I’ve frozen my eggs, but women shouldn’t have to solve the ‘baby bust’ alone | Dearbhail McDonald


We are having fewer children and living longer than ever before we need to talk about the fertility crisis, writes Dearbhail McDonald

It’s a long road from playing with baby dolls as a small child, fighting with your twin sister over the name of your future first born, to being sedated and wheeled into an operating theatre for your eggs to be retrieved and frozen. That’s where I found myself a few years ago. A woman in her mid-30s, highly educated with a successful and rewarding media career, injecting herself daily with a bespoke cocktail of hormones, and parting with thousands of pounds in a heart-wrenching bid to preserve her chances of motherhood.

Nothing quite prepares you for the emotional rollercoaster of fertility treatment. There’s the grief for the children you might never have; the raking over every personal relationship and career progression, the “what ifs” pounding you like hailstones in a freak storm.

And that’s before you subject yourself to costly, invasive medical procedures (you lose count of how many times a camera is inserted into your cervix) for odds with still stunningly low returns. It is a gamble I was willing to take and“Operation Frozen” – as my friends dubbed the pursuit – was one of the best decisions I have ever made. Freezing my eggs doesn’t guarantee my future motherhood. Nature doesn’t either. Science has offered me the possibility of becoming a mum, preferably with Mr Right, but maybe on my own, a path more and more of my friends have courageously embarked on.

During my treatment at a London fertility clinic, I sought daily sanctuary in the splendour of St Paul’s Cathedral. And in those intensely private, and at times lonely, tearful moments, what I didn’t appreciate was that my dilemma is one facing millions of men and women around the world. It cuts to the heart of one of the biggest social and economic challenges of our times: we are leaving it too late to conceive babies naturally or are having fewer children than ever before.

Nearly half of the world’s countries are facing a baby bust, meaning there are insufficient children to maintain their population size. Global fertility rates have almost halved since the 1950s, from 4.7 children per woman in 1950, to 2.4 children – the replacement rate is 2.1 – by 2017. Last year the number of children born in Britain, which has a fertility rate of 1.7 – and which will now introduce fertility education into its curriculum for secondary school students – hit a 10-year low. Ireland (1.8), the country of my birth, once topped Europe’s fertility league – fuelled in no small part by the coercive control over private life and public policy wielded by the Catholic church – but also recorded the lowest number of births per 1,000 since records began.

The decline in global fertility rates is an extraordinary success story for humanity. Female education and empowerment is the key driver of reduced fertility rates mitigating overpopulation, while reducing child mortality and child poverty. But we cannot escape the fact that, while we’re having fewer children, we’re living longer. And this tectonic convergence is having major consequences for individuals, families, our future workforces – even what it means to be a nation state. The phenomenon of “poor demographics”, of not producing stable, growing populations, also poses challenges for economic growth and stability, with higher interest rates and slower growth rates predicted for most developed countries.

A still from Dearbhail McDonald’s TV documentary, Fertility Shock.

Governments are now navigating declining working-age populations and steeling their voters for the fallout of rapidly shrinking dependency ratios – the number of children under the age of 15 and those aged 65 and over, supported by workers in their prime years. We see the problem played out in warnings about the ability to sustain pensions and health and other social programmes. And we see it in policy responses such as cutting state pension benefits, raising the state pension age or increasing migration – fertility’s greatest wild card and one of the biggest humanitarian crises of our time.

Many governments would have to increase net migration by huge numbers to mitigate the effects of the forthcoming waves of retirement. But, as we know only too well from support for Donald Trump to Brexit and beyond, tackling declining working-age populations with ever more open immigration policies is not a simple solution. Just look to Hungary, where last month its anti-immigration premier, Viktor Orbán, announced a lifetime tax exemption for women who have four children or more.

It’s not just Europe that is ageing. The fertility rate is below replacement level in most high-income, developed economies including China, whose birth level fell to its lowest in five decades last year, despite relaxing its one- then two-child policy. In Japan more adult nappies are sold than baby nappies. Vladimir Putin is offering cash-for-kids rewards – days off to copulate and prizes including fridges – to reverse Russia’s steady population decline.

‘In China, the birth level fell to its lowest level in five decades last year, despite relaxing its one-, then two-, child, policy.’ Photograph: AP

Why then is there an incomprehensible failure to see the combination of declining birth rates and longevity – which push those critical dependency ratios lower – through a fertility or equality lens? The vast bulk of developed economies are not doing enough to subsidise the costs of childcare, or tackle housing crises that deter many – men and women – from starting a family sooner because they do not have a home to call their own.

The political is, of course, deeply personal. Increasingly, many women who have pursued meaningful careers, or delayed childbearing because they feel priced out of parenthood – as well as putting in long working hours – are relying on medicine. Ever more advanced IVF technologies are bringing joy to millions all over the world and may be justified on the personal level, as they may one day be for me. But they are no substitute for conceiving children naturally.

The impact of the remarkable fall in birth rates is a revolution in human affairs that women should not have to bear alone. The dramatic decline in male sperm counts in western countries, by more than half in 40 years, should also set alarm bells ringing.

Fertility is a key marker for men’s health, correlated as lower sperm counts are with an increased risk of diabetes, heart disease and premature death in men. Indeed, one of the tragic ironies of centuries of placing most of the responsibility for fertility and child-rearing on women, is that we have overlooked what is arguably a looming public health crisis for men. Freezing my eggs has allowed me to have a career and still look forward to a future as a mother. But profound fertility shifts require a radical rethink of government policies and our corporate culture, as well as a sea change in attitudes towards women, childbirth and parenthood by all.

We need to tackle the structural and cultural barriers that still penalise women for having children – there’s a reason it’s called the “motherhood penalty” – and it’s a conversation that men, for their sake and ours, need to join. It’s not easy to talk about one’s private fertility journey. But the time for an informed debate is beyond dispute. The decisions policymakers and business leaders make today could have repercussions for generations to come. So let’s have that conversation now – before it’s too late.

Dearbhail McDonald’s RTÉ One TV documentary, Fertility Shock, will be broadcast on 11 March. McDonald is group business editor, Independent Newspapers (Ireland)

Read more: www.theguardian.com


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