Professor Allan Pacey from the University of Sheffield is the UK’s first professor of andrology (the study of men’s health, particularly relating to the problems of the male reproductive system and urological problems that are unique to men). He has penned a call for greater awareness of matters to do with fertility in the UK’s Daily Telegraph. In short, he notes that our lifestyles and culture have changed so that we are on average having children later; unfortunately though, our reproductive systems have not changed at all. Our biology and our practice when it comes to having children are becoming increasingly out of step and people do not seem to be aware of it.
Prof Pacey observes the obvious, but increasingly forgotten, biological fact that male and female reproductive systems work differently. In short, because men produce sperm until death, men can father children well into old age (for example, Charlie Chaplin fathered a child at the age of 73). A woman, however, has a limited supply of eggs in her ovaries at birth and cannot produce new ones, so that her “biological clock” runs much more quickly than a man’s. This now causes “obvious imbalance and tension between the sexes”. As Pacey states:
“When couples were still having their babies at 20 these differences didn’t really matter. But within a generation, most developed countries have seen an increase in the age at which men and women start to have children. Typically in the UK, first-time parents are now over 30. Each year this age rises still further. There will come a point, however, at which the average age couples start to try to become parents will be incompatible with their reproductive biology.” (Emphasis added.)
As we delay having children we are coming up against some hard biological facts. Unfortunately, people tend to be averse to having uncongenial facts pointed out to them and would rather shoot the messenger. Pacey earlier this year joined a call for better fertility education for men and women and more thoughtful family planning. As expected, some people were not happy with this – telling the state and fertility doctors to butt out of people’s family decisions. I tend to agree with this point of view (no one, surely, wants their fertility to come under the aegis of state planners as in China and Vietnam) but Pacey makes a good point:
“While I agree that the state should have little role in the family planning of its citizens, I think it does have a responsibility to make sure that they are adequately informed about health care issues that affect them. And this is, in my view, where we have a problem. The lectures I now give to undergraduates about reproductive biology often turn into sex education lessons for 18 and 19 year olds and I am continually surprised how limited their knowledge is about matters to do with their own fertility.”
Pacey argues that, if we don’t acknowledge the biological reality, more people are going to be disappointed when they find out that they have delayed having children until it is too late. The modern lifestyle is increasingly out of sync with the way that our fertility works, and yet the realisation of this is not widespread.
Young people in New Zealand are given career advice at school and universities but this advice does not include any discussion of how such a career will fit around a family. The assumption seems to be that a family will fit around a career. However, unless young people (especially young women) are given enough knowledge, how can they make informed decisions as to their career?
I think there is a tendency for people to see life as a zero-sum game: either a career or family. If you allow a discussion of family in career planning, are you undermining equality in the workplace and everything feminism has been fighting for in the last 40 years or so? Or are you merely bowing to a biological necessity?