Tuesday 25 October 2016

Sinead Ryan: Better a frozen-egg pregnancy than a schoolgirl in crisis

Women now have more options
Women now have more options

I sense a conspiracy. A number of seemingly unrelated stories appeared in the past week which, when brought together, show an alarming siding against the manufacturers of future taxpayers . . . sorry, baby-making machines. Oh, all right then - mothers.

First we heard an obstetrics expert calling for fertility lessons for schoolgirls to get on with it before they hit 30, by which time, according to him, they became a "costly and unnecessary burden" on the health system as they ended up needing intervention. Charming.

Separately, Intel - the giant multinational based in Leixlip - announced it was considering offering egg-freezing to female staff. This isn't about incentivising lunchtimes by sticking your hard-boiled egg sandwich in the canteen fridge; rather, it's paying for women workers under 30 to go through invasive surgery to extract their baby-making bits until they had forged a successful career, only to have them implanted later in life when it suited them.

Now we have a respected fertility doctor, David Walsh of the Dublin SIMS clinic, suggesting the Government bring in tax breaks to encourage women to, er, get up the pole before they're past so we can bring down the average reproductive age - currently 32.1 and one of the highest in Europe - to a more manageable 20-something when all the bits are working best.

All this in the week following the Marriage Equality referendum, during which we learned with tiresome predictability from the Catholic church that those whose marriages were "unproductive" were somehow lesser couplings than those fertile women popping them out all over - as long as they had a lawful husband to do the necessary, obviously.

It's hard not to see an overwhelming message here. Girls, do your bidden duty and forget about trying to make it through college, forging your early career or trying to get ahead in the workplace; and don't leave children until you're settled, financially stable and have a man to share your life with.

I'm sick of hearing that women really are expected to do it all as opposed to have it all. If only it were that simple.

Yes, of course we know Mother Nature created us to propagate the species efficiently and as often as possible from the age of around 14. That's biology. She did the same with fruit flies and bumble bees. It doesn't mean that those of us from the higher orders should be bullied into following suit.

In an ideal world, fertility-wise, we'd all be preggers by 15, have a baby each year and sit around to become old and grey by 40. Well, the world's moved on, even if nature hasn't.

Women now have choices and options. If some of those involve choosing medical interventions to get pregnant, how is that different from taking any other form of medicine to treat a condition in life?

But does Dr Walsh at least have a point? He does, actually. We do need more babies. Ireland is renewing its population fairly evenly - we have around five taxpayers for every pensioner, but it's slowing. In Italy it's 1:1, and not far off that in France.

This is demanding on the exchequer. France recently introduced all kinds of incentives to get women to have babies earlier and then return to work to pay for them. If they have three children they get far higher benefits than having two. There's shared child-rearing benefits, free childcare and allowances if you stay at home to mind more than two children. They need the future taxpayers. We do too, but it misses the big picture.


For years, women were told it was irresponsible to have children when they weren't in a stable relationship or didn't have enough money to rear them, and now they're told to pop them out anyway. We need to get our mothering age down - fertility falls off one cliff after 30 and yet another after 35 - but the way to do that is via structured, helpful, family-supportive practices that make mothering a valued, chosen occupation rather than bald statements of do-it-or-there'll-be-trouble-ahead.

I'd prefer an 'assisted' baby born to an older, 30-something stable mother than a surprise or unwanted one born to an unprepared 18-year-old any day. Let's make those choices easier rather than guilt-tripping women.

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