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Fertility. And why everything you thought you knew is wrong.

Nat
At 18, Nat had to start thinking about her fertility.

By NATALIA HAWK

“Maybe you should freeze your eggs?”

It was 2009, and I was sitting at the kitchen table with a friend, drinking tea and discussing the PCOS diagnosis I’d just received.

You might know about polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) already – after all, it affects a significant percentage of women. Monash University estimates about 10-15% of women have the hormonal condition which can cause reduced chances of fertility.

My PCOS was bad. And to hinder the situation further, an ultrasound had discovered an orange-sized cyst on my left ovary – an ovary that would probably have to be removed along with the cyst.

I was 18 years old and facing the prospects of turning 19 with only one dysfunctional ovary. And it was fucking depressing.

I’d just started my first year of university, and I was surrounded by people who spent their days drinking at noon and skipping philosophy lectures. Meanwhile, I was having long conversations about my future prospects of infertility with various doctors and trying to come up with the best way forward.

Is there any way to know when this will become less likely?
Is there any way to know when this will become less likely?
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The biggest problem was the amount of scare-mongering and misinformation I received from medical professionals. My GP told me that I would probably never have children but “we’ll see what happens”.

Another doctor told me that I better not wait too long because fertility starts to decline significantly after the age of 25. Another doctor told me that it was actually at the age of 30 that I’d be a bit screwed. Many of my friends and well-meaning acquaintances suggested that I freeze my eggs, just in case.

I did some research, but there are conflicting statistics everywhere. And it seems that I’m not the only one confused. A recent post written by Louise Johnson, CEO of the Victorian Assisted Reproductive Treatment Authority, confirmed that only 25% of women can identify when their fertility actually starts to decline.

She confirmed:

The age at which a woman’s fertility starts to decline is about 32 and then fertility declines more rapidly in the mid to late 30s. By age 40, a woman’s fertility has halved.

Understandably, it’s all led to a bit of panic. A bit of pressure towards those who have reached their 30s and yet not settled down with a significant other and a baby. Dr David Knight of Sydney IVF clinic, Demeter Fertility, said that egg freezing has increased in popularity and demand – now, woman as young as 25 are given the opportunity to freeze their eggs to slow down the so-called biological clock.

“Scientific technology has resulted in women having the opportunity to delay childbearing due to personal circumstances, such as work or relationships,” said Dr Knight. “Having this opportunity means that their eggs can be safely frozen when they are younger, then fertilised and implanted at a later date when the woman feels ready to have a child.”

Are you freaking out yet? Are you only 24 and yet considering freezing your eggs next year, JUST in case?

Well – maybe calm down. Because there’s a whole new fertility storm happening on the Internet – reports claiming that everything we know about our fertility is wrong, and that the decline in fertility has been grossly oversold.

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It all started when US psychology professor Jean Twenge wrote an article for The Atlantic, reporting that statistics about women’s fertility is based on “questionable data”:

Is it just all a game of chance?
Is it all just a game of chance?

I scoured medical-research databases, and quickly learned that the statistics on women’s age and fertility—used by many to make decisions about relationships, careers, and when to have children—were one of the more spectacular examples of the mainstream media’s failure to correctly report on and interpret scientific research.

The widely cited statistic that one in three women ages 35 to 39 will not be pregnant after a year of trying, for instance, is based on an article published in 2004 in the journal Human Reproduction. Rarely mentioned is the source of the data: French birth records from 1670 to 1830. The chance of remaining childless—30 percent—was also calculated based on historical populations.

In other words, millions of women are being told when to get pregnant based on statistics from a time before electricity, antibiotics, or fertility treatment.

You can read the full article here – it goes into great detail about the exact statistics.

The general conclusion? There is no exact answer for how long a woman can wait before she has a baby. Firstly, because of data issues, and secondly because of individual circumstances. Sure, fertility might be hard for me because of my bung ovaries. Sure, it might be smarter for me to start trying sooner rather than later, or looking into options such as freezing my eggs.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that it will be the same for you. In fact, the only thing we really know for sure is that we absolutely have a finite number of eggs, and that as you age, the number of eggs begin to fall at an accelerated rate. Which is why a 50-year-old has a significantly smaller chance of conceiving than, say, a 20-year-old.

So – the main thing to take away from all this? That exact statistics about fertility will be different for absolutely everyone. Talk to your doctor and be aware of the averages but don’t live and die by them. And if in doubt, there’s always fertility testing.

What have you been told about fertility?

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