The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.
-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia
January 28, 2019
The Topic: Infertility and Ignorance
The News Story: Here’s Why the Birth Rate Is So Low in the United States
The New Research: Sterile Fantasies
The News Story: Here’s Why the Birth Rate Is So Low in the United States
The U.S. birth rate dropped to a 30-year low in 2018, and at the same time that the mainstream media is celebrating huge pro-abortion victories in New York, they also sound the alarm that Americans aren’t having enough babies to replace themselves.
HealthLine ran a story on the causes of this huge fertility drop, among which are delayed marriage and childbearing, financial concerns, a higher career focus among women, and better use of contraception. Another reason cited is that fertility treatments may give women a false sense of security that even if they wait, they’ll have a shot at parenthood. One reproductive endocrinologist told HealthLine, “The medications and procedures like intrauterine insemination and in vitro fertilization that we use have been incredibly successful at helping couples conceive,” but adds that their prohibitive cost and lack of insurance coverage make them less accessible than women often believe, and that they are better for certain age groups than others.
What such experts should have added—but didn’t—is that the public is often wildly overoptimistic about how successful such treatments really are, and about how long fertility lasts. Indeed, a recent study out of Denmark indicates that many sub-replacement-fertility populations seem to share this ignorance.
(Source: Kimberly Holland, “Here’s Why the Birth Rate Is So Low in the United States,” HealthLine, January 22, 2019.)
The New Research: Sterile Fantasties
Often under the influence of professors, a growing number of university students around the world decide to delay parenthood and family life. Do the students who make such decisions realize the biological challenges they may face as a consequence of such delays? A new Danish study reveals that many university students remain woefully ignorant of the biological and medical realities that make it unlikely that they will ever actually realize the family life they believe they are only delaying.
Affiliated with Denmark’s Copenhagen University, Metropolitan University, and Zealand University, the authors of the new study probe young Danes’ understanding of reproductive biology in large part because of their concern about the number of young people in Western countries, including their own, who are delaying parenthood. In recent decades, the researchers note, “many countries have seen a marked increase in parental age.” In Denmark, they report, since 1986 the average age of first-time fathers has risen by three years, to 31.3, while the average age for first-time mothers has climbed by four years, to 29.1.
Parallel developments are manifest in other Nordic countries, with Finland, Norway, and Sweden all reporting “similar patterns . . . regarding postponement of family formation.” The researchers point out that although “postponement of family formation was seen across all educational groups, . . . the postponement was more pronounced among highly educated women.” Nor are higher ages for first-time parents peculiar to Nordic countries: The authors of the new study see “similar trends . . . in other countries,” with the age of first-time mothers now standing at 30.6 years in Italy and 30.4 years in Spain.
Inevitably, fertility delayed often translates into fertility denied. The authors of the new study understandably highlight delayed parenthood as a reason for the “decline in total fertility rate (TFR) [that] has been seen in OECD [Organisation for Economic and Co-operative Development] countries, where the average TFR dropped from 2.7 to 1.7” between 1970 and 2009. With a Total Fertility Rate now at 1.69, Denmark appears quite typical of affluent Western nations with fertility well below the Zero Population Growth level of 2.1 lifetime births per woman.
Twenty-first-century medicine does give couples who have delayed parenthood the option of medically assisted reproduction (MAR), but the Danish researchers stress that “the biological decline in fertility by advanced parental age cannot fully be compensated for by MAR, and consequently society as a whole is affected.” What is more, the researchers worry about the “psychological strain of undergoing fertility treatment,” giving as a reason for particular concern a Finish study finding an alarmingly high rate of psychiatric hospitalization among women whose MAR treatment had not resulted in childbirth. Given the negative consequences of delayed parenthood for fertility and pregnancy, the authors of the new study regard it as desirable to determine whether “general lack of fertility knowledge, including the age-related decline in fertility, may also be a central and contributing factor.”
To determine the level of fertility knowledge among young Danes, the researchers surveyed 517 male and female students enrolled at the Metropolitan University College in Copenhagen. The data collected from these students intensified rather than allayed concerns about whether young Danes delaying parenthood really understand the consequences.
Overall, the researchers find that the young Danes they surveyed “generally lacked knowledge on fertility issues,” with “no substantial differences between the two genders.” This lack of knowledge about fertility surfaces on a number of matters. For instance, most of the young Danes surveyed did not realize how soon and how markedly a woman’s fertility declines. The Danish researchers report that “half of both genders thought a slight age-related decline in female fertility has its onset beyond the age of 30 years (correct answer: 25–29 years).” Even more fundamental misunderstanding appears among the “more than 35% [of students surveyed who] believed that a marked decrease [in female fertility] does not occur until 40 years of age (correct answer: 35–39 years).” Astonishingly, more than 10% of the Danish students surveyed believed that a marked fertility decline does not occur until age 45!
Ignorance about natural fertility among the Danish students was matched by their ignorance about possibilities of Medically Assisted Reproduction (MAR): the researchers report that the success rate of MAR was “grossly overestimated” by both male and female students: “the majority [of the students surveyed in this study] . . . overestimated the probability of achieving a child from IVF treatment,” with 55% of males and 69% of students pegging the probability too high, many of them quite markedly too high. (The actual success rate for MAR runs less than 30%.)
Since the researchers found that “the majority of participants [in their study] . . . want[ed] two children,” they have to wonder about the apparent “disparity between what is desired and the actual outcome.”
The Danish researchers see this unfortunate situation manifest in “other studies [that] have time and again found similar limited knowledge [about fertility] among university students” in Europe and the United States. The researchers find this widespread ignorance of fundamental fertility issues to be “of particular concern, as a sizable percentage of [young people] intend to have their last child at the age of 35 years or older, whe[n] a marked decline in female fertility is a reality.”
With good reasons, the Danish scholars fear that “both men and women are making the decision to postpone parenthood without being aware of possible consequences.” The authors of this new study call for measures “to increase knowledge and awareness of reproductive health” among young people. Unfortunately, among young people for whom parenthood has become a secondary or even tertiary priority—whether in Copenhagen, Cairo, Cape Town, or Calgary—desire for such knowledge may yield to stronger desire for illusions.
(Source: Bryce C. Christensen and Nicole M. King, “New Research,” The Natural Family 31.2 . Study: Nina Olsén Sørensen et al., “Fertility Awareness and Attitudes towards Parenthood among Danish University College Students,” Reproductive Health 13 : 146, Web.)