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The inconvenient truth of fertility decline

Written by our guest contributor, Irenee Daly, Centre for Family Research, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK.

This post originally appeared in BioNews.org, Issue 713 and has been excerpted with the author’s and journal’s permission.

The July/ August edition of the US magazine, The Atlantic, featured the article ‘How long can you wait to have a baby?’ (also published in The Observer). The premise of Jean Twenge’s piece, which spread quickly across social media and more traditional sites, was that science has ‘oversold’ the effects of age on female fertility. My commentary will not address the validity of the science that was cited in The Atlantic – others are more qualified to do that – but instead focuses on the implications of such journalism.

In response to this article, the Huffington Post astutely suggested that Twenge’s piece was ‘essentially telling women what they wanted to hear’. I agree. And who could blame women for hoping that they are more reproductively robust than is actually the case? Childbearing decisions are made within the cultural and historical context in which people live. The current environment is one in which women are encouraged to make the most of their education, by developing their presence in the workplace. Yet, the workplace and society make it exceptionally difficult for women to do this and also have a family. In an attempt to satisfy these two competing demands, women often delay having children in order to buy themselves some time. Unfortunately, women sometimes wait too long and find that they are unable to have children, or have great difficulty in doing so.

The issue with Twenge’s article is not necessarily the science that it cites, but the research she has failed to cite. For example, Tietze’s 1957 study of the Hutterite community (1), which established natural fertility decline in a non-contracepting community, is not discussed. Neither is there any reference to the work of Roger Gosden or Malcolm Faddy, who have investigated the depletion of ovarian reserve (2). Yet the author’s persuasive style and reference to having extensively searched the academic literature increases the plausibility of her argument, especially to a readership that may be less scientifically literate.

*This post has been reprinted with the permission of Bionews.org. Read the remainder of Irenee’s article here.

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