Once again, women’s reproductive choices have hit the headlines. Last week, the Office of National Statistics released data indicating that women’s fertility rates have declined, with more than 50% of women under 30 classed as ‘childless’.
Let’s start with the term ‘childless’. It makes me think that having a child is the norm for a woman and that anyone without one is an outlier, which of course, is what the associated dataset in the ONS is insinuating.
It isn’t the first time these kinds of irksome stats have made the headlines. Last year we heard that women at the single-sex Cambridge college Murray Edwards were being given fertility seminars because they could face ‘childlessness’ if they leave motherhood too late.
This data does not give any insight into women’s choices, whether this is a deliberate decision or whether it’s because of extraneous factors. The information is also being compared to 50 years ago. It makes for a pretty picture, but 50 years is a long time during which we have hopefully seen more gender equality, better choices for women in the UK, and a dent in this archaic belief that every woman’s destiny is to be a mother and have a family – that a woman’s role is primarily in the domestic domain.
Besides the many ways in which some women have more autonomy and agency and the broader availability of contraception, we can also talk about the reasons why women might be making these decisions. Namely, lack of childcare support, the rising cost of childcare, the breakdown of family structures (and communal parenting), to name a few.
But, even as several people are trying to explain these reasons, for me, such headlines are highly problematic because they perpetuate the belief that women’s bodies and reproductive choices can – and should be – monitored. On the other hand, no one is asking men why they are delaying having children or making a choice to stay child-free.
As I trawled through the ONS datasets, I could not find any data on men’s fertility rates over the years. The only dataset I could see was for the year 2017, which clearly showed that men’s fertility rates under the age of 30 were much lower than those over 35. But no one is making a song and dance about this.
We don’t have enough data for the UK, but, as a comparison, since 1980 in the USA, the fertility rate in men younger than 30 years has decreased by 15%. Also, an extensive meta-study showed sperm counts had declined by 52.4% from 1973- to 2011.
As I discuss in my book (M)otherhood: On the choices of being a woman, childbearing is often not an individual decision, or not allowed to be one, with the personal attitudes and social influence sometimes at loggerheads.
I looked at a survey of 1,000 young people in 2016 by the British Fertility Society in partnership with the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists that revealed almost two-thirds of those surveyed think men’s fertility only starts declining after the age of forty, with a third believing that it doesn’t begin reducing until after the age of fifty.