IT’S no secret that Australians today are having children later in life than previous generations.
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare figures show the average age of Australian women giving birth in 2008 was 29.9 years, up by about a year on the 1999 figure.
We know that women bearing children after their mid-30s are at greater risk of complications — and their babies are too. This is important information and doctors and other health experts are certainly doing their best to get the message across.
Unfortunately, though, it seems far too easy for the facts to become lost in a sea of highly emotional rhetoric when talking about issues of procreation.
Perth-based obstetric medicine physician Dr Barry Walters created a mini-firestorm recently when he was quoted in a news article in The West Australian saying it was “selfish and self-centred of older women to have babies …”.
In a later article he wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald, Dr Walters complained that he had been the target of “bigoted, uninformed, unsubstantiated and in some cases violent” vitriol as a result of his remarks.
What, he lamented, had happened to the Australian quality of giving a person a “fair go”?
Well, many women commenting on the article appeared to feel the doctor had failed to give them a fair go (although others supported his position too).
Obviously, there is no justification for violent vitriol in a discussion such as this, but frankly Dr Walters derailed his own argument by his use of the word “selfish”.
Although his views were expressed more moderately in the Herald than in The West Australian, he was still arguing the adjective applied to some couples who chose to become pregnant “at ages above about 38”.
Whatever you might think about the decisions an individual couple makes about having children, labelling them in that way is hardly likely to encourage a sensible and calm debate.
I also wonder why this kind of criticism so often focuses on women as if they are the only ones making the decision about when and if to have a child.
Dr Walters seemed to reveal a surprising lack of insight into the reality of many women’s lives when he wrote in the Herald article: “Tens of thousands of women in this nation would avoid suffering if they chose to become pregnant earlier in life.”
How should women go about making this choice on their own? Should 20-something women be encouraged to entrap a reluctant partner by secretly abandoning their use of contraceptives? Or to access sperm donation so they could go it alone?
Researchers from the school of public health and preventive medicine at Monash University recently surveyed nearly 600 Victorian women in their early 30s and found the main reasons cited for childlessness were either being single or having a partner who did not wish to commit to fatherhood.
“At this point in time I cannot even consider having children”, a 30-year-old woman told the researchers. “I don’t have a partner, but if I had I would wish for a stable [relationship] that had lasted a couple of years before I considered children.”
The reasons for the rise in parental age are complex, relating to social pressures as well as individual choice, and our discussion of them should be equally nuanced.
Women — and men — need to be given the unadorned facts and they need to be given them early. It could even be part of sex education in schools.
But there will always be people who end up having children later in life and they, like all parents, need our support not our condemnation.
Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and medicine writer.
Posted 17 October 2011