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Let's break the silence around fertility

Blog 4 November 2021

This National Fertility Week, Dr Virginia Beckett discusses fertility education, how important it is that men and women are aware of their fertility at a young age, and what you might need to know if you do want children in the future.

Dr Virginia Beckett thumbnailI’ve been a specialist in reproductive health for 28 years, and during that time I’ve had countless people come to me because they are struggling to conceive. I see the devastating toll it can have on couples and individuals when they’ve wanted a baby for so long, and it isn’t happening for them.

It’s still relatively taboo to speak about infertility, so it can seem that everyone else is conceiving without difficulty, causing feelings of guilt, anger and helplessness.

My patients are often surprised that lifestyle factors like weight, diet, smoking and recreational drug use (including anabolic steroids) can have such an impact on their chance of conception, or that chlamydia can block tubes (1:6 chance with each episode).

I am frequently asked why the age-related reduction in fertility isn’t discussed more and told that having a family was something that was delayed, with people assuming that achieving pregnancy wouldn’t be a problem.

In the news

It’s a topic that’s hit the headlines lately. Dorothy Byrne, the new president of Cambridge University’s last all-female college, has said she’s keen to introduce lessons to raise awareness among women of how life choices may reduce a woman’s chances of conception, given that fertility declines with age. The comments provoked criticism from women who say Byrne is wrong to suggest women just ‘forget to have babies’ and that it’s important men are taught about fertility too.

Figures released by Official for National Statistics show that the birth rate for women has dropped to 1.58 children per woman in 2019, which is the lowest since records began in 1938. This rate is 4.2 percent lower than in 2019 and 3.1 percent lower than in 2001, which marked the previous record low. However, birth rates for women over 40 have been steadily increasing since the late 1970s. This indicates that people are waiting to have children later in life which could be for a number of reasons.

I believe that it’s important that women and men are both given the facts about fertility so that they are equipped to make informed decisions about their future. Although I understand that sometimes, the choice of when to have a baby can be completely out of a person’s hands if they perhaps haven’t met someone they want to have a baby with, or if professionally or financially they don’t feel ready to support a baby.

National Fertility Week

This week is National Fertility Week which aims to put the spotlight on fertility issues and changing perceptions of fertility and infertility. That’s why I think it’s important to share some statistics with you which you might not have seen before:

  • Over 3.5 million people in the UK go through some kind of fertility challenge.
  • One in six couples in the UK experience difficulties conceiving and require treatment to help them get pregnant.
  • On average, there is a decline in female fertility starting in the mid-thirties, with lower fertility especially after the age of 35. Men’s fertility also starts to decline around age 40 to 45 years.

The vast majority of women want to enjoy healthy sexual relationships and have control of their fertility in order to decide if, when and how often they want to become pregnant. This requires timely and accurate sexual health education and access to effective contraception.

There needs to be education for boys and girls

The new Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) guidance introduced this year does include lessons (PDF) on fertility, stating pupils should know the facts about reproductive health, including fertility, and the potential impact of lifestyle on fertility for men and women and menopause. This is a positive step in the right direction and one the RCOG fully supports.

Alongside this, The Fertility Education Initiative (a partnership of experts from health, education and government) has developed a website containing clear information and a series of educational film animations to increase awareness.

What is clear is that many men and women are still suffering in silence because of the shame and stigma that surrounds infertility. The faster we breakdown these taboos and normalise fertility, the more awareness people will have.

For media enquiries please contact the RCOG press office on +44(0)7740 175342 or email pressoffice@rcog.org.uk