While sex education has been on the national curriculum for the best part of 25 years, infertility education remains decidedly off it. Infertility Network UK’s Kate Brian makes a case.
Perhaps it seems inevitable that sex education in schools focuses on pregnancy prevention, yet in an average class of 30 pupils, the chances of any one of them having a baby before they leave full-time education is slim.
The current rates of teenage pregnancy in the UK stand at their lowest since records began in 1969, having fallen to 25 conceptions per thousand young women aged 15 to 17. The issue of fertility problems will probably be far from their minds, but we know that around five pupils in that class of 30 are likely to face difficulties when they decide they want to have a baby.
There are approximately 3.5 million people in the UK currently struggling to conceive, but fertility awareness isn’t part of the sex education curriculum. A reluctance to teach young people more about the problems of not being able to get pregnant perhaps comes from concern about teenage pregnancy, but how much do they currently know about their fertility?
An Infertility Network UK survey of 16-25 year olds released last month found that although young people were aware fertility declined, very few knew quite how early this process began.
Ninety eight percent said they wanted children, yet we know that currently one in five women are childless when they reach 45, which suggests many of them may end up disappointed.
Recent calls from fertility specialists for women to be more aware of reproductive ageing and to consider having children earlier have led to something of a backlash in the media, with claims that a generation of thirty-somethings are being unnecessarily terrified into thinking they may never be able to have children.
“Many women do conceive naturally in their late 30s and early 40s, but it is more difficult if you discover you have a fertility problem at this age.”
Interestingly, the Infertility Network UK survey found three in four of the young adults who responded said they either felt there was a need for more fertility education or admitted it was something they didn’t know much about. Only a small minority thought there was currently too much focus on this.
Anyone working in the fertility field sees on a daily basis the problems caused by a lack of understanding about reproductive ageing. All too often, people have not appreciated the impact of age and lifestyle choices on their chances of starting a family and have assumed that IVF was a panacea for all ills.
In fact, average success rates for each individual cycle of treatment stand at around 25 per cent nationally, but shift dramatically according to age from 33 per cent for women under 34 to just 4 per cent for women over 42.
Many women do conceive naturally in their late 30s and early 40s, but it is more difficult if you discover you have a fertility problem at this age. Women are often shocked to discover that no matter how fit and healthy they feel, they can’t do anything to help the production of younger/better quality eggs.
One solution which has been touted recently is egg freezing, to allow women who aren’t ready for children to stop worrying about their fertility in the assurance that they have a stock of eggs in the freezer ready to use at a later date.
It is sometimes referred to as an ‘insurance policy’ for women, the ultimate option for those who for whatever reason need to delay childbearing. But what isn’t so frequently discussed is the cost, the fact that more than one cycle is often necessary to produce enough eggs to give any chance of future success or the fact that the birth rate from frozen eggs is around 13 per cent.
What is now needed is a broader system of sex education which teaches more about fertility awareness. Young people need to know about the lifestyle choices they may make which could have an impact on their chances of having a family, whether that’s about weight, sexually transmitted infections, drugs (over the counter, prescription and recreational), smoking or alcohol consumption.
They need to be aware of when they are most likely to conceive, of how likely they are to get pregnant, of how age impacts on fertility and of what treatment can, and cannot, do to help.
Professionals working in fertility and education will be gathering at a one-day summit meeting in April to look at the issue of reproductive health and fertility education and how best to deliver it.
Providing this kind of information isn’t going to lead to a sudden increase in teenage pregnancy rates but would rather help ensure that all young people are aware of the issues and can make informed choices for the future.
Kate Brian is the London Representative of Infertility Network UK and editor of the Journal of Fertility Counselling. Kate began her career as a television journalist working at the BBC, ITN and Channel Four News. She has written four books about fertility including The Complete Guide to IVF.