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Sunday, October 24, 2021

The real ‘last taboo’? That women don’t need fertility lessons

Fertility is “a forbidden subject.” At least according to Dorothy Byrne, the new president of Murray Edwards College at Cambridge University. Which takes me back to the pet peeve I touched upon last week, and how something cannot be described as “forbidden”, “stigmatised” or “taboo” when everyone is talking about it. Do you see how that works?

Byrne doesn’t seem to. Because alongside the consent seminars and sexual harassment classes that are already on the Cambridge college’s agenda (two more “stigmatised” and “taboo” topics it’s nevertheless hard to make it through 24 hours without reading about), the 69-year-old former head of news at Channel 4 has decided to lay on classes in fertility this term. Not to scaremonger, you understand, but to “empower” the women at one of the university’s last single-sex colleges by letting them know the facts about fertility.

Now maybe I was precocious, but by the time I reached Cambridge, I’d already gleaned a thing or two about the female reproductive system. I was only 11 at the time those SRE classes were taught, but I have vivid memories of putty-coloured anatomical models, sniggering, and someone deciding it would be funny to engage in a game of desktop bowling with a silicone ovary. So by the time I was mature enough to leave home and choose a specialist subject I might want to structure my career around, I was pretty well-versed in the whole menstrual cycle, birds and the bees thing – even if back then things were pretty simplistic, and nobody had to explain to us, to quote a recent meme “about the birds that used to be bees, and the bees that used to be birds, and the bee that looks like a bird but still has a stinger.”

Certainly I would have been taken aback to find myself confronted by a large graphic of an hourglass, and a person behind a lectern explaining how, as women, we all owed it to the dwindling national birth rate to don a set of ‘pregnancy goggles’ from our 20s onwards through which we should examine every suitor, not as a potential life partner but a superior sperm donor. Then, in our mid-30s, do the responsible thing by settling on whoever was nearest to hand, regardless of personal circumstance.

I’m being flippant, of course. Byrne’s seminars will, I hope, do no such thing. Rather she wants to stress that it’s “a woman’s right to choose to have a baby,” she says. “We have swung too far one way. We rightly encouraged girls to get themselves a great education and to have great careers. But it came to be seen as old-fashioned and negative to say to girls the things that an older generation used to say, like ‘Are you courting?’ or ‘When are you going to have a baby?’”

I remember those comments being made the moment I hit 30 – along with the irritation they prompted. Not every woman wants a baby, for one thing (there’s a genuine “taboo” for you), and although I did, I felt it was important to have one with the right man rather than the closest to hand. And yes, there was a biological reality-check, but there was also the career I finally felt was under way to consider, not to mention the fact that I was still living in a flat-share at the time.

Society isn’t geared up for ‘early’ motherhood. Not with kidulthood stretched out until your early 30s, not with the female career ladder as hard to climb as it still is and that glass ceiling still in place, and not with property prices as high as they are. Which isn’t to say that you can’t have a child at that time of life if it’s what you want. And Byrne has both a personal reason to highlight fertility issues (she had her daughter as a single parent aged 45), and a valid point in stressing how despite the wonders of medical science women can face an uphill struggle if they leave trying to conceive to their mid-thirties. After all, according to recent statistics from the British Fertility Society, a woman of 35 wanting three children only has a 50 per cent chance of meeting her “family size goal.”

In the end everything does come down to cringeworthy concepts like that – and “life goals”. Which is annoying in itself. So (again) Byrne is right to question the fatuous current narrative that human biology allows for any sense of entitlement: that women have not so much a God-given right as a science-given right “to choose to have a baby” at any age.

But is it up to higher education institutions and private companies – such as the British accounting giant PwC, which as I wrote last week, is now offering “menopause training” to staff – to address our chromosomal limitations? A thousand times no. And since we’re on the subject of “rights”, I’d quite like the right to enjoy a university education and a professional life that doesn’t persist in reducing me to my biological makeup.

You can read Celia Walden’s column every Monday. Click here to read last week’s column

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