline starts at 30, it becomes rapid after 35, and even more rapid after 37.5’. She says that raising awareness about how to plan when to start a family is important and will allow women to protect their fertility by making certain lifestyles choices.
The problem with Nargund’s arguments are that many women hear their biological ticking, loud and clear. This metaphor of an internal clock ticking inside of all women is, by implication, a cultural counting down to the point that will, inevitably, come in a her life when she is no longer fertile. It is one that we see reflected back at us on TV, in cinemas, newspapers and colloquial generalisations about woman and dating on a near-daily basis. The phrase came into cultural and scientific conversations in the 1970s after the intorduction of the contraceptive pill prompted panic about women putting off starting families to further their careers courtesy of a male Washington Post columnist called Richard Cohen.
The idea of a ' ticking biological clock' is not helpful, but many argue it is also not entirely accurate. Indeed, there are those who cite statistics which prove that the decline in fertility over the course of a woman’s 30s has been oversold and overemphasised, causing deep anxiety, based on alarmingly outdated statistics.
You’d think we were all terrifying crocodile-like creatures straight out of Peter Pan who can be heard approaching a mile off. Our bodies, through the ticking biological clock metaphor, are configured as time bombs, products with a shelf life and expiration date. It’s a metaphor that’s unhelpful, sexist at its core and runs counter to the constant push forwards for total parity between the sexes.
Up until quite recently the pressure placed on women to bear children was a front line in feminism’s fight for equality. As things stand today there’s still a great stigma attached to women who choose not to have them.
According to Nargund is a woman wants to maximise her chances of having two children, she should start trying to start a family before the age of 30, ideally at 27. If she only wants ot have one she should start before she's 35, ideally at the age of 32. That's all very well and good, but according to the most recent figures the average age of a first time buyer in the UK is currently 35. So are women meant to start planning for a family before they've got the security of a home to have it in? Furthermore, the last time the ONS (Office for National Statistics) collected data the average age that women got married was 34. Do we really want young women to panic about their fertility before they have actually met someone they'd be up for bringing human beings into the world with? (NB. obviously you don't need to be married to have children)
With so many other things to be worried about, particularly for young women leaving school today - cramped flat shares, dating apps, student loan repayments, global warming and whether or not it's all your fault because you've watched Cowspiracy but you still eat steak. Plus the fact that women still don’t earn the same as their male colleagues in the workplace, should we really be telling them to remember to keep one eye on the clock at all times as well? There's more than enough to be anxious about and being a teenager's tough enough.
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