Social infertility: Can we blame women having IVF for delaying pregnancy?

Australian women are seeking IVF in unprecedented numbers, but can we blame them? Women delay pregnancy because society makes it hard to be a mother, writes Amy Gray.

The IVF industry is booming, with more couples paying tens of thousands of dollars for highly invasive procedures with low rates of success.

Many of these couples are older and the number of women over 40 seeking IVF treatment has nearly tripled in the past decade.

These figures are in tandem with news more women are delaying parenthood, with the average first-time mother in Australia now aged 30-34, and a spike in mothers aged 45-49.

The IVF industry has a term for older women seeking treatment: “socially infertile”.

It’s a label that tells us so much about the rise of older mothers: women delay pregnancy because society makes it damn hard to be a mother at any age.

It’s a natural impulse to wait until conditions for falling pregnant are perfect — stable relationships, income, plus home and job security — but these conditions will never be perfect because women aren’t treated equally in society.

Women are exposed to more discrimination in the workplace than men but it ramps up when fertility is added to the mix.

110,000 women experience pregnancy discrimination

The Australian Human Rights Commission has found 110,000 women experience pregnancy discrimination each year: upon falling pregnant, many face demotions and contract terminations, while others are denied leave entitlements or retrenched.

When they become mothers, the discrimination continues, with employers enforcing inflexible hours and blocking career progression, leading to reduced or insecure income. This income then becomes a factor when parents attempt to pay for underfunded child care and over-inflated mortgages during a housing affordability crisis.

This is echoed by a 2015 British Pregnancy Advisory Service report which found 42 per cent of women felt less likely to become pregnant in the current economic climate. Their key concerns? Career, finances and housing affordability.

There’s also the social discrimination women face when they become mothers: while men continue to enjoy the ability to be both a parent and individual, it’s not a courtesy extended to women, who are expected to reduce their lives solely to the care of children and spend more hours than men performing unpaid labour.

Can we blame women for delaying pregnancy?

So women are delaying pregnancy to find job security they’ll never have in order to get a higher income they won’t receive to get child care and housing they can’t afford to live with half the freedom afforded to fathers.

Can we blame women for delaying pregnancy when faced with these choices?

The Four Corners investigation found IVF costs Medicare $250 million per year, with some critics from inside and outside the fertility industry claiming women are not told of the low rates of IVF success and could likely get pregnant with less invasive (and less subsidised) procedures.

Reproduction specialist Dr Geeta Nargund recently told UK media schoolgirls should be educated about the limits of their fertility, advising them to have children before the age of 30.

Meanwhile, Professor Adam Balen of the British Fertility Society advocates greater fertility education because women put off pregnancy due to “social pressure … wanting a career, economic disadvantages … and the lack of commitment from men” and don’t understand the impacts of delaying.

This, despite the fact the 2015 British Pregnancy Advisory Service report found women know very well the risks of delaying pregnancy, but delay anyway in a bid to reduce their inequality.

Society loves nothing more than telling women what to do, while men can do as they choose. There are no calls for men to consider starting a family earlier, for men to be educated about their fertility at school, to learn how to juggle home and career or to watch their biological clock. There’s no rebuking men for their independence because their autonomy is a given, while women’s remains a struggle.

Obsessing over women’s fertility choices to the exclusion of men shows we are still fixated on telling women what to do with their bodies and reminding them the most important thing they can do for society is give birth.

The term social infertility implies pregnancy is a social issue but treats the symptoms, not the cause. If we want to cure social infertility, we must cure ourselves of discrimination.

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