April 21, 2024

Should students learn about declining fertility?

Is this a straw in the wind? After decades of educating students in the fine art of suppressing their fertility, the British Fertility Society sponsored a seminar this week about the controversial notion of teaching high school students about preserving it.

This was a concern of the late Lisa Jardine, the former head of the Human Fertilisation & Embryology Authority, the UK’s fertility watchdog. She once said:

If one in seven of us in the modern world is going to have problems with infertility then instead of all the teaching at school being about how to stop getting pregnant someone had better start teaching about how you do get pregnant, because there are going to be a lot of extremely disappointed people out there.

At the moment, British schools are obliged to refer to Sex and Relationship Education Guidance, a Government document which has not been updated since its publication in 2000.

The only reference to fertility in the 2000 guidance is to “some medical uses of hormones, including the control and promotion of fertility”. The organisers of the seminar pointed out that the topic of fertility decline with age is “Conspicuous by its absence”.  

Mentioning the topic of declining fertility is surprisingly controversial — partly because of political arguments over sex education in schools. But there are also different ideas about whether a policy priority of avoiding teenage pregnancy clashes with teaching students how to preserve their fertility.

As well, some experts feel that discussion of fertility might add to pressure on women to have children early in life. It might also serve the commercial interests of IVF clinics who are beginning to market egg freezing as a way to have a successful career and to postpone childbearing.

Adam Balen, chairman of the British Fertility Society, told the Daily Mail that sex-ed classes should include information on the best age to have a child. Many girls, he said, are unaware how quickly their fertility declines with age and they are dazzled by the babies of ageing celebrities who neglect to mention that they used IVF, donor eggs or surrogacy.

Norman Wells, of the Family Education Trust, told the newspaper: “So much sex education has placed such a strong emphasis on how to avoid pregnancy, that it has frequently presented a very negative image of childbearing … and some, to their cost, are leaving it too late.”

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