The average British woman bears her first child at age 30, 5 years later than American women. In the name of “provok[ing] a debate about how old is too old to have a baby,” First Response Get Britain Fertile had make-up artists transform 45-year-old British TV presenter Kate Garraway into a cartoonishly ancient-looking pregnant woman.
Yet even as First Response claims there is a lack of awareness about the female biological clock, they tout a survey by YouGov finding 70 percent of British women believe having a baby in her 40s would be too old. Women were also quite clear about their motives to wait: two-fifths said they would delay having a child until they have financial stability, while over a third said the cost of childcare is a deterrent. Another third said they would wait until they found the right partner.
Nevertheless, First Response has decided the solution to the trend of women waiting longer to have children is to criticize them, prey on their fears of aging, and exploit social disgust for even moderately sexual old women.
Get Britain Fertile ambassadors Garraway and Zita West insist that they are not trying to push women into a panic over their ticking fertility clocks. Yet the campaign, which officially launches June 3, would do well to extend beyond the caricature of the old woman. Thus far, First Response has not suggested they will explore ways to bridge the vast disparity between the average cost of raising a child — roughly half a million dollars in the US, not including college tuition — and the employment prospects of the average 25-year-old couple. In the US, the average college-educated 20-something earns $45,000 a year, while their unemployment rate is far higher than their older counterparts. Highly-educated young people are also increasingly finding it difficult to find jobs that match their very expensive education. In the UK, two-fifths of all unemployed people are younger than 25. Nor does the campaign touch on the UK’s childcare costs, which are the second highest in the world.
Rather than address these real fiscal issues young women explicitly say are keeping them from having children earlier, Garraway writes that women are simply being too picky about settling down with the right partner: “I’m not suggesting for a minute that you settle for the first half-decent man who comes along – every woman has the right to hold out for Mr Right – but you may find that really addressing your feelings about having a family means the man you thought was Mr Right comes in a different form. I suppose the word for it is mindfulness.”
This advice ignores the far higher divorce rates among people who married younger than 30. In the UK, the divorce rate hit a 40-year low last year as couples delay marriage til age 30 or later.
It is true that pregnancy is riskier for women in their 40s, and studies suggest that the risk of autism rises if either parent is over 35. But the Get Britain Fertile campaign launch coincides with a “fertility breakthrough” that would make women undergoing in vitro fertilization 3 times more likely to have a baby. While the current average success rate is around 25 percent in Britain, new time-lapse imaging could raise it to 78 percent.
As technology allows women to have more and more control over their reproductive decisions, efforts to dictate the correct time and methods women should use to get pregnant are growing more common. A recent Singaporean ad campaign took a similar approach with a series of patronizing leaflets using fairy tales to depict women’s waning fertility. Jezebel compiled the lengthy laundry list of things pregnant women are often told they must or must not do in order to successfully bear a healthy child.
First Response’s and other fertility campaigns will probably have little impact on the birth rate. But they will perpetuate the insidious notion that women, and women alone, are to blame for any reproductive troubles they may have.